When I Have Panic Attacks At Work as an Autistic Person
I want you to imagine the most terrified you’ve ever felt. Maybe at a haunted house? Seeing a large spider? Losing your cellphone? Whatever it is, remember that feeling. How did you feel? Embrace that feeling; now triple it.
I had a panic attack last week. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had one — maybe a year ago? Of course there was a time I used to have them every day; I don’t like to talk about those times. But I’m better now.
It was a high anxiety day: a lot of customers which means crowds and noise, a busy holiday and a lot of things to get accomplished in a short amount of time. I also have anxiety working with a co-worker which I’m working through, slowly.
On this day I already had two incidents when my anxiety got too high and I had to get talked down. I’m getting better at realizing my limits and not getting embarrassed for asking for help, which leads to an ongoing joke of fake over-exaggeration when I do. Humor makes things easier.
For me, a panic attack comes from out of the blue. There is no cause for it. If I’m stressed out or have high anxiety, my tolerance level goes down and I’m more prone to them.
So what happened?
I was on my lunch break, eating, listening to music on my noise-cancelling headphones and reading a favorite book. Just trying to stay grounded. When all of the sudden I got that oh so familiar punch in the gut anxiety.
Fudge, I thought. Yes, I say “fudge.” I don’t swear.
I knew I only had a few minutes before I would go into complete panic mode. So I shot a text asking for help to Hannah (my department boss). I knew it was a long shot, as we aren’t supposed to use our phones in the department, but it was all I could do. At this point, I couldn’t speak anymore. I looked at the offices, trying to find someone, but no one was there. I contemplated going downstairs to find someone, but I didn’t want to risk falling down the stairs.
Two minutes after I felt the punch, I was done. My legs were jelly, and I collapsed on the floor against the wall. My hands were clenched to my headphones, trying to focus on the music to get through the panic. I heard Linkin Park’s lyrics, “Stuck in my head again, feels like I never leave this place, there’s no escape…” However accurate in the situation, it was not helping. I was rocking back and forth, my vision was blurry even though I was wearing my glasses. My heart was pounding, and my breathing was shallow. I was shaking and tense. I felt out of control.
There was only one thought in my head: Don’t pass out.
For most people, a panic attack lasts a few minutes and then passes. For me, it just gets worse and worse, until my body can’t handle it anymore and I lose consciousness for a few minutes. Like a computer restarting. It’s been six years since I last passed out, but it’s still vivid in my mind. My doctors believe this to be due to my autism, making my anxiety different than the “typical” kind.
During a panic attack I don’t get racing thoughts. I don’t have the thoughts of “I’m going to die” or “I’m having a heart attack” that others commonly speak of. For me it’s like getting sucked into a black hole, falling deeper and deeper inside of my head. I need help, I need someone to toss me a rope and help pull me out of my head.
Feet passed by and stopped. Someone bent down and rubbed my shoulder. They could have said something, but I couldn’t hear anything. They left.
More feet passed by — people going on break or returning to work. Someone touched my knee and I turned to see their hand. I didn’t know who it was. I couldn’t look up.
Time became meaningless. I didn’t know how long had passed — minutes? Seconds? Someone came over and bent down. It was Hannah. She grabbed my hands and pulled them down to my knees, holding them tight as I shook. She was saying something. I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear her. I could only hear the music — “Three Days Grace.”
My hands were being firmly held down, so using my shoulder, I ungracefully knocked my headphones off and earplugs in the process. I was bombarded by the sounds around me. I heard the beeping of the cashiers downstairs, someone typing on a computer, people talking in the break room, doors opening and closing. But I tried to focus on just Hannah’s calm voice. “Breathe,” she said. “Take a deep breath.”
I inhaled and exhaled.
I did. It’s hard to imagine how difficult breathing is in a time like this. Something you take for granted becomes a nearly impossible task.
“Relax,” she said. “Put your shoulders down.” My shoulders were hunched forward, and I fought to put them down.
“Good, lean against the wall, relax. Can you nod yes or no?” I nodded my head jaggedly. “And can you do no?” I shook my head slowly.
“Where’s your Mom? Is she at home?” I didn’t know. She was at my aunt’s that morning. I didn’t know if she was home yet. But I couldn’t express this with my limited conversation tools, so I just stared.
“Look at me,” she said. I looked up at her mouth. “Higher,” she said.
An announcement blared through the intercom. I spun my head towards it. My hands pulled up, stimming my fingers.
“Do you want your headphones?” I shook my head no. I wouldn’t be able to hear anything.
“Hands down,” she said, grabbing my one hand and pulling it to my knee. I coped with my other hand by myself. “Flat,” she said and I unclenched my fingers.
I know a lot of people consider stimming a positive thing, something that helps with anxiety. For me there’s a fine line. There’s stimming that helps me regulate, but then there’s also stimming that pulls me deeper into my own world. Stopping it pulls me out into reality. There’s a fine line, and somehow Hannah knew this.
“Did you eat your lunch?” she asked. I paused and nodded. “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Did you eat your lunch?” I shook my head no. “Why not? Nauseous?” I nodded. “Do you want some water?” I nodded, and she called to someone who handed her a water bottle. She opened it and passed it to me, holding my hand steady.
“I’m getting out of the splash zone,” someone said.
Hannah moved my phone and book out of the way for safety. “Don’t get me wet,” she said, letting go of my hand. I brought the water to my mouth, spilling less than I thought. The coldness was refreshing. Calming.
I tried to put the lid on, spilling more water in the process. Hannah grabbed it and closed it for me. “Do you want me to call your mom?” she asked. I shook my head. No. “It’s a bad day today. You can’t catch it.” I shook my head no again. “If you don’t start talking, I’m going to have to call your mom.”
“Hands down,” she said. I hadn’t realized they were up again. I pushed them down, clutching my knees. “Look at me.” I jerked my head up. “There we go,” she smiled. I keep my head up.
“You would have normally looked away by now, good job.” She paused and looked at my gaze; the way we were angled her eyes were right beside a wall. “You’re looking at the wall, aren’t you?” I nodded. She smirked. I opened my mouth and closed it again, trying to say something. “Take a minute. Find your words.”
I opened my mouth again, moving my lips around, trying to shape words. It felt like someone had ripped out my vocal cords. I had the words; they wouldn’t come out. I raised my one hand up to my ear and back down. I moved my fingers around, getting agitated. Nothing was coming out.
“Take a breath,” Hannah said, pushing my hand back down. I breathed in and out. “Again, deeper. I want to feel it.” I breathed deeper and out. “Find your words.”
“Nnnnnn,” I raised my hand up again and down. “Nnnnn.” The sound was coming but not the words. “Nnnnnnnnno.”
“No?” Hannah asked.
“No.” I echoed.
“No Mum.” I echoed.
“I really think we should call your mom.”
“No Mum.” I repeated, “No Mum.”
A voice came from the office. It was the store boss. “What was that?” she asked. “Did he say yes to call his mom?”
Hannah replies, “No. He said no mom.”
“No Mum.” I repeated, “No.”
“Can you say something other than No?”
I paused, thinking of something to say. I forgot all the words in my vocabulary.
“Say I’m the best,” she suggested.
“You. You’re the…” I started unsteadily before finding my voice. “You’re the worst.” I said. And they both started laughing.
“What’s going on in your head? What are you thinking about?”
“My… my foot’s asleep.”
“Yeah, well my *butt’s asleep.” (* insert swear word here. Unlike me, Hannah does swear. Quite a lot actually.) I picked up my foot and shook it around, trying to wake it up. “I have your mom on speed dial. I can call her.”
“No Mum.” I said, “Don’t want. Don’t want to go home.”
“This is the third incident today, you just can’t catch it.”
“Second,” I said, holding up two fingers. “Second.”
“Office, alley, here,” she said, referring to the times I needed talked down from high anxiety levels.
“Three.” I said. “Three times.”
“You can go home. I don’t want your anxiety to get too much that you won’t come back.”
“Yup. I’m fine.”
Have we noticed a recurring theme of stubbornness here?
I moved to get up. “Sit down,” Hannah said, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I have boxes to put away.”
“And when do you have to have them done by?”
“We have lots of time. Sit down. If you calm down I’ll think about letting you go back to work. But you have to talk more.” I leaned against the wall again. The panic had subsided, but the anxiety was still there. I grabbed another drink of water. My hand had gone up again, stimming. Hannah nudged it down and I put it on my knee. She moved her head into my view, forcing me to make eye contact, which I held for a few seconds and then broke away.
“There we go,” Hannah said. She grabbed my book and moved it out of the way for her to sit in a different position.
“There’s an error,” I said.
“In the book. Page 53.” I grabbed the book and flipped to the page, “see it says one wand here, and one wand again at the end. A hardcover first edition sold for £20 000 with this error.”
“Really? How much is this one worth?”
“Maybe two bucks. I’ve had it since I was 6. And it’s yellow. And ripped. It’s my reading copy. I have the hardcover and the illustrated edition on my shelf.”
“Of course you have more than one copy.”
“And I need November 17th off. The new Fantastic Beasts is coming out. “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” I think there will be a midnight premiere and I want to go.”
“How do you know what you’re doing in November? I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.”
“I like to plan.”
Insert another 20 minutes of one sided rambling and fact listing on favorite topics such as Harry Potter and Disney; which then lead to an actual conversation with a give and take. Eventually I asked, “Can I go back to work now?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said. “Stand up, I’m going to do a sobriety test.”
“I’m going to fail then because I can’t stand on one foot.” I said, standing up.
“Are you good?”
“Don’t lie to me. Look at me and say it.”
I looked in her eyes and said “I’m good” before looking away.
She paused for a moment; I don’t know if she was thinking or reading my mind. (I honestly swear she is psychic). Until she said “OK.”
“So I can go back to work?” I confirmed.
The last few hours of work flew by. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I wasted company time, I wasted Hannah’s time. I was frustrated and angry with myself for not being able to control it. Then I remembered you can’t control a panic attack, so I got angry that I couldn’t control my high anxiety earlier in the day.
Leaving to go home, I passed by Hannah, “Thank you,” I said. “Pain in my *butt” (insert swear word here) she replied.
I think it’s an autism thing, but I don’t know how to show appreciation. How many times can you say thank you to someone before it gets weird? What else can I say? Thank you for helping me deal with my issues and not firing me? Thank you for caring about me as a person and not just an employee? I wish I knew if there was something I could do or say that would show how thankful I am. The concept eludes me.
Getty image by Marlo 74.