My Fight with Panic Disorder (Part I)

On the advice of a writer-acquaintance, I will be publishing excerpts from some of my essays here on my blog. I hope you will enjoy reading.

Stuck in the Middle

The cashier and the bag boy look at me as if I’m insane.

They have a point.

I toss items out of my shopping cart onto the conveyor belt at mental-case warp speed. The Oscar Mayer bologna package bounces off the belt and onto the floor. The meat is pink and the supermarket lights are bright yellow. It pungent in here, the smell of fresh fruit and deli roast beef wafting through the aisles. The conveyor belt is black, faded after years of rotation and thousands of grocery orders. It squeaks on every other turn. I try to focus on the normal task of placing groceries on the belt, but the florescent lights glare in my eyes and make me look away.

I am having a panic attack.

My fingers shake.

My breath comes in short gasps.

Focus, Cindy.

The cashier is young, high school, with long brown hair, pretty, someday beautiful. The bag boy is no more than sixteen and will grow to be handsome and strong. I think. Maybe I’m fantasizing. My bologna is on the floor. That’s no fantasy. I’m in my forties. Another reality. Sweat screeches from the pores in my chest and underarms. I bend over and throw the bologna package back on the belt, and it bounces to the floor again. Who knew a package of bologna had so much elasticity?

I’m hot. I mean like hells-oven-hot. Eight-hundred-degrees-hot. Who-the-fuck-lit-me-on-fire-hot.


Breathe deeply.

I inhale slowly and exhale. Three times. Like the shrink taught me. I have a moment that’s something less than raging panic.

Once I was as young as these kids. I was that cashier in 1978: Roxie’s Supermarket, home of the fifty-nine cent “rubber” chicken which the boys used to toss and slide across the meat room floor before packaging the skinny yellow carcasses in plastic and putting them on display. When I was that age, we still had to ring in each item. We did not have bar code scanners. This was before my problems with panic disorder. This was before I realized I was a lesbian. I’m not implying a cause-effect connection between panic disorder and lesbianism, just explaining all I was unaware of at age sixteen, all I was “in for” you might say. At Roxie’s, we used our fingers to type numbers on a keypad and counted out change by doing math in our heads. And if we had same-sex desires, we kept quiet about them.

The cashier is silent as she slowly scans my items, eyeing me. The bag boy has a thoughtful expression, as if he’s wondering how he can get me into an ambulance. I can barely breathe. The hot flash runs through me and the heat implodes: spreads inside out, then outside in, from guts to limbs. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this hot in my life, like I’ve just hiked up a mountain under a furious sun. I manage to throw most of the grocery items from the cart onto the belt, but I must get out of the building. The heat in my body will not relent and my mind cannot process rationally. I’ll fall down and faint. The walls are getting fuzzy. I’ll pass out! I must leave.

“I’ll be right back when you’re done,” I say to the cashier. “I need to get some air.” My voice still works like a sane person’s—small, quiet, and strangely normal—as panic roils inside of me.

“You all right, ma’am?” says the nice bag boy.

“I’m just hot, a little crazy.” I give a choppy laugh for his benefit. I look directly at the cashier.  “I’ll leave my credit card with you in case you’re ready to put it through before I return.”  My hands vibrate and the palms sweat. I keep moving my right hand behind my back, pressing into the small of it, a gesture I make only when in the throes of panic. It’s nearly an involuntary movement. Always my right hand. I don’t know why I do this.

Thank God I managed to hand over my credit card. The last thing I need is to have someone return all my groceries to the shelves thinking I won’t be back to pay for them. The last thing I need is to start this shopping debacle all over again. I’ve gotten this far – groceries on the belt, bologna on the floor. I exit through the glass doors out into the early March cold: the gray, the wind, the dank and dampness of late winter in New England. Suicide weather, but I am not suicidal, just saturated in sweat. I have no coat on and the temperature is barely thirty degrees. I’m not cold at all. I’m warm now but not overheated. I try to touch my shaking fingertips of my left hand to my right—I don’t know why I make this gesture either. The cold winds dry the sweat from my neck and back and chest. I’m close to hyperventilating, but I force myself to breathe slowly.

Why is it so hard for me to say to people, “Give me a minute, I’m having a panic attack?” Why the necessity of this ruse, “Oh, I just need some air,” and the little fake laugh to cover up my fear? Why am I ashamed? Embarrassed? I’m still silent about my lesbianism, too, except when I write. I’ve known myself as a lesbian for twenty-five years and have been suffering from panic disorder for even longer. I keep silent about all of it. Some people think I’m mentally unstable if I say I panic. Some people still think being a lesbian also means I’m mentally sick or spiritually evil. It would be worse to be sick with cancer than to panic; it would be worse to repress my sexuality than to deal with homophobes. So I say this with perspective: Life is difficult when you are pre-menopausal, prone to panic attacks, and gay.

To be continued….

Note: A version of this essay was previously published in the Cobalt Review.


  1. Some nutcase is driving my car and I want to get out… even if it is on the freeway. Anxiety disorders do that to you. I can’t say I’ve experienced the inferno, but the rest of it is very vivid to me and you describe it so well. I didn’t realize how much it can change life for you until I realized I’d been changing my life for it for 30 years. Little OCD things to manage my life were the tools I developed to feel “normal”. It wasn’t until I found myself feeling the overwhelming anxiety with the simple things, like hanging out with the neighbors. I got past the acute PTSD, but I don’t think I’ll ever ditch the anxiety completely. I just have to somehow trust that the nutcase driving the car doesn’t send us off the overpass.


    • Hi Kris,

      Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. For a long time, I couldn’t drive on highways because if I was caught in a traffic jam, the panic attacks were non-stop. Although traffic jams are no linger a problem for me, I can so relate to your driving issues. I don’t have PTSD, not in the way you mean, but I’m glad you’ve overcome most of that. I will be writing more about this panic. Maybe something I say will help you get over more of the anxiety. Thank you so much for taking time to read my work. Cindy


      • Hi Cindy,

        My anxiety issues just feel like some nutcase is driving my car… as in “my body is a vehicle that someone has carjacked and I’m stuck in the passenger seat.” Although I have never had an anxiety attack over driving, I’m fairly certain that my general dislike for that activity is related to my issues with situations where I feel I lack control. I’m currently in “limbo” with a degenerative nerve disorder; all the symptoms of MS, but no lesions on my brain or spinal cord to make a diagnosis. There aren’t too many other things that make you feel as out of control as a nerve disorder does. I swear the Universe is laughing at me. I look forward to reading more about your experiences with anxiety… I’m sure I will gain some insight into my own situation.


      • Oh, Kris, did I misread what you meant about driving? Were you speaking figuratively? In any case, I totally get the anxiety over lack of control of one”s body. I’m sorry about the nerve disorder you are dealing with; I’m sure that’s very frightening. I hope you will connect with more that I have to say on the topic of panic and anxiety. Part II is coming. I’m so happy you read my stuff. Thank you. 🙂


      • Hi Cindy,

        Yes, figuratively… Sorry, I couldn’t think of the word I needed. The crazy driver likes to circle the parking lot sometimes. 😀


  2. I don’t even drive because of the panic attacks. So kudos to anyone who is able to drive!!! As a matter of fact just being a passenger is becoming a problem for me. It’s getting harder and harder to handle the fight or flight response in my body, it’s getting harder to just not jump out of the car…


    • I have things to ask you and say to you. I won’t be able to respond in the way I would like possibly for a few days. I wanted to acknowledge your comment and let you know I care. And thank you so much for reading. I will return. Cindy


    • Hi again,
      I’m not sure I have your first name so I’ll call you “Bats.” I was wondering if you could tell me more about yourself. Maybe your blog would address my questions, and I hope to look there at some point soon. I’m wondering how old you are, how long you’ve been suffering with panic attacks, what other ways you are debilitated by them aside from being in a car, and if you are getting any kind of treatment – counseling, prescription drugs, cognitive-behavioral therapy. Where you are with your panic is a place I’ve been, I think. Although I will always live with this illness (and it is an illness, a biological one), I have found ways to manage it so I can do most things now and enjoy them, where once I couldn’t do anything. I would like to hear your story. If you don’t want to tell it to me here, please feel free to email me at I will also take a look at your blog to see if you speak more about these issues. Stay in touch!!!! Cindy


  3. I enjoyed reading your post, however, I take issue with using the word “illness” to describe panic disorder. I do some work with the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) and some other organizations and they characterize panic attacks as a psychiatric disorder right along with phobias, depression, and OCD, rather than a biological disease.


    • Hi Aeden,

      While panic disorder is a psychiatric disorder as you point out, it, along with several other psychiatric disorders, has been determined to be biologically-based, much to my relief. It is not “all in my head” as some used to think in the 1970s. And even better, my health insurance is required by law to provide me unlimited visits a counselor, defining my illness as a chronic condition based in physiology, as it would for a diabetic or someone with Crohn’s disease. This is a law, at least in Massachusetts. Thanks for reminding me that I need to research the extent of the law. Try not to take offense. When I say illness, I mean physical illness. not mental illness. I actually bristle at the idea that in 2013, an organization such as yours does not want to acknowledge the physiological roots of this illness.


  4. I was only speaking for myself above. I don’t belong to any organizations. When I said I do “some work with the ADAA” I meant I do “mental” work on bettering my anxiety with their videos and tips, and information. What I was trying to say is that I believe panic disorders are part of a group of mental disorders such as phobias and OCD, etc., and I think a lot of other people and organizations would agree with me.


    • I agree, Aeden, with what you say. Perhaps I need to use another word besides illness because of the negative connotations. My point is we must not lose sight of the physiological roots of these disorders so people don’t point at us and say, Get over it, it’s all in your head. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hope you’ll read the next installment.


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