anxiety

Things Got Complicated When Phil Attended That Group Session For People With Anxiety

Three weeks earlier, on the telephone with his HMO’s “triage counselor,” Phil Copeland tried to make an appointment to see a psychologist. Or a psychiatrist. Whichever one can write the prescriptions. Prescriptions for Less Crazy.

“I have an open appointment in three weeks that’s a group session or an appointment in four weeks that’s a solo session,” she said.

“These are desperate times,” he said.

“We’ll see you in three weeks, Mr. Copeland” and she ended the call.

“That was terrible decision-making,” he said to an empty room.

Three weeks later, the group session for people with anxiety was a total disaster. How could it not be? Ten of the twelve patients immediately admitted to experiencing intense anxiety in groups of ten or more people. They were terrified little animals, alternately fidgety, defensive and calculating the approximate damage that they’d suffer after leaping from the room’s one operable window. It was only the first floor, but those were very scratchy looking bushes.

During the session, each of them was supposed to tell a story illustrating how their anxiety affected daily life. One woman, Sharon, told the other participants that she hadn’t been on a date in three years because she always cancelled them at the last minute. Hers was a fear of meeting new people, a fear of intimacy and ultimately, a fear of rejection. She had no trouble making dates, she was very attractive, but she couldn’t ever bring herself to sit face to face with a strange new man and ask him about hope and hobbies. She glanced Phil’s way as she was finishing her story and he nodded thoughtfully at her, wrinkled his forehead to say yes Sharon, I understand your pain and wrote “Ask Sharon out, several times” in his notebook.

A thin, nervous man named Steve explained that he wakes up in the middle of the night, panicked, screaming and swinging his arms wildly, punching at any unfortunate body or furniture within his reach. He once lacerated his hand on a night-stand, he’s put his fist through the wall twice in as many weeks and he gave his last girlfriend a black eye. She refused to sleep over anymore, creating a distance between them that would never be shortened.

Another man named Harry refused to share any story or anecdote, saying only “Pass – I’ll pass” and then again “Ok thank you, I’ll pass” after the long uncomfortable silence and stares that followed. He stood up, put on his sunglasses and walked out of the room a few moments later. None of them expected to ever see him again though all of them wanted to call shotgun in his horrible little LeBaron.

Harry’s egress was followed by an exhausted librarian named Michelle, who told the group that she’d become suddenly and inexplicably terrified of the Dewey Decimal system after her mother died. She’d been misfiling books for months, her poor job performance compounding her anxiety and, ironically, making it impossible for her to find several self-help books that she desperately wanted to read.

Several more people told stories about how they were tense and anxious over simple, everyday decisions that are usually taken for granted. Answer the telephone or not answer the telephone. Tip the barista or don’t tip the barista. White shirt or blue shirt. Chicken or tofu, rice or noodles. Even though these things weren’t the cause of their anxiety, they teetered them near the edge of helplessness every day, guaranteeing that they’d never again sleepwalk through the banalities of this modern life.

And then it was Phil’s turn.

In his head, he told them about his trip to the dry cleaner last Friday. He stood there at the counter in front of Cheryl, the same rosey-cheeked woman that took and returned his clothes every week. She asked him, as she always did, if he still wanted light starch for his shirts. He opened his mouth to speak but all that came out of it was a hissing sound from the back of his throat that sounded exactly like the suction device that dentists use. Phil suddenly had no idea if he wanted light starch for his shirts.

This question, so benign, had short circuited his mind and left him paralyzed, no longer present with Cheryl or the two people in line behind him. He was told later by one of the paramedics that he stood in front of the counter, awake and perfectly still, for nearly twenty minutes. No one knew what to do with him, he didn’t respond to talking, yelling, light slaps to the face. A small crowd gathered after the ambulance arrived and Phil didn’t notice them until well after he’d regained his composure and said “Yes, I think light starch as usual” to a Cheryl that was now terrified, on the verge of tears. He left the dry cleaner, still dazed and clutching his soiled clothing, resolved to get help.

In his head, this is the story Phil told to the group session for people with anxiety and he smiled inside as everyone burst into thunderous applause. Steve gave him a high five. Harry drove by on the street outside, pumping his fist and honking his horn. Michelle gave him a thumbs up as she mouthed the words “Thank you, Phil” and Sharon, she fainted into his tan, muscular arms.

In his head, Phil turned a corner that day, unaware that in reality he was actually sitting frozen and vacant in front of eleven mortified strangers with anxiety disorders. They were invisible to him in a room that that was so silent, you could clearly hear the slow tick of the clock on the wall and a faint hissing noise that would sound familiar to several of them, though none could quite figure out why.

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