Thursday, May 10, 2018

When Your Mind Fails You

I walked down from my room, through the long corridor to get to the conference venue in a big American hotel. I felt great and was looking forward to meeting people. I walked to the registration desk, and while I know many of the conference organizers, I did not know anyone there. I walked around a bit, seeing lots of people but no familiar faces. And I recognized the feeling of anxiety. I was uncomfortable, turned around and walked back to my room, just in time to collapse in a massive panic attack.

I don't know what panic attacks look like for others, but I know they are scary as hell for me. I hyperventilate, lose feel of first my fingers and then feet so that I cannot stand up. My face tingles, like it was waking up from being numb without it having been numb. And the only way out of it is to find a way to calm down. Hugging a pillow helps. Being angry at people close to me doesn't. But blaming some of the uncontrollable emotion on others feels like a plausible explanation, until it happens enough to realize it is something where my mind just plays tricks on me.

The trigger to my anxiety seems right now seems to be conferences, particularly large ones with lots of people I don't know or things not flowing as I imagined. The first one I remember I got from the very first developer conference I ever volunteered to speak at. For the last two years, panic attacks have been a frequent companion to every developer conference, but lately also creeping into testing conferences.

Conferences are too rough on me, so I will be taking a break. Not only because I can't deal with my mind, but also because my presence is needed at home.

I used to be afraid of public speaking, and I trained myself out of it by taking a job that required regular speaking: teaching at university. I still remember what drove me into starting the practice: physically not being able to stand in front of a crowd just to introduce myself. It was crippling.

The panic attacks are more frightening, but also feel harder to control than the good-old fear of public speaking. Over time, I'll figure out a way of working this out. Time teaches things we can't expect or see. It always has.

1 comment:

  1. I can understand this. It's all too easy to start out doing something you enjoy, sharing your knowledge and experiences with others; but if you're even only part-way good at this, and have a good story to tell, very quickly it can spiral out of control. That's when you find yourself in a big, anonymous hotel in a city you don't know, about to address a hall full of strangers, some of whom will never have heard of you, or won't be able to relate to you as an individual. Doubts and fears are natural; and they can creep up on you and attack when you least expect it.

    Whilst it's true that a panic attack is a very clear sign that something is wrong, and that you perhaps need to take a step back and do things a bit differently for a while, I also think that conference organisers have a role to play. Especially if they are inviting speakers from overseas who won't necessarily have contacts with the local or national professional community, it is good practice to make sure that speakers are made to feel part of the local community as much as possible (and as much as they are comfortable with). Speaker hospitality is always worth remembering and catering for.

    (And having had a panic attack come at me from out of nowhere once, I can understand how frightening that can be.)

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