I expected this to be a much different post. I expected to write about what a good time I had hanging out with friends and talking about literature and meeting new readers. But that is not what happened with my second experience at Dragon*Con.
First, a little background. Some of you already know about my accident, but for those who don’t, in 1989 I was struck in the head by an 8 lb. shotput. I suffered a concussion, brain contusion, and brain swelling. Fortunately, the only major long-term effects from this injury have been sensitivity to light, a shift in my internal clock, a little difficulty recalling specific words at will, and disorientation in crowded places. I’ve learned to live with all of these and typically function without any trouble. However, on top of this, ever since my children left my home, I’ve also dealt with some anxiety issues. It’s never been terribly serious, but occasionally I get rather anxious for no discernible reason. The feelings will sometimes linger anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but they’ve never been so bad I couldn’t handle them.
On Thursday night, my disorientation in a crowd and the anxiety combined to create a rather unpleasant experience. I had decided to arrive on Thursday so I could pick up my badge and find the areas where I would be before the crowd arrived on Friday. Let me emphasize here, I had been to Dragon*Con before in 2009, so I pretty well knew what to expect. I had seen the lobbies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. I had waded through the Atrium level of the Marriott to reach a panel on time. I knew what was coming. I just didn’t expect it on Thursday night and was caught off guard.
It started as I walked my friend Andi Judy, who was gracious enough to offer me a place to crash for the weekend, to the Sheraton to pick up her badge. At about 8:30 or so Thursday night, the line for badges wrapped around the block. She assured me she would be okay in line, so I left and walked a couple of blocks over to the Marriott to pick up my badge. There were few people on the street, and even fewer when I entered the lower level of the hotel, so I figured there had just been some snafu at the regular registration, which had created a log jamb. As I rode the escalator up to the lobby level, I was not prepared for a crowd, so when I saw the lobby packed like a Saturday night, it was like a sucker punch to the gut.
I had to cross the lobby to find the hallway I needed, so I turned left and walked around the edge of the crowd, trying to avoid all the commotion. It’s the chaotic motions and sounds of a crowd that disorient me. It’s too much to process at once, and my brain kind of shorts out, which is hard to describe. I literally (not figuratively) feel confused and lost, even in places I know well but especially on unfamiliar territory. By the time I reached the far side of the lobby, I just needed out of there, so I blindly turned down a hallway to get away from the crowd. Luckily, I had turned down the right hallway and found where I needed to get my badge. That area was quiet and peaceful, so I leveled out and felt okay.
After that, I had to go up one level to find the Young Adult Literature Track. The Atrium Level was twice as packed as the lobby, and I thought I remembered where the panel rooms were, but navigating the crowd and finding the hallway pushed me a shade beyond my limit. That’s when the anxiety started. I had never experienced the disorientation and anxiety together, but it was not pleasant. I hung around the YA Track mixer for as long as I could handle it, which was about five minutes, and then headed for the exit. Unfortunately, I had to go through the crowd again to get outside. I went through the first doorway marked exit I found and ended up on a dimly lit stairwell outside. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, and I was in one of those urban dead zones where I had no phone signal.
I had never experienced a full-blown panic attack before, so at first, I had no idea what was happening to me. That only made things worse. It was one of the three or four scariest moments of my life. I’m not used to feeling overwhelmed or intimidated by a moment, and I’ve been through some heavy stuff. It took at least thirty minutes to pull myself back together, and when I finally did, I continued to tremble for hours. I made my way back to the Sheraton to find Andi, who was still outside in line (at least an hour and a half later), and waited with her until we got inside. Outside, with everyone moving in the same direction, I was fine, The moment we stepped inside and there were people moving in every direction, the disorientation started again, so I found a quiet corner and waited.
The next morning, when Andi and I returned to the Marriott, I had hoped to find the other tracks I was to participate in and be prepared to move from one hotel to the other relatively efficiently. While the lobby wasn’t as crowded as the previous night, it was still pretty crowded and hectic. Andi was working as a volunteer for the show, so I was on my own again, and maybe things would have been different if I had been with someone to help me navigate. As it was, alone and disoriented in downtown Atlanta, I found myself unable to go anywhere. I just sat down on the steps outside and watched the cosplayers walk by, and that’s when I realized things were only going to keep getting more crowded and more hectic all weekend. Though it was a difficult choice to make, I decided to leave the convention and head home. I’ve never bailed on a convention before, even some that probably should have been left.
I feel like I let a lot of people down, especially Andi, who was expecting me to be with her to and from the train station, but also my friends and readers at the show, my publisher, the college, and myself. I’m sorry. It was simply too much for me, and that’s not easy for me to admit. I feel embarrassed that I couldn’t pull myself together enough to get through the weekend and that the anxiety overwhelmed me so completely. In my mind, I should be stronger than the emotions, but the reality is that large crowds are too much for me to handle. I have to accept the facts and not put myself in situations like that again. For everyone I disappointed this weekend, please accept my deepest apologies.