panic attack in paradise
Unless you’ve experienced true anxiety first hand, it really doesn’t make much sense, and it’s difficult to understand how one person can behave so dramatically in a seemingly normal situation. That’s why in January of 2015, I was glad there was no one else in the parking lot. It wouldn’t have made any sense to them how I somehow damaged the 2010 Camry my Aunty let me use while I stayed in Grandma's basement.
To be totally honest, I don’t even remember why I was in the car. The first few months of 2015 were the most anxiety-ridden of my life, and it was hard for me to do most daily tasks, especially things that involved me leaving the house. Paranoia caused me to feel daggers with every glance that came my way, and fear kept me from connecting with people- loved ones and strangers alike. That means things like grocery shopping and clothing shopping were very difficult for me. Decision making was also in the top 3 things I sucked at.
So there I was, a little after 9pm, and some failed grocery shopping event brought me to this parking lot. As I tried to make decisions about where to go or what to buy I often would end up driving through and around the same areas, pulling into one store only to decide it wasn’t the right one, then driving to the next one over but then deciding half way I shoulda stayed at the first store, making a u-turn, and- you get the idea. If I remember correctly that's how I got to that parking lot. It was the top level, and I could see the Pacific Ocean in the distance and the wonderful hills of St Louis heights on the other side.
There I was, alone in a completely empty parking lot in paradise, driving a car that my family generously lent me for my time on the islands. I was drowning in indecision, unsure of what I needed to buy, I had forgotten where my shopping list was, and which stores I went in and out of already today, and thankfully, it dawned on me that I should stop driving when my anxiety is so high.
So after making a three-point turn for no reason other than having three different ideas of what I should be doing- I parked.
I sat in the leather seats, surrounded by the peaceful warm blanket of a night that only really exists in Hawaii, and I put my head in my hands. I couldn’t cry even though I wanted to, I have a hard time crying alone. My eyes were teary but nothing came out of me other than quick rapid breaths. I still didn’t quite understand when I was having panic attacks at that point in my journey, I just knew I was getting lightheaded. Then my magical cognitive distortion kicked in- catastrophizing.
All of a sudden my mind was seeing how I would die in this parking lot alone because I had a panic attack in a locked car and nobody knew I was here, I would pass out from hyperventilation, then run out of oxygen and die in my sleep. I was just a few minutes drive from home, I told myself the risk of driving while in a panic attack had better odds than the risk of dying alone in a parking lot in paradise. By this point, I didn’t even remember that I had gotten into the car for something I desperately needed: food.
Head out of hands, breathe deep Sara. In, and out and in and out. My head starts to get back in shape and I turn the ignition, and for some reason, even though the parking lot is empty I reverse. I look behind me and somehow miss the huge post of the light overhead, its painted bright yellow, and even though I see it my brain doesn’t register, and I back straight into it.
I get one foot out of the car before it occurs to me that I’m still in reverse and I should turn off the engine. Or park, right- park first, then engine off.
Step out of the car, feel the warm blanket of a Hawaiian night hug me as I try not to scold myself for ruining the bumper of a car so generously lent to me.
Fuck, I fucking hit a bright yellow fucking street light in the middle of a fucking empty fucking parking lot.
What a fucking idiot, don’t deserve to drive, who do I think I am, what the fuck do I think I am doing, I can’t even fucking park, I can't even fucking buy food, I can’t even fucking fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
Head in hands again, and this time I can cry. I collapse onto the pavement with only the company of parking lines and a dented bumper and the warm empty Hawaiian night. I cry because I feel alone, because I don’t know how to ask for help, because I don’t believe I can be helped, because I just wanted to buy some food and I’m such an incapable piece of shit. The warm asphalt doesn’t care about my tears, the warm breeze doesn’t stop to check on me, the warm night in paradise just makes me feel all the more alone and cold.
I don’t know how long I spend like that, but eventually, the sound of cars zooming by on the road below slowly brings me back to reality.
How long have I been here?
I take a breath and tell myself to get out of here before a security guard comes by. As much as I feel alone and need love and someone to ask if I’m okay, I’m terrified of anyone seeing me at all, in any way. I get back in the car- ignition, seatbelt, drive (not reverse Sara, drive).
I drive home as slowly as I can without looking suspicious, park the car, and let myself inside.
I sit on my bed, still crying, and for the first time in days, I fall asleep.
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So much of why we struggle with mental health is because we believe we’re alone. But we’re not. My experience with PTSD as a sexual assault survivor has changed my life in many ways, one of the biggest is founding The Survivor Stories Project- a nonprofit that uses a mobile app to give sexual assault survivor the coping tools they need to heal, made by a survivor for survivors completely free of charge. www.safewithsara.org