Tuesday, December 06, 2016

It's like the Ocean; You Can Learn the Currents: An Accessibility Series Post

Lisa Cohn is a librarian in an urban public library. Her primary focus is genealogy research, but she's worn a variety of hats in her almost 20 years of library service including: interlibrary loan, programming, book displays, publicity and, of course, reference.

"The staff thinks you don’t like them.” The Director had taken me out to lunch to tell me this shortly before she left our urban public library.  Also that she got complaints about me once a month from patrons.  I should be nicer.  I should accept social invitations more often.    She was an introvert and her husband got panic attacks, so she understood, even if her Facebook feed was filled with parties and dinners out and so many friends.   And why was I still working here anyway (after 19 years).  I seem unhappy. Why hadn't I gone for a job where I didn't have to interact with  people so often?  I left that lunch shaking my head.  It took me a while to come around to the idea that just as I don’t always understand how “normal” people can socialize so easily, it must be hard for them to understand what it’s like to live with a Panic Disorder.

 I got my diagnoses from my family doctor in college when we had to cut short a vacation because of my symptoms. I remember the appointment as a series of   questions which I answered all as yes!  I was relieved that he seemed to know what was wrong with me.  I don't remember what the questions were, but they were probably similar to these from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
-Do you have repeated or unexpected “attacks” during which you suddenly are overcome by intense fear or discomfort for no apparent reason?
-If yes, during an attack did you experience any of these symptoms?
--Pounding heart
--Trembling or shaking
--Shortness of breath
--Chest pain
--Nausea or abdominal discomfort
--"Jelly" legs
--Numbness or tingling sensations
--Chills or hot flushes
-As a result of these attacks have you experienced a fear of places or situations where getting help or escape might be difficult?
-As a result have you felt unable to travel without a companion?
-Have you felt persistent concern about having another attacks?
-Have you changed your behavior to accommodate the attacks?

I was given medication to help me cope and read every book on the topic I could find.   Workdays invariably, even after all these years, bring on some variety of symptoms.  After a while, I've even gotten to the point where dealing with symptoms is my normal.  I must hide it well, although I assume the symptoms manifest on the outside as unhappy, judging from my former boss’s comments. Everyday situations, standard patron interactions, etc, all can be difficult.

 I remember one Wednesday evening when I was helping two teenage boys look for a video. They were young, but still taller than me.  I brought them back into the stacks where we kept the videos they had asked about.  I was trapped between them.  Nothing happened, but I felt as if something was about to.  A flash flood of panic rushing through the stacks to sweep me away.  I made some excuse and fled and had to take my break early to gather myself.  After that, I tried to lead patrons into the stacks while still leaving myself some room to exit should the need arise.

When I first started here, I thought I'd be up to going to a staff holiday party one December. It was a crowded restaurant and service was slow.  The longer we waited, the louder everything seemed to be. Dishes and silverware clattered.  Voices rose and overlapped.  It wasn't long before my panic had risen to a level where I just couldn't stand it anymore.  I don't remember what excuse I gave but I fled for home.   I wasn't relieved to get out of there, but rather disgusted at myself for not even being able to go to a party.  I haven’t gone to many since, although I’ve tried a couple times over the years.
A few years ago, I went to  the state library association convention a couple of hours south by car with some fellow librarians.  I went to a few meetings on topics I was interested in and walked around the vendor room.  I was waiting for my colleagues around lunchtime when I started to panic.  I was about 2 hours from home and not there under my own transportation so I was trapped until everyone was done.  This time, however, I managed to successfully remember my coping techniques.  I went outside, took a walk near the shore, and remembered to breathe from the diaphragm.  I took  a Xanax and gave myself permission to just leave the situation for a while and I calmed down.  I haven’t gone to the state meeting since, or many meetings away from the building (thankfully, a lot are being offered as webinars now anyway).

I think some people equate panic attacks with a Panic Disorder and believe if you confront it, it'll go away.  But when it's chronic like this, it's not going to stop because you face your fear.  It's like the ocean.  You can learn the currents.  Know what your triggers are so you can avoid being swept under and drown in waves of fear, but the ocean isn't going to evaporate because you accepted a party invitation or did something you were afraid of.  It doesn't go away. You do have to keep trying though.  It might be easier to look for a job where I didn’t have to go to an occasional meeting or interact with people so much, but I know my world would shrink to the office walls around me. Interacting with a variety of people forces me to daily stretch my emotional muscles so I can keep swimming the ocean of my fears.   I may not have an active social life with lots of parties and dinners out, but I talk to a variety of people every day, with the express purpose of helping them in some small way.

I weigh situations like parties or meetings against my history of being able to deal with them and my current level of emotional balance and energy.  So, after 19 years, when the boss invites me out to an unexpected lunch, I take a Xanax to head off the flood of panic attacks.  I picked a restaurant that is within easy walking distance, not because I was planning to flee the restaurant (this time) but because knowing I could make me able to stay.  I asked the maitre'd  if we could eat in a quieter section.  I sit near the door.    I  know that some people won't understand me just as I sometimes don't understand people who can just go to or throw a party without calculating where it is, how they'll get there, how many people will be there and who.   Just as I have people who understand and accept me for who I am and value the time I can spend with them and forgive me for the times when I just can't.  And those who understand that I'm not anti-social or unhappy, that my Panic Disorder tends to consume a lot of my energy.

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