My fight with panic disorder (part one)

The Early Draft

“Stuck in the Middle”

The cashier and the bag boy look at me as if I’m insane.

They have a point.

I toss items out of my shopping cart onto the conveyor belt at mental-case warp speed. The Oscar Mayer bologna package bounces off the belt and onto the floor. The meat is pink and the supermarket lights are bright yellow. It pungent in here, the smell of fresh fruit and deli roast beef wafting through the aisles. The conveyor belt is black, faded after years of rotation and thousands of grocery orders. It squeaks on every other turn. I try to focus on the normal task of placing groceries on the belt, but the florescent lights glare in my eyes and make me look away.

I am having a panic attack.

My fingers shake.

My breath comes in short gasps.

Focus, Cindy.

The cashier is young, high school, with long brown hair, pretty, someday beautiful. The bag boy is no more than sixteen and will grow to be handsome and strong. I think. Maybe I’m fantasizing. My bologna is on the floor. That’s no fantasy. I’m in my forties. Another reality. Sweat screeches from the pores in my chest and underarms. I bend over and throw the bologna package back on the belt, and it bounces to the floor again. Who knew a package of bologna had so much elasticity?

I’m hot. I mean like hells-oven-hot. Eight-hundred-degrees-hot. Who-the-fuck-lit-me-on-fire-hot.


Breathe deeply.

I inhale slowly and exhale. Three times. Like the shrink taught me. I have a moment that’s something less than raging panic.

Once I was as young as these kids. I was that cashier in 1978: Roxie’s Supermarket, home of the fifty-nine cent “rubber” chicken which the boys used to toss and slide across the meat room floor before packaging the skinny yellow carcasses in plastic and putting them on display. When I was that age, we still had to ring in each item. We did not have bar code scanners. This was before my problems with panic disorder. This was before I realized I was a lesbian. I’m not implying a cause-effect connection between panic disorder and lesbianism, just explaining all I was unaware of at age sixteen, all I was “in for” you might say. At Roxie’s, we used our fingers to type numbers on a keypad and counted out change by doing math in our heads. And if we had same-sex desires, we kept quiet about them.

The cashier is silent as she slowly scans my items, eyeing me. The bag boy has a thoughtful expression, as if he’s wondering how he can get me into an ambulance. I can barely breathe. The hot flash runs through me and the heat implodes: spreads inside out, then outside in, from guts to limbs. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this hot in my life, like I’ve just hiked up a mountain under a furious sun. I manage to throw most of the grocery items from the cart onto the belt, but I must get out of the building. The heat in my body will not relent and my mind cannot process rationally. I’ll fall down and faint. The walls are getting fuzzy. I’ll pass out! I must leave.

“I’ll be right back when you’re done,” I say to the cashier. “I need to get some air.” My voice still works like a sane person’s, small, quiet, and strangely normal, as panic roils inside of me.

“You all right, ma’am?” says the nice bag boy.

“I’m just hot, a little crazy.” I give a choppy laugh for his benefit. I look directly at the cashier.  “I’ll leave my credit card with you in case you’re ready to put it through before I return.”  My hands vibrate and the palms sweat. I keep moving my right hand behind my back, pressing into the small of it, a gesture I make only when in the throes of panic. It’s nearly an involuntary movement. Always my right hand. I don’t know why I do this.

Thank God I managed to hand over my credit card. The last thing I need is to have someone return all my groceries to the shelves thinking I won’t be back to pay for them. The last thing I need is to start this shopping debacle all over again. I’ve gotten this far, groceries on the belt, bologna on the floor. I exit through the glass doors out into the early March cold: the gray, the wind, the dank and dampness of late winter in New England. Suicide weather, but I am not suicidal, just saturated in sweat. I have no coat on and the temperature is barely thirty degrees. I’m not cold at all. I’m warm now but not overheated. I try to touch my shaking fingertips of my left hand to my right. I don’t know why I make this gesture either. The cold winds dry the sweat from my neck and back and chest. I’m close to hyperventilating, but I force myself to breathe slowly.

Why is it so hard for me to say to people, “Give me a minute, I’m having a panic attack?” Why the necessity of this ruse, “Oh, I just need some air,” and the little fake laugh to cover up my fear? Why am I ashamed? Embarrassed? I’m still silent about my lesbianism, too, except when I write. I’ve known myself as a lesbian for twenty-five years and have been suffering from panic disorder for even longer. I keep silent about all of it. Some people think I’m mentally unstable if I say I panic. Some people still think being a lesbian also means I’m mentally sick or spiritually evil. It would be worse to be sick with cancer than to panic; it would be worse to repress my sexuality than to deal with homophobes. So I say this with perspective: Life is difficult when you are pre-menopausal, prone to panic attacks and gay.

To be continued….

Note: A version of this essay was previously published in the “Cobalt Review”.

Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston those blog, “The Early Draft” explores a variety of topics including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia and humor.

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