The Wide-Open Life
by Sarah Shaul
Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively! - 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 MSG
I am a skilled fence builder. Over my lifetime I have built many of them. One fence to conceal my insecurities, another to hide my fears, yet another to mask my imperfections, one more to cover my shame. I spend much time and energy maintaining these defenses; I must ensure no one sees in. But neither can I see out.
A recent bout of anxiety had me fearing a panic attack while at the office. I could not reveal to my nice but (likely) unsympathetic coworkers something so personal as my anxiety struggles. They could not know that I was anything but polished, productive, and positive. I had carefully constructed a fence around this issue by smiling when anxiety raced through me and escaping to the bathroom until I could better contain my feelings.
One average Thursday, I sat in a meeting, engaged in discussion. Unexpectedly, I felt my anxiety rear up: racing heart, tight muscles, nausea, and lightheadedness. Maintain composure! I reminded myself, mentally checking that my fences were secure. But my self-demands and hypervigilance only added to my unease. Now on the verge of a panic attack, my mind raced with fear and indecision. I could leave the room and ensure my all-important guise of polished professionalism. But being alone during a panic attack made it worse. Or I could pretend nothing was wrong and hope it would pass. Thinking the discussion would distract me, I stayed.
But I couldn’t pull myself out of my rising panic to concentrate on, much less contribute to, the conversation. I could only force a polite smile at others’ comments. Someone eventually noticed: “Sarah, you’re awfully quiet over there.” My mind raced, and I frantically searched for a plausible lie. Under pressure and overwhelmed with panic, I did the unthinkable: I broke the lock to my secure fortress. “I’m sorry,” I replied. “But I’m really anxious right now and I think I’m starting to have a panic attack. Would you mind if I went and laid down in the corner and tried to breathe and relax?” A general outcry of concern and support followed me to the corner of the room. I laid down on my back, closed my eyes, and, seconds later, the meeting continued.
As I lay on the conference room floor forcing myself to breathe deeply, I marveled at what I’d done. I had weakened my defenses; I was now vulnerable. With my shame revealed and my perfect composure shattered, I believed I would be shunned. People would learn to avoid me, not knowing how unbalanced I might be that day. Or they would gossip and make snide comments about my embarrassing episode. I ruminated on these thoughts as the meeting continued and eventually concluded. Some people left right away, eager to move to their next task. Surprisingly, a few came over to check on me and squeeze my hand in support.
When most everyone had left, a female coworker came over to me. She saw I was still panicky and asked me what I needed or what she could do. I heaved open a heavy, little used gate by tearfully asking, “Would you mind holding my hand?” She immediately came and sat next to me, taking my hand in her warm, firm grip. As we sat on the conference room floor, she shared how she’d suffered from anxiety and panic attacks for years and was currently on medications to help her simply function. She walked me through several breathing and mental exercises she’d learned in her own experience. She was understanding, calm, patient, and, counter to all my fears, accepting.
After a time, the worst of the attack passed and I was finally able to stand up. Tears in my eyes, I thanked her for her time, presence, and willingness to share her story. She reiterated her sympathy and said if I ever needed company during a future panic attack to come see her. “We can hide under my desk,” she half joked. “That’s what I do when I have a panic attack at work.” I smiled gratefully through my tears.
As I walked back to my desk, I wondered at the perceived usefulness of my many fences. I had let others see beyond the pristine facade and no one had ridiculed or rejected me. In fact, the opposite had happened: people were kind and understanding. Ultimately, my honesty had allowed someone to connect with me, and I had been comforted in my most anxious moment. Perhaps she had been comforted, too, knowing she was not alone in her experience. In fact, I think I made a friend.
Enjoying the new view, I left the gate open and got back to work.