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.


I’m Afraid I’m Going To _____

Die.  That is how I would finish my sentence.  Most of my obsessive thoughts have to do with avoiding or averting a perceived threat to my life.  I have an irrational fear that the choices that I make will inadvertently lead to my death.  Therefore I must be vigilant and careful with my choices and surroundings.

I have searched my memory in an attempt to understand how my thinking got to where it is now.  Most kids are fearless, and have little understanding of death, and I was like most kids.  Yes, I was always a cautious child, a typical first born, but I wasn’t worried about dying.  But then in elementary school, my classmate and his family were in a car accident and his mother and sister were killed. They were just on a family drive to their grandparents and the wind blew the car into a guardrail.  That is when I discovered death as a real and scary thing that didn’t just happen to old people.   

I also remember an incident a few years later that probably cemented the way that my young brain interpreted those deaths.  I was swimming on a small lake with two friends, and I got stuck under water for what was probably about thirty seconds, but felt like minutes.  I panicked.  I thought I was going to drown because I hadn’t been careful.  A friend helped me, get out, but I was left with an overwhelming fear that one moment of impetuousness had almost killed me.  At least that is how my young mind saw it.  It wasn’t an accident, it was my fault.

From then on I found myself drawn to stories about people surviving  unimaginable tragedies, both in my reading and in media.  I think I believed that somehow I could learn how to either avoid, or at least develop a strategy for dealing with the inevitable disaster that I was sure was hurtling toward me like a freight train.  I couldn’t count on my continued vigilance.  The other shoe was going to drop.  Sometime.

I didn’t discover a plan or a strategy.  Instead, I only fed my worrying, fretting, monkey mind.  There were so many possibilities, so many choices to be made all day, every day.   Should I choose for others or for me?  For long-term or short-term?  To get through or go forward? And on and on and on and on it went, spiraling all the way down.   The Germans even have a word for this : Zerrissenheit.  

Anxiety writer Sarah Wilson, in explaining the philosopher Kierkergaard’s take on choice and anxiety writes: “…even the smallest decisions open us up to the realization the the possibilities are limitless.  When we see this limitlessness, we must also face, well, that it all ends soon enough in death.”

What I crave is a still point, a space away from the choices that define me.   A space between the chaos and yet among it that is blissful and oh so rewarding.  I seek a path for my days that does not spiral, but instead ripples.  The stress and anxiety will always be there, but I seek a way to make those battles matter, to feel like they move me forward in my understanding of myself, and ultimately inform better and better choices.  And my hope is that along with those better choices comes less anxiety about making choices.

Until then I sit here in a spiral of anxiety, fretting and wondering if one of the choices that I made has finally made that other shoe drop.

Transparency and Mental Health Day

What does it mean to be transparent? Transparency is a word that is frequently used these day to imply an hones, “share my truth” kind of mindset.  The hope is that it will  bring better and deeper connections with others. The question of what to share and how much plagues both my writing and my everyday life.

The internet, and more specifically, social media, is filled with people being honest about what they think via hateful and angry words. I don’t want to add to the ugliness out there. In those cases, it seems better to follow my mother’s rule for me as a child: “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it”.   But does that mean I only write the nice things?  I don’t believe that is the answer either. The answer lies somewhere in the gray area between “nice” and “mean”.  I am not a fan of the gray area. There are no definite rules to follow, and everything is subjective.  Which means that if I am going to be honest, I am also going make myself vulnerable to misunderstanding and rejection.  That scares me.

Brene’ Brown writes about how important love and acceptance is to every human being. She says, “if we want to fully experience love and belonging, then we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we can let go of what other people think of our own story, we gain access to our worthiness. Our sense of worthiness lives inside our story. The greatest challenge for most of us, is believing we are worthy now. This minute.”

There are different truths that I could share today, but since it is mental health awareness week, I’ll talk about the truth of my mental illness.  The conversation around mental health has gotten easier and more prominent, but this was not the case when I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder twenty six years ago.  Back then depression was something people were just starting to understand, but OCD was (and still is) just plain weird.

We don’t want to talk about things we are ashamed of, but the only way to resolve shame is to talk about it.

The type of OCD that I have involves intrusive, obsessive thoughts about deadly germs, and therefore a compulsive need to wash — especially my hands.

Here is one shameful admittance about my early years with OCD:   There was a time when I went through eleven large bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I used the alcohol to rinse my hands because I didn’t believe that just washing them got rid of all the germs. My young son hated the smell and wanted me to get rid of what he called “the white stuff”. Like an alcoholic medicates his anxiety with a drink, I erased my anxiety by pouring it on my hands. I told you it was weird. Show of hands — who out there thinks that drinking a shot of tequila is more normal than pouring rubbing alcohol on their hands? Thought so.  That’s why it is a mental illness. It is irrational. I don’t want to have the thought, the need to wash.  It is not something that I think other people should do.  It makes no sense, yet I am compelled to do it beyond any rational thought.

So many people look at OCD and think it is about control. You’re just a control freak. or, you need things to be just so. That is not OCD. There are people who are control freaks, but they don’t suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They simply have an obsessive personality. Their desire for order makes them happy. By contrast, people who suffer from OCD are miserable. They (I) live in mental torment.  They would give anything not to need to wash (or count, or move a certain way).

For me, when I start my day, I am not looking forward to all of the things I will clean. I start every day at one side of a minefield that I must cross to get through the day.  Each day I step carefully, tentatively, afraid of coming across a trigger that will blow my emotions apart and leave me, post blast, in the white noise of my brain, unable to see or hear anything except the pounding of blood in my head.  FIGHT.  FLIGHT.  FREEZE.  One of those three things happen when I trigger my obsessive thoughts.

Fight is the best of the three.  If I can fight the obsessive thoughts, I will come out the other side stronger for it.  I am most likely to fight if the explosion is a small one — something I encounter regularly, or something I have to do on a regular basis.

Flight is my most common response.  I rush home, if I can, and find relief in my safe environment.  I have a sink and a shower where I can wash away the anxiety and fear so that I can think again.

Freeze is the worst.  My brain just stops working properly.  I can’t think of what to do next.  My hands shake so hard I can’t hold a phone, my extremities go numb, my body sweats profusely, and I have trouble speaking more than a few words.  The longer I stay like this, the deeper the anxiety spirals.  I can’t stop it.  It just HAPPENS to me.  I usually need help from someone close to me to break through a spiral this bad.  I have to move slowly, breathe deeply, and just WAIT until some of the panic ebbs and rational thought is allowed back into my brain.

The bad freeze episodes don’t happen very often, but they are terrifying enough that I spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid triggers that might lead to a freeze.  The things that I do to avoid the triggers, are the types of things that others see as controlling actions.  It doesn’t feel that way to me.  I feel like the world is this big messy place intent on crushing me, and I have no armor, no battle skills.  The most that I can do is put little flags up in the minefield of my day.  I put these flags by the triggers that I know, and sometimes by triggers that I just guess at.  And then I stay away from those flags.  Sometimes the explosions can be triggered by others in my life, so I ask them to stay away from those flags too.  It doesn’t make sense to them, because they don’t feel the explosion.  They don’t feel the mindless panic.  They just see a stupid flag.

It is a lonely world controlled by an unwell mind.