A Day in the Life

One day last week another worker in my department declared a “hot dog day” and brought lunch for all of us—hot dogs and buns and condiments, and two of us provided potato chips. We sat together and visited while we ate, which was the reason for the gift of hot dogs. Generally, we are all introverts, focused on our tasks, more inclined to strive to complete a task than to stop and visit with each other. I know there have been days that I walked in the door, headed straight for my desk, and got to work, speaking to no one for most of the day… and I’m not the only person in the department who behaves that way.

The food was good, and I was able to take part in the conversation in spite of the fact that I started experiencing a panic attack as we were lining up at the food table. I would rate this attack at S2.5 on the SAPS.  My shaking hands made it hard to serve myself, and when I sat, I had to rest the hand holding my plate in my lap to keep from dropping it. I don’t think my voice sounded strange when I spoke—nobody looked at me as if it did—but I definitely felt all my muscles grow tenser through the course of the meal, as my insides churned. (And, no, nothing was wrong with the food.)

If I was writing a story about Carl, I suppose I would have to find some explanation for the attack. Maybe the morning traffic was bad because of a construction project which had just started. Maybe he snuck a look at some pictures of Rosa, his old flame, which he has hidden in a file on his work computer. Maybe he sat through a meeting about improving customer relations with the firm’s clients and wondered how much of the advice was being targeted personally at him. Or perhaps I could work in a problem with Number Seven—is she snubbing him now, avoiding conversations with him?

I am not writing a story about Carl, though. I am writing about myself, and I know enough about myself and my panic attacks to know that they do not always have an obvious trigger. Loud noises can make me nervous, but that was not a problem this noon. Anyhow, they would not be attacks if their origins were obvious.

All afternoon I wanted to talk to someone, to tell them what I was feeling. The truth is, I have never told anyone at work about my struggles with anxiety and depression. No one knows that a saw a counselor every other week for more than a year or that I have been taking medication for almost two years. If someone had asked me, “how are you feeling, J?” I would have answered, “I feel as though I drank six expressos about an hour ago.” After lunch, we all went back to our desks and focused on our own tasks as usual. No one had any reason to ask me how I was feeling.

I don’t even have a fitting conclusion to this post. Just another day in the life of Salvageable. J.

A day without coffee

A day without coffee is like… well, I’m not entirely sure what it’s like. I’ve had so few days without coffee recently, I don’t remember what they are like.

When I was growing up, my parents drank coffee with every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes in the summer they’d switch to iced tea with lunch and dinner, but otherwise, the coffee was always there. As a child I didn’t care much for the smell of coffee. I didn’t hate it; I simply didn’t think I’d enjoy drinking it. As a result, I had very little coffee throughout my formative years.

My last year of college, I took an elective class in art history. The class met after lunch, and the professor’s voice was calm and soothing. He turned off the lights and showed pictures of important pieces of art. His quizzes were hard. I tried everything to keep awake in class—grounding the heel of one foot into the top of my other foot, clenching my fists to drive my fingernails into my palms, even answering the occasional questions the professor asked. Nothing worked. Out of desperation, I began drinking coffee with my lunch, and I managed to survive the class and even earn an A.

Over the following years I drank coffee sporadically, until finally I arrived at a full-time job with an actual day off each week. The day off happened to be Monday. After a few weeks, I wondered why every Monday, by lunchtime, I developed a headache that didn’t go away for the rest of the day. I should have been more relaxed on Mondays—I shouldn’t have been getting headaches. The only difference, I found, was that on Mondays, being off of work, I wasn’t drinking any coffee.

From that time on, I became a regular coffee drinker, two mugs of coffee every day, seven days a week. I didn’t dare have coffee after early afternoon, or it would interfere with my sleep. (I learned that during my internship, when I would drink coffee during Wednesday night Bible class and then be awake until the early hours of the morning.) Generally I drank one mug of coffee with breakfast and another with lunch. If I was at a meeting and had coffee there, I skipped the lunchtime coffee.

Twice, I gave up coffee as a Lenten fast. Both times, I wisely tapered off the strength of my coffee during the month before Lent to reduce withdrawal symptoms. Both times, I found myself returning to my coffee habit as soon as Easter arrived.

Two years ago my doctor suggested that I reduce my coffee intake to see if that would help control my blood pressure and my anxiety. Since I began taking medication to control anxiety at the same time, it’s hard to say if drinking only one mug of coffee a day makes a difference in the way I feel. There’s no sense paying a doctor and refusing to follow the doctor’s advice, though, so for two years I have had but one mug of coffee each day.

I’ve not learned yet how to brew just one mug of coffee. Generally I brew about two-thirds of a pot, drink the fresh coffee that day, the day-old coffee the next day, and the two-day-old coffee the third day. Microwaves make that very easy to accomplish. I’ve learned not to make a full pot of coffee and try for the fourth day. Especially during the heat and humidity of summer, some sort of algae or slime begins to grow in the coffee by the fourth day.

Last Friday I came home from work to an empty house—my daughters were away for a dance competition. When I began to get my supper ready, I noticed that the microwave was flashing a message at me: “Enjoy your meal.” That seemed premature, since I hadn’t yet heated my meal in the microwave. I assumed one of my daughters had heated some food and had forgotten it. (Getting ready for dance competitions can be a whirlwind experience, and sometimes things are forgotten.) No, in the microwave was my mug of coffee, forgotten since I left for work in the morning.

But what happened to my withdrawal symptoms? Driving home from work, I had felt some pressure or pain above my nose and between my eyes. I assumed that was caused by sinus problems, which I’ve been having all month. I had not been short-tempered during the day, or restless, or tired. I proposed several theories about my lack of symptoms, still not sure which of these is true:

  • My aging body is no longer as prone to addiction and withdrawal as before. Not likely, but worth considering.
  • My reduction to one mug a day has made me less likely to have withdrawal symptoms when I miss my morning coffee.
  • The medicine I’m taking for anxiety blocks symptoms of coffee withdrawal.
  • Something at work is so pleasant and distracting that withdrawal symptoms from coffee had no chance of getting my attention.

Whatever the reason, I made it to suppertime without my daily coffee. On the other hand, as soon as I found the cup of coffee in the microwave, my headache became worse. I finished the coffee while I warmed my supper, not knowing whether or not it would interfere with my sleep that night. As it happened, sleep came slower than usual, and I was on the point of turning on the light and reading some more (even though it was after midnight) when I finally drifted off to sleep. J.

Fear not

When God says, “Fear not,” are those words a command or a promise? I would like to answer, “Both,” or, “It depends upon the context,” or, “Why do you want to know?” This question is not easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

“Fear not” as a command from God relates to the first commandment—have no other gods—and the greatest commandment—love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and soul and mind. We are to fear the Lord above all else. When something frightens us, we are to turn to the Lord for strength. When we remain in fear and do not draw strength from the Lord, we are allowing an obstacle to stand between us and God, and any such obstacle is sin.

Yet God gave us the emotion of fear for a reason. The surge of energy that accompanies fear gives us power to run away from danger or power to stand and fight danger. Courage does not mean a lack of fear; courage means doing the right thing in spite of fear. Many people enjoy the feeling of fear, which is why they ride roller coasters or watch horror movies. Other people are plagued by ongoing feelings of fear and anxiety, prompting them to take medicines and undergo therapy to escape those feelings. Telling either group of people that fear is a sin against God would be misguided and inappropriate.

“Fear not” as a promise from God relates to his love, his mercy, and his power. When God tells us not to fear, he is promising us that we have no reason to fear. God is stronger than all our enemies. He has already defeated all our enemies. The devil, the sinful world, the sinful nature we still possess, and death which results from sin: they have all lost to Christ, and he shares his victory with us.

A person who uses fear as an excuse not to obey God should be told that God commands us not to fear. We should love God more than anything else, we should trust God more than anything else, and we should fear God more than anything else. Fear of danger is no reason to disobey God. God says, “Take courage and do not fear, for I will never leave you or forsake you.”

A person who suffers from phobias or from generalized anxiety should not be told that God commands us not to fear. Adding guilt to that person’s troubles will not help that person—adding guilt is likely to move that person toward despair. That person instead needs to be told that “fear not” is a promise. He or she will not be punished for being fearful, but God will provide a way to endure the fear and to cling to God’s victory in spite of the fear. Fear itself can be frightening, and that creates a vicious spiral that only worsens when guilt is added to fear. The remedy for fear is faith, and faith comes only from the comforting promises of God’s Word. We have a reason not to fear, but that reason is not the command of God. Our reason not to fear encompasses the grace of God, the love of God, and the victory of God. J.

Thank God for Prozac!

It’s been a crummy sort of week. I haven’t even felt much like writing, which is not like me at all. A lot of reasons feed into that feeling: my disappointment last weekend, tension over a major test I’m taking next Wednesday, summer heat and humidity, and the ongoing onslaught of bad news about hatred, violence, and other such ugliness. I’m not the only one struggling: some of my friends are describing their struggles as well, both online and in person.

My friends have an additional burden that I have not needed to face this week. Their family members mean well, but they are trying to support my friends with the usual vacuous platitudes that are so popular at times like these. You know the type: count your blessings and you’ll feel better; be more active and you’ll forget your problems; just remember that Jesus loves you and everything will be fine; your problems aren’t real, anyhow—they only exist in your head.

My problems only exist in my head? An inner ear infection might exist only in my head, and that wouldn’t make it less real. Anxiety and depression are not solved by bromides: they need a stronger medicine. We are complex beings, and solutions that help one person will do nothing for another and may even harm a third person. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of some sort of imbalance among my body, my mind, and my spirit. Many things can cause that imbalance. Some are solved by better nutrition and more sleep. Some are solved by prayer or meditation. Some are improved by counseling. Some are improved by medication. No panacea covers all the possible causes of anxiety and depression, but well-meant remarks like those quoted above are almost certain to fail to help.

I am puzzled by people who speak against medications that help battle anxiety and depression. For the most part they accept the need for medicines that lower blood pressure or reduce cholesterol, they will swallow a pill for pain relief or freedom from allergies, and they have nothing but compassion for people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, and others whose problems are obvious. Mention an anti-depressant, though, and they begin to speak darkly of conspiracies between pharmaceutical companies and doctors meant to rob perfectly normal people of their money and their health.

I am not suggesting that any person should be allowed to ingest any substance that makes him or her feel better. I am saying that anxiety and depression are real problems that deserve real treatment. If a pill or two can give a sufferer relief, then who is entitled to criticize them? When Mrs. Dim decides to mow her grass before 7 a.m., and when drivers in traffic are doing fooling and dangerous things, and when my future career is very much in question, I’m grateful that a substance exists that helps me deal with my feelings.

For years I thought feelings needed to be ignored. As courage is not a lack of fear, but is doing the right thing in spite of fear, so I believed that virtue always consisted of ignoring one’s feelings and doing the right thing. Life is much easier now that I’ve been guided on a different path, and trusting a medicine or two to help me handle bad feelings does not mean that I trust God any less. I thank God for helpful medicine just as I thank him for doctors, nurses, counselors, physical therapists, and the many other ways he provides to assist the healing of bodies and minds. Whatever is good, whatever is beneficial, whatever is helpful, it all comes from the Creator of the universe who means it to be used for our benefit. For that, I can only give thanks. J.

 

Dealing with it

First, it’s Saturday. I always have greater stress and anxiety on Saturdays—I don’t know why. Second, it is a hot and humid summer day. Heat and humidity do not agree with me. Third, the neighborhood is noisy. The cause is not Mrs. Dim (for once!), but an airshow at a nearby airport. Fourth, the family desktop computer stopped working last night. (Murphy’s gremlins work extra hard on Friday nights. They must get overtime pay.) Fifth, I am a day away from being told whether or not a certain job will be offered to me.

Since the computer is not working, even though I have work that must be done, I take my work to the place where I work, even though the work I must get done is not related to my job. I’m not on the clock; I’m just borrowing my work computer. Before I do my work, though, I research troubleshooting for my home computer. The most probable trouble is dust inside the computer. I sprayed some air through the vent last night, but when I will go home I will do a more thorough cleaning.

Sixth, on my way home I stop at Walmart. I want to pick up a few items, including a frozen pizza for Saturday lunch. I go to the self-serve register with my seven items, and the second item I scan—a bag of frozen peas—brings up an error message. My peas are a restricted item. I must set them aside and continue scanning my other items. Something about Walmart makes me anxious, especially on Saturdays. I get the attention of a young girl working for Walmart, and she gets a manager, and the two of them agree that I cannot buy that bag of peas. Restricted means I cannot have it. An experience like that is bound to rattle an easily-rattled person like me. I let them keep their peas. I take the rest of my food, drive home, cook my pizza, and eat it.

After lunch, it is time to tackle the recalcitrant computer. I try three screwdrivers before I have one that fits the little screw that holds the side panel in place. The side panel pops off with a clatter and falls to the floor. I spray every surface I can see inside the computer until the dust is gone. Then I have to restore the side panel and the little screw. My hands are trembling. Sweat is pouring off my forehead and my neck. My arms feel clammy. This is anxiety with six triggers activated.

First I have to find the little screw. It disappeared when the panel clattered and dropped. Finally I find the screw—oddly enough, balanced on its head instead of lying flat on the floor. It requires some fiddling with shaking hands, but I finally get the panel aligned properly. Still, the screw does not want to drop into its place.

I take a break and towel my face and neck with a damp washcloth. I take a deep breath and return to the computer. With a little more effort, I get the screw installed properly. I reattach the power and all the other cables and test the system. I breathe a prayer of thanks as the monitor springs to life.

Since the problem was dust, I take some time to redesign the work station. The tower is three feet higher than it was, sitting next to the monitor rather than near the floor. The family will have to get used to the change, because this is better for the computer.

It is still Saturday. The air show is still happening. Mrs. Dim even joins in briefly with her blower, but it’s all good. My stomach is still swirling and my knees are still weak, but the computer is working again. Everything else will fall into place the way things are meant to be. J.

 

The rockets’ red glare

“So, J., did you enjoy the fireworks last night?”

“Actually, I was pretty tired, so after supper I read for a while and then went to bed early.”

It helps to plead exhaustion (and to say so honestly) rather than trying to explain loud noises, hyperacusis, crowds of people, and anxiety. I haven’t gone to a fireworks show in years, and those are the real reasons for my absence, but last night I was tired, and I really did go to bed early.

I lay there in the dark, hearing distant public fireworks shows in several directions as well as some nearer backyard pyrotechnics. As I drifted toward sleep and back again, my mind began to wander….

I thought about an article I read in the newspaper that morning. It described military veterans battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the struggles some of them face during celebrations that feature fireworks. During their military career, they were trained to react instantly to the sound of gunfire or explosions. In some cases that training saved their lives. Now, even years later, those conditioned responses still exist. Festive fireworks can bring strong and painful memories of combat events. Family members and friends need to be aware of the feelings these veterans face and know how to help them through the experience.

I thought about something I read in a book. A Confederate veteran of the Civil War had enjoyed a successful career after the war involving journalism, investments, and politics. In the summer of 1902 he was staying in a downtown hotel, and he borrowed a handgun from a friend, complaining about cats bothering him outside his window. During the fireworks show the night of July 4, when the sound of a gunshot was least likely to be noticed, he took his own life. He left behind a note mentioning, among other things, the Confederate losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on July 4 almost forty years earlier. On other occasions this man had shown bravery under fire, both during and after the war, but through his successful career he clearly carried a wartime burden of hidden inner pain.

I thought about cannon fire in the Napoleonic wars and the American Civil War. I thought about the Battle of the Somme, being fought one hundred years ago this summer. I thought about German guns approaching Paris in 1940. I thought about watching the rocket’s red glare on television during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. I thought about recent events in Orlando, in the airport in Istanbul, in Bangladesh, and in Bagdad.

Perhaps some year I will be able to attend a fireworks show. It would help if we did not have American soldiers serving in a war zone anywhere in the world that summer. It would help if the world had gone a month without terrorist attacks or other kinds of senseless violence.

I am not suggesting that Americans should cancel fireworks displays until such a summer happens. I don’t understand the violence of boxing; other people feel the same way about American football, which I enjoy watching. We accept our differences, let one another enjoy their entertainment, and leave each other alone. So long as I do not have to go to the show, the cities can keep on shooting off fireworks when and where they choose. Meanwhile, a Happy Independence Day to all my fellow Americans. J.

Crawling in the fast lane

My drive home from work was a microcosm of the last three or four days in my life.

Generally, on a four-lane two-way road, I stay to the right, driving at the speed limit or as close to it as conditions allow. Those who want to exceed the speed limit can pass me on the left. The road between my workplace and my home goes past a lot of stores, restaurants, banks, a high school, and side streets into residential neighborhoods. With all the traffic entering and leaving the highway, it’s hard to make progress in the right-hand lane, so I like to drive home in the fast lane.

Today the fast lane was not very fast. A lot of people were turning left out of the fast lane, and a lot of cars were passing me on the right this afternoon.

All weekend my life has been unpredictable, filled with the unexpected, and for the most part unsettling. I don’t even know why it was that way. My big fight with Mrs. Dim was a week ago; I should be over that by now. Nothing unusually stressful has been happening to me or to the rest of my family lately. I don’t think that I’m fighting a virus: I have no fever, no headache or sore muscles, and no more congestion than is to be expected with seasonal allergies.

Yet since Friday night I’ve experienced waves of anxiety, some so strong that my handles tremble, making it hard to type. I have a constant sense of abdominal tension, like a tennis ball pressing on the back of my sternum. I go from place to place with a feeling of dread, as if I didn’t want to go there, or as if I thought something bad was going to happen there.

Through it all I’ve done my job, I made it to church Sunday morning, and I’ve been careful not to lose patience with people. I remind myself to breathe, and I focus attention on my breathing. I set aside time to read and to relax.

Then I go on the internet and read that some of my friends there are feeling discouraged and overwhelmed as well. Maybe they aren’t as prone to anxiety as I am, but they express feelings that match the way I’m feeling. Now, instead of wondering why I feel as badly as I do, I ask myself what I can say to them to help them feel better.

We need each other. We are sinners living in a sinful world, and sometimes our lives become chipped and cracked through contact with other fragile people. God could take away our problems, and sometimes he does, but other times he answers, “My grace is sufficient for you.” When we bear our burdens, and when we help one another bear these burdens, we grow in Christ-like mercy and compassion.

When the fast lane is crawling, other drivers are stuck in traffic too. We’re all in this traffic together. The best we can do is drive with patience and compassion, and eventually we will all make it home. J.

 

Road trip mindfulness

This month I needed to take a road trip that had me driving six hours a day four days in a five day period. Once, years ago, that would not have been a problem for me, but after a particularly trying time in the fall of 2012, driving has triggered some of my worst anxiety attacks. Several automobile breakdowns in a short amount of time (leading to credit card bills for repairs, bills that are still not fully paid), along with other emotional losses at the same time, have made time behind the wheel somewhat of a nightmare for me.

Last year I learned about “mindfulness,” an effort to deal with anxiety and stress by living in the moment, observing and experiencing what is happening without allowing it to become a burden. I decided, therefore, to try to make this road trip an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Combined with prayer—asking for help along the way, and expressing thanks for each successful segment of the journey—mindfulness (I hoped) would overcome the anxiety attached to this necessary driving.

Part of mindfulness is awareness of breathing. Whenever I felt tension welling from within, I made sure that I was taking slow deep breaths. Surprisingly, that helped.

Part of mindfulness is noticing things as they happen. From experience over the past several years, I know that one portion of the trip is particularly stressful. The pavement is in bad condition, and a stiff wind prevails from the west. The car always feels out of control on that section of the road, as if a tire is going flat or the car’s steering is malfunctioning. Usually I grit my teeth and bear with the rough section, but this time I paid more attention to the actual symptoms of wind and pavement that made the car feel out of order. That also helped.

I also remained aware of the physical sensations of my body. When possible, I used cruise control so my right leg did not have to remain in the same position for hours at a time. I scheduled stops midway through each day’s driving where I could walk around for a few minutes to relieve the pain of sitting in the driver’s seat. Merely concentrating attention on pain in my knees and lower back helped me to remain more calm, not allowing that pain to travel through my body and tighten other muscles.

I also made sure to pay attention to the scenery—the flowers along the road, the leaves emerging on the trees, and the birds circling in the air. Traveling north and south was like time travel, seeing different stages of springtime changes in different parts of the country.

Naturally I paid attention to the other vehicles on the road. For a while on the first day, I made predictions about what I would see. (“I will see a bright blue car at the next rest stop.” Well, there were no blue cars there, but a truck cab at that stop was bright blue.) By the last day, my game had become hopelessly complicated. During the last three hours, I kept a countdown of twenty-five different vehicles according to color—sixteen colors of cars, and nine colors of truck cabs. At the same time, I kept track of the yellow cars I saw, aiming for twenty-five of them as well. (They had to be private vehicles—no taxis, school buses, or delivery trucks. Generally, I counted them as private if they had no words printed on the sides of the vehicles. Yellow pick-up trucks only counted if they were solid yellow with no words.) Surprisingly, I saw all twenty-five colors in those three hours, and I saw my twenty-fifth yellow car just a few blocks away from home.

With mindfulness and thankfulness, I was able to endure a trip that was relatively calm and stress-free. I would not want to try it again any time soon, but at least I made it there and back again without a total emotional breakdown. J.

Why nobody likes me

Mrs. Dim and I had a disagreement this weekend. I described it to Dwayne at City Hall as a difference of opinion; it could easily have been called a shouting match. I did not intend to shout at Mrs. Dim. In fact, I had not planned on speaking to her at all. When she began shouting insults at me, though, I found myself raising my voice to be heard.

This year Mrs. Dim is paying a young man to mow her yard (giving her more time, I guess, to play with her leaf blower). He had already mowed twice this year when I was not at home, and his mowing had taken him far across the property line into my bed of wildflowers. I was glad to be at home this time as he was working, so when he was ready to mow outside Mrs. Dim’s fence, I went over and introduced myself. “I’m J.,” I said, and “I’m Scott,” he answered, and we shook hands. I showed him where the corner of my property is—the surveyor’s stake is still there, pushed deep into the ground—and indicated the landmarks to follow that line to the other corner of Mrs. Dim’s yard. Scott was very attentive, and even after I went back inside he was careful to mow only to the line and not as far as he had mowed earlier this year.

Poor Scott, though, found himself in the middle of neighborly squabbling. Even before I had the chance to introduce myself, Mrs. Dim was already shouting, “Go back in your house, J.,” and, “A real Christian wouldn’t do what you’re doing, J.” She also shouted, “This is why nobody likes you, J.” She openly acknowledged that she had instructed Scott to cut my weeds. I tried to get Mrs. Dim to tell me what the word weed means—I was hoping to establish that a weed is an unwanted plant, so I could say that native wildflowers are not unwanted in my lawn, even if they are unwanted in hers. Instead, she only pointed at my wildflowers and shouted, “That’s a weed,” leading me to handle the daisy-like bloom gently and answer (in as loud a voice as hers, I regret to say), “This… is a flower.”

Scott handled the situation well, mowing along the property line and then over to Mrs. Dim’s fence. I went inside, hoping the problem was over for the time being. After Scott left, Mrs. Dim played her radio in her garage at top volume for about half an hour to show her displeasure—surprisingly childish behavior for a woman who is nearing seventy years old. I put on a Schubert CD and kept the windows closed and was able to survive her tantrum unharmed.

This morning I called City Hall to verify that I have the right to raise wildflowers on my property. I indicated that they are the same kind of wildflowers that the state’s highway department encourages along the highways. Dwayne said that, of course, I’m allowed to grow native wildflowers on my own property, although he was unwilling to put that statement into writing for me. Instead, he said that if my neighbor is coming onto my property and cutting down my plants, I should either call the police or hire an attorney.

I think I handled the situation as well as was possible for me. With my battles with anxiety, confrontations are difficult for me. Although she has not taken the time to get to know me, Mrs. Dim knew how to make her insults stick in my head. I have had to remind myself repeatedly that people do like me—at work, at church, where I teach, and lots of places. It’s only Mrs. Dim who doesn’t like me.

 

People have asked me why I don’t just talk to Mrs. Dim when I have a problem with her—when her prolonged leaf-blowing is getting on my nerves, for example. This episode, I think, verifies what I already suspected. Mrs. Dim cannot be approached calmly and reasonably. The better approach for both of us is for me to maintain a healthy distance. With any luck, someday soon she will relocate to a retirement community where they will let her play with the leaf blower as much as she wants, and I won’t know anything about it. J.

 

Introvert talking here

Arthur Dent never got the hang of Thursdays. For me, Saturday is the hardest day of the week. I don’t know why. Last fall I tried going to work on Saturday mornings to make the day seem normal, but even at work I still felt unsettled, shaky, and apprehensive.

One morning last week I woke up with that Saturday feeling, even though it wasn’t Saturday. This time I had a reason to feel unsettled: several weeks earlier I had promised to speak to a group of people that morning. It seemed like a good idea when I made the promise, but somehow that morning I didn’t feel ready. My sudden case of stage fright felt just like an anxiety attack, only one with a cause.

I took speech classes in high school and in college. Working for churches, I have had to stand in front of groups of people and talk. Generally I’m fine in the classroom teaching a group of students. I have no idea why this week’s scheduled session should have seemed different to my inner self.

For between four and five years, I was fortunate enough to work alongside the world’s best communications/public relations professional. When this person asked me to speak to a group of people on behalf of our employer, I wanted to say no, but I allowed myself to be persuaded. (For one thing, this speech gave me a chance to promote a book I had just written.) Figuratively speaking, my co-worker held my hand through the preparation and the presentation, and it went fine. When other speaking opportunities arose, I always turned to my co-worker and always got the assurance and encouragement I needed. Alas, we no longer work for the same company, but this same person still comes to mind when I need to summon the courage to give another speech or presentation.

I drove to work that morning, and the traffic put me in my usual bad mood. I went straight to my desk at work without saying a word to anyone. When the time came, I left to give my presentation. Again, I was shaky and nervous while driving. It didn’t help that gusts of wind were pushing at the car. When I arrived and was greeted, a couple people asked me how I was doing. “I’m trembling in my boots,” I told them honestly. They laughed as if I was joking. The time came, I was introduced, and I began speaking. The first two or three sentences had trouble getting out of my mouth in good order, but after that I was in control of the material, and the remaining fifty minutes flew.

Someone commented to me that day that introverts should not be required to speak in public. Both of us knew that this comment was a joke. Many introverts are quite comfortable in public speaking. Introverts make good teachers, preachers, and lecturers, so long as they are speaking on a subject they know and love. We might be more focused on our material because of our personality, and we are less likely than extraverts to be distracted by the people in front of us. When we are nervous, we have learned to use that energy to keep ourselves interesting as we speak.

The defining mark of an introvert, though, is that we expend energy dealing with other people. We gain energy when we are alone. Truthfully, the half dozen one-on-one conversations I had after my presentation were more draining than the fifty minutes spent speaking to the group, even though the conversations all consisted of positive and complimentary remarks. I’ve watched celebrities walk into a room, attract a crowd, interact enthusiastically with each person in that crowd, and bask in their admiration. I might be able to fake the same response, but from me it’s not genuine. I’d far rather stay home and write and send out my words to speak for me.

In public, introverts are actors. We have to be actors. We must appear calm and confident, even when we are trembling in our boots. I expect that some of the finest actors of stage and screen are secretly introverts, hiding their fears and channeling them into convincing performances. I know this is true of several famous comedians, including Johnny Carson and Robin Williams. Their charm and their energy in front of an audience was compensation for being afraid of other people.

Last week’s presentation was the first of a series of eight talks to the same group. I hope that I won’t be so nervous this week, but I offer no guarantees. More likely than not, I will once again be trembling in my boots. It’s no joke to me, but it will make the other people smile. J.