To the beautiful mom having a panic attack in the grocery store,
I’ve been meaning to write you. A while back I sped down the ridiculously long aisles of Stop N’ Shop searching for low-sugar juice for an enormous going-away party I was throwing for my three kids. My 11-year-old son jogged beside me, jabbering anxiously. In two weeks, my family was moving to Switzerland. Maybe because I read lot, and I was traveling to a new country, I thought of displaced refugees, of poverty, and the irony of the mile-long dizzying aisles of food that were engulfing me. There was enough there to feed thousands and thousands of people. And on this day, only seconds before I met you, it occurred to me that the grocery store was a sea of separation. It was grotesque.
Then I almost tripped on you. You were sitting on the white glossy tile floor. Everything smelled of plastic. You were a beautiful mom with blonde long hair, blue eyes and designer jeans. “I can’t believe this. I can’t breathe,” you said. “I think I’m having a panic attack.”
A few people stood beside you. Their arms dangled. They looked a little embarrassed, like you. “We probably shouldn’t stand here,” one man said. “We might be making her worse.” There was so much nourishment in that place. There were probably hundreds of warm hands and kind hearts roaming about— but there you were, alone. And I guess I could relate.
Instinctively, I knelt down on the ground. “Can I hold your hand?” I asked.
“Yes, please,” you said. Your hand felt warm. I held oddly still, unsure of what I was doing, careful not to look at anyone but you. “Can you tell me about the last thing you did that made you feel good?” I asked.
“Went to Mexico,” you said.
“What’d you do there?” I asked. And we started talking. We laughed a little. Eventually the bystanders moved on.
A little while later you explained, “I’m really not like this. I’m super organized. But I have all of my kids activities. So, so much to do. It doesn’t get much lower, much more humiliating than this — does it?” You asked.
“Um, it does.” I thought about the refugee moms. I thought about my friends with special needs kids with no schools to serve them. I thought about the homeless guys at the shelter nearbye.
“You’re doing just fine,” I said.
But you kept talking so fast, as fast as my to-do list, as the moving bodies in that store, as the rushing lives all over the world, I suppose — speeding along so fast that hands are left un-held. Strangers are left alone.
“This isn’t so bad,” I think I said. I looked up at the Hershey bars and the licorice, happy for an excuse to leave my worries hanging up in the fluorescent lights. The floor felt nice.
Later my son who had watched our lengthy exchange asked, “Mom, you knew what to do because of me, didn’t you?”
“Later my son who had watched our lengthy exchange asked, Mom, you knew what to do because of me, didn’t you?”
“Sort of,” I answered. He and I had just gone through a year of falling. Though you couldn’t tell, my son had special needs. He had been in a severe depression, unable to get off the floor sometimes, out of his room, out of his bed for months. “I’m afraid of people mom. They only hurt me,” he had once said, referring to teachers and peers. But he was better that day. Better because of the kind people who had finally slowed down, finally made time for him. For me too.
I gave you a hug before leaving you with a grocery store employee who agreed to continue holding your hand. And later I thought of all of the things I wish I had said to you. Here are a few of them:
You are an (even more) beautiful, strong mom when you admit to your needs.
Your problems don’t define your motherhood. So you had a panic attack in the candy aisle. So you forgot the permission slip or didn’t get the cupcakes to the activity on time. Let go of that crap. Instead, watch for what is cool about you. Maybe you cook yummy pizza or you’re a great friend. Maybe you’re funny as hell. Maybe you can tell your panic attack story to another mom who’ll feel less alone. Let your positive qualities lift you. Let your flaws root you in truth.
Falling is good. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in hospitals beside my child. I’ve nearly lost a child three times now. I’ve had (and continue to have) defeating and humiliating moments along the way. I’ve lived through years of isolation while raising a child with challenges. I’ve advocated for my boy in the face of some rotten people. But from this, I am much stronger. I can relate to (almost) all types of moms now because I was given the gift of falling.
So, beautiful mom — cheers to you, from a mom who often lives down low. I hope you too have found that we only grow upward, if we are blessed enough to fall.