If you’ve ever struggled with agoraphobia — or even just agoraphobic tendencies, as I like to call its watered-down sibling — you know what I’m talking about. And for those with panic disorder without agoraphobia, it’s still not a walk in the park.
The bright lights. The swarms of shoppers. The long, tall aisles that leave you with nowhere to hide.
I could go on…and I will. (Panic warning: there’s some potentially triggering “worst-case scenario”-type stuff below.)
The lack of chairs. I mean, if you have a panic attack and need to sit down, where are you going to sit? Sitting on the floor would cause a commotion. Not only would people have to maneuver their carts around you, you’ll probably also attract attention from curious onlookers wondering why in the hell someone is keeping the bottom shelf company.
Worse yet, someone may ask you what’s wrong. But you can’t speak well because you’re shaking and you feel out of breath. And if someone misinterprets your panic attack as a true medical emergency — as you yourself often do — you might find yourself with an ambulance waiting outside and a bill in the mail. A bill you can’t afford.
The “can’t turn back” atmosphere. You just spent a grueling forty-five minutes wandering the aisles, shopping list in hand, gathering produce and yogurt and bread and muffin mix. You finally found that jar of nuts for which you have that valuable $2.00 coupon. Your cart is full — and you made it this far, so not only would a full-cart panic attack be embarrassing, but it would also be awfully inconvenient.
You can’t turn back; you have to keep going. You put pressure on yourself to continue and trudge on despite the dizziness and the light-headed feeling and the fact that you’re having trouble sensing your feet and the way they’re connected to the floor. When the mental pressure bears down too harshly, and when you finally convince yourself that a blackout is imminent, you run. You leave the cart, run out of the store, and crumble under the pressure of knowing you’ll have to go back and do it all again later in the day.
The check-out lines. You get in line. Someone queues up behind you. You start to sweat as you place the lettuce and the bell peppers onto the conveyor belt. There are so many items in the cart and it overwhelms you. What if you get lightheaded after you bend down to retrieve the Angel Soft from the bottom of the cart? What if you pass out while in line?
What if the cashier starts making small talk or needs to call for a price check? You’ll be stuck in line for longer and it will feel like the candy display is closing in on you. You can’t go back into the aisles — someone is behind you, after all — and you can’t go forward unless you can hack it through the whole payment transaction. Or unless you abandon your cart and run out of the store recklessly. You are stuck.
Okay, enough. You get the picture, don’t you?
This is classic catastrophization. And even if, in the moment, you can recognize the fact that you’re catastrophizing, grocery shopping can still be a terrifying experience for those of us with panic disorder and agoraphobia.
Just last week, I started shaking so badly as the cashier was ringing up my final few items that I intentionally ignored his “paper or plastic?” question. I was too busy counting breaths and squeezing my keys, white-knuckle-style, to keep my hands from going numb. He probably thought I was rude for not speaking. Also, he gave me plastic. Dammit. I wanted paper.
I am determined to tell panic to piss off. And that’s why, earlier today, I decided to hang out at the grocery store.
Yeah. I hung out there. It was kind of like loitering, but it looked legit. I wandered through the aisles as if I were looking for something. I re-traced my usual route. I stood in all of the places where I could recall panicking previously — by the tomatoes, in the paper products aisle, and next to an endcap freezer full of frozen dinners — and I tried to teach my body and mind that the grocery store is not a real threat to my safety. The Lean Cuisine will not attack me. The toilet paper will not strangle me. And tomatoes are just delicious.
Lions are threats. Tigers are threats. Grocery stores? Nope. Not a threat, right? Not a threat.
I hope the lesson sinks in.