“I’m Not Sure Why I”m Here: A Panicked Story, Part 2″

I want to thank you all for your outpouring of love and support. I had no idea what to expect when I pressed “publish” on Part 1. Right now I feel both very exposed and empowered. A contradictory feeling but a good one. Thank you to those who shared stories of personal struggles via social media, blog comments, and e-mails. I know that couldn’t have been easy. I admire your strength and perseverance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to dig a bit deeper and answer some questions from my draft-reading librarian friend (you’re the best!) and a few of my own questions in this last post. Hopefully, my writing flows along somewhat smoothly. Here we go.

The New Member’s Round Table (NMRT) panel at ALA Annual hasn’t been my only panic attack during a presentation, but it has been my worst. My other panic attack happened during the last semester of my Master’s in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) program at Florida State University (FSU). As part of my coursework, I had an assignment to develop and carry out a training session about some aspect of library work. I decided to create a basic research workshop about databases, online tools, and helpful websites for our library staff. There were (maybe?) seven people at the workshop, but I still felt the intensity of pressure and anxiety. The morning of the workshop, I went to the gym very early because I thought working out would help. As I got ready for work, I went through my index cards of notes obsessively. While backing up the driveway to get to the library, I reversed into my mom’s car. Freaked out. My dad calmed me down as well as he could. I got to work, set everything up in the meeting room, and began my workshop. After the first 15 minutes, I relaxed a bit. I knew these people, had worked with them for a while, and they appeared to be engaged. Before the panel, that was my only other panic attack during a presentation. My panic level was seriously uncomfortable but manageable-ish.

I realize that some stress and nervousness is healthy. I’m sure that I’ll always be nervous when I present. In the last post, I described my panel experience as a “stressful event”. But, oddly enough, I didn’t expect to be that stressed. The panel discussion focused on introducing MLIS students and librarians to ALA and conferencing. Stuff I know. Or thought I did. Maybe it’s because I was so anxious and stressed about my presentations at two academic conferences. One before, the other after Annual. I didn’t have any room left in my brain for extra stress. Perhaps because I thought I knew this material and audience I didn’t feel the need to agonize over what I would say. I honestly thought (after looking at the questions provided to me beforehand) that it would be easier than my other presentations. I’ve been to ALA conferences many times and served on various ALA committees and boards. I thought I had general feel for the audience and their expectations. But with the other two conferences (CSCL and IDC), I had no idea what to expect. It was my first real conferencing experience outside of LIS. I only knew a handful of people, and was one of the few LIS researchers at each conference. Maybe even one of two at IDC.

When you’re presenting research at academic conferences, it’s complicated (or it feels that way for me). You put yourself out there for helpful feedback but also intense criticism. Part of the nervousness comes from the actual presentation part but a lot comes from the following Q&A. Usually what goes through my head is, “What will the audience ask??? Will I know the answers???”. Also, as someone on the job market this fall, there’s the potential someone in the audience may be on a hiring committee. I must impress everyone. I can’t mess up. So much seems at stake.

I mentioned before how I worried over my introduction for the panel. Whether to include the Dr. or stick with Abby. Part of my internal debate over this is because it still hasn’t sunk into my mind that I actually have a doctorate. It’s a little over a year since graduation, but I still don’t recognize myself as Dr. Phillips. I wonder how long it will take to accept those letters after my name. Maybe I’ll never get to that point. Another part is the nature of academia. The harsh pressure and competitiveness weighs down on you sometimes. I’m constantly comparing myself to others. A colleague will win a prestigious award or speak so eloquently about research, theory, or writing that I’ll immediately look at myself and know I’m lacking. I see all my failings and missteps, criticizing myself severely for not being “good enough”. I think some of these feelings are a result of being in academia, but the rest are my own insecurities and self-doubt.

In thinking back to Annual and similar conferences, I wonder what can be done to help presenters/panelists who are dealing with mental illnesses. After some thinking, I came up with a few suggestions for improving the accessibility at conferences. This also isn’t a slight against the NMRT committee. They were nothing but kind to me when they noticed that I was anxious.

Anyway, back to my suggestions. These could be too idealistic, but maybe others like me can relate.

  • If it’s a panel, please share who else is on the panel and a little bit about them in advance. I like to know where I fit in on the panel. If I know something about the other panelists, I can kinda figure out what I can bring to the discussion.
  • It would be wonderful if I could know exactly how the panel or presentation session will proceed and (for a panel) what will be asked ahead of time. If I’m at a high level of panic, there is no way I can process new information before I present. It simply will not sink into my brain. Any information given to me ahead of time may have a better chance of staying in my panic stricken mind.
  • As a presenter/panelist, will I have the opportunity to meet with the other presenters/panelists before the session begins? It would be nice to get to know them a little bit. This would help me feel more comfortable sitting up on the stage with them. I know them as normal people. Not just ALA Presidents, famous researchers, or whatever. I know schedules conflict and this may not always be possible, but it would be very kind.
  • If possible, share the layout of the room with me, or even better, allow me the opportunity to see the room before the panel/presentation session begins. By doing this, I can get a feel for the room and guesstimate the number of potential attendees. At the NMRT panel, it was a large conference room with lots of tables and chairs. Up at the panel table, we were almost at eye-level with the audience. To me it looked like a sea of people. An intensely claustrophobic experience.
  • I don’t know what to suggest here (I feel silly for adding this), but I want to point out that the pitchers of water for panelists defeated me. At the panel, my hands were shaking so badly, there was no way I could pour water for myself. It was physically impossible. I tried. It’s amazing how physical manifestations accompany mental illnesses. Shortness of breath, shaking, dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, weight loss/gain, and others. I should have thought about using my own water bottle but, like I said, I was in no condition to think logically. (Please help!)

I would love to see ALA (since the conferences are so large and attended by librarians across the country) provide an opportunity at Annual and Midwinter for a panel, forum, or some kind of session where librarians, and ideally a mental health professional, can openly discuss the impact of mental illness on work life, the way we treat colleagues and patrons, and offer techniques to cope. I’m sure those in other professions, at their larger conferences, could benefit from this as well. This definitely isn’t only an LIS problem. My husband shared Take This as one example. This non-profit strives to “inform our community about mental health issues, to provide education about mental disorders and mental illness prevention, and to reduce the stigma of mental illness.” (¶ 2). At gaming conventions and expos, Take This sets up rooms where attendees can find support and engage in discussions about mental illness.

I have found my own ways to cope. I always like hearing how others manage depression, anxiety, and other issues. I mentioned breathing and relaxation methods and medication, but I thought I’d share a few more. I’m a runner. I wrote this post in my head during a recent long run like I did with my last post. The endorphins definitely help, but I love the meditative aspect of running. It’s just me. Running and thinking. I’m also a reader. There are a few books and short stories that I read again and again. I find comfort and kinship through the words of others. William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper are two that come to mind. Styron writes so accurately and painfully about what it feels like to suffer from crippling depression. I’ve gone to his novella many times when everything seems bleak. Finally, music. Right now I’m listening to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s the Nashville Sound, particularly the song “Anxiety”. Just wow. The Mountain Goat’s “This Year” and Frank Turner’s “Get Better” got me through my last year of the doctoral program. I have a few muddled/odd playlists that I go to when I’m feeling overwhelmed and struggling. I hope you’ve discovered your own methods of coping.

I worry that I’m beginning to sound like a self-help guide or preachy in this post. Please know that I mean all this sincerely. I know very little. I have so many questions but few answers. A friend on Facebook, when I shared my last post, commented that I’ll probably experience another panic attack in public. I’m very certain I will. Just like I know that I’ll have another bout of major depression that will make it hard for me to do the work I love (or anything, truthfully). That I’ll criticize myself for the smallest mistakes or failures. That I’ll worry incessantly about things I have no control over. Life is really, really hard.

Yet I’ve fought for so long against depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and so much more. I think I can manage. Definitely not perfectly but the best that I can. This is something 17 year-old me, dealing with my first episode of severe depression, would never have imagined possible. We’re stronger and braver than we realize. I know this is hard to believe that when you feel the darkness closing in and the world seems to be falling apart. But remember that we’re in this together and we’ve come so far already. I think we’ve got this.

Thank you again for reading.