One of the most challenging parts of being a higher education professional with mental illness is conferences. There is nothing like taking us out of our comfort zone and putting us in a foreign situation with strangers to create that conference-fueled anxiety. Sylvester shares his recent experience fighting the anxiety dragon at a conference.
Anxiety sets in
I could feel the panic attack coming before I even got into the van. I was already dreading going to this conference. Knowing that I wasn’t going to be at 100% made me feel even worse. I told my partner that I would rather feign an illness and stay home. She understood, but she encouraged me to have fun and enjoy the experience as best as I could. So I went to work, corralled my students and got in the conference-bound van.
I wasn’t thrilled to go. This regional conference was smaller, so my non-presence would be more easily spotted. It was geared towards students, so I would have to interact with a smaller number of professionals. I knew that I really didn’t connect with a lot of these professionals. I also knew that I would be one of very few men of color in attendance.
Despite all of that, none of it was on my mind during the drive. I actually felt relaxed, conversed with my students and enjoyed the scenery. I gawked at the city skyline as we drove to the hotel. When we dropped everything off, I was able to breathe and tell myself, “It’s gonna be just fine.” Then the MC announced the after-dinner event.
We were separated into undergraduate students, graduate students and professionals. Immediately, my mind went into a panic. Now I’m in a group of people I really don’t know. It looked like people were happy to be with each other. My hands start sweating, and my breathing gets more shallow. My hands begin to tremble. I’m actually dreading being seen by another human being. I know something’s happening, and no matter what I tell myself, I can’t stop it.
Conference-fueled anxiety rears its ugly head
When the icebreaking begins, I sneak out of the room. I find a place in the building where I cannot be seen. I sit down, take off my glasses and start crying. My mind starts to tell me things. “What man cries over a damn icebreaker? What will your boss think if you’re not there? You’re a bad professional for not taking part. What will your students think when they don’t see you there?”
Once the event is over, I head back to my hotel. As much as I want to go to the bar with other professionals and drink the place dry, I take the subway back to the hotel. I desperately want to go across the street from the hotel and buy the biggest bottle of liquor I can get my hands on. But my mind snaps out of it. Alcohol only makes my anxiety and depression worse. I go back to my room, lay in the darkness and wonder why the hell I can’t enjoy icebreakers like everyone else.
When anxiety won’t leave
There’s an IHOP across the street from the hotel. The only thing that makes me better after a panic attack is a stack of pancakes. I smash a small stack, and then I meet up with my students to head to the conference site. They’re no worse for wear; they didn’t even notice I was gone! I am feeling better, but I’m still not at 100%. I manage to get to the conference site and present my session.
After my presentation, I go to our regional meeting. I start to feel the shaking and sweating again. I know what’s coming, so I leave in a hurry and sit down in a quiet area. This time I know what to do. I grab my headphones and put on my relaxation playlist on my phone. Then I breathe deeply and avoid eye contact with everyone. I want to be away from this place.
Coming clean to the boss
I start to feel a little better. Then I notice my students and supervisor walk past me, and they notice I’m alone. I immediately feel guilty for not being with them at their sessions. My mind tells me that I’m acting like a complete asshole. I should probably be fired for not being a consummate student affairs professional. I’m not networking, I’m not being positive, and I’m not participating. I’m completing the reputation killing trifecta in student affairs.
When I get a minute, I find my boss and pull her aside. I decide to tell her something I thought would get me fired. “Look, I’m sorry if I’m acting like an asshole. I’ve been off my game all day. I had a panic attack last night during the icebreakers, and I fought off one a few minutes ago. I don’t know what to do.”
She comforted me and asked what she could do. I told her that I had to tell my students. She knew my history, but they didn’t. I did not want them to think there was a reason for me being cold and silent.
Telling students about mental illness
So I pulled them aside and told them something I rarely admit to my students. “Listen, you might not know this, but I have a severe anxiety disorder. This conference has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I had a panic attack last night, and I’m trying to not have another one right now. Just know that if I’m silent the rest of the day or tonight, I’m working through some things. I want to be here with you, but I’m struggling. I’m sorry.”
They’re pretty silent for the most part. It’s probably not an everyday occurrence when your boss tells you they have a mental illness. And they can see the disorder working right in front of them. A couple are nodding their heads, one looks nervous, and one looks concerned. Then one of them looks at me and says something that will stick with me forever. “Now it makes sense why you have semicolons tattooed on your arm.”
Recovering from conference-fueled anxiety
That night my students went to an ice cream shop to relax. I went with them for a bit, then went back to my room. There was nothing I wanted more than sleep.
I can’t remember much of the last day. I just wanted to go home. All I remember is driving back to campus and talking about my favorite shows on Netflix. My students seemed to be in good spirits. All I wanted to do was hug my partner and sleep. As soon as I dropped everyone off, my partner arrives to take me home. She asked me how my trip was. All I can muster is, “I’m glad it’s over.”