*Published in The Helix Magazine, Spring 2016 edition*
Just breathe. Focus.
I look up and see masses passing through the sections of clothes, the store a blur of dove whites and soft tans. I feel a wave of nausea hit me; my fingers reach up and leave deep ruby marks on my neck in a desperate attempt to trick my brain into forgetting about my stomach.
4:37 P.M. I don’t clock out for another hour and a half, which elevates my already spiking heart rate. The smell of greasy, salted pretzel bites wafts through the air and tightens my throat. My eyes create a path throughout the store from my position in the front all the way to the back where the bathroom is and I calculate the approximate time it would take me to get there: around 20 seconds, if I walk fast. I look back at my table, an overwhelming sea of color coded undies piled high. A customer asks me a question I don’t know the answer to; I relay it verbatim over my headset with the strongest voice I can produce. Pointing her to another associate, her eyes run over my recent scratch and she thanks me uneasily.
The peak is always within 10 minutes. It’s almost over, relax. You can beat this; you always beat this.
I glance at my watch–4:39 P.M.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks, preoccupied with the fear of them recurring. Mine started during adolescence, around age fifteen. The first one is always the worst. A combination of sickness, pain, confusion, uncertainty, and fear all heightened to the highest level imaginable–a quick preview of death. Not knowing how or why it happens gets into your head, making you feel inadequate, isolated, and scared. It’s almost as if I am a car in a parking lot full of other cars. All of their car alarms only go off if someone tries to pick the lock, or smash the window open. My car alarm is more sensitive; it goes off if a leaf falls on my windshield.
4:42 P.M.: The Build.
My hands shake, which makes laying out the thin lace thongs almost impossible. I pick up the whole pile and dump it over, deciding to start from scratch. Focusing on the menial task takes up my concentration while I try to control my breathing. Sizing, laying, perfecting; the few things I can easily do. I look over at my manager–a long haired brunette layered in AEO attire. She rattles off the benefits of our store credit card to a customer effortlessly, including how, if they sign up today, they “save 30% on the first purchase.” She’s skilled and confident, her six years of experience shine through her. We lock eyes; I force the least panicked smile I can. She smiles back, unaware of my internal war.
Imagine being pushed into a cage with a hungry lion. Mouth watering, he snarls and circles you. Your body shakes, sweat drips, adrenaline rushes–that very real fear of death consumes you. But you’re not with a lion–you’re just studying in the library or at the movies with your friends. A seemingly safe place has become your death bed.
4:46 P.M.: The Peak.
You need to get out.
I wipe my hands on my jeans, getting off the sweat that has gathered in the middle of my palms. I feel my heart beating fast, it echoes in my ears. There are two immediate exits from my store that I can access right now, but the fear of disappointing my manager keeps me stuck in place. An acidic taste inhabits my mouth and I try to swallow it down but my throat is completely dry. I start to pace around my area in hopes that moving my legs will make me feel less claustrophobic. My legs tremble, I sway with every step. I walk around the wooden table that displays our t-shirts in an attempt to look busy. A small dip in the floor catches my foot and I trip over myself, just enough for the few people around me to see.
Damn it. Everyone’s looking at you.
“Are you okay?” A customer asks.
“Oh yeah, just caught a little bit of the floor, thank you.” I reply, feeling the sting of hot tears peaking out of my swollen face. Flashes of hot sweats and cold chills run over me and my body turns into a battlefield for opposing temperatures. It takes every bit of strength I have to contain the tears and fabricate a thankful smile.
4:53 P.M.: The Calm.
I inhale slowly, leaning on a wall next to the rack of push-up bras. I can still feel myself shaking, but regaining control of my breathing tops my priority list. As reality sets, I get hit with a wave of humiliation and sadness. The medical disorders’ stigma rings in my ears, confirming my own personal feelings.
This isn’t normal–I’m not normal.
The recurrence of these attacks are often unexpected, making it almost impossible to ever prepare for them. I glance around; everyone looks calm. A stillness sets over the store and things seem to slow down. I walk back over and stand in front of the undies table. Looking down at the assortment, a pit in my stomach starts to grow. I start to sift through the piles, wondering how long it will be until the cycle repeats.