I remember my first time like it was yesterday. I was 22.
I was out on a date with my not-yet-husband to see Bob Mould at Irving Plaza in Manhattan. We were really excited for the show since the venue was perfect for getting right up front by the stage. We stood outside until the doors opened, having arrived early since the show was standing room only.
Once inside though, something inside of me went terribly wrong. My shoulders and arms began to ache and my knees felt week. I could feel my eyeballs start to sweat as chills raced down my spine. I made a detour to the ladies room and it was all downhill from there.
When I finally emerged after what felt like an eternity, my not-yet-husband was quite concerned. I told him we needed to leave but I couldn't explain why. I couldn't see 2 inches in front of me and I had suddenly gotten the worst migraine of my life. My stomach, now completely empty, continued to cramp and cause me to double over. I was shaking, burning up and freezing at the same time. I thought I was dying, but I couldn't fathom the idea of finding an emergency room. I just wanted to get home.
I stayed in bed for days. Every time I ate I got sick. Every time I set foot outside, I was so afraid I'd get sick that I would go right back home. I made it to a doctor who couldn't tell me what was wrong. He was convinced I had been drunk or pregnant and gave me an antibiotic that clearly wasn't going to help my condition. I went back to work, but wouldn't engage in any social activities.
When I finally felt well enough to get back to my therapist, she asked why I hadn't come to see her sooner. She was certain I'd had my first panic attack and without any treatment I was having smaller ones ever since. I was referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. I stayed on the medicine for months, but it never really solved my problem. Therapy was great, but not much help when I was out in the world and about to melt down.
Someone suggested aromatherapy. I learned that citrus smells, particularly lemon, can be helpful when battling anxiety. I purchased a small tube with lemon essential oil that I carried with me everywhere I went. When I started feeling anxious, I'd grab my tube and concentrate on the smell of lemons. The deep breathing helped me relax and the feelings would pass.
For years I carried around that tube of lemon oil. I learned to apply it to tissues, so when I was out at a client I could pretend I had frequent allergy attacks. It was in my purse at my wedding and all through out the process of planning the wedding. It was with me for the mundane activities that seemed to cause me great stress such as trying new restaurants, going out with friends and grocery shopping.
I stayed out of New York City as much as possible, as I was not looking forward to revisiting the scene of the crime. But one night, an event came up and I had no excuse not to go. Being afraid of going out didn't seem rational or like something I wanted to explain. And with my terrible luck, that also happened to be the night I forgot my lemon tube.
We ventured down into the subway. Between the noise, the heat and the smell I was certain my next big panic attack was imminent. I took deep breaths, but not too deep because it was a NYC subway after all.
Think about lemons, I told myself.
I kept breathing and before I knew it, we were back off the train and heading back up to the street level. I managed to make it to the venue in one piece, but after sitting down in the crowded audience, my anxiety flared once again. My shoulders and chest started collapsing, my legs went dead and my stomach turned over on itself. I couldn't get out of that room quickly and I couldn't sit there. It was starting to seem like I was never going to be able to leave the house again.
Think about lemons. Take a deep breath and think about lemons.
It worked. I calmed down. I ended up enjoying the show, stand up comedy. Laughing all night, I forgot to feel terrible and be afraid.
I don't carry the tube anymore. It dried up and I never bought a new one.
Whenever things get crazy, a room gets too full or I don't know what to expect, I think about lemons. I think of their crisp smell, their sweetness and tanginess. I think about taking a deep breath, inhaling the aroma and feeling it pass through my nose and straight to my brain. My pulse slows, my stomach stops churning and my arms and legs don't feel so numb. The dizziness subsides and I can make it through a few more minutes.
The anxiety never subsided completely. I merely keep it at bay.
This weekend I have plans to meet friends at a bar for someone's birthday. Our friends' band will be playing. I've been to this bar to see this band before. I don't have a sitter lined up yet. I don't know what time we're going or what we'll eat for dinner before hand. What if there's no where to sit? What if we get there too early? Or too late? What if there are too many people I don't know?
I need to stop thinking about the details.
I need to think about lemons.
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