It was the morning of my first panic class, and all I could think about was…

…What do you wear to therapy?

I was trying to pick my “outfit”. I didn’t want to dress up, business pants or a skirt and blouse – God forbid I look like a teacher’s pet; I’ve had enough of that accusation, thank you. What if everyone in this group were sick because they lived in tough circumstances? What if they were all run-down and exhausted, working three jobs or homeless or unable to afford new clothes? I didn’t want to look more privileged than them, attracting hostility or jealousy or judgment, I didn’t want to flaunt anything, I didn’t want to be the special kid, dear God I wanted to blend in, to fit in. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, goodness, I was working three part-time jobs, living at low rent with my boyfriend, refusing to shop at Metro or Superfresh because No Frills was cheaper by 50 cents a pound.

No, no, no! I shouted at myself. What’s the matter with you? These people could be successful CEOs with crippling stress. They could be fancy. They could be really smart. They could be soup kitchen volunteers who save kittens. You don’t want to look like a hooligan. And it’s not like you have to work lifting boxes or scouring toilets. You save everything for grad school – that’s the real reason you’re potentially slightly below average.

It was January. I settled on jeans with a nice sweater. I felt awkward, the way I always do when I can’t find a satisfactory combination (see, I said, – you have enough clothes to have this problem, grow a spine).

Settling into the windowless classroom/meeting room – a whiteboard, 90%-of-the-floor-space table type setup – I waited. I was the first one there.

The participants trickled in, one by one. There were about 10 of them. This being Toronto, they were of all shapes and sizes. A stranger looking in could not have classified us in any particular way, save perhaps that many of us looked a bit shoulder hunched, as if our shyness made us prepared for an aerial attack. Oh, and that no one looked comfortable.

In walked the instructors. They had a rolling briefcase that looked like it could survive a drop from the top of the building. Fearless leader-wise, CAMH seems to have one rule and one trend. A) One man and one woman are required. B) One of them tends to be a PhD candidate or clinical student doing research or a practicum. Group structure-wise, CAMH has one other rule: hour one for homework and tell-me-about-your-week, hour two for new stuff and practice.

Introductions in a group of strangers, who all have trouble with anxiety and look about ready to bolt and forget the whole thing, is like being an icebreaker ship, cracking thin, thin glassy ice covered in polar bear cubs while balancing teacups on your head. I have no envy for the leaders in panic disorder CBT.

But what came out was how incredibly normal all of the participants were. Most of them had fairly normal lives, with jobs, coffee starved mornings, and sofas. I was certainly the youngest. About half had children and families of their own. Most had had panic attacks for years, even decades.

Panic disorder CBT remained awkward, for the whole semester, but I lost the sense of being separate. There was no other more normalizing experience. By the time that I met my friend on the streetcar, on the way to class, it felt completely natural to say, “Oh, I’m just off to get CBT”; I had forgotten it wasn’t a weekly part of other people’s lives. It really was just normal. It was relieving. It was company.


2 thoughts on “It was the morning of my first panic class, and all I could think about was…

    1. ardentmarbles Post author

      In my reasonable brain, I knew that mental illness is a pretty normal thing, and it can and most certainly does affect anyone and everyone.
      But when it came down to going to a group to meet people, even though I was sick myself, I had all these stereotypes in my head, and prejudices. Stereotypes are infectious, it seems. I’m not exactly proud that I thought this way. But there you go.
      I wonder, often, if mental illness stigma isn’t really about the illness itself, but the perception that everyone who is sick are homeless layabouts. (Not that people who are homeless ARE layabouts).


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