ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and Conventions

Reader R writes:

Dear Wil,

I wonder if you could give me some advice. My daughter Ella is 10 years old and is really getting into Star Trek, particularly Voyager and DS9. She’s even started drawing her own fan fic comic about Odo and Quark. So we thought we’d take her to a con.

The problem is, she has ADHD and mood disorder, and me and my husband both have depression/anxiety. So places that are crowded and have lots of long lines are hard for us, collectively.

I’m wondering if you can recommend a con that’s particularly well-run so that we can help our daughter enjoy the experience. We understand that we’ll have to manage waits ourselves, we won’t get help like we do at Disney World, but I can imagine that some cons are completely packed with people and it would be hard to find a quiet space to give Ella a break from the crowds or a food vendor that can serve us in a reasonable amount of time.

Any advice you have would be appreciated. I imagine you’ve developed mad skills for surviving a con while anxious.

Oh, and we live on the east coast (came to your NY show with Paul and Storm–awesome!) so a show on this side of the country would be great. And if there are games there, so much the better.

I have both  anxiety and depression, and a combination of medication and therapy helps me deal with the lovely* things they do to me. When I’m at a convention, if I start to feel that overwhelming feeling of being trapped in the trash compactor, I can duck out into a quiet place until I’m able to get C-3P0 to shut down the power on that level, but if someone has spent time and money to get to a con, that’s probably not something they want to do.

I don’t really have a good answer for R, but I thought that maybe some of you who read my blog may have personal experience that you could share about dealing with mental health issues when you’re at a con.

 

*and by ‘lovely’, I mean ‘not lovely at all’.

144 thoughts on “ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and Conventions”

  1. My wife as anxiety and depression, which even though she takes medication for both she still gets overwhelmed in crowds. Last year we went to our first con in Kansas City. We got a room at the hotel nearby and were able to leave to chill out there and then go back when we needed time off from the crowd. Also we went to some of the less popular panels to get away from some of the crowd and that turned out to be both relaxing and entertaining.
    As for the lines we ended up playing Ticket to Ride on my cell phone most of the time we were waiting. But my wife also found it easy to talk to other people because she knew they had similar interests.

    1. You’re in Kansas City? I live in Kansas City, and I’m involved in the con scene. Which con did you attend? :)

  2. First Con DragonCon. To meet Anne McCaffrey. Overwhelmed, used consuite as my decompress zone since:

    For my adhd I have a rule. My room is for sleeping. Which means unless I’m going to sleep, I go to where else I need to decompress from the crowds. These days it’s Fantasy Literature. Home to our Anne McCaffrey fans and an expanded group. 1 year I tried to go to my room to sleep, got overwhelmed by the crowds, and turned around and came back to play games with 25 people. That’s my decompress level now.

  3. I suffer from social anxiety disorder. I went to DragonCon once and then didn’t go back to a con for nearly 20 years. That’s how bad it was for me. This year, I went to my first con since DragonCon. It was a small con and I had a friend who was running it. I volunteered to be a door person and that worked out real well for me. I manned the door to the main events. Usually, there wasn’t anyone near the door and when events were about to start, I was in control of where the line started, so I kept them at a distance that didn’t make me feel crushed. When I was told to let them in, I hollered really loud to have their badges ready and shooed them as quickly as possible, standing well out of the way.

    Honestly, working the con was a lot less stressful for me than just coming and visiting the con (which I did on Saturday and worked Friday and Sunday). I was able to see many of the celebrities as they passed into the event room, but wasn’t crushed by a throng of people nor did I actually have to speak to them. Just smile and let them pass. When I had to speak to anyone, it was pretty scripted, “Have your pass showing!” “Go right in.” “Their not letting anyone in right now, sorry.” So there was no socially awkward, ‘What the heck do I say?!?’ stuff going on.

    I am looking forward to working the con again next fall.

  4. It was a rule I set for myself. Because I’m actually happy buried in a book by myself at home a lot. If a trip bores me and I can’t leave, I’m content in the hotel room for the whole day.

  5. For the person who sent you the e-mail:

    If you live in the East Coast, my favorite convention of the year is NEXT WEEKEND in Boston. It’s called “Arisia.” It’s a fantastic convention full of amazing people. It has programming tracks specifically designed for children (my mother, a 62-year old teacher who has worked with Special Needs, is assisting with the children’s programming). More importantly, Arisia is one of the most accommodating, accepting, other-abled-supportive conventions I’ve ever attended. They have entire programming panels/presentations about disability and fandom. People are AWARE of the different needs of different people.

    Total attendance is capped, so pre-register if you possibly can. There are no lines to wait for panels. Panels are often small and cozy (although some are bigger, so be aware). People understand when someone needs to escape. ADHD, anxiety, and depression are understood by this crowd, and people are incredible about acceptance and accommodation. The con is well-run. It’s FAN-run. It’s not a huge, commercialized con. Attendance is about 5,000 total. There’s incredible programming for a convention of its size. Basically, it’s got everything you could want in a mid-size convention: great programming without overwhelming numbers.

    As someone with severe anxiety (finally under control – yay therapy) and a history of depression, as well as physical challenges due to lupus, I always look forward to Arisia because I know that I will have a good time no matter what. It’s fantastic. I’ve become a regular programming participant, actually. I hope to see you there!

    (P.S. Come to the fiction reading at 8:30 PM on Friday night. Two Star Trek authors for the price of one!)

    1. I just wanted to second Arisia, and not only because I’ve been attending for the last 25 years.

      It’s a great con, and very welcoming, particularly to young fen (they have their own program track). And starting last year, they added a feature that’s applicable in this situation: A Quiet Room.

  6. Thanks for posting this I’ve only went to one convention in my entire life,and luckily it was very small. I also have trouble with crowds, not just the size but sometimes I need to be alone. Being around people all day can get extremely stressful. Creation has gotten to big for me to even consider because of this,and I have no clue how to find out about other smaller events.

  7. I deal with anxiety and depression, but truth be told, it’s far worse when I’m alone – so when I discovered cons, and the thousands of beautiful and different people that attend them, it was a relief.

    For the first time, I was being welcomed somewhere for being just a little bit different. I didn’t have to put a proverbial mask to make sure I wouldn’t loose my social group due to panic attacks. I could be a rectangle in a square box, and since that first convention, little by little, my shell is starting to come off. I don’t fear meeting the guests or having my photo taken with them in outfits that would make the cast of What Not to Wear give up, I am able to ask clear and concise questions during Q&As, and I am not afraid to speak up and ask for little things I’m supposed to feel comfortable asking for – like the media pass I got to a pop expo last month, which allowed me to both play photojournalist and speak to fun actor-type people like Sarah Wayne Callies (Lori from the Walking Dead) and not feel scared, ashamed or worried about whatever.

    If you are worried about the overstimulation for everyone’s emotions, just remember that most convention centres have some kind of a lobby with a quiet corner or some kind of food vendors with places to sit. These are the places I find refuge when I need to rest and recharge to go back for more fun. :)

    1. Exactly what I was going to suggest. I could not dream of dealing with a massive event like ComicCon for an hour, let alone days, but I adore smaller events. In some ways it depends on what you’re there for–if it’s to connect with fans, then smaller, literary (which don’t tend to exclude media) cons are an awesome bet. If it’s to meet celebrities? Maybe not so much. My absolute favorite events are Filk Conventions, which tend to run a couple hundred people or so, a single “track” and hours and hours of laughter and joy and music. A close second are the general cons–my “home” event is Orycon, we’ve also gone to Norwescon, Westercon and Worldcon. All were manageable with my issues (physical issues + getting overstimulated and requiring down time) and in general we have a lot of fun. My kids have grown up at cons, and enjoy them mightily.

      Every time I look at events like CC I think, “Ooo it would be nice to meet so and so” and then I think “but I’d have to deal with 100,000 people also wanting to meet so and so” and shudder.

  8. The only East Coast one I can comment on is NY Comic Con. It runs Thursday – Sunday, but the only day I would recommend attending is Thursday. Not everyone can get in that day, so the crowd is a fraction of the other days. You can actually fully extend your arms without running into anyone. Other days are incredibly crowded to the point where you sometimes cannot move on the showroom floor and the lines for everything are extremely long. However, on Thursdays there are barely any lines whatsoever. The only way to get in on Thursdays is to either get a professional badge, VIP, or the more manageable 4-day pass ($85). With the 4-day pass, you can then sell the badge for someone to use for the remaining Fri-Sun and you will not have trouble doing so. With a VIP badge, I think they have a lounge where you can wait until panels start, and then you can go right to the room without waiting on line and sit in the front. I think that’s expensive though.

  9. First, I would be sure to check with disability services at any con you go to. They will be able to tell you if they can help, and how.
    Second, Study the layout and find an evac ahead of time. That way if the crowed gets too much, you can move off and decompress.
    Don’t over do it. Its easy to go to a con and want to do everything but this will exacerbate the issue. be reasonable, take your time, and don’t freak out if you miss something, there is always next year.
    Lines suck, bring something to occupy yourself. avoid the bigger panels unless its something disability services can help you with. Avoid the dealer room on busy days. it is like a cattle drive and you will not enjoy it. have anxiety meds with you and maybe try the outskirts on a slow day. Booth people are almost always friendly and willing to lend a chair and a bit of breathing room if you start to panic.
    I personally love dragon*con, and if you stick to the three less popular hotels (I would not venture into the Marriott at all on Saturday) you can still attend plenty of things but they aren’t nearly as packed. in face, I would be happy to give more in depth details on this con if your interested. Its the only one I go to routinely though so I wouldn’t be much help with other cons.
    oh! and most cities do have small startup type Cons that you should check out. they are much more low key and the crush of people is usually far less.
    I hope that helps.

  10. Try to stay away from the BIG commercial Con’s. Go to smaller fan-run Con’s, they are often run by people who care about those in attendance more so than the BIG ones. I’m from Michigan and my two favorite in the area are Confusion (confusionsf.org) and Penguicon (pengicon.org). Both are fan run, Fusion is a Literary Con and Penguicon is a geeks favorite grab bag of all things geeky and awesome (they dont stick to just one sliver of fandom, you can ever role your own fun). In fact Wil has been invited to more than one Penguicon, we’re hoping he can attend sometime in the future.

  11. I’m a clinical psychologist with a specialty in anxiety. I love attending cons and have worked with people who have also struggled with these types of situations.

    I love the advice about starting with a smaller con. That’s something I recommend to *anyone* who is going to a con for the first time. San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con are overwhelming for all involved, but WonderCon, Boston Comic Con, and Philadelphia Comic Con are more manageable. You can also look into Star Trek conventions which are usually smaller than comic cons.

    ADHD can make it difficult to sort through all the overwhelming amount of stuff at cons. Having a good plan for what panels to see, how much time to spend at the exhibit hall, what autographs to purchase, when to get food, and opportunities for downtime will help ADHD and anxiety. Make sure to plan out time to just walk around, check out cosplay, things like that.

    The most effective treatment for anxiety is exposure therapy (http://lifehacker.com/5973996/baby-steps-the-best-way-to-overcome-your-greatest-fears) and you can replicate the treatment on your own. Basically, make a list of similar types of situations like comic con, things like waiting in a long line, going to crowded movie theaters or shopping centers, being in tight spaces like elevators, stuff like that. Rank it from easiest to hardest and then start moving up the list – sticking with the situation until your daughter’s anxiety drops in half. That’s an exposure and you’ll want to repeat the exposure over and over until your daughter gets bored of the situation. That’s when you move up in difficulty until everything on the list is done. Like a video game, your daughter can earn points as she completes exposures that can be traded in for prizes. Exposures also help people to think more realistically about situations and realize that they can ride out their feelings of anxiety and anxiety doesn’t last forever.

    The last thing I wanted to say relates to depression. The opportunity to go to a convention can be deeply meaningful. For most of us geeks, cons are the places we go to see the people who made our favorite books, TV shows, and movies possible. It’s also a place where we get to meet lots of other people who love the same stuff we love and to learn about new stuff we haven’t yet explored. For me, cons are a deeply meaningful experience and going to one could really help your daughter to feel more confident about herself and proud to be a nerd.

    Live long and prosper!

  12. I have found that going with a group of friends can help a lot, as their presence can give me something immediate to focus on, helping to ignore the crowd beyond them.

  13. I have none of these conditons but have friends with one or another and/or Aspergers, and we went to cons together. I never had a situation where a con was so overwhelming that a friend never came back. one friend got super overwhelmed and broke down twice during cons when we separated, but the third time around we had a strategy. it worked out and she got to enjoy what she enjoys out of cons. we made it work for her.

    Start with small cons. no san diego comic con, no new york comic con. no dragon con. look for small, obscure cons (for me, searching #artistalley brings up con names of all sizes). I’m not a scifi geek so i cant name specific cons. get a feel for the con. maybe you can take on bigger ones next year or after.

    If you want to take on bigger cons, your best bet is having an experienced con-going friend of yours go with you. they know the building inside and out, how to get the best out of the exhibit hall, how to shortcut through less crowded areas to get to certain parts of the building, where to go outside to eat and recover, how to find your panels and survive waiting in line, the list goes on. many seasoned con-goers have adhd/depression/anxiety, but whatever reason they have for going to conventions makes them strategize and able to deal with the crowds and overwhelming activity, and they are the most understanding and fun guides.

    having a group of friends to attend a con with is even better. brave the big scary con together and have experiences to talk about. it gets awkward on the first day when nobody talks because they get quiet and shy, but that wears off by day 2.

    lastly. avoid going to large con exhibit halls on Saturdays unless you feel super, super confident because that day is the most crowded.

  14. I suffer from almost debilitating anxiety. Oddly I found that at Cons it goes away. Have you gone to cons and had issues, or thinking you will? 99% of anxiety is in your head, when you focus on it, it just makes it worse. Ive found that at cons I have no time to even think about it so it doesnt pop up and then self propel itself. In lines im playing a game or talking to people, at panels Im listening intently or waiting for trailers. on the floor theres soooo much to see that im all wrapped up in trying to see everything, trying to take great pictures, trying to meet celebs, and looking for cool cosplay to photograph.. Im sooo busy enjoying myself, I dont have time for anxiety. This alone helps to realize that anxiety is all caused by me and only me. this also helps to keep it at bay. I have found that some panels can get loud so i bring earplugs. this helps A LOT. also helps on the floor but i found myself wearing them less since I wasnt paying attention to the loudness that usually overloaded my brain. All cons are gonna be loud and crowded, so my best advice is to “know” that your are causing your anxiety by thinking negatively about it, not the con. youre worrying the con will, so its selffullfilling.. so it then causes problems.Keep yourself occupied as much as possible, to stop thinking about it.. if you utterly cant approach it as your perfect chance to “practice” dealing with anxiety in public. You have to know deep inside that its nothing that can hurt you and its nothing that youre going to allow to bother you. all of this removes any anxiety for me at cons 100%. cons makes it all go away, which is why i love cons. As for your daughter, thats a bit trickier since young children can comprehend as much as us older people. Id suggest noise cancelling headphones for her to try and keep her focused. either on an ipod, or game system, or a movie.. even on the floor, play some relaxing music for her. helped me when i was younger.

  15. Our family of 4 lives on east coast & has been lucky to do local ones all the way to NYCC & SDCC. Had amazing times at big 2, but we decided this year to take a break from big ones because NYCC especially was just too darn draining on everyone & there are no easy ways to take needed mental health breaks. Agree with all great advice above so just adding some regionally specific advice. And R feel free to contact me more directly if you’d like more info if the below are cons you’re considering going to…
    Small college cons: Troy, NY RPIs Genericon http://genericon.union.rpi.edu/wordpress/ & Northampton, MA Smith Colleges Connbust (especially female friendly since it’s all women’s college!) http://sophia.smith.edu/conbust/
    Regional cons:
    - CT-Haven’t been but friends who’ve attended & say it’s really nicely run
    Boston-not huge or overwhelming but great comic guests, fun panels etc, HOWEVER venue changed & this year found it hard to find locations to leave & regroup;
    1/2 (computer being stupid…)

    1. more from me…
      Montreal Comic Con – this is one of my fav, lots of quiet places you can find to sit & relax, great food, great parks and other food options outside of the convention center; every major panel (including Wils!) was easy to get into – there were lines but they moved briskly & were well organized; also official hotel is a great location and we’d go back to regroup and swim in the pool

      Also, as everyone said PLAN, PLAN, plan ahead. I print out all events info, discuss what’s our ‘MUST DO’, color code with highlighters etc. We pack backpacks as if we’re hiking so we don’t have to wait in lines for subpar food. What food we buy there are treats or extra caffeine as needed and only when lines are low. Also if you don’t have a hotel nearby, check out local maps and find places you can go and regroup. In good weather my kids always appreciate being in a quite park (Montreal has one next door w/fountains where they’d take cosplay pics) or in bad weather a bookstore with cafe makes a quiet spot to read & grab a snack in a less frantic environment.

  16. My daughter suffers from severe depression and anxiety with a side of ADHD for good measure. She also loves Anime conventions. She finds cons more relaxing than everyday life because in Cosplay she’s not herself. She spends so much time in everyday life putting on her public face that she’s exhausted by the end of the school day. At a con she’s play acting someone else, defined for her by the Anime (or fan base or her own interpretation in the case of 2P or Fem versions of characters) and she actually finds that easier to manage. She also bring thing with her to help her calm when overwhelmed. She finds an out of the way spot, pop in her earbuds with music, pulls out a sketch pad, and draws while she people watches. She’s also careful to not over schedule and pick out what panels and activities are most important to her. As long as she hits those handful of must sees she’s okay if she misses out on other want-to-see items.

    1. The constant motion of a cruise ship totally overstimulates Ella and leaves her unable to function, otherwise we would. :-)

  17. I don’t think that mental disorders and other issues with social interaction are particularly uncommon at conventions. I mean: let’s face it, we’re geeks; social awkwardness is kind of a defining characteristic.

    For me, personally, I tend not to stay on-site so that I can make sure I get a good night’s sleep and a bit of “me time” before and after going out to the con. I also tend to go to smaller local conventions as opposed to the big, uber-mondo-mega CON. I try to plan out a variety of activity that have different levels of crowd. For example, I’ll spend a few hours in the dealers’ room and then go to a panel where I can sit and not be expected to speak for an hour. Perhaps, then I’ll be ready for the game room by then. If not – if I’m not ready for that amount of boisterousness yet – perhaps it’s a good time to leave the hotel for lunch at a nearby diner. It’s all a matter of knowing your own limits and your own signals of when you’re nearing those limits.

    I have also seen many fans with service animals for any number of special needs. Those needs can totally include depression, anxiety, etc. Perhaps, contacting an organization that trains therapy animals would be use.

    Good luck!

  18. I’m biased because it’s my con, but judging from attendee feedback, InterventionCon in Rockville, MD is probably perfect for someone who may not be able to handle a larger event. It’s about 1000 people, welcoming, and we actually do run it with a similar play book that Disney uses. It’s Aug 22-24, 2014.

    If R goes and contacts us in advance, we sure would try and accommodate their family as best as we could. The URL is http://www.interventioncon.com

  19. I know it’s not always feasible for everyone but if a con is being held in a hotel (or super close to one) having a room is a livesaver. I get iffy when it gets crowded and sometimes I can go hide in an area that’s not as busy, or go for a little walk outside but sometimes that room is amazing. I can go collect myself, take a nap, etc. I know sometimes not everyone can do that but if you can it’s well worth it. It’s nice to have a little space that won’t take you too far from the fun but will give you a place to calm down and recollect.

  20. There are two Baltimore based “small” cons that are worth looking at; they both use the same hotel. Shore Leave is primarily “Star Trek” and media-focused, so it may be of more interest to your daughter. Balticon is more general Science Fiction–lots of topics covered. It is not far to get to your room from where the panels and “action” is.

  21. Different things work for different people, so you may have to go to a couple or a few conventions before you hit on a combo that works with your family. All the suggestions offered are good. I also recommend checking out this blog: epbot dot com. The writer has anxiety issues among other things and she found that wearing a mask (that blocks her peripheral vision) and taking pictures helped her a lot. But she has other strategies that she shares on that blog. Good luck — I hope you can all enjoy the experience!

  22. I, too, was just going to post the same link! I was sure someone else would have already mentioned it since I’m reading this post two days after it went up, but Jen’s writing is so clear and informative that I just had to weight in to back you guys up.

  23. MegaCon in Orlando. I’ve been the past two years and am going this year as well. Saturday is crazy busy/crowded/overwhelming but Friday is lovely. Working on the courage to meet some of the celebs (Wil and Barrowman and Eve Myles, oh my) but my personal anxiety issues are of the personal-interaction type…

  24. I think cons in smaller towns would be good. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of cons these days, but back in the day Albacon (Albany NY) was nice and small, not huge like Lunacon or Arisia or Baycon).

  25. I would also suggest ShoreLeave in Baltimore. It’s very low key, well run (fan run, not a con company), and very little crowding.

  26. Severe social anxiety here, and I am an artist, and con regular (Possibly a con artist? Bahaha, I amuse myself). I scope out a place before the con starts, and find a tree (there’s usually one in the parking lot). I will duck out to my tree a few times a day, when I feel myself start to get past medication-helping. (Meds enable me to do my job – yay drugs!).

    Check to see if a con bills itself as “family friendly” or if they have a “family day” or “kids’ day”. If they do, they will likely have a quiet area. Make your child a bracelet or badge with your cell phone numbers, in case she becomes startled/overwhelmed and bolts. Take a picture of her before the con, in case you need to show security. Have a safe word (or gesture if speaking is difficult during high stress times), and be prepared to lift her bodily and remove her from the area if need be. (My special-needs-teacher-wife interjects, “What does she do to indicate that she’s overwhelmed and needs a break when she’s at school? Go with what is already familiar and ingrained”)

    Contact event coordinators well before the con. Find the least popular day/time, and go then. Stay away from the big panels – go to the fan-run ones (you will recognize them by the lack of recognizable names). Sit near exits (but you already know that one, I’m sure). See if there are VIP passes available for that con – they often bump you to the front or any line.

  27. Does she cosplay? Sometimes adopting a persona along with a costume can help to self-regulate a bit (every bit helps!) Reminders like, “That is not conduct becoming of a Starfleet Officer, Ensign” can be more fun than usual vocal checks. (Teacher-wife says cosplay can REALLY help with some children).

    Talk to the artists in Artist Alley if you can’t handle the lines to see the celebrities. I’m sure she’d love to show off her fanfic, and the other artists will LOVE to talk, and I’m sure it will be memorable for her.

  28. Have looked for events at local cafes and game shops? The ones in my local area throw promotional events that she might enjoy. We went to a event where there were singers singing about firefly, poetry readings, and quizzes. There were about 50 people there and even the cosplay contest was structured so there would be no losers. Very family friendly. :)

  29. I’m afraid I don’t have much of value to add, but i would imagine attending a con during the early hours of the first day would be best for someone who has anxiety issues. Then again, you wouldn’t be able to see everyone you want to, but compromises cannot be avoided sometimes.

  30. I believe that getting family support can really help. Unfortunately I don’t have any special link to the cons, but i see many have suggested some already. Best of luck to you!

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