I had a panic attack at work yesterday.
This is not my favorite time of year. Halloween freaks me out. The idea of strangers coming to my door with their faces obscured by masks is terrifying. Working retail grocery during the holidays is always a high-stress situation. This is basically the beginning of what I call “Trauma Season.” A lot of bad and scary things have happened to me around fall and winter in previous years, and certain dates bring up terrible memories.
Yesterday at work, I was collecting go-backs and reached under my male coworker’s register to pick up some product that needed to go back on the shelf. As I stood up, he patted me on the neck and said I was a “good girl.”
Because of the nature of what happened in 2016, I am terrified of having people (especially men) even stand behind me and I cannot handle anyone touching my neck. Suddenly, the store was too bright, too loud, too fast-paced. The voices in my head started up, and I began shaking my head as if I could dislodge them. I put all the items back on the shelf, and returned to the front to bag groceries for the last fifteen minutes of my shift. “Don’t do this,” I muttered to myself. “You cannot have a meltdown right now. Just wait ’til you’re off the clock.”
I felt like my mind was just shutting down. Did the eggs go under the bread or on top? What was I supposed to ask the customer? I kept shaking my head and muttering to myself, and my manager approached me and asked if I was okay. As much as I yearn to be asked if I’m okay sometimes, I try to make sure few people at work know I have mental illness. My manager is aware because I once had to go home because of a medication mistake, and she is very accommodating and understanding. “Yeah, I’m good! Good! Good!” I told her. (Very convincing, I know.)
“You’re shaking your head. Are you sure?” She said.
“Oh! Sorry!” I couldn’t tell if I was shouting or whispering. Finally, there was a lull in the line and I clocked out two minutes early and went home without saying goodbye to anyone. Needless to say, I was not only completely freaked out, but also very embarrassed, and worried that my coworkers would think I am crazy.
I am very grateful that this is not a typical day at work anymore. A lot has changed. But the really, really bizarre thing about this was that when I got home, my first thought was, “How can I self-soothe and make sure my mind knows I’m safe?”
That’s a far cry from my old modality of, “Well, I had a shit day, so I should treat myself like shit, so that I’ll have more of a reason to think I’m such a bad and terrible person.” I won’t lie, self-harm did cross my mind. But these days, it’s become more of a passing thought than an obsession, and I’m hoping that if I continue to do the next right thing, even the passing thoughts will dissipate eventually.
I have over 500 coping skills listed on various handouts from treatment centers. I do not use any of them. I do, however, have two coping skills that actually work for me. I write and I make art. As I drove home, I asked myself, “How can I make this feeling into an image?” I thought of the props I have at home: fake flowers, miniature cows, etc. I thought of what I would wear in the photo and what makeup I’d use. Basically, I distracted myself (Hey, I think that’s a coping skill!) until I got home. By the time I’d prepped, taken, and edited the photo, I felt better, and I’d made something instead of harming myself.
The purpose of creating things like this is not to be pretty or get likes on social media. This is a vital coping skill for me. It allows me to externalize emotional pain in a healthy way, to see myself in a different light, and to simply express myself. It is more constructive than pretty much any of my alternate go-to coping mechanisms.
Although I keep a journal, which is my judgment-free zone, where I can be as obnoxious, selfish, childish, and complaining as I want to be, I try to be mindful of what I’m writing. I almost never go back and re-read them unless there’s a particularly important thing that I want to share with my therapist or I’ve outlined a writing project. On the rare occasions when I have revisited past-Katherine, I find pages of melancholy self-loathing. Change, while uncomfortable, is vital. I can usually catch myself as I put pen to paper to describe all the ways I am a vile, terrible person. The logical next step would be to ask myself if these beliefs are actually true, and then to challenge them. I’m not yet at a point where I can bask in self-love, but one thing I learned from La Amistad last year was that when re-framing negative thoughts, the most important thing is that they should be believable. For example, if I wake up every morning and think, “Ugh, I’m so fat and ugly,” while I brush my teeth, the ideal replacement thought would be, “I am gorgeous and fabulous!” but I’m not yet at a place where being kind to myself comes naturally. So for now, the replacement thought is, “I just woke up, there’s nothing wrong with my body. Can we please have some coffee before we bathe in the river of self-loathing?” Even small progress is still forward movement.
Sometimes, I attribute writer’s block to mental illness. “I’m so uninspired!” I’ll wail to anyone who will listen. “These meds are flattening me out! I’ve lost my spark! Life is boring now and I have nothing to write about! I’ll never write another word for the rest of my days!” And then, I’ll see something interesting in an otherwise mundane situation and the little gerbil who powers the wheel that runs my brain will kick it in to high gear and away we go. Just as the world can sometimes feel so grey and monotonous, it can sometimes feel bright and magical.
Today was one of those magical days. There was nothing exceptional about it; I went to class, arrived a few minutes late, texted with a few friends, saw my mom as I do most mornings, came home to see Archie (the world’s best cat). But I felt that elusive spark, like the world was just shimmering a little bit. Maybe this is what hope feels like.
One thing I have learned lately is the difference between an apology and an excuse. In the past, I have been known to apologize to people by telling them how they should feel sorry for me, or why whatever I did wasn’t actually my fault. One small example from today: when I walked into class about five minutes late, I gave my professor a nod and took my seat. I stewed about the embarrassment of being late (which is also a new feeling for me!) and debated on what to say to my professor after class. When class ended, I simply approached her and said, “I’m sorry I was late today. I’m glad you’re not one of those professors who locks the door!” We both laughed.
I really enjoy this professor’s class, The Personal Essay. Because of the, well, personal nature of the class, the discussions can be a bit intense, and I have connected with the professor outside of class. She is releasing a chapbook in January about watching someone close to her go through a psychotic episode. She has encouraged me throughout this entire semester to keep writing and has even offered to critique work I do outside of her assignments.
Most recently for this class, I wrote a very long paper about my relationship with my childhood best friend. The paper was 500+ words over the limit, and my classmates reacted favorably to it. My professor wanted us to drastically re-work our essays. We printed them out and cut them into pieces, we used online word-cloud generators to give us a representation of which words we used most in our papers, we drew storyboards and comics.
The purpose of this assignment was to try something new and be okay with failure. While I sometimes enjoy trying new things, I am never okay with feeling like a failure. It was understood that the content in the assignment wouldn’t be graded, which is to say, I didn’t necessarily have to improve the paper. I just needed to change it.
What I ultimately did was create a very short video in which I recorded myself taking self-portraits, and had nothing to do with the original paper I’d turned in. I was up until about 1:30 AM working on this, and when my head finally hit the pillow, I remember thinking, “This video is going to be so cringe-worthy in the morning.”
When I woke up, I was pleasantly surprised to find an email from my professor saying the video was “compelling work,” and that I should submit it to a certain magazine for publication. I’m going to consider doing that, but for now I will leave you with the video.
What I am realizing is that sometimes a simple life is beautiful. Sure, there is something to be said for variety, but when life is constant chaos, that’s no way to live. Overwhelming emotions are always going to happen, whether its a panic attack at work or stress about final exams. But the shift in how I handle them will be the determinate of my future and my success.