My turn. (May is National Mental Health Awareness Month)

I’m not sure if it was the windowless dark room, the large neon-colored flowers adorning the walls, or a subconscious thought. What ever it was, that it triggered my first panic attack. I was nine.

We were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and suddenly, out of nowhere, I needed to run. I walked quickly to the exit because running would have drawn attention to the situation. Thank goodness my older sister came after me to find out what the heck was wrong. We were on the verge of shoveling copious amounts of tacos, burritos and enchiladas into our mouths, interruptions were not welcome. Not exaggerating – I come from a large family; therefore, securing your fair share of food or any other staple necessary to live, was a blood sport.

I sat on a chair with my sister looking at me, waiting for an explanation why I left the table in such a hurry. She’d have to wait because I didn’t know why I panicked.  Safe to say, we avoided restaurants for some time after that. Especially, dark, windowless Mexican restaurants.

I self-diagnosed. Claustrophobia. My new best friend.

Fast forward to adulthood. Sure, I could avoid dark, small places. How difficult can that be? Over time, I devised a strategy that works for me. Plan ahead. Research places and activities before visiting. Simple, with some minor speed bumps along the way…

Spa day? No problem – what can go wrong at a place where the sole purpose is to lose yourself in a peaceful, aromatic, candle-lit environment. Pure Serenity. Wrong! My husband and I were staying at the Ritz Carlton for the weekend and part of this getaway was a luxurious spa afternoon. We were ready and wrapped in our fluffy Egyptian-cotton bath robes. The attendant kindly asks us to follow her to the elevator. WHAT?! (I say to myself, sensing doom) “Oh, our spa is located 2 floors below so it’s very private and exclusive”, she explains to us. Okay, I can do this – for goodness sake, it’s a spa. There I was, peeled like a banana, lying face down on the table. But then I start to think (which is usually when most of my problems begin), “I’m 2 floors below, there are no windows, the room is dark, chime sounds are coming from somewhere”. “What if…?” I suddenly sit upright like a Jack in the Box toy. My eyes become big as bagels. Quickly grabbing the towel.  The masseuse softly asks, “is something wrong, are you okay?”, but in her mind, she’s probably thinking this chick is “cuckoo for cocoa puffs”. I settled down and endured the massage. I survived.

Subways? Oh, hell no.

The London Underground aka The Tube. Both of these names are BIG RED FLAGS to a claustrophobic. I was on a trip with my mother-in-law. She’s an avid traveler and I certainly couldn’t share my anxiety thoughts with her – she’d think, “this cream puff is married to my only son, ugh”. I had no choice. I gathered my strength, bought the tickets, boarded the train, and off we went. Exiting at Parliament square to begin our sightseeing extravaganza. I survived.

Next test. New York City subway. This time, I was traveling with my husband and kids. “Let’s ride the subway!”. Oh Lord, not again. I couldn’t show my kids how terrified I was at the thought of getting on the subway. Not because it’s dirty or because we could get robbed. Rather, because I’d be shoved into a sardine can with hundreds of New Yorkers. I stood on the platform, convincing myself to board. After all, I was able to ride the London Underground. Okay, let’s go, easy peasy. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded and we were able to sit down. The train pulls away from the station. No big deal. We stop a couple of times to pick up a few people. I start to relax. Wow, I’m riding the New York subway, good job! I spoke too soon. Evidently, the storm from the night before had flooded the station we were approaching. The train stops, and does so between station platforms. Not only am I on this closed subway train, the train is surrounded by walls on both sides! I start to think. “What if…?” I begin to look around and realize, I’m going to die, right here in this sardine can. I start to breathe deeply and calm myself with positive thoughts. The train begins to move after a 15 minute delay. We exit near Wall Street and become full-fledged tourists. I survived.

Once in a while, small bits of anxiety crop up during claustrophobic situations. But not nearly as frequent or intense as before. Think positive thoughts and breathe deeply. Last, but not least, I’ve put the kibosh on the “what if’s…”.

The feeling of fight or flight, fear, worry, nervousness, or unease are real to the person experiencing them; however, the danger or pending doom, may not be real. Was I able to leave the Mexican restaurant easily? Yes. Was I trapped or unable to breathe while riding the London Underground? No. Did the New York subway train eventually move and was I able to exit? Yes. I survived and lived to tell the tale (drama intended).

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