More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
When Life Gave Me Lemons, I Had a Panic Attack
by Gila Lyons, New York Times
January 24, 2018

One afternoon several months ago, a friend invited me to come to her house to pick from her tree brimming with Meyer lemons, my favorite. It was the magical week in Oakland, Calif., when lemons are ripe and fat.

This decision was not as simple as it might seem. My panic disorder made it a daunting one.

Come on, I thought, I should be able to drive eight minutes for free fruit. I weighed both sides ? go and experience excruciating fear and physical discomfort, or stay home and let yet another activity be slashed from my repertoire. I asked a friend to come with me; she couldn?t. My boyfriend was away. I could have waited another day or until later that night when more friends were home. But I wanted them, now, and I wanted my life back.

I could no longer teach, or stay home alone. I could no longer drive, sleep, shop, shower, wait in any kind of line, eat at a restaurant, or sometimes eat anything at all. I couldn?t make it to therapy anymore, or sometimes even to the kitchen for a glass of water. Everyday activities went through an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis. Was it worth the panic attack I?d endure to return the book to the library? After too many panic attacks at Trader Joe?s, I stopped shopping. After too many while driving, I didn?t drive. But the lemons were calling.

I sat in my car, gathering courage to turn the key. Sweat drenched the armpits of my thin T-shirt, my breathing grew shallow and short. I turned the key and my heart sped. I started driving, and dizziness and nausea clawed at my throat, threatening to blur my vision. I quickly pulled over, gulped some water, spilling half of it down my shirt, and turned the car around. It?s not worth it, I said aloud. It?s O.K., go home. I drove home, got in bed and didn?t get up for weeks.

Panic disorder has defined and limited my life since I was a child. Some years I am powerful and capable, teaching, enjoying electrifying relationships and travel. Other years I?m utterly felled, conscribed to my bed with shards of relationships, career and my health around me.

Last year I wrote a profile of Haben Girma, a disability rights activist and deaf-blind lawyer. Ms. Girma is the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School, as well as the first deaf-blind person I?ve met who skis, surfs, ballroom dances and performs improv comedy. She has traveled extensively all over the world with the help of friends and her guide dog, Maxine.

I was amazed at all Ms. Girma is able to do with accommodations like assistive technology and interpreters. After the article was published, I disclosed to her that, while very different, I?ve also had to work my way around a handicap. She asked me, with utmost compassion and gentleness, if I considered myself disabled. I?d never thought of myself as such, but it was if a light had been switched on.

Because of panic, I?d been unable to attend conferences, weddings, vacations and a host of other financially gainful, career-promoting and socially enjoyable activities. But it seemed like that was just part of being me. If I?d had to pass up jobs and miss vacations because of an overtly physical condition, there would be no question I was dealing with a disability. But because mine was psychological, it seemed a personality quirk, my own sensitivities, an unfortunate trait.

Last summer I was accepted to a prestigious fellowship that offered to fly me around the world and put me up in a hotel so that I could network with other artists, activists, educators and entrepreneurs. If I were blind, a guide dog or human aide could help guide me safely through the airport; if I were in a wheelchair, the conference would provide an attendee to help me navigate the building. But how could I make the plane, and being so far from home, accessible for my panic disorder?

Ms. Girma directed me to The Job Accommodation Network, a site that guides employees and employers to accommodate disabilities. But how can the world be made accessible to someone with 20/20 vision who can?t drive because of panic attacks? Whose legs are structurally sound but keep buckling with adrenaline and fear? I had to decline.

In no way do I think navigating a mental disorder is harder than a physical disability. It?s not. But physical disabilities are understood and written into law and accommodated, while mental illnesses are stigmatized, nebulous to measure and accommodate, and often seen as a fault in the person, rather than an uncontrollable physical reality.

The Americans With Disabilities Act protects those with both physical and mental disabilities by ensuring they have fair and equal access to employment, housing, transportation and governmental services. The Social Security Administration recognizes anxiety disorders, along with eight other categories of mental disorders, as conditions that qualify for disability benefits (financial and transportation assistance, assistive technology and more). The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that roughly nine million Americans receive S.S.D.I. (financial benefits), 35.2 percent of which is because of a mental health condition.

But what is a mental illness and what is a normal emotional distress brought on by the vicissitudes of life? Consensus among the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association points to mental illness as significant changes in thinking, feeling or behavior coupled with an inability to function in daily life in terms of self-care, maintaining jobs and relationships.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 20 percent of Americans experience a mental health disorder in any given year and that 5 percent live with a sustained and serious one. The National Comorbidity Survey Replication found that half of Americans will meet the DSM-IV criteria for a mental disorder in their lifetime. It is not, as the media likes to spin mass shootings and domestic abuse, characterized by violent behavior.

To qualify as disabled under Social Security guidelines, according to Anxiety Impairment Listing 12.06, one must have a diagnosis of anxiety disorder characterized by three or more of the following: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbance, fatigue. A person must also prove the impossibility of holding a job and a limitation in understanding, remembering or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating on, persisting in or completing tasks; or general life upkeep (paying bills, cooking, shopping, dressing, personal hygiene).

A person can also qualify if the disorder has been medically documented as ?serious and persistent? for two years or longer or is manageable only because he or she is living in a therapeutic setting or is receiving ongoing medical treatment, therapy or psychosocial support that enables functioning.

According to these guidelines, I more than qualify. But I haven?t applied, and I don?t plan to.

My father pleads with me not to consider myself disabled or portray myself as such to employers or friends. He considers it a self-fulfilling prophecy. ?If you start telling people you can?t drive, then you won?t force yourself to drive,? he says. ?You have to push against this.? Because it?s psychological, or at least manifests that way, it still seems to him that I can exercise control over it.

Sometimes I can fight against it. But sometimes I really can?t. My fight-or-flight reaction is too strong. Anyone with a chronic illness like Lyme disease or fibromyalgia knows that you have good days, when you can afford to push yourself, and bad days, when the toll it will take to do a simple task is not worth the consequences you?ll face later (exhaustion, pain, relapse).

It?s such an American ideal, to feel we should be able to do whatever we set our minds to, physical or mental limitations be damned. We are taught that no matter what stands in our way, the triumphant overcome it in pursuit of a goal, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps.

To get the lemons or to call it a day? To fight for how I want my life to be or accept the limitations of my condition? American law considers me someone with a disability. I?m not sure what I consider myself.
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