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The Text I Got After a Co-Worker Saw Me Having a Panic Attack

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I love beautiful people. Those people who are just so beautiful on the inside that they can change the way you think about yourself.

I don’t always think too highly of myself. A lot of times, I feel embarrassed, misunderstood, and alone. Mental illness has this unfortunate effect on me. I’m not asking for pity; it’s just the truth.

For the most part, mental illness doesn’t stop me from living the life I want. It’s only a part of me. I did well in high school, hung out with my friends on the weekends, and worked at a local restaurant to make money for college.

I hated my job as a server. The stress of getting orders right, running food to tables, and trying to please my perfectionistic manager was more than I needed. During every shift, I counted down the minutes until I could go home. I didn’t like the job when I was making money, so I definitely wasn’t thrilled when I found out I had to volunteer to work the restaurant’s annual lemonade stand with a new hostess I didn’t know, another waitress and her three young kids.

On the night of my volunteer shift, I put on a white dress and a fake smile. I tried to make the best of it, but children downing cups of sugary lemonade and running around on a 100-degree North Carolina evening are a dangerous combination. About an hour into my shift, one kid threw up a few feet away from me after his sixth cup. Most people would have thought it was gross. Me? I was just faced with my biggest fear
since I was 9 years old.

“No one likes throwing up,” people say to me. I understand that. I absolutely hate it, and the idea of me or anyone else vomiting sends my mind into an uncontrollable spiral of anxious and irrational thoughts.

On that sweltering July night, I remember thinking I was handling the situation well. I calmly took a customer’s dollar and handed him a cup of lemonade, forcing a smile. He probably had no idea how hard I was working to control my breathing and slow down my thoughts. I couldn’t fall apart in front of him. I work hard to keep my strong, easy-going exterior, and I don’t like people to see me break down. As long as he stood in front of me, I forced myself to suppress my emotions. I didn’t want to have a panic attack in front of this man. As soon as he left, I felt myself start to fall apart.

“Be right back,” I said, and disappeared into the restaurant.

I walked through the front doors into the chaos of a Saturday night dinner rush. People waiting for tables, servers running past with plates, and loud guest conversations ambushed my already over-stimulated brain. I looked around desperately for a place to

I spotted a chair in the back of the restaurant, thinking I just had to make it there. I focused on the chair and started walking toward it. It seemed to be getting farther and farther away. The room spun, and every sound intensified, then muffled together into a loud ringing noise. I broke into a cold sweat as I walked past tables of families enjoying dinner.

As I got closer, one of my coworkers sat down in the chair and started organizing receipts in her server book. I had to get away from everyone.

I changed directions and passed my friend on the way to the back of the restaurant.

“You OK?” she asked.

I nodded. I’m always OK, especially when I’m not. I lie because I don’t want people to worry about me, and I don’t want them to think I’m crying for attention. She called after me, but I didn’t turn back. The tears had started, and I didn’t want her to see me

I hate the person I become during a panic attack. I’m embarrassed of that girl. I don’t ever want anyone to see her, especially if I want those people to respect me. They’ll think I’m weak, and I try so hard to be strong. Even though I hated my job, I loved my co-workers. I didn’t want them to see the pieces of me I try so hard to keep hidden. If they saw me having a panic attack, everything I’m ashamed of would have been out in the open.

The only private place in the restaurant during a Saturday night dinner rush was the walk-in refrigerator. I kept my head down as I wove through the chefs on my way back. I pulled open the stainless steel door and collapsed to my knees the second it swung shut behind me. My body shook uncontrollably as I tried to find something to focus on. My eyes darted from the 5-gallon buckets of butter to the crates of diced tomatoes, and
finally settled on the boxes of frozen bread stacked to the ceiling. I quickly breathed in the 38-degree air as my heart pounded in my chest and I tried to stop my head from spinning. I was afraid I might pass out, or even worse, that I would throw up. I knew I wouldn’t, but I was still terrified. I closed my eyes and told myself I was fine. I’m fine. These are two of my most overused words. They’re a lie.

After a few minutes in the cooler, I knew I had to go back outside. My manager scared the hell out of me, and I knew she wouldn’t be happy if she knew I’d left the stand. I avoided her on my way out of the restaurant. I didn’t want to explain myself. Back at the stand, I put my fake smile back on and did my best to ignore the stain on the pavement. Another hour later, I finished my shift and went home.

Later that night, my co-worker who’d seen me rush to the back texted me.

“Don’t worry about tonight,” she said. “If you ever need a hug or anything when you’re stressed, just let me know. I got you baby girl <3 <3”

I read the text three times. It genuinely surprises me when people are that nice. I couldn’t believe it. After too many experiences of people being judgmental or rude, I wonder why anyone would want to be nice to me.

She was one of my favorite people at work. She always had a joke or a story to tell, and she could make anyone feel comfortable. That night she wasn’t just nice to me, like she had been since the day I met her. She was there for me.

I don’t know if Kendahl even gave much thought to the text. She didn’t have to. To me, that text meant everything. She helped me feel less weak, less embarrassed, less stupid. She made me feel less alone. She built up my confidence after I kept telling myself my co-workers all thought I was a pathetic attention-seeker. I just wanted to fit in at work, and I didn’t think having a panic attack in the cooler was the way to do that.

I responded. Even as I thanked her, I worried I was handling the situation incorrectly. I didn’t want to bother her. As the conversation continued, I realized Kendahl actually cared. She wanted to make sure I was OK.

“Any table can wait a second for you,” she said and made me promise to tell her if I ever needed a hug or someone to talk to when I needed help. She told me if anything ever happened again, she was there for me. I’d always wanted someone to say that to

The Lemonade Stand Panic Attack wasn’t the first of these episodes. Embarrassing symptoms often pop up when I least expect them. In fourth grade, I found myself in the guidance counselor’s office after leaving class and hiding under the librarian’s desk for hours. There, my first of eight therapists told me my brain wasn’t like everyone else’s. In the nine years since then, I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies, and depression.

I rarely tell people. From my experience, it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. When people aren’t familiar with mental illness, they don’t know how to talk about it. By the end, they either end up feeling bad for me or not understanding at all. Sometimes they try relate to me by equating psychological disorders with ordinary moodiness and tell me about a time they were nervous before a performance or a job
interview. Then they try to give me advice. “Go for a walk, it’s a beautiful day,” and “Sometimes you just have to be positive” are two of my least favorites. Other times, they try to put my emotions into perspective for me. I’m sorry, but telling me about people who have it a lot worse doesn’t make me feel any better. Instead, it makes me feel like my thoughts aren’t real. It makes me think when I’m scared and helpless, my feelings aren’t a valid reason to feel that way.

These uncomfortable reactions aren’t the only reason I don’t share my story with people. It’s also hard for me to talk about. I don’t want everyone’s attention on my mental health. Sometimes I’m afraid people would think I’m just desperate for sympathy or that I’m making excuses for my behavior. My anxiety keeps me from talking about my anxiety.

During my junior year of high school, I decided to tell one of my friends about my laundry list of diagnoses. I was going through a particularly low time. I wanted to explain my behavior, and I trusted her. Before I got the chance, she told me her laptop was acting so bipolar. It kept turning off in the middle of streaming Netflix. I’m glad I didn’t tell her. She wasn’t the right person, but I still wanted to talk.

A few months later, I finally opened up to someone. This girl was the only person I’ve ever met who was also afraid of throwing up, and I felt like she really understood me. I tried painfully hard not to annoy her, only reaching out to her when I really needed advice or support. For a while, she gave it to me. She told personal stories and asked questions, so I felt like she cared. Then one day she stopped responding to my texts. It hurt that she took my secrets and left.

Not every response is that dramatic, but it doesn’t have to be. The small ones hurt too.

When I told another friend that I’m afraid of throwing up, she rolled her eyes. One woman told me depression was just a state of mind and I should try changing the way I think. People who react this way make me feel even more ashamed of myself.

These judgmental responses hurt, but they make the caring ones seem even more special. These beautiful people understand that mental illness doesn’t make someone weak. They see that it’s isolating. It’s impossible to know what goes on inside someone’s head. Fighting a battle in your brain is exhausting and inescapable, but just a few words can help a person much more than you might think. Be there for people. Build them up; they deserve it.

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Originally published: March 25, 2017
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