I’m no stranger to stress. Or anxiety. Or worry. I have yet to meet anyone who is on the registry who doesn’t experience SOME level of stress, anxiety, and worry. I’ve been on the registry now for over 10 years, but until now, I’ve never experienced actual panic attacks.
I used to think that panic attacks were just the way people described their anxiety, perhaps when they were dealing with sever anxiety. But then I experienced the reality of a panic attack for myself. My heart raced as though I were having a heart attack. I found I couldn’t breathe. My world closed in on me, suffocating me, sending me spinning in a freefall of dread. And I couldn’t control it. All I could do was to wait for it to pass. Which it did. Eventually.
I recently started a new job. No, this isn’t what brought on my panic attack. I’ve been working part time at the university for seven years, so working there full time now was not that great of a stressor. My commute, however, is now two and half hours each way. Far longer than I had anticipated. But, no, that didn’t send me into panic mode, either. In fact, the commute, now that I’ve gotten used to it a bit, isn’t so bad. I sit on a train for an hour and 10 minutes, so I actually have an opportunity to read, get some work done, or write a blog entry, as I’m doing right now.
But because I started a new job, and because my commute is so incredibly long, I decided to think about moving. In the past 12 years, I’ve only moved once. It was just last year that I finally took the plunge and moved out of my late mother’s house where I had lived since my return from prison. I got very lucky. A co-worker had a great friend who had a place to rent, and this co-worker made the introduction and even handled the initial disclosure about my background issues. Any move is stressful, but all things considered, this move went about as well as any move can. I was lucky.
I thought perhaps I’d have similar luck this time. I mentioned to a co-worker in my new job that I was thinking about moving, and she immediately put me in touch with an organization she works with that helps people find apartments in the town she lives in, about seven miles from where I work. She made the introductions for me and even the initial disclosure to this organization. Turns out, though, that all this company really did was to provide me with listings in the area, and then send me off with a hearty, “Good luck.”
I actually went to look at two of the apartments. One was in an excellent location and was a decent apartment in a decent price range. But unlike the two-flat building I currently live in, this one was in an apartment complex. And that’s where the panic attacks began.
Disclosure, in my mind, is a given. I can’t imagine trying to rent an apartment without disclosing my background to the potential landlord. Oh, I know people do it. I’ve talked to a number of people who have told me that they believe it’s nobody else’s business. But for me, I couldn’t be comfortable knowing that at any moment the landlord might find out and make trouble. No, I’d rather put my cards on the table right up front than to live with the uncertainty
And it’s not like I haven’t had to tell people about my complicated past before. I’ve done it many times. Employers, co-workers, friends, colleagues. Despite my fear and apprehension, it almost always turns out for the best when I tell people. To be sure, they are disconcerted to learn my secret. They certainly don’t like or approve of what I did. But they know me today, and they judge me based on that rather than on my past.
So why am I so terrified to tell potential landlords? Why does the very thought of it bring on a panic attack, cause my heart to race, force me into labored breathing? I suppose my over-active imagination is part of it. I imagine an angry landlord rising from his or her chair, ordering me out the office, telling me that they don’t rent to perverts like me. Understand, this has NEVER happened to me, despite the many times I’ve disclosed. And yet, the fear that it could, lingers like a persistent cough after a bad cold.
But I don’t think it’s the fear from my imagination of how the landlord might react. I mean, really, what do I care what some person I just met, who I will likely never meet again, thinks about me or says to me? Uncomfortable? Of course. Panic-worthy? Hardly
I think, for me, the panic belies a deep-seated shame that I’ve yet to fully deal with, and that I really have no idea how to deal with. I’ve come so far since my offense, since my incarceration, since completion of a hellish two-year parole. I’ve maintained employment non-stop for over 10 years. I’ve completed a master’s degree, then got accepted into a doctoral program (which I’ve nearly completed). I currently run a non-profit organization, and a business that I started recently that already has 12 employees. I’ve made friends, strengthened my relationship with family, and I’ve built a reputation as an honest, trustworthy, hardworking, friendly, lovable person. And all of this is not just inconsistent with, but is the antithesis of who I am when I have to put my head down, hold back the tears, and admit that I am a registered sex offender. But it’s not even that. Being a registered sex offender is a label thrust upon me by the state. No, the real shame comes in admitting that I am a person who commit a sexual offense. Sure, that was a long time ago. And sure, I’m not the same as I was then. I’ve learned too much, come to understand only too well the pain I caused with my selfish behavior. I honestly believe I will never do that again, because I never want to be the person who hurts another person like that again.
But the fact remains that I AM the person who did that so many years ago. And for me, the shame rages on, simmering below the surface of the life I’ve created since then. This shame bubbles to the surface each time I have to humble myself to another human being, admitting what I did and who I am, reminding me that no matter how much good I’ve done since then, I’ll always be the person who committed such an atrocity.
And that, above all, is what brings on the panic attacks—panic attacks so strong that I’ve become immobilized, afraid to look at apartments, or even think about moving. And for the first time in many years, I simply don’t know what to do.