Yesterday morning I saw a woman in her car. She was in her driveway. The car was running. There was a baby in a car seat in the back. The woman’s head was down and I couldn’t see her face.
Her shoulders were so slumped. Her head seemed to rest on her lap. I walked past, averting my eyes at first because that’s what we do, right? But I was compelled to stop just past the car because something didn’t feel right.
I checked on the baby first. He was content in his seat. I stared at the women. She was so still. I began to panic – what if she had a heart attack? What if she overdosed? What if depression just took over and she couldn’t handle it any more? All thoughts pointed to the worst. For fear of startling her – or maybe myself, I continued to watch a minute more. Finally I approached the car. My adrenaline moved me forward.
She was texting. That was all.
I scurried away without her noticing me. Throughout my day this resonated in a deeper way than I realized. By evening it culminated in a full blown panic attack the crept in slowly as I snuggled into my covers. My heart raced at a running pace. My breath was so short. My heart was skipping beats. My brain was taking me to the worst places – what if I’m dying? What if my anxiety shortens my life because it puts so much strain on my heart?
Panic attacks make me catastrophize. Once the height of it passes, what it leaves in its wake is exhaustion, muscle aches, stomach upset, depression. The attacks are all encompassing. The acute effects are scary as hell. The aftermath is debilitating.
As the side effects began to subside I reflected on what got me to the point of overwhelm. I reviewed the day, catalogued the events. I thought about the isolation, the pressure of being inside with three kids and the strain that puts on all of us. I thought about what they are missing, what I’m missing. I thought about what they won’t be able to do for some time. I thought about trying to cope through this and what I need to do. I thought about the fragility of my mental health and wondered if this time will set back my progress, growth and strength that I’ve worked so hard to build.
I thought about the woman in the car. A month ago I may not have spotted her. My mind would have been elsewhere. But the quiet of the street allowed me to see things I would have likely missed before. I don’t know her story – she could be the most content young mom. But the fear and potential implications of the event took over. It planted itself in my psyche for the day. After all, I thought this woman was dead.
Once night came and life was quiet, my body and mind stopped protecting me. It let me feel it. I panicked. Throughout the past year I’ve learned queues – queues that help me manage impending attacks. I’ve learned not to cut the panic off harshly but to work with the events that might have triggered it’s hold. I’ve learned to move with it rather than defend against it. I acknowledge the traumatic events that might spark the panic into motion. I refer back to ways in which I’ve lessened the panic’s strength in the past. The techniques I use work – but they’re not foolproof. They weren’t this time. Even for the most trained and counseled, panic can be a sneaky little monster.
The woman left me processing my own fear but also the collective fear for others who have heightened anxiety, panic and depression during this time. We are all mourning a way of life that won’t likely be the same again. We are mourning the actual loss of so many lives. This is loss that could have been prevented. We are wondering about the new normal, what will look like? This gray area of wonder is the worst part. Just as the unknown was with the woman in the car.
But all we can do is manage the uncertainty by moving through the day. Just the day, no more. We can take care of ourselves – whatever that looks like. We can move through these days because we just will. It might not be pretty but we’ll do it. We can continue to see what we might not have seen in the before, when the streets weren’t so quiet.
That might actually be a gift in the end.