Right before COVID hit, I was just starting to break free from the stiff hold my rules have had on me for decades. The rules I’d set in place to help myself survive were slowly lessening. Melting away as I learned to let go. And everyday things like going to the store started feeling easier. Less panic-inducing. But now that COVID outbreaks are the reality, my need to control my environment is back in full swing. Causing me to risk having a panic attack every time I leave the house.
Going to any store has always been difficult for me. The lights are too bright. There are too many sounds. Unpleasant sounds at that. And the smells. If only I never had to walk past a meat or seafood counter again. Not to mention smelling someone’s cologne or perfume. There’s also people walking in every direction. Disorienting me. Bumping into me. Causing an immediate fight-or-flight response. Invading my personal space. Leading to panic.
So now with COVID, the usual things that used to be difficult are now amplified. I find myself unable to be outside of my house without thinking about where it’s at. Like I’m trying to find it. See it. Scope it out. But it hides. And tricks. And taunts. It is, after all, a predator.
When making a trip to the store, it used to be that I would only touch things with my right hand, saving my left hand to touch my face, if needed. And I could get through the store with only that rule standing in my way. Now, I have to have my mask on before leaving my car. Wear disposable plastic gloves (which is a struggle for the environmentalist in me). Wipe the entire cart down with a sanitizing wipe. Hold my breath when walking past anyone not wearing a mask. Or wearing it underneath their nose (it baffles me that people still don’t get it). I have to wipe the bags down with antibacterial wipes before they go in my car. Once home, I have to wipe down each item before I put it away.
I realize that many of these things others are doing now too, but considering all of the other stressors going to the store already puts on me, each trip takes double the time it used to take. With double the stress. And that’s if all goes well. I’d been having luck on my trips, getting used to my new shopping routine — and adjusting to seeing everyone in masks, which can induce panic all on its own — but I had only tackled two small grocery stores. And then I went to Target.
It was my first time since the outbreak going to Target, one of my favorite stores that I’d been avoiding because of its size, but my husband wanted to pick out a bike for his birthday. Once inside, I felt okay. I could walk beside my husband, adding a buffer between myself and others. My fear of someone touching me has also become extremely amplified. We headed to the back of the store by the bikes, but there weren’t any left on the racks, so we headed for the grocery aisle to grab a few things we needed. Then a group of teenagers walked by not wearing their masks.
I tried to move away to dodge them. To hold my breath so not to breathe in their possible COVID-infested germs. But then I found myself in the back-to-school aisle where there were even more people — coming and going in all directions, some wearing masks and some not — and it was over. I was completely disoriented.
My husband insisted we leave, but I wanted to push through to at least get the grocery items I knew we needed. I hate going to the store and accomplishing nothing. Defeat is imminent. But then the aisles started to blur together. I couldn’t differentiate between items on the shelves. I couldn’t look up; only down. I couldn’t hear or speak. Then, I could no longer breathe.
Guided by my husband, we did a run-walk to the front of the store. Because when you feel as if you cannot get enough oxygen in, and the mask sucks to your face as you gasp for air, the only way to make it better is to run out of the store and get far enough away from people so you can take your mask off and finally breathe.
Then, by the red bench outside where no one was around, I ripped off my mask and gasped for air. Hands on knees. Bent over like an NBA player who’d just run full court too many times.
People watched. That I’m used to. And I felt the need to put on my mask quickly as people passed close by. To protect them. Just in case. So we did another run-walk to the car. Where I could breathe safely.
I wasn’t able to go to any other stores that day, leaving my husband without his birthday present. But I did go to the grocery store a few days later to get the things we needed. Because I know that I have to make myself get through this. That I’ve come too far to let this send me back into an agoraphobic state. So now I make myself go to the store at least twice a week. Trying a new store at least once a month. The other day, I went to two stores back to back. I even made a Target run by myself one night. So I’m getting there. One step at a time. Mask, anxiety and all.