Hannah Bunker »

What a Panic Attack Looks Like

The sunlight blinded me as we emerged from the underground subway station. We took the 30 minute rush hour subway ride from downtown to the upper east side and arrived at 5th avenue and 59th street in search of a crepe. I have a weak spot for the subtly sweet French pastry, I had a hankering, and we were in New York City where I was sure to find a five star crepe stuffed with strawberries and decadent whipped cream.

As we came out of the station, it didn’t look like any of the others we had crawled out of during the several trips we’ve taken to the Big Apple. This one was grand, tucked away right next to Central Park so its walls were made of the stones shared by the wall of the Park. The stones that, even when on the inside edge of the park below the traffic, are so thick and strong they hide the city’s boisterous car horns and rumbles above and you forget that you’re in the middle of New York City. The city is filled with so many hidden gems and being a guest, it fills my heart to find ones like this antiquated subway station during my short stays.

I took a moment to appreciate the beauty of the architecture that met us above ground. I was happy to be at Central Park again and couldn’t wait to grab our crepes and head to the park to sit on a bench to talk and dream in one of our favorite spots in the world.

But above the park where we emerged, the beauty of the structure was fleeting as people swarmed around me like ants. It was not quiet and it was not still. Up until this point of the trip, I was conquering my usual daily anxiety, sensory processing issues, and OCD – the issues that have all led me to the fetal position in the darkness of my closet gasping for air. On this trip I had made a mindful decision to go with the flow, choose joy, and make choices that protected me from heightened anxiety (i.e.: Not meandering through Times Square. I avoided it. Jesus be near.) Stillness and quiet should not be expected in New York City and most of the time my anxiety can handle the bustle. I usually like the bustle. But at this moment, I was triggered and my anxiety went higher than the Empire State Building. It felt as busy and crowded as Times Square. We stood on the corner looking for our destination but could see no visible signage.

Aaron and I both had our phones out looking for guidance from our maps to find the creperie. It looked as if she was telling us it was within 100 yards of us but we looked to the left and to the right and there were no no buildings likely to house a restaurant. We did the trick where we walked in one direction to see if we were moving closer or further away. We were moving further away. So we went the other direction. But that way didn’t make sense. We were so turned around. I couldn’t tell if we were walking north or south and my social anxiety from the crowd caused my disassociating survival tactic to kick in when I needed it the least; I needed to figure out where to go! Aaron stood there with his head looking down at the map on his phone when a man, holding his 5ish year old son’s hand, yelled at Aaron “Get off your f**king phone!” and then plowed around Aaron. “Why did you get mad, Dad?” I heard his son ask. “Because I get so tired of f**king people on their phone.” he said to his young son.

Okay, I get it. You live there. You’ve got places to go and you don’t have time to be bothered by people with their face down in their phones. I’d be annoyed too. But that was incredibly rude. And I just don’t do rude.

Aaron didn’t hear him. He was so engrossed in his map to hear his explicative. But I heard. And I was frozen.

We couldn’t find where we needed to go and all I could think about was crawling out of my body to get away from the chaos. But I was trapped with no clear destination, no way of moving forward and out. I had consumed this man’s rudeness toward my husband. I just emerged from a half-hour cramped subway where I sat knee to knee and staring at the butts of strangers as I held down the motion sickness from a bumpy subway ride. I was packed into a tight street corner, not knowing where to go, with people whizzing by me every direction. I tried to move out of the way but everywhere I moved there were people and I was in the way. I couldn’t escape. I started breathing heavy and I couldn’t catch my breath. The street started spinning. Aaron asked what was wrong. I couldn’t catch my breath to form words to tell him, which in turn made my breathing more labored. He tried guessing what could be wrong and I couldn’t even tell him what it was. All I could do was keep myself from bursting into tears around what felt like a thousand strangers. I felt like they were all touching me, encroaching in my space. I could hear everyone’s individual conversations all at once but yet they all blended together in one massive, loud roar. I felt like everyone was shouting directly at me. My skin crawled. My body temperature spiked and I broke out in a cold sweat. My chest grew tight and I couldn’t take a breath. I started getting dizzy. My hands were shaking. My knees were about to buckle. I couldn’t control my physical response. The tears that filled my eyes felt like they were on fire. I looked into Aaron’s eyes, unable to say anything, yet pleading for help with my glance. Trying not to sob, I burrowed my head up against his bearded cheek and with a shaky voice holding back sobs, barely whispered into his ear “panic attack.” And with that I let out a sob. We’ve been in this relationship long enough that he knows what that means. When I hit that place, I have no capacity for more input or output and Aaron is always so tender no matter what the circumstances, to meet me with compassion and grace. He immediately grabbed my hand and said “I’ve got you. I’ll take care of you. I’ll get us where we’re going.” He led me across the street where the crowd dissipated and we finally found the entrance to an underground food court in the Plaza Hotel where our destination was hiding.

He held my hand and guided me through the food kiosks. My hands shook, my jaw quivered, my teeth chattered, tears still came down my face yet were cool against the breeze of the air-condition. I felt as if I was floating, my legs numb from the adrenaline. We found the creperie and I sat down to catch my breath again as Aaron ordered our crepes. I dried my tears. The cold air helped my heat exhausted body calm down. I felt like I had just run a 26 mile marathon. I was physically exhausted.

We slowly finished our crepes then walked across the street to sit in Central Park. I was still recovering from the heightened extremes my mind and body had gone through but the calm and beauty of the park acted as a catalyst for recovery. It’s incredible the natural healing that nature can do for the soul. Then it was time to head back to our hotel on the 20 minute subway ride. As soon as we got back, I laid in bed in the dark of our hotel room to continue recovering until it was time to meet some friends for dinner.

It took my body a full 24 hours to physically recover from my panic attack that day. It depleted me. In the moment we were standing on that street corner I was doing my best to make a conscious, mental effort to not let the crowds, the smells, the sounds get to me. I tried standing back away from people. I prayed. I breathed. But I couldn’t fool my body. My mind passed the overwhelming information my senses were taking in on to my body and my body reacted in shock, the way it has dozens of times before in my life.

And that’s what a panic attack looks like.

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