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To the Cashier Who Realized I Was Having a Panic Attack

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To the cashier who realized I was having a panic attack,

First off, let me say this. Bravo!

While I understand working retail can be a hectic and fast-paced job (because I have worked retail before, too), I can only image the obscene things people say to you, or the jaw-dropping scenes you must witness from time to time. Nobody is perfect, but sometimes, shopping, especially Christmas shopping, can bring out the worst in us.

It’s hard enough for anyone shopping in big box realtor stores with cramped aisles and crowds of people, it’s even worse when you have social anxiety that stems from your post-traumatic stress disorder.

Loud noises, screaming, booming chatter and buzzing P.A. systems are overwhelming to the senses. They’re even more overwhelming when they set off triggers. But as much as I try to avoid these uncomfortable, cramped and packed places, I still need to venture to them every once and awhile.

Especially during Christmas time.

On this fateful day, sitting in the parking lot, watching the waves of people coming and going, car horns beeping with people all over the place, I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy trip.

So, I meditated in my car for five minutes and finally took a deep breath as I headed inside.

I was immediately triggered two minutes later when some lady screamed at one of your sales associates because you were sold out of some mundane item.

But I kept a brave face, trying to stay focused on the list I made, as I quietly made my way through the store. Toothpaste? Check. New black socks? Check. Cat food? Check.

What should have taken 15 minutes of shopping on a regular day ended up being an hour and a half of wading through large crowds and trying to avoid packed aisles. But I kept taking deep breaths, trying to stay focused on the task at hand.

Yet, it was too hard. The upset customers, the loud chatter, the constant buzzing of announcements over the radio, the loud Christmas music playing in the background — it was all too much.

So by the time I placed my five measly items down on your line, my hands were trembling and my lungs were restricting.

The lady in front of me was complaining to her husband about how wild the crowds were and the devil on my shoulder couldn’t help but be smug. Lady, you have no idea!

I was barely able to comprehend your words when you finally greeted me as my items scrolled up to you on the line. “Hi there! How are you today?”

By this point, the fear was all-consuming. Sweat was rolling down my spine, my lungs were burning, tears were threatening to fall down my face and I was gritting my teeth hard to keep myself from either screaming or crying, trying to quell the nerves that were screaming at me, run!

“Fine, thanks.” I mumbled quietly, keeping my eyes averted and digging around in my purse aimlessly while you checked in my items. In those two minutes it took you to scan them, I was already fighting feelings of guilt, terror and embarrassment. I hated that I was having a panic attack in public. I was embarrassed I couldn’t greet you or talk to you like a “normal” person. And I felt defeated that after three straight weeks of “good days,” I was having another panic attack.

I can’t exactly remember how much the total came to, but I remember hauling out the 20 dollar bills and handing them to you.

But what happened next changed everything.

As you placed the receipt and my change in my palm, you gently gripped my fingers and leaned over the cash to come face to face with me. At first I was terrified, half-expecting you to yell at me, but then you’re soft eyes and gentle smile stilled my racing heart.

“It’s OK,” you whispered, “I know what you’re going through. You’re going to be OK.”

The interaction was so brief I thought I even imaged it. But you offered me the slightest of a nod before bouncing back to stand up straight, plastering on your customer-perfected smile.

“Thanks! Have a great day now!”

Your words didn’t settle in until I was sat in my car again, staring at the cash and receipt I still held in my hand.

My heart was still pounding, my head was still spinning and my eyes were still threatening pools of tears, but for a slight moment, just as fleeting as your words, I felt a small ray of hope.

Your words may have stunned me, but they also offered something greater.

You offered me hope because you showed me compassion.

And for the first time in five years, even though I was still slightly embarrassed, I felt understood.

As much as I try to hide my struggles with my illness from people, especially strangers, for the first time ever, I felt a small victory. You didn’t brush me off or look at me like I was another “crazy” customer about to cause a scene. You saw something different. You saw someone struggling and in that moment, you were brave enough to offer a helping hand rather than to turn a blind eye.

Maybe you think your actions were nothing of importance, but they were greater than that. For a moment, you helped break the stigma of mental illness. You made a difference. One small step for an upset customer, one giant leap for mental health rights.

So to the cashier who realized I was having a panic attack:

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I don’t know your name and I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again (and really, I was so out of focus I don’t really remember your face), but I am sure glad we crossed paths that day. I’m so thankful you offered compassion when I felt like I was falling off the edge.

For a brief moment, you changed my world and I hope you continue your quiet championship in helping others like me, like you.

So once again, I say thank you!


A girl just like you.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: December 29, 2016
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