Fellow anxiety-attack-prone friends, a word of warning: avoid the grocery store today.
For me, any day at the grocery store is my anxiety disorder's mecca, so the warning kind of goes without saying. So many people, so many cars, so many options, so many EVERYTHING. On a day when a rare, early-spring ice storm warning is in effect, and the WORLD seems to be at the grocery store, it becomes the mothership of all triggers. Today was one of those days.
But hey, ya gotta eat.
Someone recently asked me, "What does your anxiety attack actually feel like?" For me, "attacks" come in so many colors, sizes, and shapes, I couldn't really paint the picture, so I figured it was worth writing down some day. I experienced a pretty decent sized one today (yes, at the grocery store), so once it passed, my wordsmith urges decided to play therapy. The explanation that follows is not by any means a clinical description of the typical sufferer's experience...just one my own.
For those of you who are also in a relationship with my pal Addy (personifying the asshole that is Anxiety Disorder), you're all-too-familiar with the creepy crawly that starts to bubble under the surface when you even contemplate something as simple as a grocery store visit. (A quick disclaimer: this is not to vilify all grocery stores. The same could be said of any overly populous gathering like a concert or a restaurant or a clothing store. It can also most certainly apply to sitting in one's home or in the office or at a friend's baby shower. Addy does NOT give a shit what day it is or where you are. Addy is here to eff with you in the best of times, and in the worst of times, plain and simple. Stop being a bitch, grocery stores, this isn't about you.)
If it's time to make a grocery run and Addy's in town, you've probably already put off the inevitable for as long as you can, until your fridge resembles a post-apocalyptic anorexic bachelor's, and the only option from the cupboard is 6-year-old poultry seasoning sprinkled on stale saltines. You'd order in, but the possibility of getting an overly-chatty delivery person is crippling in itself (let's also throw in the anxiety-prone brain's storyline that said overly-chatty delivery person is also an undetected sexual predator with a torture fetish who's latent underlying psychopathic murderous tenancies will clearly be triggered by the color of your door, rendering you his or her first victim in a string of bizarre events, providing fodder for a three-part Dateline exclusive). But again, ya gotta eat. This is when you put your big-kid pants on, and go to the gun fight with a butter knife.
For me, an attack usually begins as a quiet, dull, but uncontrollable quiver just beneath the skin across my shoulders, instigating an exaggerated series of quick shrugs and adjustments. After that, the progression really depends on how much Addy feels like digging in; the feels are almost always present, but their accumulation can be incredibly quick, or drawn across several hours. Think "scattered showers" versus "two day storm". Just depends on the front.
Right around the time the shoulder-shuffle starts, the area where I have reason to believe my aorta resides, just below the center of my ribcage and about an inch inside the abdominal wall, begins to electrify. A palpable nervous shot of adrenaline sprays the area, triggering an immediate loss of hunger, and spreading a goo of emotionally-charged energy slime throughout my entire digestive tract. The energetic landslide usually makes its way to my hip sockets and upper thighs, turning my otherwise mostly muscular quads into tremor-ridden panels of unsteady flesh. This is when shit gets interesting.
Bouncing back up top, the shoulder quivers are now full-on sub-dermal thunder clouds, riddled with electricity. If skin could vibrate, this is what it would feel like. It itches, and scratching is no match, as the skin itself seems to have developed an allergy to relief.
A sensation that my blood is too hot takes over, and I can annoyingly feel every fiber of my clothing. The mental flip-flop of "would it feel better without clothes or with more clothes" agitates me, and simultaneously reminds my heart muscle to join the fight.
And it does. Like Conor McGregor.
Now pumping beats per minute like a jackhammer, my vascular system is on overload. I can hear my veins like the squelch of an old cassette tape being audibly fast-forwarded. My lungs start to fail me, but not in the literal sense. It seems that the regulated involuntary process of inhalation and exhalation has just gone stupid, and now requires me to tell it exactly how to function in detailed form. Deep breaths give an illusion that they'll be cleansing...yet upon exhale, there's no release. Imagine that exciting, nervous anticipation when you're at the very top of a massive roller coaster ride, and then only dropping 6 inches. Do it again, with the same magnitude of anticipation...seventeen thousand times.
If you needed anything mixed or blended, now would be the time to hand it to me, because the cumulative energy trying to be released is causing my hands to shake like the tail of a pissed off rattlesnake. An automatic and ceremonious self-soothing mechanism, I instinctively place my fingers in the center of my forehead just above my brow bone, and firmly and slowly swipe outward, immediately followed by smoothing my eyebrows from center to edge with my fingertips. Excessively-hot blood rushes to the area I just manhandled, causing an involuntary raising and lowering of the eyebrows in an effort to disperse the pool. Inevitably, one of my thumb nails will end up between tooth numbers 8 and 25, first right-side up, then with a swift wrist flip, upside-down, and back again.
Now my brain wants a shot in the ring, and goes all in. Working in tandem with the vicious amounts of adrenaline, it sends every auditory signal directly to my eardrums. I can hear light, smells, feelings. To mimic the experience, find a radio station with all static and the occasional pop of lightening, and put earbuds in. Crank the volume as high as it will go. Now make it louder. Throw in a wailing child. Not an infant; their cries elicit a feelings of nurture and care. I'm talking the ear-bleeding, blood-curdling screams of a toddler who's never heard "No" before. Now poke the kid in the sternum. Keep poking.
Now pretend you're in a room. You've got the shoulder storm, the unscratchable itch, the stomach sludge, the hot blood, the heart race, the lung loss, the shaky hands, the brow blood, and the deafening sound all going on, and you're in this room.
And the room has no doors or windows.
And the room's walls are made of people you don't know, and don't want to know.
And the room is the exact size of your body.
That's what some of my attacks can feel like to me. Walk through the grocery store with that.
I've managed my depression and anxiety issues for years. It's not a badge of honor, it doesn't define me. It's not fun, but I also don't hate it, or uselessly pine away with"I wish I didn't have this". That way of thinking, to me, is futile...and honestly, tends to aggravate my pal Addy. Can you imagine the lunacy of having anxiety over not having anxiety?!? It's insane! But that's the reality sometimes.
Gratefully, I've sought out some tools to deal with the attacks when they happen, and I do so, usually without anyone knowing. Re-read that description you just read. It's pretty bad-ass that anyone can function with that level of debilitation underneath. Sure, it can feel it like a weakness at times, and it can really piss me off. But you have to believe there's some strength in the coping. After all this time, I see my Anxiety Disorder the same way I see my one funny-shaped toe. It's part of me, it's imperfect, it's annoying...but in some way, it helps me get around.