I remember going to college for all those years. I could not do a full load of classes since life-long chronic illness makes it physically impossible to hold down a job while going to classes at night for more than a couple nights per week to classes. I was maybe 4 years into undergraduate work when I decided to take Argumentation.

I have always enjoyed the rules of conversation, when the rules are observed, and learning to be graceful when they are not. I learned it is a rare skill in a classroom from working in the public schools in my home town of Berkeley. I decided that public speaking collaboration would be useful for my journey toward a teaching career.

I hoped it would allow me to get over my stage fright when talking to groups of strange adults. For some reason, the anxiety would never come over me when talking to children. I understood instinctually that children never think of their teachers as good lecturers. Children appreciate the Socratic method which eliminates the pressure of one way communication.

I discovered I get panic attacks because I’m worried that people will decide, without giving me another chance, that I’m useless. I remember very vividly the scenario when I first realized that feeling of public failure. My fears are  updated replays of my 3rd grade recitation of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.

The year I was to graduate from primary and begin attending Malcolm X Elementary, I was ecstatic. I had recently been diagnosed with asthma so the doctors and my family were sounding like there might be some hope. I had just spoken the first four lines when the auditorium sound system exploded in feedback and drowned out my voice.

Up until 4th or 5th grade, the treatment for asthma was the same as anaphylactic shock. It was so severe that my moms would leave my brother with someone to watch him and she’d take me to the hospital. Treatment was multiple injections of epinephrine, fast and long acting.

On the third occasion I was to speak in front of my classmates in college, the anxiety hit me and knocked thoughts out of my head. I could not decide what to say and I was paralyzed. I stood there watching my classmates look at their hands. They were humiliated for me. We were all helpless. Someone asked if I done speaking. I didn’t respond but looked hopefully at the instructor. She stoically waited the entire required length of my part. She finally commented, thirty more seconds now, and then, ok, you may sit.

My earliest memories of other people are of being watched as I struggle to breath. My first conversations were one-sided. We were all helpless but I was the one who knew it. Adults would valiantly struggle to coach me, telling me to relax and breath deeply.

My frustration is probably very common for people with asthma flare-ups. The effort to acquire oxygen is so strenuous that it is inadvisable to speak or answer questions. As well-meaning adults are advising deep slow breath, we feel like arguing. The key to moving air through swollen airways is to exhale as forcefully as possible. This creates a vacuum in the chambers of the lungs for fresh air to flood in. Without exhalation, the body will panic and gasp like a fish out of water. The panic of oxygen deprivation can become like a madness.

Too much relaxation will interfere with my battle against panic. I think of  drowning people who struggle to hold their breath, as they lose consciousness, the body panics and draws in water. I focus on the air around me, I think, this is what it must feel like to be drowning. Then, slowing with each ragged push, dread creeps up into my shoulders that maybe this time I won’t be able to keep up the effort.

I start to feel tired and that frightens me the most. People are watching me and telling me to breath. The process takes so long and I’m so embarrassed of how pitiful I look.

I’m holding my breath again, trying not to breath in yet, trying to move a little more air out. The despair makes me tear up, and now I’m on the verge of sobbing. I’ll be able to take a breath if I can only maintain the effort to push the old air out.

It’s a familiar feeling for me. I frequently wake in the night to sensation of my body shutting down. That is the definition of an anxiety attack, is it not? Typical sufferers of anxiety are only imagining the process of self-destruct which my cardio-pulmonary system will carry out. There is a particular type of asthma attack that actually shuts the airway completely so that its as if exhalation is completely blocked, like blowing into a filled up balloon.

The fear makes me want to run. I have to escape to a place  away from the watching eyes of the well-meaning and their desperate desire to not be helpless. Helplessness is like yawning, the emotion is reinforced each time I meet their eyes. I must control the autonomic functions of my malfunctioning flesh despite the assurances of fools that I should relax.


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