Scams and Shams by
(90 Stories)

Prompted By Hacks and Scams

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I know something is wrong with me. I don’t know what it is, but something is broken and I need to fix it. I’m not looking for happy—I’d be happy with normal. A friend of a friend tells me about something life-changing called PSI Energetics, and I sign up to attend a seminar. I’m ready to change my life!

We pair up with strangers, hold hands and look into each other’s eyes for an extended period of time; we change partners and smile goofily at one another for another extended period of time; we fall backwards into yet another stranger’s arms and trust that we’ll be caught.

I drive downtown, park, and walk into an auditorium where I’m going to spend two intensive days behind closed doors—locked doors, as it turns out.

Soon there are a few hundred people seated around me, mostly “yuppie” types, casually fashionable, all hanging on every well-spoken word of the trim, good-looking man speaking at the dais.

Early on we’re instructed to get out of our seats and go up front to do some exercises. We pair up with strangers, hold hands and look into each other’s eyes for an extended period of time; we change partners and smile goofily at one another for another extended period of time; we fall backwards into yet another stranger’s arms and trust that we’ll be caught. People are already beginning to cry, already having breakthroughs. Not me. I feel self conscious and idiotic.

We go back to our seats and this time the speaker instructs us to close our eyes and to now take some deep cleansing breaths. We obey. “By visualizing each color I intone,” he smoothly assures us, “you will reach beyond yourself to connect with something greater, wider, and deeper.” He begins with red. Yes, I can see red, and I allow it to flood over my entire being. I breathe red, slowly, in and out. Then we go to orange, and so on, and then, without warning– whoa! — I’m getting sucked down into a whirlpool of terrifying darkness, and I am not going there! My eyes shoot wide open, I gasp, jump out of my seat and bump into knee after knee as I make my shaky way to the doors. I try to open them, not realizing they’d been locked to prevent unauthorized entry, and someone has to come open them to let me out. Let me out! I have disrupted everyone’s progress into the enlightened bliss they so desperately crave but I don’t care. I get out, and I don’t go back in.

The panic attacks have returned in full force, and I also have unrelenting depression. I get a cold or headache and think I’m dying and write letters to my daughter to guide her through the rest of her life without me, leaving them by my bed for her to find when I die, then shoving them in the back of a drawer when I don’t.

Another friend recommends a psychic and even though I sense it will be a waste of my time and my money, there I sit in the candlelit anteroom, tears dripping from beneath my closed lids as I wait to go in, desperate for an Answer. But once inside the inner sanctum, the sanctum sanctorum, nothing is revealed…other than my check register with a now substantially diminished balance.

I suffered from panic attacks for decades. I was not alone. Panic disorder is a form of anxiety disorder, a medical condition diagnosed by a mental health professional, and panic attacks are symptoms. There was no easy or quick fix.

Other inexpensive “fix” suggestions included chanting, visualization, and of course learning The Secret. I didn’t bite; I’m not a sap. I’m all for inspiration and a positive attitude, but my thinking was, if it costs a lot, it must work. Because you get what you pay for, right?

Now I believe that the only people who actually benefit in the long term from the more expensive self-help scams—and I do call them scams—are the typically charismatic people offering them. To my mind, they’re at best a waste of money; at worst dangerous, because they encourage people to take chances they simply shouldn’t take, and to seek quick answers instead of a qualified professional for legal, financial, or mental health issues.

Yes, years later my panic attacks eventually subsided, but that’s a story for another day.

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Tags: seminar, self-improvement, self help, panic
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Barbara, what a wonderfully honest and gripping story! In the early 90s my husband and I attended a human potential program called Lifespring, an offshoot of EST.

    The program had detractors, and was even hit with some lawsuits I understand, and it ceased operation a few years later..

    At the time my teenage son told his friends that we had joined a cult, and some of our friends may have thought we were a little nuts, but we both enjoyed it and found it enlightening.

    We had a very good facilitator who we still talk about, and although the program didn’t change our lives as promised, and the high and resolve we came away with eventually wore off, I think some good stuck.

    If we get the right prompt, I just might write about it!

  2. Suzy says:

    Oh Barbara, what a story! I’m so sorry to hear about your panic attacks and all the flim-flammers who tried to make you think they could give you the answer, for a large fee. I look forward to reading the “story for another day” about the panic attacks subsiding. We will have to come up with the right prompt for that, which might work for Dana too.

    • Thanks, Suzy…like many, I did have a rough go of it for a while, but I’m happy to report I came out the other side. I was going to say an interesting prompt might be “Turning Points,” but it looks like it’s already been done. I’ll put on my thinking cap and see if I can come up with another one that could work.

      • Suzy says:

        Yes, we’ve done Turning Points twice, in 2016 and 2018. (The second time it was the last prompt the old team did after they announced they were shutting down.) At some point we may start repeating but for now we are trying to stick with new topics. Suggestions are always welcome!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    As the wife of a psychiatrist and the friend and relative of many people who live with panic attacks, I know they are real and can’t be vanquished by the kinds of scams you describe. Thanks for sharing your story. People need to recognize panic attacks as a medical problem to be addressed by trained professionals. It’s sad that con artists take advantage of folks who need real help.

    • Thanks, Laurie…I think it’s complicated, because in this case there’s no way they could have known that I was prone to panic attacks. I didn’t even know that’s what they were at the time and was actually comforted when I learned it was a bona fide medical problem and that I wasn’t alone. I think the problem is that we’re led to believe that these types of programs can, almost overnight, fix whatever is holding us back from whatever it is we want with what boils down to the power of positive thinking, or by thinking right, instead of taking the time it takes to build a strong foundation, be it psychological, financial, whatever.

  4. I have no personal experience with panic disorder, Barbara, but I have seen it firsthand and it’s a truly terrifying thing. So glad you’re on the other side of it now. Re the scams, as I replied to Suzy, there are two types of people: those who have fallen for at least one scam and those who deny it.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, Barbara. This can’t be easy. My daughter has full-blown panic attacks from time to time. She lives in CA, far from us and I don’t really know what she does to help herself get through them. Searching for help does leave you vulnerable I’m sure.

    • When you’re in the throes of a true panic attack, you’re afraid you’re either dying or going insane. It helped me tremendously to know that there is such a thing as panic disorder because it meant I wasn’t alone. To know that other people had similar symptoms was a relief. Slow, deep abdominal breathing actually does help. And Ativan. Even though I haven’t had an attack in about 20 years, I still keep Ativan on hand just in case. Not Valium. Not Xanax. I hope your daughter gets some help, Betsy. It must be hard on you as well. I still have more questions than answers, but I’ll post my story on the next Potpourri (Writer’s Choice).

  6. A good perspective on scams, Barbara. I particularly appreciated your ability to place yourself as a seeker in your reflection on your various ‘self help’ adventures. Ever since I began losing the more impressionable of my peers to Synanon in San Francisco, I’ve developed a healthy contempt (forget skepticism, this is full-blown, lip-curling contempt) for most flavors of self-help, from tough love, to obscure Chinese herbology (some works; some does not), to those who prey on those wounded birds who try to adopt the cultures of indigenous people, to the Majarishi (sic). I often wish I had more faith, but my lack of Faith has done me well in the culture of scam and cooption.

  7. Marian says:

    I’m so sorry you had to go through this, Barbara, and I’m well aware of the EST, LifeSpring scams, etc. Fortunately I’m not a group-type person, and while I have a lot of anxiety, I feel lucky that I don’t have panic attacks as you do. There are so many health scams out there as well that are ready to part you from your dollars. As a survivor of two auto-immune diseases, I get emails about crazy diets and strange regimens all the time that claim that I don’t need my traditional meds, which are synthetic thyroid hormone and very small amounts of prednisone. I’ve had to warn sister suffers not to stop their meds–these scams can be dangerous.

    • Thanks, Marian…and I’m sorry for what you’ve been through, too! I’ve often thought about how tough it would be to have an illness where every person you come in contact with seems to have a strong opinion about what you should be doing about it, usually off the wall and based on something they’ve merely read or heard, but I never gave much thought to the digital onslaught, and certainly not to the scams associated with that. Yikes!

  8. Marian says:

    Right you are, Barbara. There are some legit alternative and complementary medicine sites out there, but many are just unscrupulous. I’ve been a medical writer, so I can spot the egregious ones pretty easily, and of course there are legitimate disagreements in the medical community, which complicates things. There are so many claims (usually false) about methods for restoring thyroid function, which can be dangerous if you really have a problem such as Hashimoto’s disease, which is what I have.

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