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The Anxious Client Reconsidered - Page 2

I had to agree that Sue was being more than a little abrasive, but as her former therapist, I was privy to information that the other patrons didn't have. It was clear to me that Sue was either in the midst of a panic attack or was trying desperately to stave one off. Her rudeness was simply a means of coping with her anxiety.

"If you can't seat us in a timely fashion..." she continued.

The host interrupted, "Allow me to see if we can set something up outside." He and another staff member cleared the doorway and in a few moments, Sue and her husband were seated in the windy courtyard.

To understand why Sue chose to dine in a stiff breeze, rather than in a cozy restaurant, it helps to examine the situation through her anxious eyes. In the shape she was in, Sue's primary concern was to avoid public embarrassment. The easiest way to do that was to become invisible. Hence, her original desire to be seated near the window. Not only were those seats on the periphery of the room away from most of the other diners, but they came with a reassuring view of the world she could escape into if panic overwhelmed her. But with no window tables available, Sue began agitating for an alternative that offered her even greater anonymity, and the opportunity to depart unobserved if the need arose. Sure it was chilly outside, but a little gooseflesh was a modest price for that kind of security.

Anxiety, as Sue and others experience it, is not only ever-present, it is ever-threatening. It is a phantom that steals their freedom. Living with panic attacks is like belonging to a street gang: one must always be on the alert for personal slights or threatening movements. Combating the phantom of anxiety requires constant vigilance over one's honor, status and territory. Everyday experiences, such as being seated in a restaurant, become crucial battlegrounds.

Anxiety attacks anything and everything in a person's life. Sometimes the targets are the mundane activities that others take for granted. At other times, it attacks more fundamental functions, such as one's ability to work or to love. We are used to thinking of people who are afraid to speak in public or to drive across a bridge as anxious. We are all familiar with a few stereotypical worrywarts. But anxiety influences a much broader range of behaviors. To the ordinary observer, people who are rude in a restaurant, obnoxious at their child's soccer game or overly exacting of their employees might seem simply self-centered. But often, these individuals are dealing with a wide variety of inner phantoms.

The novelist Stephen King understood this. In Delores Claiborne , his novel of domestic violence and sexual abuse, he has Vera explain to Delores: "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to." An anxiety disorder is not simply an enervating jumble of symptoms; it is an intensely circumscribed way of life.

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