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To the Strangers Next Door Who Checked on Me After I Had a Panic Attack at Work

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I was at work when my trauma happened. At 10:54 a.m. on a beautiful May morning, a man came into the store where I worked alone, jumped the counter in front of me and came so close to me, I could see the design on the sole of his shoes. I was robbed and was at the mercy of this man for at least five to 10 minutes.

Those five to 10 minutes felt like forever.

I was told by the police afterwards that I had done everything correctly. I had tripped a silent alarm, I had tried to hit my panic button, I did nothing but do as the man said while he was there. 

I called my district manager and the police directly after speaking with the security company. Several times, I gave a full description of what he looked like and what had happened in chronological order to the cops and the detective assigned to the case. My manager sent someone from another store to be there with me until she could arrive, and then let me go home an hour early.

I went home, laughing about it while I was on the phone with my mother. I came home to my family and I embraced them tightly, realizing at that time what could have happened, how much worse it could have been. I was already scheduled off that next Sunday, it’s the only day our business was closed.

On Monday morning, I went into my store. I did the opening procedures. I obviously had no money, so I had to close for the first half hour to go to the bank and acquire some. When I got back to the store, I made sure I did the rest of my daily duties. I thought I was doing OK, considering what had happened only two days before. I could feel the anxiety, but part of me kept saying that I’d be OK, that there was nothing to worry about.

Then a customer came in. The customer was a male, a regular who I could identify quickly. I immediately ran and grabbed his file from the cabinets behind me, but I kept myself partially towards him so I could keep an eye on him. In hindsight, I realize I was being hypervigilant. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him in particular, but that I didn’t trust anybody anymore.

This customer, man, he was a talker. We previously had always been able to just chat away as I inputted his data into the computer, ran him through our program and received an approval amount.

This time was different. This time, he spoke, but I couldn’t hear him. This time, he spoke, and I couldn’t concentrate. This time, he spoke, and I just did my job. The bare minimum. Input data, run him through the software, give him his approval amount and told him his payment options, printed out the paperwork, had him sign it all and gave him his money. This time, I didn’t speak unless I absolutely had to. And this time, when he left, I didn’t smile and go on with the rest of my workday.

This time, after the door closed, I found myself gasping for breath. My brain was telling me I was going to die of suffocation. I started crying, thinking I was robbed two days ago and survived, but I’m going to die now because I can’t breathe. I knew what was happening. I knew this was a panic attack. I had read enough about them to know that I needed a bag. But there was no bag-like item in my store that I could use. There wasn’t even something similar to a bag to help me control my breathing.

While having my panic attack, I managed to call my manager and let her know I couldn’t be there today. I couldn’t do my job. She needed to send someone over to take care of the store. I also called my husband, telling him between breaths that I wasn’t OK, that I couldn’t do this. When those two calls were finalized, I turned off the lights to the store, went to the front door and left the store. I locked the door behind me and staggered into the store next door.

I walked in breathlessly, tears flooding my face. I immediately saw that the only person working (I think I remember her name being Brittany, so that’s what I’ll be calling her) was busy with a customer. I stood back into the corner, letting her finish what she was doing. 

When the customer left, Brittany came directly to my side and grabbed hold of my arm. I collapsed into her embrace, my strength from not being able to breathe finally getting the best of me. She asked me what happened, what I needed, what she could do. I remember I just kept telling her, “Bag, bag, bag. I need a bag.” She guided me to the backroom of the store, sat me down and immediately handed me the smallest plastic bag she could find.

“I’m so sorry, we don’t have any paper bags, I know those work better, but at least it’s something,” she said and I just shook my head. Anything was better than nothing. I remember, faintly, her asking what had happened. I told her I was robbed on Saturday, and she said that she knew that.

She asked if anything had happened that morning, and once I could breathe a little bit better again, I explained to her that nothing had happened. That a customer came in, I took care of him and then I couldn’t breathe. She nodded her head and embraced me once more.

“Do you want to stay here until someone comes to relieve you? Are they making you stay there in this condition?” she asked. 

“They’re sending someone, they said I could leave when they got here, but I should probably wait in my store,” I told her. I put the bag down. I was still crying, but I wasn’t hyperventilating anymore.

“You can stay here if you want, I’ll make sure it’s safe here for you,” she said, but I declined her offer. She handed me at least three or four more small plastic bags just in case and then helped guide me to the front door of my store.

I was wobbly on my feet. Having a panic attack throws off your whole brain for a bit. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t walk straight, I could barely keep my eyes open once I finally got back to my seat behind the counter of my store. I tried to do my job, but I just didn’t have the energy. I could barely pick up the phone at this point. Earlier, my manager had said that I could close the store and not re-open until someone came in to relieve me. So, there I was, sitting in the dark, head buried in my arms, trying to control my breathing and texting my nurse friends, asking for tips for how to keep my breathing under control.

“Breath in through the nose, count to four, exhale out of the mouth. Do it about five times and that should help,” one of them responded.

“Name five things that you can see around you. Name them out loud while you type them to me,” another had said.

The phone rang about 45 minutes after I had sat myself back down behind the counter, those mini-plastic bags sitting next to me, my cell phone in front of me, just reading and re-reading what my nursing friends had texted me. I took a deep breath, trying to steady my voice and picked up the phone. I used the opening line we are told to say and then I heard a familiar voice.

“Katie, it’s Brittany from next door, I just wanted to check on you. Do you need anything? I’m about to run out for some lunch, do you want me to bring you some water or anything?”

My first thought was that I didn’t want to answer the phone because this wasn’t a customer calling. Why was I wasting my steady breathing for this?

My second thought was, “There’s still good in this world.” I told her I was fine. I said I was holding up, that I had enough to drink and that hopefully by the time she got back from lunch I’ll be gone.

“Are you sure you’re holding up OK?  There’s three of us here now and one of us can come sit with you until your relief shows up. I can only imagine what you’re going through,” she said. I told her that was unnecessary, but that if someone could stand by the window closest to my store and just keep an eye on everything, that would be helpful. That that would make me feel safe. She said OK, reluctantly.

thanked her for everything and we hung up.

And I was right, before she got back from lunch, I was out of that store like it was poison. But I remember as I was leaving, looking at the window next to the store and seeing one of the other workers standing there, fiddling with some lip balm or nail polish or something while just watching the perimeter. I gave her a quick thumbs up, letting her know my relief had come and that they could go back to normal.

haven’t been back to work since, but about a week after that day, I received a text message from one of the other employees I had given my number to once. I don’t know her name at all, but her text said, “Katie, we’ve all been thinking of you since the robbery, and we haven’t seen you come back to work. We all just want to make sure you’re OK.”

I responded with, “Taking a few weeks off to clear my head, doing OK, still scared. I have to see a psychiatrist/therapist before they’ll let me come back to work.” She sent back, “Good luck, just know that we are so happy to know that you’re OK for the most part, and Brittany especially is hoping you make it out of this difficult time soon. Love, the gals next door.” I sent her a smiley emoji and a thank you, and that was the last I had heard from them.       

The fact that these strangers checked on me, insisted on taking care of me and made sure I was OK makes me so grateful, whether they know it or not. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to return to the location of my trauma, even though my therapist right now wants me to at least go to the parking lot. But I do know, if I can ever at least make it into the parking lot and the stores around my previous job, my first stop is the store with the women who helped me. I want to hug them. I want to thank them personally. I want to tell them how much their thoughts and actions meant to me. Because Brittany checked on me. Not once, not twice, but multiple times, and that kind of goodness is just hard to come by these days. 

However, if I don’t ever get the chance to personally thank them and let them know how appreciative I am, I hope in some miraculous way they find this article, they read it and they know that I’m speaking to them when I say: You are the goodness in the world that needs to shine through. You are amazing for caring about a stranger next door, for taking care of her, for helping her, for offering more than necessary for her. You are my true hero from that weekend, and I cannot thank you or tell you enough how much I truly do appreciate your help. 

Getty image via Marjan_Apostolovic

Originally published: March 8, 2019
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