Full text of blogger Summer Beretsky’s talk: Anxiety: Hibernate, Adapt, or Migrate at TEDxWilliamsport conference.
Summer Beretsky – Blogger at Panic About Anxiety
I want to tell you why I have a stool here.
First thing I want to say, because I’m in front of a very large crowd, I have these lights shining down on me and I have panic disorder. I just wanted to throw that out there.
So this stool is my backup plan in case I get a little too lightheaded.
So I want to start off by saying that this is a story about giving up. Giving up is not always a bad thing. And I’d like to show you how today.
We heard a lot of speakers earlier talking about how they can help their communities. But you can’t help your community until you help yourself.
So who here has read ‘Catcher in the Rye’?
OK, we’re familiar with Holden Caulfield. Holden Caulfield’s big concern about Central Park, he would go there in the winter and he thought, where did the ducks go in the winter time?
That was one of the core Holden Caulfield thoughts of the book. He wondered what happened to these animals when they were suddenly in an environment that no longer supports them.
I wondered too, I read this book in high school and I took that thought with me to college. And at some point in college, I was watching some type of animal related documentary probably on Discovery Channel or whatnot.
And one part of that documentary stuck with me. They were talking about animals and they said that when an animal is in an environment in which they don’t feel supported, an environment that can’t support the animal, they can do one of three things:
They can hibernate like bears. They can adapt, like chameleons or they can migrate.
We’re animals too, as humans.
I want to tell you about my time working in a call center now. How many of you have called into a customer service call center? OK? Yeah, we’ve all done it. It’s a miserable experience, isn’t it?
It’s even more miserable for the people who are answering the phones. Let me tell you a couple things about call centers.
First of all, the physical environment is extremely stressful. It really is a cubicle farm, rows and rows of gray fabric lined cubicles.
You log into a phone queue, you put a headset on, kind of like this one. You answer the phone: “Thank you for calling customer service. My name is Summer. How can I help you? “
Over and over and over again. It’s algorithmic tasks all day long. If X, then Y, you follow scripts, you listen to people yell at you for things that you didn’t do wrong. But you have to help them with their problems. And this can be extremely draining for anybody.
So every time I walked into work in the morning, I would pass one of those inspirational motivational posters in every workplace across America.
And this particular one had a picture of a leaf on a tree and it said, never give up.
What, why, why a leaf? Why a leaf?
I pass this every day. And it really started to irritate me.
First of all, because I don’t like motivational posters, they do completely the opposite for me. I was walking into a call center, a place I didn’t really want to work at, but I was there because the economy wasn’t good.
I just finished grad school. I needed a job. But it wasn’t really fulfilling. So I saw the sign that said never give up. And I started thinking.
So it’s kind of an unfulfilling job, working in a call center. The environment did not support me. I eventually realized, but I hibernated.
I hibernated to that fact. I kept my eyes closed. I just tried to go in and out of each day trying to answer my phone calls, improve my average handle time. Because the average handle time, boy. and when you work in a call center, it’s all based on metrics.
They judge you. They judge the quality of your work and the quality of your personhood by numbers. You are scheduled by numbers. There’s an equation called Erlang–C part of queueing theory.
Mathematics dictates when you have to sit down at the phone every day, when you are allowed to get up and take a break, when you are allowed to go and have your lunch. And when you’re allowed to get up and go to the bathroom.
If you have to go to the bathroom at a call center, at a time when you’re not scheduled to go, you’re limited to five minutes.
So at some point, my eyes started opening. I can only hibernate there for so long. So eventually I woke up and I thought, this environment still is not supporting me. I have to try and adapt in some way. And so I tried.
Here’s how. I tried weaving myself into the call center culture. I did what I could. I really did what I could to try and be a good worker. I measured my self-worth by my average handle time.
I tried to climb through the ranks at work. I tried to go from a customer service representative level one to two to three. I tried to rise. I really tried to become part of the culture. And I tried to create a name for myself because I was getting tired of these algorithmic if X then Y tasks.
I wanted something challenging. And every day I continued to pass: “Never give up” — the little leaf on the tree.
And I kind of took that to heart. I thought, I really don’t like this job, but I’m going to try to adapt. I’m going to do what I can. And I’m going to see what happens.
Well, here’s the big paradox when it comes to adaptation. Adaptation sounds like a fine thing, right?
The environment doesn’t support you. So you kind of change a couple of things about yourself so that you can then adapt and feel good in the environment. OK. That’s fantastic. Sometimes.
But here’s the paradox part: Adaptation itself emphasizes the very fact that you didn’t quite fit in in the first place. And so that thought stayed with me.
Now let’s talk a little bit about my panic disorder, which is the reason this stool is here, just in case.
But I’m doing fine so far, so I’m thrilled. But it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had panic disorder for about 10 years now. And for those of you who aren’t familiar, panic disorder is basically the pathological recurrence of panic attacks to the point where you become so fearful of the next panic attack that you can’t leave your house.
I developed agoraphobia for a while, hasn’t been a good time. My very first panic attack was when I was in college, just down the street. I was in my dorm room at 2:30 a.m. and I laid down, and all of a sudden my body felt a little funny on the right side. And I’m a healthy 19 year old at this point.
But the first thing I thought was: “Is this a stroke…Oh my God. What’s going on here? What’s going on here?”
And my body felt kind of weird. And I got up and I started getting sweaty and nervous and I started thinking I am having a stroke, what’s going on with my body?