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Just Breathe!

When the doors finally opened, I stumbled out into the mall and collapsed onto a nearby bench


As told to Devorah Grant

The first time “it” happened, I was in the mall with my friend Dassa, looking for clothes for camp. I desperately needed some new hoodies and camp shirts, while Dassa was on a mission to find The Most Comfortable Sneakers Ever. (Spoiler alert: You don’t know if they’re actually the most comfortable until you’ve tried on every single pair of sneakers created. Which is why three hours later, we were still standing amongst rows of sneakers staring balefully back at us.) Eventually, after trailing around after Dassa, advising her that no, the neon pink weren’t too flashy, and yes, the black ones were too boyish, I decided I was going to do some window shopping.

“You okay if I leave you for 20 minutes, Dass?” I asked. Dassa told me it was fine, and she’d call me when she found her perfect pair. I rolled my eyes and stepped out into the brightly lit mall.

Strolling along the upper floor, my eyes noticed a jewelry store on the floor below. I’ve always had a soft spot for watches, especially expensive ones, and the white lighting and sparkles in the window beckoned me down. I found the elevator, and entered, alone. The doors closed and the elevator slowly made its way downwards.

That’s when it began.

I looked at the closed doors, and from one moment to the next, literally lost it. First, I started to imagine myself being trapped in that tiny metal box, suspended between floors, forever and ever. I tried to tell myself I was being stupid, but the thoughts raced much, much faster than any logic could. Without warning I felt my breathing becoming shallow and ragged. I could hear my heart crashing within. I’m going to die, I thought. I gripped tightly to a metal pole. Ground floor, the elevator’s nasal voice chimed. In my eagerness to just get out of there, I jabbed at the wrong button twice, and waited several agonizing seconds for the doors to open and release me from the prison of an elevator.

When the doors finally opened, I stumbled out into the mall and collapsed onto a nearby bench.

What just happened? a voice in my head asked.

It’s just an elevator, another voice said.

Yeah, what’s all the fuss about? I tried to tune the voices out, shakily clasped at my water bottle, and took a slow sip. Maybe I was dehydrated? Or maybe coming down with something? When my breathing had finally calmed, I went to check myself out in one of the store mirrors. Slightly haggard looking, but ill? I didn’t think so. Something weird had just happened. But I had no idea what.

When Dassa called to let me know she hadn’t found anything, and she wanted to come back another day, I was relieved. I wanted to go home, be secure, be safe. It was a weird thing to be thinking, I knew, but that’s what it felt like. Luckily, the mall exit did not involve any more elevators. I had quite enough of those for one day, thank you.

Dassa did a double take when she saw me.

“Umm, are you okay, Lay? You look awful!”

“Gee, thanks,” I quipped back. “Yeah, fine, just a bit dehydrated maybe.”

Dassa looked concerned and made me take another drink. After assuring her I was fine, we ordered an Uber and headed home.

I almost forgot about the incident entirely, until I had to visit my orthodontist three weeks later. Mom and I were going for my regular check-up, to see if my railroad tracks were coping nicely in the battle against my wayward front teeth.

My orthodontist is located on the eighth floor of a large medical center. We came in, and Mom went to press the elevator button. I took one look at the elevator, and all the feelings I’d had in the mall came flooding back.

“Are you okay if we take the stairs, Ma?” I croaked. Mom, who’d been looking at the elevator screen, turned at me and gaped.

“What’s wrong, Leah? Are you feeling okay?” The worry in her eyes, the elevator doors opening behind her, the racing of my heartbeat, and the clamminess of my hands were all too much. I collapsed into a heap on the floor, gasping for breath. The small hallway turned into a rush of too many colors, too much noise, too many feelings. And again the thought: I’m dying, I really am dying.

The next few minutes are a bit of a blur to me. I recall a paramedic, a cacophony of radios and questions and not enough air. And then his words:

“Panic attack. It often mimics symptoms of a heart attack, but it appears that your daughter’s vitals are okay, she’s just in a severely anxious state.” I opened my eyes. I wasn’t dying. But I had felt like I was. All at once shame and anger collided in my heart.

Look what a fuss you created. All because you got yourself panicky. Now look what a fool you made of yourself!

Luckily for me, my mother was more compassionate to me than I was. I felt like a five-year old again, literally curled up in a ball (still in the hallway of the building!) while my mother sat with me, murmuring calming words. Slowly, slowly, my breathing relaxed. I didn’t get to my appointment that day.

A day later, however, I found myself at a different appointment. I didn’t want to see the therapist, but with the crazy situation at the mall and at the orthodontist so fresh in my mind, I knew I had to deal with it. To be honest, I would have been happy to just never use an elevator again, but my mother (and the therapist) thought differently.

“Often, if we don’t deal with panic when it comes, it just gets bigger, and spreads to more situations,” Dina said to me. I shifted on the couch in her pale-green office. I didn’t want this to get bigger, but how could I even help it?

“We’re going to start with some breathing exercises and a technique called Emotional Freedom Technique,” she continued. “That way, when you feel panic starting, you can hopefully stop yourself from having a full-blown attack.”

“But why did I get it in the first place? I’m a regular kid, never had trauma in an elevator, why would I even have a panic attack? It doesn’t make sense!”

Dina was patient. She explained that most people, at some point in their lives, get anxiety, and sometimes it turns up in a seemingly-unrelated area from where the worry really lies. She told me we would spend some time talking about the feelings I had and where they might have come from, but for now, we were just going to help me calm down and not feel frightened of my own shadow. Now that Dina had mentioned it, I realized I had been jumpier than usual lately, and also had been getting very claustrophobic in stuffy classrooms or when a lot of guests came on Shabbos. On Wednesdays at three, for 50 minutes, we spoke about it all.

Breathing exercises and EFT (sometimes known as “tapping”) did help me to deal with the anxiety. Over a few months, Mom and I went into more situations where I felt trapped and claustrophobic, each time working on keeping my breathing as even as I could. The first time I went into an elevator again, I almost lost it, but I affirmed myself the way Dina taught me, squared my shoulders, counted my breaths, and did it. Dina told me that I may need to go onto anti-anxiety medications to help me along, but as I’m generally functioning well, I’m not doing that now, though I know the option remains open.

The most surprising thing that Dina showed me is how tense I had been in general, without even realizing it. Just before the elevator incident, my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer, and my house had become a pretty stressful place. When I finally spoke about all the difficult feelings surrounding my grandfather, I began to realize how my body had been storing up all the tension and anxiety over that situation, and kind of released it somewhere else. (Cool, huh?!) In those six months of therapy, I learned so much about myself and my reactions, and even more, about how much your body tells you, if you will only listen.

My anxiety has definitely lessened tremendously since I started tuning into myself more, and learning to identify feelings before they balloon out of control. Anxiety and the fight-or-flight reaction can feel terrifying, but now I know what it is, and can calm myself down, I feel more empowered to handle situations which challenge me. It’s not easy, but I can do it!

And now for you: If you’re feeling anxious or panicky, I want you to hear my story, and know that it’s not your fault. You can be helped, you’re not nuts, and you’re definitely not alone. Breathe, be kind to yourself, and reach out for the help you need.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 845)

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