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The story of skipped school, a sweet treat and a step-by-step escape from the dark room of fear

In the right situation, a strawberry shake can work wonders.
Kevin Woster
In the right situation, a strawberry shake can work wonders.

This is probably about as close as I’ll ever get to writing a self-help book.

It’s more like a self-help column, although I’m not sure who it’ll help, other than me and maybe the ice-cream business.

Are you ready? Here we go: strawberry shakes.

I mean, not a bunch of strawberry shakes. Just one. At a time.

Ideally, they would come from the Bridgette Drive-In in Chamberlain right on U.S. Highway 16 where it crosses the Missouri River. Except that the Bridgette is long gone, replaced by one business or another over the years, none of them, as far as I can recall, serving strawberry shakes.

That was my self-prescribed treatment for agoraphobia and panic attacks, long before I knew what either of those things was.

I just knew I was a teenager who barely left the house or yard for most of a year, because when I did I felt like I was going to die.

Of what, I wasn’t sure. But I got light headed. My stomach churned. My heart raced. I felt flushed. Everything around me lost its edges. Got soft, and fuzzy, unreal. I felt like I was going to pass out. Or something. Something awful.

I never died. I never even passed out. But if I happened to be three or four blocks from home, or 10, and “the thing” hit, I ran home in a state of panic, arriving breathless and overwrought, announcing to my mom and dad: “It’s happening again!” Or something like that.

After some time in the house, with the security of my parents nearby, things sharpened up again. Reality returned.

Chased by anxiety out into the hills

What did all that mean? My parents didn’t know. Neither did the family doc we saw. And, frankly neither did the psychiatrist I had seen a few years earlier when my fears were leading me to sneak out of school and head for the hills, literally — “the hills” being the Missouri River breaks, which were just beyond the railroad tracks to the east of the school in Chamberlain.

The tracks could take you north back into town or south and west to the Missouri River and the railroad bridge, where a scared kid might hang out for a while and collect himself. I always headed south, maybe to hide out until lunchtime or after school.

Or I’d just head straight home. Or never leave home for school at all. More and more as the weeks and months went by I did that. I didn’t go to school at all, causing inestimable stress on my bewildered parents, the depth of which I could only really understand years later when I became a parent myself.

Misery. It must have been pure misery for them.

At the time, though, I was a scared kid who could only focus on himself and his own form of misery.

How did I get to that point so early in life? I don’t know now. I didn’t know then. Nobody did, really. I was considered a “nervous boy,” to use the vernacular of the time. Although some, I think, just thought I was spoiled. Mostly by my mom, I guess the story went. She was “nervous,” too, and had “nerve pills” prescribed by our family doc.

Maybe I was both nervous and spoiled, I don’t know. But if I was spoiled, it sure wasn’t much fun. I was miserable most of the time, wishing I could be “normal” like my friends. Like just everybody else, I thought. The thing was, I liked school. I was good at classwork. I liked my teachers. I think they liked me. I got along well with the kids and had plenty of friends.

It was a lot more complicated than a bully at school

There wasn’t a bully at school, as the psychiatrist in Sioux Falls insisted was my problem. I said there wasn’t. Again and again. He persisted. That had to be it. Eventually, I said, “well, yeah, maybe. Maybe there is a bully.”

I got tired of being pestered about it. So I gave him what I thought he wanted, something I would later come to consider as an “ah-hah!” moment. Or in the style of a Hollywood drama many years later, a “Good Will Hunting moment.”

If you saw the movie, you know that the brilliant, tough young Bostonian played by Matt Damon finally erupts into sobs of release when his counselor, played by Robin Williams, keeps repeating “It’s not your fault.”

I didn’t get the equivalent of “It’s not your fault, Will” from the psychiatrist, or anyone else. I wasn’t brilliant, and I wasn’t that tough. And there would be no moment of epiphany for me and my family. There wasn’t any bully, either, except the one inside of me that made me scared to go to school, for reasons I still don’t understand.

I just couldn’t go. When I went, I often couldn’t stay.

Maybe it was genetics. Maybe it was being spoiled. Maybe it was just bad luck. Maybe it was that concussion I got in the second grade. Things were pretty normal up until then. Real normal, compared to what they would become.

It happened during recess. I was running with my pals when I tripped and fell, hitting my head on the thick metal support pole of a set of swings. I didn’t remember hitting the pole. I don’t know how long I was out. I just remember sort of coming around lying on my back with the faces of my friends looming above me.

Then I remember bits and pieces in the classroom, not being able to follow the lines in a workbook, being sent home by the teacher with another student to make sure I got there safely. (A move that would probably cause quite a furor today.)

The brain injury was the start of a tough stretch

I don’t remember who walked me home. But I got there. I went up to the east door of our house, the one we rarely used, and knocked. My mom answered and knew right away something was wrong.

I don’t remember much about that day. I think there was a trip to the doctor. And I remember lying down a lot and Mom waking me up whenever I’d start to drift off to sleep.

It’s probably coincidental that the concussion happened not long before things started to get tougher for me, in life and especially in school.

Lots of kids have concussions without becoming “nervous kids.” It all probably would have happened anyway. But you wonder.

Also, there was a tough stretch coming, and not just from the traumatic brain injury. Over the next five years or so I would also break my right arm three times. One was a simple break of my forearm just above the wrist that happened when I fell out of a willow tree in Danny Wieczorek’s backyard across the street from our house in Chamberlain. But the other two were more complicated.

I broke my arm once throwing a rock at a duck at the North Dam on our farm. I knew I broke it. I heard it pop. And I’d never had pain like that. But it was hard to convince my family, or the medical folks at the hospital in Chamberlain.

Break your arm throwing a rock? Come on.

When Doc Holland examined me, he discovered right away that I dislocated my shoulder, and figured that was the problem. It was just part of it. When he wrenched the shoulder in a way I didn’t know it could go, it popped back in place. I broke into a sweat. But the pain didn’t stop as he had predicted.

Rocks and baseballs and broken arms, oh my!

So he ordered an x-ray that showed I’d broken the main bone in my upper arm, the humerus, which was no laughing matter, especially to me.

I did the same thing a few years later throwing a baseball. That time I didn’t dislocate my shoulder but I did damage the radial nerve that controls movement of the hand and fingers. So I had “wrist drop” for months, where I could sort of squeeze the fingers of my limp hand but couldn’t raise the hand or the fingers.

Doctors later would suggest that the breaks from throwing were caused by a weak spot in my humerus. They talked about a variety of surgical options that all involved a far-away hospital and procedures that included drilling out the weak spot, replacing it with bone chips and maybe implanting a rod in my humerus. I decided to give up baseball instead and limit my throwing with my right hand.

So far, that has worked. When I played catch with my kids, I never threw as hard as I could and often threw sidearm, trying to avoid the overhand arc and extension that creates perilous stress on the bone. Even tossing a football involved some careful calculation of my motion.

Back after that third break, I had months of physical therapy with a PT specialist (yeah, they had some way back then) who drove out from Mitchell for sessions at the Chamberlain hospital. They included an electric-shock stimulation of the nerve in my arm using a device with a sponge on the tip that was dipped in water. It seemed and often felt a little barbaric to me, but I liked and trusted the PT guy.

With that jolting experience and twice-daily exercises at home I eventually got so I could raise my hand and use my fingers, mostly. They never came back 100 percent, especially when I try to fully raise my hand and extend my fingers upward.

Sure the hand isn’t 100 percent, but it can still type!

But the hand and fingers are good enough for most things, including typing. With that and a bit of a gift for gab, I would get the only job I ever loved and was ever very good at doing.

I wasn’t done with childhood injuries, however. Somewhere mixed in among the broken arms, I cut off the tip of my index finger down to the bone throwing the bottom of a broken pop bottle into the gully by our house. Sliced it off with almost-surgical precision. I knew it was more than a simple cut when I looked down and saw the bone.

At the hospital, Doc Holland — whom my mom always praised for skills developed in emergency medical situations during the Korean War — did his thing with a scalpel and sutures. He cut a chunk out of my left palm just below the thumb and sewed it onto my right index finger, filling the hole. For a quick graft done by a family doctor, it has worked pretty well over the years. About the only lingering effect is that the tip of my index finger is hyper sensitive to cold and gives a strange-looking fingerprint

Then there were the intestinal ailments, including the “nervous’ stomach. They led to a succession of tests (Ever had a barium enema? I had several. They’re a, um, blast.) and various trips to doctors and clinics and hospitals from Chamberlain to Minneapolis. All that stuff either kept me out of school or, with casts and bandages and partially functioning arms or hands or fingers — ended my piano lessons for good and complicated school work when I was there.

Home became more of a refuge. And school became a stranger, more-intimidating place, especially since you had to go and stay all day. I struggled to do that, more and more. And in the 7th grade, I just stopped going altogether. I did enough home study with teachers hired for a few hours here and there by my parents to keep the truant officer (speaking symbolically) away.

Out the back door, across the back yard, into the alley and …

It was about then that “the thing” started. And I got more and more isolated, finally reaching the point during one long, isolated, emotionally desolate period where I barely left the house or yard. A few friends would stop by once in a while to talk or join me in the back yard to shoot baskets. But I didn’t join them on trips around town.

Nobody knew what was going on inside my head or how to help. There were no therapists in or around Chamberlain. And, of course, no “online” options for research or connections with professionals or people with similar issues. Psychiatrists were few and far away in South Dakota. And I was hesitant to see another one after my earlier “bully at school” experience.

So I read, watched TV, did some schoolwork, shot baskets in the backyard and worried and wondered what would become of me. Then one day for reasons I can’t recall, I decided that was enough. I had to figure out a way to get out of a comfort zone that was really not that comfortable at all.

I decided to make my escape one step at a time, out the back door, across the backyard, through the hedge and out into the gravel alley. I liked the alley plan because it was discreet. I could try and fail there and probably not be seen.

That first day, all I wanted to do was walk down the gravel alley to a cross alley between where my friend Bill Brown lived in one house and my friend Gary Johnson lived in another. Then I would walk west to River Street, one of the two main north-south streets in Chamberlain.

From there I figured I could walk around the block. And I did. No, wait, a period isn’t enough punctuation for that. I mean to say “And I did!”

Consider it the Super Bowl of around-the-block walks

Most people would laugh at how good that one-block walk made me feel. And they’d probably laugh at how exciting it was for me that in the coming days I expanded it to two blocks and then three, a couple of times a day.

I had begun to escape the cave of our house and pen of our backyard.

Sometimes on those short walks things would get fuzzy, my breath would get short and my heart would start to race. I don’t remember cutting my walks short, but I think I did, a couple of times. Then I went out again, and again. And sometime in the next week or two, I got the strawberry shake idea.

What if I walked to the Bridgette? It was six or seven blocks away, down the alley, north on River Street, past the two gullies on both sides of the street and the city water plant, down to the Highway 16 bridge.

It would be the longest walk I’d made in my plan to resume my place in the world. But more than the distance, it was the exposure. I had come by this time to be perceived by some, maybe many, in town as a bit of a freak. I knew that and felt that, and perhaps enlarged that perception in my mind.

After months of isolation that most people in a small town would know about, I would be exposed on the relatively busy River Street. But on that stretch I would also be in full view of the river — a comforting, reassuring view. And, oh, how I’d missed the river. It had been so close and so far for months.

How far was the walk? Half a mile, maybe, or a little less.

No, no, not the spider thing; it’s something else

That seemed like a lot at the time. But what seemed like a lot more was the idea of spending my life locked inside the dark room of my own anxiety, even thought at that time we didn’t use words like “anxiety.” And we sure didn’t use terms like “panic attack” or “agoraphobia,” which should not be confused with arachnophobia.

One is an extreme fear of spiders. The other is a fear of leaving comfortable environments. I don’t have the first. In fact, I like spiders. I do have the second. But these days my comfort zone includes all of South Dakota and most of the surrounding states.

Drop me off in Chicago or Dallas, however, and I’ll get a little woozy. And maybe a little panicky.

As a kid, I didn’t know what it was called. I just knew what it was doing to me. And I hated it. So I tried, and made it to the Bridgette on my first attempt. I celebrated accordingly with a strawberry shake.

After that there would be more walks to the Bridgette and more strawberry shakes. And eventually I’d find myself out around town on foot with friends again, or riding bikes, or heading for the river with fishing poles in hand.

It would be great to say that because of that first walk to the Bridgette and that first strawberry shake I solved my psychological issues and went on to live a life free of psychological challenges. But that’s not true. It usually doesn’t work that way. It sure didn’t for me.

I got a driver’s license. I got a GED. I went to SDSU. I worked at the school paper. I learned journalism. I got jobs in journalism. They were good jobs that gave me an adequate income and professional meaning in my life. I had friends and a family and kids and grandkids. And mostly, I’ve been happy and have led a good life.

It depends on what you call normal

Normal? Well, probably not. During a particularly rough stretch in college I was a self-commit to three psyche wards in two states in one year. In each one, I learned a lot about myself and a lot about living with psychological disorders.

I think that has made me more sensitive to challenges other people face. I hope so.

I think it has helped my journalism. I hope so.

But it has hurt my journalism sometimes, too. It can be hard to focus on the complexities of a governor’s news conference when you’re trying to suppress a panic attack that came on for no apparent reason. It can be difficult to get the most out of a legislative committee hearing when you spend part of it in the security of a restroom stall down the hall, quietly trying to slow your heart rate and assure yourself you aren’t dying.

It can lead to frustration and mood swings that can complicate relationships, personal and professional. It can also lead, I think, to places of creativity and compassion that I might not have reached otherwise.

It helps a great deal to have people who love you and understand, or try to. And I’ve always had that, going all the way back to that 2nd-grade concussion, and before.

Yes, a good family helps, a great deal. Good friends help. Good poetry helps. Wild places and wild things help. Faith and prayer and a supportive church community help. Exercise helps. Good therapy helps. And my journalism helps.

In the right situation, a sweet treat can help, too.

And for me, there’ll never be another one quite so sweet as that strawberry shake at the Bridgette — the one that brought me back to the world again.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.