Metal clings from some dark recess of the room. Buzzers echo through the crowds chattering away in Spanish. I hear, “NO! MIJO!,” cried out seconds before the sound of glass shattering joins in the chaos. The incessant drum beat of machine gun fire is accompanied by the whine of a child whose innocence is dying a mere four feet from where I stand.
I feel every muscle in my body tense as my heart races. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and I feel the panic overwhelming me. I want to run. So badly I want to escape, but my route is blocked. I’m surrounded on all sides and have no choice but to go inward.
I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. I feel the air pass through my nostrils and I draw it deep into my diaphram. As I follow the breathe outwards I allow myself a small peak at my surroundings. Tile floor. White walls. Glass windows. I reach behind me and physically touch the industrial sized washing machine. Still focused on my breath I start noting the people that make up the scene around me. A soccer mom is next to me getting the stain out of her childs uniform. My own children are chasing hers around with a plastic machine gun from the dollar store. I am at a Washeria doing laundry with my family. There is no danger.
LIVING WITH ANXIETY
Some of you are all too familiar with what I’m describing here. Some of you may even recognize the coping strategy I implemented to pull myself out of the throws of my panic attack. Some may have diagnosed my condition already. Anyone who spends any significant time with me will note the way my eyes seem to take in everything. I almost always sit where I can see most of the room as well as the doors. What they don’t see is the constant head count and clustering people into groups of threats or innocents. The glance at the reflection of the junkie two tables down prompts me to shut my phone off just to be safe. Safe from what though?
A junkie that looks dope sick? There’s no open laptop in front of him. Who said he steals digital data? He’s probably waiting on his supplier to get a fix and that’s the only thing on his mind right now. Trust me, I know. I was prescribed xanax before I was 18 years old. I didn’t like the zombie feeling that came with it so I started smoking weed which worked miracles for my struggle with crowds. Years later I ended up on probation because I had also developed a knack for selling pharmaceuticals. As a result, weed was taken off the table. Heroin, however, didn’t stay in your system nearly as long and also worked wonders. Nevermind the fact it made me feel absolutely nothing, my social anxiety was gone.
What I didn’t know was how far from being human I would be taken in that state of not feeling. I had literally traded in social anxiety for the ability to commit atrocities only drug dealers can relate to. It also landed me in prison. That’s where I picked up the habit of watching the room, head counting and categorizing people by threat levels. Clinically they refer to it as PTSD and it’s a really common issue amongst soldiers and convicts.
In retrospect I wish I had understood what my decisions were going to cost me. The criminal record I can live with because it’s easy enough to talk around with my gift of gab. Selling drugs taught me quite a bit about branding and marketing strategies so when I stepped into general contracting I did really well. Living with the mistakes and the pain I caused is easy enough because I can use my story in a very real way to help others avoid some of their own mistakes and future pain. Anything life throws at you can be transformed into something else, but I struggled finding a way to do that with the anxiety I felt.
It’s a slippery slope. The drugs they offer for the condition either make me feel nothing or make me drool on myself. Either way, after my bout with heroin I vowed to never allow another chemical to wield its power over me. The only sensible course of action then was to treat the root cause and learn to cope, not just with the condition, but life itself. To deal with life on life’s terms if you would. I needed help; professional, psychological help to deal with the panic attacks I was enduring.
I picked up meditation in prison. I had read a book by bo Lozoff titled We’re All Doing Time that forever changed my perception. Anyways, he had mentioned how meditating early in the morning would calm us and give us a calm place to return to when the noise of the day took root. The crazy thing is it actually worked. I was always able to return to my breath and ground myself out no matter what was going on outside of me.
It wasn’t for another decade until I would be properly diagnosed by the state of Texas and would reencounter this strategy again. The drug free way of dealing with anxiety and depression is to change our state.; to accept our outside environment is beyond our control and manage what we can. Often times the only thing we have any control over is how we respond. Coping strategies are the tools we use to do so.
The grounding technique I implemented in the laundromat is actually my personal favorite. Something about rooting myself to the ground makes me feel connected with the Earth and its inhabitants. However, there are a ton of different strategies available. I’m certain there are quite a few psychologists who blog about the subject in much greater detail than I could ever hope to. A quick google search should suffice.
Just know the most important thing you can do is get help. Don’t let fear paralyze you. There are countless numbers of people from all walks of life who totally relate to what you’re going through. I know crowds are difficult but we are social creatures who crave human contact. There are groups that will gladly offer emotional support. You are SOOOO not alone.