I've been working at the same place for 2 years and 9 months (but what actually feels like way too long) and, at this point, most of my coworkers are aware of my anxiety and panic attacks. Fortunately, in the past I've either been able to hide my panic attacks or call out of work on the days I felt anxious in order to avoid the dreaded attack. Also, the holidays are coming up, which means seasonal hires. Fresh faces and new friends who aren't aware of my issue and that I can totally catch off guard with my craziness.
So, about a week ago, I arrived at work for my closing shift and was immediately overcome with a sense of doom that was triggered by who knows what. I recognized the pounding heartbeat and shortness of breath and immediately went to the bathroom to try to calm myself down. My shift was starting in five minutes, and I began to become jittery and dizzy and it felt like a million fire ant were crawling over my arms and chest. One thing I've learned from these past few years with an anxiety disorder, is that panic attacks just need to run their course. There's no stopping it once it starts and you'll feel a heck of a lot better once it's over. So I told my manager on duty that I was in the midst of an anxiety attack and needed a few minutes. All I wanted to do was run out of the building but I was so light-headed and dizzy that I just sat down in the break room. Cue multiple awkward encounters with coworkers who just don't understand panic attacks...
1. "Um, I don't know what to say right now." - At this point, I do not even try to hide my mental state from people anymore. So obviously when my coworkers walked into the break room and saw me hyperventilating and shaking, they asked my what was wrong. "Oh I'm just having a panic attack, no biggie!", I'd blurt out. Then the looks. The confusion. The awkwardness. I actually had a coworker look at me in horror and say that he had no idea what to say, then turned around and walked out. I mean, sorry that I scared you away, but even if you could have, you probably wouldn't have said anything helpful anyway.
2. "Oh, shoot, okay, well, um, sorry!" - This one was actually pretty hilarious and if I wasn't trying to convince myself that I wasn't having a heart attack at the time, I probably would have laughed in his face. This particular coworker actually freaked out and stuttered and walked in a circle before turning back around and going right out the door. It was like I told him that I was about to grow another head or like he walked in on me changing or something. He couldn't leave quick enough, and to be honest, I don't think I saw him again for the rest of the night.
3. "Here! Drink water! Do you want some chocolate? Where's your water bottle? You just need to eat something. I'll get you whatever you want!!" - I swear, do not tell me what to do in a situation like this. Do not tell me to eat and do not tell me to drink. Food is the last thing on someone's mind when their parasympathetic nervous system is focusing on fight or flight. And plus, chocolate would only make it worse considering it has caffeine in it! And no, I'm not dizzy because I'm dehydrated. I appreciate your concern and I know that you think you're helping but you really, really aren't and I'm going to need you to leave. You can't water me like a withering plant and expect that my panic would just cease.
4. "Well what happened to start it? Everything is okay and there's nothing bad to worry about." - If anything should be taught to people about mental illness/anxiety/panic attacks it should be that telling someone that they do not have anything to worry about is the absolute worst thing you could say. Panic is a psychological response that tricks your body into thinking you're in danger, even when you aren't. In the midst of a panic attack, I could believe that the ceiling is about to cave in on me and 100% believe it and you telling me that it won't isn't going to change my mind. After the fact, I'll realize how insane it was for me to think that, but in that moment, I will be fully convinced. And most of the time, I have no idea what causes me to spiral out of control after being completely normal two minutes earlier. So, kind coworker, asking me that is only going to frustrate me more and cause me to feel even more crazy because I cannot explain why I'm acting the way I'm acting.
5. ***silence*** - Yes, thank you, please do not speak. Sit down next to me. Do not touch me. Just be there so I don't feel alone. Do not crowd me. One person at a time. If I do die, at least someone will be there with me. Do not offer me anything or tell me what to think. Sit there until I calm myself down enough to look at you and crack a joke or start a conversation. Let me babble to you about my fire ants or how I need to feel my pulse to remind myself that I am indeed not dying. Laugh when I laugh. Finally, someone got it right that day. Thank you for being a friend and loving me when I'm crazy and when I'm not. Sometimes it's best not to try to fix things, but to just accept them.
I guess the main lesson I learned that day is, next time, don't have a panic attack in the break room, where all of my coworkers are constantly walking in and out of. Sorry for freaking every body out.
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