Oh Hi Panic Attack
Well, la dee fucking da! Look who decided to stroll in and join the party!
I was waiting for you to show up! Seeing that I was just on television, getting all of my likes, and riding out this wave of positivity, it's only fitting that you come crashing into my world like the fucking Kool-Aid man.
I was so close to the finish line. I took the last remaining Fluoxetine in my bottle in the morning, and, in a day where I was hitting an energy wall and feeling like I may slide into a day of full-on depression day, I rallied, got myself up, and ran some errands.
For anyone who has every dealt with mental health issues before (or, hell, have ever been a human) - you can probably understand why I recognize getting dressed and leaving the apartment as a huge victory.
Anywho, today's blog post is about having a panic attack in CVS.
I was on TV this past Friday (you said that already). It was awesome. I hung out with old friends and had a Minetta's Tavern burger for the first time. It was awesome. I managed three bars at a 200-person wedding on Saturday. Went off without a hitch. I got a generous envelope for the party I worked the weekend before. I found a parking spot in Washington Heights when I got home at 1am. That never fucking happens. I spent the next day laid out on my couch, drinking beers and watching football. I made penne vodka with chicken cutlets and had a beautiful Sunday dinner, then proceeded to fill out the evening introducing Hannah to Election and Sideways, two of my favorite movies.
Then, Monday. Was it because it was Monday? I don't know. Probably not. Monday's are usually a relaxer/artists date for me. I made a plan to see a movie at 1pm. I woke up earlier than I wanted, to a whirlwind of panicky thoughts about very small things (a rerun of the line-crossing sexual thing that guy sitting next to us said at the baseball game went went to in San Francisco 3 months ago took the wheel for most of it). Staring at the ceiling at the ass-crack of dawn on my day off when I was planning on relishing in sleeping till whenever I want was enough to rattle my cookies (is that an actual saying?)
I stepped out of my bedroom to have a "fuck it, let's see if I can make the most out of being up early" morning. I made coffee, started my morning pages, and then the fucking cats started fighting. Fucko, with his pent-up bowel movements and refusal to take his poop meds (we discuss this cat's defecation, or lack thereof, at least once a day), was in full-on agitated asshole mode and attacking our other cat.
My recent therapy sessions have informed me that I don't like having my routines broken. Writing my morning pages in peace while I drink unnecessarily strong coffee, followed by taking my phone off airplane mode and checking my social media likes on the toilet, turns out, is very important to me. Go figure.
So now, instead of collecting dopamine drips on the John, I was yelling at two animals who don't respect me. I feed those assholes and clean up their poop and give them medicine when they're sick and take them for walks in the hallway and trim their nails and comfort them when the lightening scares them and play with them when they want the laser pointer and cat nip and I buy them customized bowels and kicker toys BUT STILL NO RESPECT.
No matter what happened next, I was going to be thrown. However big or small, my routine, whatever rhythm was going to get me through the day, was fucked up. No matter how much coffee I pumped into my body, I was going to be tired by late-morning and want to nap. No matter how much I wanted to write, the cats were undoubtedly going to drive me insane. The plan I had to go to the movies was 86ed by 10am.
I ended up watched two episodes of Bar Rescue (nothing soothes the nerves like Jon Taffer screaming at belligerent losers for two hours), then took a three-hour nap. So much for my movie/coffee shop, writing session artist date. While the nap sounds great on-paper, it's one of those fuckers I call a "trap nap", where I get seduced by lighter, more fun adventure dreams but somehow wake up feeling more comatose and depressed than I was when my head hit the pillow.
An hour's worth of snoozes and doom scrolls later, I rolled out of bed at 4:30pm. My day was fucked. I slumped back to the couch and sat down. Before I could turn on the TV, I heard the bass from music downstairs. I tried to watch Food Network and soldier through, but all I could focus on was boom boom, boom-boom... boom boom boom, boom-boom. The dog two doors down, who sounds like he's the size of a fucking mountain lion, whose owners I hate because I think it SUCKS to have a dog that big in an NYC apartment, started barking.
Woof woof, boom boom boom, woof, boom, boom boom.
Enter accelerated heartbeat. Beat Bobby Flay becomes completely drowned out. I spring from the couch and pace around my living room for a few moments. Fuck this. I need to go outside. I need my medicine. Just get it the fuck over with and escape this bullshit.
The crisp autumn air hits my legs first, because I'm desperately clinging to the last days of shorts-weather. I immediately start to feel better. I put on a podcast and listen to Bill Simmons and Van Lathan break down the Tony/Bobby fight, my favorite scene from The Sopranos.
I felt at ease, proud that I removed myself from a situation that was elevating my anxiety. I was proud that I practiced "radical acceptance", which has been a banner breakthrough in my therapy.
That all went to hell the moment I walked into the CVS on Dyckman Street. I could have went to the park. But no, I went to the CVS on Dyckman. If you've ever has the misfortune of visiting this store, you probably know how this will go for me.
- Replace the luffa I've been using for two years
- Face cream
- Styling paste
- Take the items, grab my medicine from the pharmacy, pay for everything there
Such a simple plan. I grab my first two items with ease, then the fun started.
A man in the next aisle began talking loudly on speaker phone in the next aisle over. Everything was in Spanish, and it sounded like a happy conversation, one that could fucking wait, one that the entire god damn store didn't need to be subjected to. I thought about how I wanted to knock over the aisle and have it crush him, then point and laugh as he explains to the phone, which is now five feet away, what happened.
My hands were full, and a series of text messages start coming through. Six, in fact. They are all read to me by Siri, through my earphones. The ping, then "this person says... Ok!"
Ping.... this person loved your message
Ping.... this person liked your message
Ping.... this person says ______
Ping.... this person says ______
Ping.... this person says ______
The bongos that are my heartbeat began to intensify.
I turned the corner and saw the line for the pharmacy. As fucking always, theres a line that covers a full-aisle. And as fucking always, there are nine people working back there, with one person - the slowest, dumbest one, working the register.
The man on the speaker phone followed me into the aisle.
Ping.... this person says hahahaha.
I knew full-well that this is at least a twenty-minute wait, but I absolutely desperately need this medicine because it helps me cope with situations just like this one. I needed to tough it out.
Ping.... this person says ______
I felt shortness of breath, I could hear my heartbeat between lulls in this motherfucker's conversation.
Ping.... this person says ______
It was time to execute a tactic: Count and identify five objects of your surroundings.
Next to me: condoms. There's the blue ones, the big ones, the ribbed ones, the KY Jelly, the cage protecting them from theft.
My heart rate slowed. Fuckface garbage speakerphone man left. The texts stop. I kept counting objects in the sex cage.
Ribbed, blue, KY, Magnums, non-lubricant, the cage.
Ribbed, blue, KY, Magnums, non-lubricant, the cage.
The fucking line still hadn't moved. There is one young, indifferent worker back there. He could not move more slowly. He could not give less of a fuck. I kept breathing, more and more heavily. I pull my mask an inch away from my face to catch a gulp of "fresh" air.
He turned away the guy two people ahead of me. I overheard the man tell the clerk "but they said yesterday that it was ready", to which the clerk bluntly replied, "well, it's not here."
The man turned away and said, "mother fucker."
Then, the couple in front of me was next to go. The chose to go up one at a fucking time.
I've passed the condoms and needed a new batch of things to count.
I heard the pharmacist, the fucker in the white coat who was administering covid vaccines, try to corral a different aisle full of people waiting.
"THE LINE STARTS IN THIS AISLE. IF YOU ARE FOR A COVID VACCINE, THE LINE STARTS IN THIS AISLE."
From the next aisle, I heard, "excuse me, the line STARTS here."
"I was waiting for ten minutes already!"
They began arguing. The pharmacist intervened:
"SIR, THE LINE STARTS IN THE CLEANING SUPPLY AISLE."
"I DON'T WANT TO WAIT!!!"
I felt the bottle of soap slide down my sweaty forearm. I used my knee to catch it, then shuffled the items in my arms in a way that made sense. My heartbeat thumped in my ears.
Reading glasses, canes... reading glasses, melatonin, masks, old man waiting impatiently in the chair.
Old man waiting impatiently in chair.
Everyone around me is fucking impatient because this asshole could not give less of a fuck.
I can't stop my heart. Reading glasses, canes... reading glasses, melatonin, masks. Breathe.
I approached him. He's taller than he looked over there. From the mask up, he looked like a kid sucker-punched me on a bus in high school, then denied it years later. I released all of my sweat-drenched items onto his counter.
"Picking up a prescription. Last name Russell." A tremble in my voice.
"What's your last name, Russell?", he dryly asked, never looking up from the computer.
"That is my last name. First name is Christopher." You fuckhead.
"Date of birth."
"July 27th, 1984."
He typed lackadaisically. I could feel the tension of the people behind me, the old man sitting next to me.
Almost there, I told myself.
"We don't have nothing for you", he drones out.
"What? No. I get an automatic refill every month."
"Well, it's not here." No empathy. No fucking dash of helpfulness. Just wanting to get through the line without caring about getting through the motherfucking line.
It was at that point where I could no longer speak. All the saliva evaporated from my mouth. I didn't have the wherewithal to tell him off, or to ask for a manager, or to put some more fight in it. I didn't even have the strength to say "thank you", so I could regret it later on.
All I could do was grab my shit and walk away. I heard him suck his teeth behind me. In that moment, it was either quickly turn and fire my bottle of Suave man soap at his fucking forehead, or walk away like a chump.
I quickly moved back through the now-aisle-and-a-half long crowd of increasingly pissed-off people, passed the ice cream fridge, the beer, then almost plowed into the security guard.
Fuck. I didn't pay for my stuff. I didn't even get the satisfaction of making this son of a bitch ring of my items.
My ears started ringing. The security guard looks at me, and I think he smiled. At least he was nice (?). I walked to the five-person-deep line, and continued shaking. It was an olympic event to keep everything balanced in my hands and arms. My mouth was so dry, I couldn't swallow. My vision blurred. My eyes watered.
Then, a pat on my ass. A. Pat. On. My. Fucking. Ass.
I thank whatever God exists that my hands were full. Because if they weren't, the person behind me would have been greeted with a right hook to the mouth. Thank God, thank God, thank GOD.
Because the person behind me was my girlfriend.
The series of texts I was getting were her trying to coordinate meeting at the supermarket after, so she could help me carry groceries home. I was so frantic that I couldn't absorb them.
She saw immediately what was happening. Before she could say a word:
"That mother FUCKER behind the FUCKING pharmacy desk. FUCKING idiot. STUPID MOTHER FUCKER. FUCKING waiting twenty FUCKING minutes in that FUCKING line and he didn't give a FUCK."
This continued for about another twenty seconds (in a scream-whisper, mind you. Even in a full-blown panic attack, I can be classy.)
I need to take a pause and explain the importance of pre-communicating your needs in this type of situation with the people closest to you. Because instead of trying to fix it, which would have made things 100% worse for me, she asked:
"Do you need space?"
Then, in the last bit of English I'd be able to muster for the next hour:
And she did. She went to the Halloween decoration aisle, which is what she came in for.
I was able to pay without incident, outside of the cashier insisting that I sign up for an Extra Care card, which I already had but was too shaky to punch in my phone number. Plus, I was not in a receiving mood with trying to fold a 9-foot-long thesis of useless coupons into my pocket.
I muttered some form of "no, fuck off" in gibberish, dumped my stuff into my bag, snatched my debit card from her and walked outside.
I pulled the mask off my face and breathed in a huge load of New York City garbage air. My ears were still throbbing. I couldn't catch my breath. I wasn't on the brink of passing out, but I was in no condition to walk just yet. I leaned against a storefront and pulled out my phone. My first impulse was to type a... strongly-worded email to my psychiatrist's assistant. My hands were too shaky to type, so I called. Outside office hours.
So I put one foot in front of the other, toward... the supermarket.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Why in the world would I go into ANOTHER store after that?
I really should ask myself the same question. But it was where my body wanted to go. Because I love the grocery store. Food shopping brings me a great deal of joy and comfort. I love to cook. I love to look at the proteins and think about all the things I want to make that week. How I can get creative. How I can discover new things. New Ben and Jerry flavors. New flavors of hummus. New weird beers. I love going in for "a couple of things" and walking out with $200 worth of food.
I was hit with the freezing-cold, humid-less air as the automatic door flung open. I slipped my mask on just as I caught a whiff of the produce section. My alarm levels went down at least two notches, right away. The store wasn't too crowded, which was surprising for a Monday at 5:30pm. Finally, a break.
Perusing the aisles, picking out the perfect veggies and starches and cold cuts and indulgences gave me something else to focus on, which brought me more peace. I got all my stuff, and walked right up to a line-less cashier. A nice clerk bagged my stuff. I asked the cashier for change of a ten so I could drop a few dollars in his tip cup. Tipping makes me happy.
I got home. Hannah was there. I apologized profusely, my voice still sounding like I had an active vibrator in my throat. She insisted that I didn't need to. She offered to put away the groceries so I could sit down and get centered. I took her up on it. That, my friends, is progress for me. Accepting help in this type of situation, a couple of years ago, was NOT an option.
I sat down and started writing. At first, a free-write about how much I'd love to beat the pharmacy guy with a hose. Then I started blow-by-blow documenting what just fucking happened. Then, the light bulb clicked that I needed to write this post. With still-trembling hands, I mashed keys the best I could. There were lots and lots of red underlines.
Fuck it, fix it later. Just keep writing.
Hannah finished off the groceries and my inner-monologue took over.
You're home. You're safe. Go to the kitchen.
Marinade the shrimp.
My hand was still too shaky to use measuring spoons, so I improvised. Olive oil. Lemon Juice. Lemon zest. Salt and pepper. Cracked red chili flakes. Dash of soy sauce. Chopped garlic-
No. Not the time to handle a knife. Use your mincer.
Whisk. Grab the shrimp. Put the little fuckers in a ziplock bag. Pour the marinade. Remember to garnish with basil later.
Great. Now go watch Family Guy.
As I waited for the marinade to seep in, I watched the Griffins get into their hi-jinx and laughed a little bit. After two episodes, I got up and cooked. Yellow Mexican rice and broccoli to go with my shrimp. Might not have been the appropriate compilation of flavors, but it was just what the doctor ordered. I drank a bunch of water and avoided the impulse to numb out with alcohol. I plated my food as special as I could. It wouldn't have won me any praise at from the chefs at my catering company, but I had fun doing it.
My hands got less and less shaky. I was breathing normally.
We put on another episode of Family Guy and quietly ate. The rice was a little bland, the shrimp a tad overcooked, but the broccoli was perfect. Whenever this has happened to me in the past, I've always found myself embarrassed during the aftermath. That's something I need to work on. I apologized a few more times, even though I didn't have to. I did my best to steer it in the direction of gratitude.
Here's what I've learned about my panic attacks... um, well, it's hard to say. It's not like I could flip the pages on a calendar and schedule my life around the next one. They usually come knocking when it's least appropriate, but what I am beginning to learn is what leads up to that final trigger. Sure, I probably should have dropped my items and left the store. Those feelings and changes in my body were warning signs.
My biggest takeaway from this particular one were the coping mechanisms I put into practice. And hell, it was food! Could the very same thing have happened in the supermarket? Absolutely. Did focusing on cooking, something I love that soothes me, quell the episode? Yes. Will I always have a kitchen and fresh groceries at my disposal? No.
At the end of the day, and this is thanks to years of therapy and medicine, I was able to problem-solve in the situation. I was able to communicate what I needed to my partner, which also took some work to figure out over time. Luckily, they aren't a common occurrence for me, but it likely won't be the last. Like any other fucked-up life-experience I've had, I'm always going to be better-prepared for the next one. I'm grateful to have a platform to express this. If i didn't have the thought of, "well, I need to write about this one", I may have stayed in it a bit longer, and just sunk into Family Guy for the rest of the evening without truly reflecting.
So, dear reader, thank you for hearing me. I hope this helps.
If you are struggling with your mental health, there is no shame in getting help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.