A friend sat outside the school one day after recess, breathing hard, trembling, and the fear in his eyes was disconcerting.
The other kids, his classmates, scurried back to class, but none stopped as he huddled against the brick wall of the elementary school, hoping no one would notice him.
He had been playing touch football earlier, and I thought he was probably just winded, slightly out of breath. I stopped and asked if he was OK. He shook his head.
When I bent down, I saw the soft skin under his eyes were bloated and swollen, not like a boxer who had taken blows to the face, but a gentle puffiness, more like a person who had taken blows to his soul.
He was tearful and scared, and his look gray and dull.
My friend was embarrassed. He was in trouble. I asked if he was sick. He said he wasn’t sure, and didn’t know what was happening to him.
“I just feel very strange. My heart is racing, and my hands feel really sweaty,” he said. “I can’t stop trembling.”
We shared the next class together so I knew we could spend a few more minutes in the fresh air. We talked about the catch he had made a few minutes earlier on the playground’s football field.
“It was good thing the bell rang when it did, the big tackle looked like he was going to knock your head off your shoulders,” I said.
He smiled. He was trembling less, and his eyes were regaining their brightness and focus. He said he felt better and believed he could go on to class.
We stopped at the water fountain and both took a deep swallow. I suggested he rub some cold water across his face. He did. He said the coolness made him feel better.
Later that day, I arrived home from school and told my mother what had happened to my friend after recess.
“My guess is he was suffering from nerves,” she said. “Many people have nervous illness.”
Mom told me her generation used to call the ailment “nerves”, and doctors had recommended getting plenty of sunlight, plenty of sleep every night, and staying busy to help counteract feeling anxious.
“It’s called anxiety now,” Mom said.
My friend and I had lunch together the next day. He said he was feeling better, but the strange feelings had frightened him. “I just felt so unreal and overwhelmed.”
My curiosity was piqued. The next day I found a book on anxiety at the library. I was just in middle school, and very little was understood about the causes and treatment of tension and stress.
The subject was fascinating to me. I read everything I could find on the study of anxiety.
My interest has continued for over 50 years. The advancement made in the treatment of panic disorders and anxiety over the last three decades is remarkable.
The young classmate is, of course, an adult now. We see each other often, and have remained good friends.
During our school years we never talked about the panic attack he suffered, but we speak openly about it now.
“Do you remember the books you recommended to me?” he asked.
“I sure do. ‘Hope and Help for Your Nerves and Peace from Nervous Suffering,’ by Dr. Claire Weekes,” I said. “Her books were written many years ago, but are still relevant today. She was before her time, and was considered by some to be the pioneer of modern anxiety treatment via Cognitive Therapy.”
Dr. Weekes’ book teaches how to learn to let an anxious thought float, to accept it, and pass through it, no matter how uncomfortable. Acceptance, not fighting anxiety, is the key, Dr. Weekes wrote.
“Would you consider writing an article about anxiety?” my friend asked me a few weeks ago. “I think it might help a lot of people who suffer from it.”
A disclaimer is in order here. Neither my friend or I are therapists or physicians, nor should our story be considered anything other than informational.
For anyone suffering from anxiety, it is important to contact your physician for professional evaluation and care.
He said he still re-reads Dr. Weekes books, and watches her videos on YouTube. In his case, these talks help him on his journey.
We hope they can help others.
Pat Haley is a former Clinton County Commissioner and former Clinton County Sheriff.