Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public vs. private...

I was lucky enough to attend Sara Benincasa's "Agorafabulous" show at Theatre 99 on Friday night. My friend Jason wrote a great piece about her in last week's City Paper and I got to be his plus one (Thanks, Jason!).

To sum up: Sara has agoraphobia, struggled with it for years, and turned it into a comedy routine. I, being a firm believer in handling most of life's challenges with humor, admire the sh*t out of her. After reading Jason's CP piece and a little more on Sara's blog, I knew I had to see the show. And I wasn't disapppointed. You can see a clip from Friday's show and read more about Sara here.

Why this was important to me: I've written personal narrative for years and have turned some of the most painful episodes in my life into humorous pieces. I'm flippant, irreverent, and capable of laughing at myself in most instances. But there are a few "no touchy" subjects for me and panic disorder is one of them.

Like Sara, I had my first panic attack at the age of 18. I didn't know it was a panic attack, but I spent a lot of time over a three-year period going to emergency rooms trying to convince them that I was having a heart attack. I was called histrionic, dehydrated, hooked up to saline IVs and sent home, and finally diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse, or MVP - a common heart condition that about one in four women have, but tend to grow out of in their 20s (I did). By the time I was 21, I was frustrated, self-medicating, and nearly incapacitated by panic attacks that were becoming more and more frequent. Four MDs, two shrinks, and two years later, I was finally given a diagnosis of PTSD (something else I haven't written about because I haven't been able to remove myself enough to find the humor in it). I began taking medication for panic disorder, but discovered I didn't need it long-term, because once I knew that I was only having a panic attack and that I wasn't going to die, I was able to use some of the coping skills I learned in therapy to talk myself down.

One of the reasons I haven't written very much about this is because there is such a stigma associated with panic disorders. I had too many doctors (and friends and boyfriends and acquaintances) tell me "it's all in your head" or "you're being a hypochondriac" that I just stopped sharing. I also stopped going to therapy and went for almost 8 years without a panic attack - through the latter part of my 20s. There was a part of me that even believed I could overcome it with sheer willpower. I'm not a weak person and one of my biggest fears is having other people think I'm weak.

After years of being panic attack free, I started having them again after 9/11, again after my grandmother passed away in early 2003, again after I lost two of my best friends in 2003. It was right around this time that I began seeing a new therapist who really knew her sh*t - in fact, she gave me some information about new research linking MVP to panic disorder. Even with the mild type I had, the MVP "episodes" can trigger a fight or flight response that in turn triggers panic attacks. We also started working on the overall issue of PTSD, and my anxiety became managable once again.

I can't say at this point in my life that I will never again have a panic attack. The few that I've had in the past year or so have been what my therapist calls "situational," meaning that something bad happens in my life, I stop taking care of myself physically as a result, and end up sitting in my car outside of Harris Teeter, unable to drum up the courage to enter the store because I'm sitting in my car having an anxiety attack. Driving is another trigger for me. I've had to pull over to the side of the road because of an anxiety attack. I've also woken up in the middle of the night with night terrors that trigger an attack. I don't take daily medication because antidepressants really didn't work for me; plus I tend to (luckily) have very long anxiety-free periods of time, so I use Xanax as needed.

Back to the show: I was amazed that someone who experienced panic disorder that was severe enough to manifest as agoraphobia could take her situation and turn it into a routine that literally had the audience cackling for an entire hour like Sara did. I admire her for that, I admire her for sharing her most painful moments, and for being open about the fact that she takes medication and credits it for saving her life. I think if more people spoke openly about it, there wouldn't be such a stigma attached. And it also helped me see that eventually I'll be able to write about my own experiences with humor, because I saw that there is a lot of funny to be mined there.

My close friends know about my own history. And the few others I've shared it with are always amazed - I usually simplify it by just saying "I'm slightly socially phobic" - because they've read my essays for years and that Kelly Love Johnson is fearless. I'm a lot more comfortable now than I was 10 years ago explaining that the Kelly who writes those essays is my public persona, like a costume I can put on when I want to, and she is fearless. But the private Kelly is just as screwed up as everyone else. She has self-esteem issues. She doesn't like to make small talk. She is not a fan of crowds. She's had insomnia since high school that is entirely anxiety-based. She's afraid of flying, travel, highway construction, frogs, the ocean, hurricanes, the extreme Christian Right, aging, showing weakness, and homelessness. She also hates writing about herself in the third person.

I think what Sara did with her show is merge the two - her public and private Saras. And I hope to be able to do that myself someday, without judgment, without fear, and hopefully with a few laughs.

And one last thing: When I got a note via Facebook from Sara herself telling me she was a fangirl of mine and has been reading my essays for years, I almost fell out of my chair. It's the most flattered I've been in months and I think I'm going to spend the entire weekend riding that high.


  1. I read about that and completely forgot that it was last night!

    Also, we need to arrange some sort of hanging out time. I haven't seen you in a long while!

  2. You would have loved it!

    Call or email me - I want to know how things are going with you too. If you still have free time during weekdays (while I hope you don't), let's get together for a dog walk or lunch and catch up!

  3. This is great. I have panic attacks, too, and have tried to be pretty open about it over the years for just the reasons you explain here. But until my 30s I was so ashamed that I tried (pretty effectively, as it turns out) to hide them and just curtailed my behavior to avoid things that made me panicky.

    Anyway, go, you, for going public!

  4. Thanks, Aleigh! You're one of the few that has known about this for a while now and I love that you laugh with me about my stories of abandoning carts at, well, let's just say a large store that is like Wal Mart but better. :)

  5. Alison, thanks for your nice words - but mostly for sharing. I had no idea that you've experienced similar issues. I admire you for being open about it and hereby resolve to do that myself!


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