I’m Not Sure Why I’m Here: A Panicked Story, Part 1

It’s about a week out from my marathon, back-to-back, cross-country June conference tour of CSCL, ALA Annual 2017, and IDC. I’ve had some time to get sick, rest, run a lot, catch up on e-mail, and talk out my conference experiences with those close to me and an amazing therapist. Conferencing is always challenging; sometimes fun, sometime frustrating, sometimes confusing, sometimes rewarding, etc. But, for me, this two-week conferencing period has been my hardest yet. I’ve attended back-to-back conferences several times before but only two in a row within the same city. Over my two weeks of conferences, I presented four times (two of which were to unfamiliar (non-LIS) audiences), attended multiple committee meetings, tried to finish some deadline-driven writing, attempted data collection, and talked about myself more than I like. Going to conferences to discuss your research, learn about the work of your colleagues, and expand your knowledge of a new or familiar field is exciting. I’m very thankful that I have so many opportunities to travel, meet new people, learn, and share.

But what I really want to focus on is a conference experience where I had an almost paralyzing panic attack that I’m still trying to understand. This happened during the New Members Round Table (NMRT) Orientation Session panel at Annual. A few months before the conference, I received a lovely e-mail asking if I would participate on the panel. Immediately I wondered why would anyone would ask me? Seriously? What did I have to offer? (What you see here is the lingering low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and diminished self-worth heightened by my experiences in a doctoral program. But that’s for another post.). Finally, I replied “Yes!” because it sounded fun and a good experience for a panel newbie like me.

Over the next few weeks, they kindly sent me questions beforehand so I might know what to expect for the panel discussion. I came up with responses that I believed would be helpful to the students and young librarians who would be attending. They asked how I would like to be introduced. I texted two friends asking, “Is it too pretentious to say Dr. Abigail Phillips???” I graduated with a PhD in Information Studies during the spring of 2016, but I rarely ever get called Dr. I’m an academic, surrounded by people who already have or are in the process of getting a PhD. Because of this, every once and awhile (selfishly maybe) it’s nice to be reminded (especially as a young researcher) that I did accomplish a challenging thing once and that my dissertation is finally, finally finished.

On the Friday afternoon of the panel, I showed up to the conference room very early and overdressed because that’s what I do when I’m nervous. And then…..the slow bubble of a panic attack that had been with me all morning exploded.

On the panel with me was Courtney Young (2014-2015 ALA president) and Loida Garcia-Febo (2018-2019 ALA President). Yeah. And me. “WHY ME????” I repeated this in my head while waiting for the start of the panel. There were almost 300 people in the audience. They ran out of chairs so people sat on the floor, stood against walls. I have never spoken in front of so many people. People who actually seemed to be listening to me. Things started to blur. I don’t remember a lot about the panel. But I do remember a few things. I remember being visibly nervous in front of the NMRT Panel committee. I remember seeking assurance from anyone around me that yes, I was in the right place and yes, I did have advice and guidance to give. I remember feeling very alone and frightened. I remember wanting to run and escape. I remember being awkward and saying whatever popped into my head. I remember that Courtney and Loida had all the intelligent, helpful answers and I had none. I remember feeling that I was a disappointment to the audience, the committee, and well, just everyone. I remember that afterwards I, again, sought out reassurances. That I’d had done okay. That I didn’t say anything stupid. That my presence somehow made sense.

Like I said earlier, conferencing is hard. This hardship is compounded if you have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, depression, and social anxiety disorder. Most of these I’ve had since I was a teenager. Maybe even before. Hard to remember. The intensity of my mental illnesses have ebbed and flowed over the years. Easing some when I began my first librarian position; building slow and steady over the years of my doctoral work.

Right before and into the panel discussion, I had a major panic attack. If you’ve never had a panic attack, it’s sort of hard to understand. Usually an attack is pretty quick. Normally 15-20 minutes for me but they can last longer. This one lasted through most of the panel. During my attack, I felt an intense amount of fear. My hands shook. My voice trembled. I felt clammy. I experienced what I now know is derealization. A symptom of anxiety and panic, derealization is when you feel the world around you isn’t real or is off somehow. But this is what I experienced. It varies from person to person.

I made several mistakes leading up to the panel that I normally don’t make before a stressful event. First, I scheduled a meeting right before. That was a mistake. I should have found a quiet place to do the breathing and relaxation exercises that I’ve learned over the past few years. Second, I didn’t take my clonazepam (aka Klonopin) early enough. Clonazepam is a benzodiazepine that is often prescribed to treat panic and anxiety disorders. I take it every day, usually before something that I know will cause stress and anxiety. Like a presentation, intense meeting, or difficult writing session. Instead of taking it one hour before a presentation/meeting/whatever, as I normally do, I took it 15 minutes before the panel. Body chemistry is a weird thing. My body needs about an hour to process the drug before I feel any effects. For me, clonazepam takes the edge off of my panic, helping prevent a fall into a full-on panic attack.

Logically, I know I did fine. Rationally, I know it’s a trick my mind plays on me. Making me believe I did a shitty job when everything turned out okay. Intellectually, I know that I’m an accomplished professional in my field who has experiences to share. But it’s so very, very hard to believe. I survived somehow. I seriously doubt anyone noticed what I was going through. They probably even don’t remember what I said or even who I am.

I don’t regret participating. I would even do it again, because I know what to avoid and how to manage my panic and anxiety. I learned more about myself and my mental health through these missteps. However painful and embarrassing they were. This is part 1 of writing about my experience. A wonderful librarian friend who read a draft of this post (thank you!!) pointed out several questions I should continue to unpack. But in closing this post, I want those who are struggling in many of the same ways, who are constantly doubting themselves, and who feel inadequate professionally know that you are not alone (clichéd I know but very true). While writing this, I worried about the impact it would have on my career, how colleagues would look at me, and if I could express an experience so scary on my blog. But it isn’t until we can openly and honestly discuss mental illness that we can better understand one another and our shared struggles.

Thank you for reading.