Normal people worry that a bumpy flight will jostle the contents of their luggage. I worry that standard turbulence on a plane is actually the engine failing that will result in a slow plummet to my death.
Twisted? Yes. But can I control it? No.
I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder a few years ago and constantly avoid situations that may cause me to go into full-fledged panic mode. So when I stepped into the Taylor Place elevator on a Saturday in late September, I should have stepped right out.
1) Finish article for the magazine.
2) Try to find out where that farmers market is located … was it on Roosevelt?
3) Download the newest issue of Cosmo as a treat for studying my Italian.
While making a mental to-do list in my head, I walk back from the library where I’ve been attempting to study for the past few hours to no avail. I create a virtual checklist of the weekend’s tasks and try desperately not to fall asleep as I wait for the elevator.
The doors open, and I’m still perfecting my list.
7) Buy more laundry detergent.
The elevator comes to a violent halt. There’s ringing in my ears, and I realize it’s an alarm. There are five others in the elevator with me and no one is doing anything. They stand still, giggle nervously and look around for someone else to make the first move. Obviously, those in the elevator with me are either nonchalant or oblivious to real and imminent danger.
But I want it to stop. We can hear the fire alarms ow. My pulse matches the incessant falsetto blaring. I push the call button and turn to see the reaction of the others.
The two upperclassmen to my left look at each other in confusion, goofy smiles plastered to their faces like masks. The boy to my left stands calmly next to his girlfriend, who simultaneously clings to him and checks her phone for service. I look to my friend; we lock eyes. She understands but her feet are glued to the floor. No one makes any move to do anything. My heart races.
The elevator, no longer in service, moves up and down like a ghost with no purpose. Floor 12 down to 5, down to 2, up to 7 then back down to 4. It’s about as indecisive as the people trying to fix it.
I’ve begun to feel numb toward sounds and smells. I can’t hear the alarms anymore but I know they’re still going off. I could be the one on fire and I wouldn’t know, nor does it seem like anyone would care.
No one’s doing anything. This realization is more frustrating than the fact that I’m stuck. I seem to be the only one in panic and this perpetuates my fear. I’m acutely aware that I’m attracting little attention from the others. In some ways I’m grateful that they are blind to my panic — all I need is more embarrassment in my life.
On the other hand, it worries me that I’m not being taken seriously. Panic attacks elicit feelings not unlike that of having a heart attack.
I’m squatting on the floor of the elevator as blood and adrenaline course through my veins. Why is everyone so calm? Don’t they understand what’s going on? With my head cradled in my clammy hands I imagine the others chatting about the weather, leaning casually against the metal bar and passing around tea and crumpets.
My imagination begins to get the best of me. We could be stuck in this elevator until the fire has incinerated the entire dorm. No one knows we’re in here. My thoughts wrestle with each other in my stomach. I feel faint. And hot. It’s a furnace in here. Was it always this hot? Maybe the fire is right outside, waiting to enter the elevator and burn us alive.
I jab the call button again, just in case the last 27 times I slammed my fist into the control didn’t send the message to the right people. Am I the only one doing anything? Or trying to do something? Pushing a button isn’t much, but they’re leaving the girl with the anxiety disorder to handle the situation.
My head hurts. I feel like the murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” My heartbeat swims in my eye sockets.
I blame my genes for this. The constant worry in my stomach. The nagging in my throat. I can’t swallow. I can’t breathe. I can’t move. This isn’t my normal level of anxiety.
I can feel it starting.
The attack — it works its way up my body. Starting in my toes, it snakes its way up my legs, wrapping itself around me, enveloping me in its evil cloak. Anxiety is a disease, and it’s eating my alive, swallowing me whole. Breathing is difficult now, but I can hear something … someone’s talking to me. And the others, they’re all staring at me waiting for me to do something. But, what?
It’s a woman’s voice but it’s not coming from inside the elevator. The call button! I remember now, I pushed it before the panic set in. An automated voice vies for my attention through the speaker and talks over the woman who tries to help:
“120 East Taylor Street. 120 East Taylor Street, ” the robot says in monotone description.
I furiously search for cell service but come up empty handed. The lack of bars is a terrifying reminder that there’s no way to call for help. I vow to buy out all of the elevator companies in the Phoenix metro area as soon as I get out and make them serviceable to cell phones.
I’m still on the floor of the elevator. The panic has reached my face, turning it a peculiar shade of burgundy. The rest of my body is pale from lack of bloodflow; my skin has turned translucent. I look down at my hands and they’re shaking.
I don’t smoke but I’m suddenly craving a cigarette.
“Hello?” the woman asks again. Light bulb. It’s the operator. I force the words from my mouth, “We’re stuck in the elevator. Get us out.” I’m then informed in so many words or less that the fire truck is on its way over and that she’ll let them know our situation.
That’s when the nausea sets in.
I can hear the girls behind me joking that this is like a horror movie. No, what’s horrific is what’s happening inside my own body, the intense fear that no one else seems to be feeling. Why me? Why can’t I chuckle about the movie-like scene unfolding in front of us, instead of squatting like a scared 5-year-old — if I close my eyes maybe it will all go away.
The waiting game. I focus on the movement of the elevator, up and down and up and down and up and down. The glare of the fluorescent lights, the heat of my flushed cheeks — anything to calm myself down.
I think about the last time I had a panic attack. I was 11, eating with my family at a Mexican restaurant. I remember the beat of the mariachi music, the blast of repeated deafening blows to my eardrums. I can still taste the jalapeño.
A minute passes, but it feels like an hour. I press my face against the back of my hand. Maybe I’m the one that sparked the fire alarm, because the heat from my face seems flammable.
I slam the call button again.
A man answers this time, “Is anyone there?”
“Yes,” I answer. I can hear the fear in my voice and I’m surprised that I can even speak. “We’ve been stuck in the elevator for a long time now.”
The man seems surprised to learn this, which annoys me. Anger replaces fear. I’m infuriated that our situation is not being taken seriously.
And just as I’m about to raise hell (even in my fragile state) the elevator reaches the 14th floor and the doors miraculously open.
I walk out with shaky knees as my hand clutches at my neck, trying to feel my pulse. The walk down 14 flights of stairs calms me down or at least allows me to concentrate on something other than what just happened to my body. We sit in the grass and wait to be let back into the dorms.
My heart rate slows and my cheeks turn back to their natural rosiness. I hug my laptop to my chest.
Sighs of relief escape the lips of the few who were actually worried during the ordeal. Some joke about how next time there’s a fire, maybe they won’t alert their roommate (whom they don’t quite care for) and let her figure it out for herself. The rest chatter mindlessly amongst themselves about their plans for the rest of the day, and that English paper that just won’t write itself.
Trauma. As I lie on the grass with my sweatshirt pulled up over my chin to cover the red hives that have formed on my chest, this is what I’m feeling: traumatized.
At 19, I’ve struggled with anxiety and all of the consequences that seem to come with it for the better portion of my life. I’ve pleaded, bargained and hoped that my anxiety would somehow magically disappear. The pure frustration and anger collects itself as tears at the base of my lash line. I refuse to let them drop. I am stubborn. I am aggravated. I am terrified.
But fear is the heart of love, and I am confident that when I begin to love myself for all my flaws and embrace my embarrassing imperfection, the panic will extinguish itself.
This disease I have, this anxiety of mine, rages in me like a fire. And I’m still trying to figure out how to break through and put it out.
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