Panic! At The Grocery Store

It happens fast.   One minute Emmeline is pushing a grocery cart, turning the corner from the international foods aisle into the canned vegetable aisle, and her world slams sideways. It’s like a scene in a movie where the characters are riding in a car and then BAM!, a truck slams into their peaceful world, turning it into one of broken glass and twisted metal.

When Emmeline pushes her cart into the canned vegetable aisle, the force that hits feels as big as a truck, but there is nothing there, and nobody except Emmeline feels the force of the impact. The crash is in her brain, and the truck is a spot of red on the grocery aisle floor.

Emmeline sees the red blotch on the floor in front of her and her reaction is sudden and instinctive. In the nanosecond that it takes her to see and register the red her brain delivers a message straight to her brainstem, bypassing all rational thought: red-puddle-probably-blood-check-for-drops-must-be-blood-could-be-infected-with-aids-no-way-to-know-must-assume-it-is-might-get-on-your-shoe-when-you-take-off-your-shoe-your-hand-might-brush-it-hangnail-on-your-finger-conduit-to-your-bloodstream-you-will-DIE”.   The thought explodes in her amygdala, sending out a surge of adrenaline so strong she starts to shake.

Emmeline’s response is not to fight or flee, but to freeze. She stops so fast the cart jerks. Her vision narrows to pinpoint focus on the puddle of red on the checked linoleum floor. Everything else is blurry white noise. Her rational brain checks out — scattered into broken pieces like the glass of a broken windshield. Icy cold starts in her fingers and moves through her body. Her breathing is shallow and fast.   Her thoughts spin and spiral: BLOOD. What do I do. BLOOD . What do I do. BLOOD . The same thought circles around and around, tighter and tighter, squeezing the air from her lungs.

She stands there, unable to move, until another cart turning the corner runs into her, making her jump .

“Sorry,” the woman says, giving her a strange look as she maneuvers her cart around Emmeline’s. The woman continues on down the aisle, not even glancing at the spot on the floor that has taken Emmeline hostage.

What must she be thinking? Emmeline hears her mother’s words in her head. Social anxiety kicks in and Emmeline starts to sweat. She goes from icy cold to sweat dripping down the backs of her legs. She backs up her cart and parks to the side, buying time for her mind. The woman has shaken her thoughts loose from the spiral, but her brain is still scattered, thought pieces jiggling like little toads. Her knuckles are white where her hands grip the cart. She pries her hands loose and pulls a wet wipe out of her purse. She scrubs her hands, front and back. She takes a slow breath. Do something. Her thoughts are still too scattered. She can’t think.

Emmeline has no idea how much time has gone by. She is exhausted. The normal activity of the grocery store continues around her. She wipes the handle of her cart with her wet wipe out of habit. Her ears feel like they are filled with cotton; she can hear “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks coming through the store speakers as if from miles away. But her sense of sight and smell remain strong and focused on the source of her fear. She stares at the linoleum gleaming beneath her feet, and her vision tunnels to see every scratch, crumb, and mark dotting its surface. The smell of the wet wipe — alcohol and disinfectant — is like a weapon that she carries against the monster fear. The OCD monster.

Her rational brain has finally caught up and intellectually she understands that it is the OCD monster that is causing her panic, sending her false messages of danger. Her rational brain knows that even if it is blood on the floor in the next aisle, her chances of getting HIV are less than her chances of getting into a car accident as she drives home.   But her rational mind is too late to the panic party. The tornado of anxiety has already been triggered, released from the Pandora’s box in her mind. Now all she can do is try to pack it back in as best she can.

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