TEDx Draft #1

Hey blog readers! As you may know, a while back I auditioned for and got a spot in a TEDx conference this fall. My talk is on anxiety disorders and panic attacks. I'm working on my first draft, which is due in exactly a week. I'm going to post it here and hope that maybe some of you will be able to give me some constructive feedback. If you've read all of my blog then some of this may be quite redundant, but I think (hope) that's ok. Thanks guys!

Hello, my name is Alison Sommer and I suffer from an anxiety disorder. I have a form of OCD that causes me to feel frightened and anxious when something unexpected or “wrong” happens, like somebody sitting in my normal seat at the table, and that also causes intrusive thoughts about things I’ve done or might do, things that could happen by chance or because other people are secretly plotting against me. As you could expect these intrusive thoughts are also quite anxiety producing. This anxiety can trigger different emotional and physical responses, one of which is the panic attack, but I’ll get to that a bit later.

One thing that makes me so hyper aware of the effects of my OCD, and makes me determined to spread awareness of effects of anxiety disorders on those of us who suffer from them, is that life wasn’t always this way for me. As far as I can remember, I have always been an obsessive-minded person. I will find a... thing, good or bad, and roll it over in my head over and over. I’ve also always been somewhat shy and socially awkward. And I know a lot of you are probably thinking “yeah, me too” because there a ton of shy people in the world, and most of us all have our own little obsessions. 

I don't know if there’s a scale for being a quiet, awkward, and obsessive, but I always felt near the high end of the range. "weirdo" and "freak" were labels I happily accepted as a teenager. When most girls were into the Backstreet Boys, I was in to Star Wars. And once, when I got in trouble (for what I can’t remember) and my Star Wars stuff was taken away from me, I felt like the world had collapsed.

And I’d had on and off issues with anxiety and depression for a long time. Depression and anxiety go hand in hand, like two best friends who like to corner a third person and make them feel like shit. So for a long time, most of my life really, I was an anxious, obsessive, at times depressed girl, and that was life, and that was normal. And I started going to sci-fi conventions and realized there were lots of people like me. I was just your average anxiety/depression story with some obsessive behavior thrown in for good measure.

Then I got a really bad concussion. That's when my brain took the nose dive from normal don't-worry-it-runs-in-the-family crazy, to scary crazy. That's when the intrusive thoughts started to get louder and louder. And it was bad. Really, really bad. I was angry all the time, mostly at my husband, but my road rage was also pretty epic. And while I was being an ass to other people, I also was being an ass to myself. I wasn't eating, I was down to a size 0 and still wondering if I could get smaller. And the scary thing is, in my head *I* was doing everything right, *I* was kicking ass. I judged the crap out of everybody I saw. Deep down, I knew something was wrong, but I fought the idea that it was me. My marriage was going through the shitter, I wasn't sleeping, and just the thought of changing my habits, any of my habits, would give me panic attacks. Panic attacks are one of the scariest manifestations of anxiety.

For people who've never had a panic attack, I've got to assume the name of it sounds kind of... lame. We all have moments of panic. "Did I leave the car running?" "omg, my kid just bolted into the road!" "I'm totally going to get fired." But none of those are panic attacks. 

The Mayo Clinic's website says that a panic attack “is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.” That gives you the general idea, but what does it really feel like? I’m going to try to show you.

I'm doing something pretty normal, but overall it's probably either a stressful day, like a day where I visit a doctor, have to do a performance evaluation, or pack for a vacation. I start to feel off, I know something's not quite right. I'm getting tingly. The tingling numbness creeps up my neck and all over my face, seeping into my head. I feel dizzy. I think maybe I didn't eat enough today and I grab for whatever food may be at hand. A piece of candy, a handful of crackers. My head is feeling fuzzy so I sit down. 

Although sometimes a small part of me thinks of seizures or heart attacks, I know better. I know it's a mounting panic attack when my heart starts beating harder. Not fast really, just... hard. Like the heartbeat in the background of a horror film. The panic is raising in my throat, pressing on my chest. I'm already starting to get scared. No, no, not again, not now, not here. The right medicine right now might cut it off here, bring the crescendo back down. But even the right medicine doesn't always work.

I don't want to move, but it's impossible to sit still. I want to be frozen but somehow my body just won't listen. I pace. I lash out. If I try to hold it all in I twitch. Then the tears come. Broken dry cries. Weak angry shrieks break through, while my brain screams shut up shut up shut up. I can't really cry a real cry, something that may be cathartic. It all gets caught in my throat and in my head.

I get angry. At this feeling, at myself, at anybody. I want it to end. I want to smash my skull in and make it end. Sometimes I can't hold back and I pound my head with my fists, or hit it on the floor. Just enough to hurt. It feels like relief for a moment to have physical pain.

I crave physical pain. Cuts, burns, bruises.  Then that scares me more and I stare at my shelf filled with pill bottles. I could take them all. I could end it forever. But I don't. Real tears come now. Slow, sad tears. Now I can lie still and cry and breath and wait for it all to be over. And eventually it ends. It always does. And I'm tired. But I'm still here, and with my sanity coming back, and my head clearing, I'm grateful. It's always stops eventually.

This is not an easy thing to live with, knowing it could strike at any moment, at home, at work, at the tattoo parlor. And most people don’t talk about it, but a lot of people go through this. After I first posted to my blog about panic attacks I had people contacting me from all corners of my life to share their experiences. It seems like everything these days has an “awareness” day or month, a ribbon or a picture you can share on facebook. Well, this is my panic attack awareness effort. Hopefully now you know a little more about what they really are.

As for me, my husband did finally get me to see a doctor. As it turned out, my anxiety and obsessive tendencies had been basically given steroids and I was diagnosed with severe OCD and we started the dance of trying to find that perfect balance of meds and therapy. We're still figuring it out. I still have panic attacks. And blogging about it and talking about it have become part of my therapy. If you or somebody you know has an anxiety disorder, speak out, get help, offer help. because there are more of us out there than you might think.


  1. I felt as though you were speaking my thoughts... Bravo to you for being so strong to share your story!!

  2. Very helpful and informative.

  3. Overall, I think it flows well and conveys good information in a natural and interesting way. You paint a very vivid picture for people who don't really know what panic attacks are and do a good job of telling how one disorder can chain into several others.
    Only one sentence stood out to me and felt like it could use some polishing (for two reasons): "One thing that makes me so hyper aware of the effects of my OCD, and makes me determined to spread awareness of effects of anxiety disorders on those of us who suffer from them, is that life wasn’t always this way for me." I can't explain exactly why but it felt like a high school awkwardness to start the second paragraph with 'One thing'. I can be overruled and it may sound more natural with you saying it instead of reading it but I thought I would point it out since I noticed.
    The other part was that you said 'life wasn't always this way for me' and then went on to describe what sounded like problems you'd had all your life and I was confused about where the normal life was. Maybe change it to 'life wasn't always this extreme' or 'life has gotten harder' or 'life didn't always need to be medicated'. Something that indicates that you had the same issues but that they were milder and manageable earlier in life.

    1. Thank you, Katie!! I really appreciate the feedback.