The Day I Didn’t Go to the Poetry Reading

– Posted in: Opinion

Though I mention in my “About” page that I would write personal posts from time to time, this is the first time I’ve taken a chance on one.

You see, I am a very private person and do not like to air my struggles in public. And I feel that the things that I have been writing about here are far more important to my readers than the details of my personal battles.

This blog was started for two reasons: to give back to the community for all the help I have had over the years, and as therapy for my own self. I have studied bipolar disorder and the Anxiety Disorders deeply over the years, and believe I have something to give others. But that does not mean that I have completely conquered my own fears, or that I am personally “cured.”

As many of you know, I have bipolar disorder with ultra-radian cycling, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and some symptoms of Social Phobia. My psychologist and psychiatrist decided that getting control of the bipolar disorder was the most important thing to do first, so that’s been the focus of my therapy for the past five years. 

I’m happy to say that I am now feeling better bipolar-wise than I have in years. I am in the first “normal” (what is that?) phase in a decade, untroubled by either depression or mania. Knock on wood.

The progress on my Anxiety Disorders

I have had many successes

I haven’t completely ignored my Anxiety Disorders during this time. I can talk on the phone now. I can write emails. I can go outside the house, ride in a car and drive, go to the doctor by myself (though waiting rooms are a trial), and even go to gatherings of 3-4 people. I have not had a full-blown panic attack in a long time, and at most have 2 or 3 symptoms from time to time. I have learned to control these without medication, and they do not bother me — they’re just an inconvenience.

But I have not been able to go to larger gatherings, and definitely not to church. I yearn to go to concerts, to family reunions, to classes at the local continuing education center, to see my elderly in-laws in another state. But I have not been able to overcome my fear enough to do so.

The game plan to go to a poetry reading

The poetry reading

My latest challenge was a reading by a famous poet that I wanted to go to last Thursday. My therapist and I had worked out a detailed action plan for me to go:

  • Get out of my chair
  • Get dressed
  • Go to the car
  • Drive to the parking lot
  • Get out of the car
  • Walk across the parking lot (a challenge, since I have a thing about parking lots)
  • Go into the building
  • Find the meeting room
  • Take a chair at the back
  • Listen to the reading
  • Leave and go home

I am a very visual person, and my therapist had me rehearse each step in my mind, picturing the best and the worst that could happen. He had me write down on a note card why I wanted to go to the poetry reading. 

At any stage I could stop and have a sense of accomplishment for having gotten that far. If I did stop at any point, I made for myself these rules:

  • I had to imagine the best that could happen if I took the next step
  • I had to imagine the worst that could happen if I took the next step
  • I had to look at my note card to review the reason why I wanted to go

Did I make it?

Well, I didn’t make the first step. Despite Alprazolam, I just couldn’t overcome the fear I had about the meeting, the large number of people in a relatively small room, the walk across the parking lot, and the closeness of the atmosphere. I let all the visualizations of the “worst” things overcome all the “best” things and my desire to go.

Many failures, many successes

Despite my best efforts, I am more than a little put out at myself. I’m finding it hard to congratulate myself, even though I worked hard on the visualizations and rehearsed them many times. But I’m not giving up. I’ve failed plenty of times before, but I’ve succeeded plenty of times, too.

I have another opportunity next week to go to a small communion service at my church, and I intend to use the same process to get me there. I may not make it through all the steps, but I will make it through more than I did last time. And the next time after that I will make it through more, until I can successfully go to any gathering that I want to!

Am I discouraged?

It is a process

I suppose the reason I’m telling you all this is to let you know that feeling better, getting better, and staying better is a process. You can’t just take a pill and have everything be ok. I took the pill and I was not ok. But I am not discouraged. 

I often read messages where people seem to have given up because they have failed a few times in their efforts to get better. They look to me as an example of someone who is somehow perfect and can get through any situation. As is obvious by now, that just ain’t so.

But I haven’t written this to discourage you, rather, to encourage you. I had a complete breakdown five years ago. I could function on no level. Now I can do many, many things — including writing this blog — that would have been impossible even a year ago. I have a happy, intimate home life with my wife and daughter. I look forward to each day as another day of opportunity and growth. Every day brings another small victory that takes me toward my goal of complete functionality.

So what are you doing writing a blog about Anxiety Disorders?


Many people may question how and why I could have the chutzpah to write a blog about Anxiety Disorders when I am having so much trouble with them myself. In other words, “physician, heal thyself!” 

At the risk of seeming immodest, I firmly believe that it takes a person who has had Anxiety Disorders to fully understand and empathize with someone who has them. I have spent literally thousands of hours reading, thinking and writing about Anxiety Disorders in order to understand my own ailments, and I hope that this effort will be of help to someone else.

I do not think that being free of Anxiety Disorders is a prerequisite to writing about them. Rather, my continued struggles with them is in a perverse way an advantage.

I can only point to Edmund Bourne, author of the best (in my opinion) and bestselling book on Anxiety Disorders, The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. In his Healing Fear, he details his own trials with Anxiety Disorders and what he has done to overcome them. I think that it is no fluke that his Workbook is among the most helpful on the market.

What do you think?

This is the first, and perhaps last, time that I will talk about myself on this blog. I am not at all sure I should have done it, and am clicking the “publish” button with great reluctance.

  • Was talking about myself the right thing to do? 
  • Was writing about myself out of character for the blog?
  • Do you have anything you could add that would help me in my next challenge?

As always, your comments are welcome!

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9 comments… add one
Lee August 22, 2008, 7:47 pm

Mike, I’m sorry to hear about all the troubles you’ve had.

I had an uncle who suffered from bi-polar disorder. Unfortunately, he died when I was quite young and so I have no real comprehension of how it affects those who suffer from it.

I am extremely curious about the condition as it has had a long-lasting effect on the family.

Can I ask, is it something you’ve suffered with all your life, or did a significant even trigger it?

Mike August 22, 2008, 9:09 pm

Thank you for your comment, Lee!

Mental illness can cause untold harm to a family, and the damage can reverberate for years after a person is gone. We live in a fortunate time when something can actually be done about it. There are effective therapies and medications for almost every mental illness. In years past, people just suffered and caused others to suffer and it was all written off as human nature.

Bipolar disorder and depression runs in my family. I was not diagnosed as bipolar until almost 6 years ago, but I have been having the same symptoms since late adolescence — cycles of depression and mania.

When I was younger, the mania was the predominant feature, but as I grew older, the depression was. And as I grew older, the periods of “normality” grew shorter and shorter, until they were non-existent; I went straight to mania from depression and vice versa.

I have had no significant “triggers” that caused a depressive or manic cycle or caused the bipolar disorder to start in the first place. The cycles came and went as they pleased, with no warning and no logic. Some people do have triggers that set them off; I’m just not one of them!

A couple of good places to learn more are the National Institute of Mental Health’s information pages. The Mayo Clinic also has good information.

Lee August 22, 2008, 9:18 pm

Thanks for the links Mike, I’ll be sure to check them out.

My uncle, it is believed, was triggered after watching an extremely traumatic event as a young child – his mother’s suicide.

He tried to cope as best he could all his life but never seemed to get the right sort of care.

One day he was the most loving man you could ever meet, the next he would hate everyone, feel totally helpless and then lash out.

Ultimately, he killed himself, which may have had something to do with what he witnessed earlier in life.

To this day no-one has ever been able to understand what he must have gone through, the despair he must have felt, and his frustration at not being able to maintain any real control over his life.

Even though this happened over 20 years ago, I still want to understand even now. His children are even more inclined to learn what their farther went through as they fear they may be susceptible themselves as they grow older.

Mike August 22, 2008, 9:34 pm

Inheritance of mental disorders is not necessarily linear. It may skip generations, it may show up in nephews and cousins — anything is possible.

But the best defense is to be informed about bipolar disorder so you can spot the early signs. Early treatment is the best treatment, since the disorder has a tendency to build on itself.

There’s no reason nowadays for anyone to suffer as much as your uncle did. There are good treatments available, and better ones are being developed all the time. It is possible to live a successful, fulfilling and productive life with the proper therapy and/or medication.

Eric August 24, 2008, 8:28 pm

I enjoyed reading your personal story. I have many stories like yours. I am 43 and I started developing social anxiety in my mid 30’s. Going out in public is highly stressful for me. In those situations I have the constant fear that I will say or do the wrong thing and make a bad impression. It has been a real problem for me. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to afford any kind of treatment for it, but I will definitely find those books that you recommended.

Mike August 24, 2008, 8:45 pm

The Bourne book — The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook — is among the best I know of. It’s not complicated and it has some very helpful advice. It’s available in paperback, and should be available at your local bookstore.

I’m still working on my Social Phobia information article. I ought to have it finished in a day or two. It has lots of information about SAD that might be helpful. Check for it in a couple of days under the “SAD – Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)” link in the right sidebar.

Kay Dennison August 25, 2008, 9:42 pm

Mike, I’m glad you you talked about yourself here. I do understand your trepidation about the poetry reading — I’ve been in that position many times.

I’ve gotten good at “self talk” the past few years — i.e., if I start getting panicky about going somewhere or when I get there — I mentally give myself a talking to about it and tell myself that the only person I’m hurting by bailing out is me and that I will be all right. Sometimes it works better than others. Still, I seem to be getting better and more comfortable with going unfamiliar places alone. Last year I actually made it through our symphony’s season with only minor discomfort! I renewed my seat and, hopefully, this season will go even better.

New places and things can still be a problem but I won’t give up trying.
I hope you don’t either. I’m cheering for you here in Ohio!

Mike August 25, 2008, 10:02 pm

Thank you, Kay, for the encouragement. It’s always good to hear from people who have faced the same things I am facing and have succeeded!

I so yearn to go to recitals and concerts. The local university’s music school, the symphony, and the concert series are truly excellent, and I read with regret of all the musical presentations that I have to miss.

But I won’t give up. I know that one day I will be able to go if I just keep on pressing forward now.

And it is good to hear that you enjoyed this personal article. I thought long and hard before publishing it. It’s so much easier to hide behind impersonal articles. Although I won’t make a habit of it, I’ve decided that I will present a personal post from time to time, if only to update interested people like you on my progress!

name July 29, 2009, 9:55 am

I bookmarked this guestbook.,

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