Sometimes Panic Attacks Can't Be Explained, And That's Okay

For me, sometimes there are known triggers, but mostly there aren’t.
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Cereal aisle by Ben McLeod licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I am standing in the grocery store on an ordinary Tuesday in October, list in one hand, phone in the other. Like most people, I do not enjoy grocery shopping, especially since my son is usually with me jumping up and down, begging for every single shrink-wrapped toy dangling within his reach. But today, I am alone and for once I am Ed-McMahon-just-rang-my-doorbell-with-a-giant-check thrilled.

I knock items off my list like whacking moles at an arcade:

Cucumbers. Mostly water, good for bloating. Check.

Zucchini for “zoodles,” which my kid will probably hate. Check.

Dark chocolate Dove squares to hide from family in box of tampons. Check.

Cottage cheese. No, hell no. If shame had a flavor, it would be this sh*t.

As I stare down at my “Eat Me” board on Pinterest trying to figure out what to make for dinner, I steer my cart full of good intentions into the cereal aisle.

Standing there next to my friends Tony, Snap, Crackle, Pop, and the Cap’n a strange feeling comes over me, slowly at first. It starts in my ears where I can hear my heart beating at about the tempo of a Souza march. I shove my phone and list in my pocket and grip the plastic bar of my cart.

Then, the skin on my chest and neck starts to feel warm and itchy. I unzip my jacket.

Sweat, fulsome and sticky, seeps like lava from my brow, my pits, between Lucy and Ethel and, worst of all, in and around my, uh, box of Trix.

I know I need to move; I’m sure I’m in the way standing there in the middle of the aisle or I will be, but I can’t.

Am I having a heart attack? I have no arm pain, jaw pain, chest pain.

Am I having a stroke? What’s the acronym for that? S.M.I.L.E? F.A.C.E? I know it has something to do with smiling or talking or smelling burnt toast— F*ck, I have no idea.

I contemplate sitting down right there mid-aisle, but my pride won’t let me. It would be just my luck for someone to snap a viral-worthy photo of me “Moist Lady Needs Clean up on Aisle Three.”

I try to accept the discomfort. Be in the moment. You know, “The Power of Now” and all that. But that only makes me more aware of fresh sensations I can’t control—the feeling I’m being strangled by some super villain bent on revenge, for example. Nope, nope. F*ck Ekhart Tolle. He wouldn’t last a half a second standing in my sensible shoes right now.

Finally, I try to take a few deep breaths: In for four, out for eight. In for four, out for eight. In for four...

I close my eyes for a minute or two or ten or I don’t even know.

When I open them, something inside me has unlocked just enough to have what feels like an epiphany: I need to eat. I need to eat RIGHT NOW. I begin pulling boxes of cereal off the shelf like a contestant on “The Price is Right.”

I skip the rest of the items on my list, go through the do-it-yourself check out line, come home, leave the groceries in the car, except the cereal ― Oatmeal Crisp, (AKA “Crack in the Box”) ― and pour myself a bowl. And not one of those delicate Crate and Barrel cereal bowls designed for sensible portions. F*ck that sh*t. I got the biggest, the deepest, the most sinful vessel I could find ― The Popcorn Bowl. I don’t even sit down. I stand there at my kitchen counter dumping back more sweet flakey love than I’ve had in a very long time. Years, actually.

Later that night (and well into the next day) I was reminded why I gave up cereal. Let’s just say I had a lot of time to sit in my fortress of porcelain solitude and reflect on (and Google) what happened to me in the grocery store. I had had my first panic attack. I spent an obsessive amount of time trying to figure out why it happened — Why then? Why there? Why me? — but what I’ve come to realize is they are called panic “attacks,” not panic “hey you might wanna not schedule anything important for 9 a.m. next Tuesday,” for a reason. For me, sometimes there are known triggers, but mostly there aren’t.

Many years later as I reflect on what it’s like to live with anxiety, I’d like to say I have found a quick and easy cure like the perfect yoga practice or breathing exercise or self-help book, essential oil, combination of medications that don’t eventually stop working, chamomile-ashwaganda-kava-kava super herb or something. But I haven’t. I mean, all of those things have worked for me at one time or another ― well, the kava kava gave me the trots ― but nothing took the anxiety away completely.

I’ve come to (mostly) accept my anxious nature, like that quirk you discover your partner has after the honeymoon period. The one that makes you you want to scream “WHY THE HELL ARE YOU LIKE THAT!?” at first but then you decide to love them right past it.

Right now, as I write, I am anxious about how to end this. I am anxious that my tale might seem flip or trite or miss the mark. I feel the weight of responsible storytelling, the weight of getting it “right,” and so I contemplate leaving this one in my drafts folder, like so many tubs of cottage cheese left to rot in the back of my fridge.

Instead, I think I’ll love myself right past this feeling and put it out there, in the hopes that someone, somewhere will feel what I want to feel: less alone.

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