When Panic Strikes

A music student suffers from panic disorders and ends up in trouble with his university. Then the lawyers step in.

48 Hours' Harold Dow reported in February on how Michael Moushon, someone inclined to reach out and make friends, turns this whole experience into a learning opportunity.

In the basement of his fraternity house in Decatur, Ill., Michael Moushon had no trouble keeping his band in tune and in time.

"Music is like the thing I just...love to death," he declared.

But he's rarely on time to class at Millikin University, where he's on a music scholarship.

Millikin University
Find out more about Millikin University, its music program and record label on its Web site.

"In the morning, I usually, I get up at least two hours before class," he said.

What happens in those two hours before class has been Moushon's closely guarded secret. For years, he struggled silently with obsessive compulsive disorder, and he's also been struggling with depression and panic attacks.

"It can happen when I'm by myself or in the shower,...any time where I have time to think or be by myself," Moushon said.

This means he is at risk of a panic attack a lot of the time, as he spends hours alone on his compulsive rituals. "It really gets in the way of my lifestyle," Moushon confessed.

For example, he shaves not just once but three times in a row. He showers about three times a day. "I scrub every little part of my body pretty much," he revealed. "And pretty much scrub until I'm red."

It's an exhausting process.

"Sometimes I get dizzy in the shower 'cause I'm just here for so long and can't get out sometimes," Moushon said.

What Me Worry?
For th millions of Americans with "overwhelming" fears, the Anxiety Disorders of America Association's site clearly describes panic disorders, social phobias and obsessive-compulsion disorder. Find resources to help.
Sometimes those anxious moments can become full-blown panic attacks.

"You feel like you just got jacked in the chest and you just can't breathe," Moushon said.

Moushon agreed to interpret his panic attack with a home video and original music score. "I get really sensitive to, like, hearing and sight. Imagine the scaredest you've ever been,...only at least 100 times worst. It just feels like the end's coming."

Like many of those facing this internal terror, Moushon believes most people don't understand what he lives with every day.

"If I were in a wheelchair, people would understand why I was late for class," he said. "But you basically look kind of normal, and I never let anybody see any of my problems. They don't get it. They're, like, you know, they think I'm just like lying to them."

And that's why at school, Moushon shared his secret with only a few friends, including a university official.

"There weren't very clear boundaries in our relationship, like he was the associate dean or was he my friend," he said.

But then one night during his freshman year while alone in his dorm, Moushon suffered a particularly severe panic attack. "That was probably the most scared I probably have ever been," he said. "It was a whomper."

Seeking help, he reached out to someone he considered a friend, the associate dean.

"He just told me either check yourself into the psych ward of a hospital or you're going to be taken out of school," Moushon recalled. "I immediately called my dad."

"I said, 'Wait, wait a minute, wait a minute,'" said his father, Ron Moushon.

"There's no reason for this kid to be in a psych ward," his mother, Jan Moushon, recalled saying.

Moushon's parents thought they could work out a compromise with the school. "I said how about if we, one of us, comes down and we take him to a doctor in the morning," Jan Moushon said.

"My dad got there that night, and we went in the next morning, talked to the counselor, talked to the doctor," said Michael Moushon.

"The understanding we had was if he didn't go see the doctor, he was no longer a student," said Ron Moushon.

And so Michael Moushon went to the doctor. His parents thought he was therefore still a student. "And I was told that everything would be OK if I did these certain things," said Michael Moushon.

But even though Michael Moushon did go to the doctor, Millikin University said he was out of the school. "I was just dumbfounded," Moushon recalled.

Without even waiting for the results of the doctor's examination, he university concluded he was a potential danger.

When asked if Moushon feels as if he's dangerous to himself or others, he replied, "Oh, no, no."

His psychiatrist agreed. "Generally, they're not dangerous to other people," said A.J. Allen of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Moushon's doctor.

"There were some unique things to Michael but not anything that would have caused me to think, 'Oh, yeah, this kid ought to be pulled out of school,'" Dr. Allen said.

Karen Ward, an attorney for the civil rights group Equip for Equality, took on Moushon's case free of charge. "We were shocked," she says.

Get Into The Act
Check out what the Americans With Disabilities Act says and how it's been interpreted to apply to mental disabilities
"We thought it was as blatant an example of discrimination against a person with a mental illness as we had seen," she says.

She filed a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act. "What they did do was make an assumption," Ward said. "A person with a mental illness might be a threat, so we better do something about it. 'Might be' is not the law."

The prospect of a lawsuit had its effect. A month after withdrawing Moushon from school, Millikin University agreed to readmit him. Moushon agreed to continue to consult a doctor and take his prescribed medication.

From Moushon's point of view, the result was still something less than a victory. "They didn't even say sorry," he said. "I know that they know they were wrong."

"These are very difficult issues for a university to deal with," said Millikin University spokesman Terry Bush. "I have great confidence that the decisions made by the associate dean of students were appropriate, that they were in the best interests of Michael, that he took the action that he felt was necessary," Bush added.

Since the 48 Hours report aired in February, Moushon finished his junior year at Millikin. He still has panic attacks, though fewer now. He's down to about one attack a week. But he's managing.

"I kind of just want to do the best that I can and keep up with everybody else," he said.

In a way, Moushon is now working on a double major: finishing his degree in music while trying to educate others about his invisible illness.

"People don't know, and it's somebody's job to tell them because they're not going find out about it on their own," he said.

"So I just hope people meet me," he said. "Or if they do know this about me, aren't scared about coming around me, you know. I'd just hate to miss out on a good friend."

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