In 1998, at ten years old, I discovered that Mama Cass died choking on a ham sandwich. Maybe I heard it on TV. Or maybe I was eavesdropping on some random adult chatter. Or maybe my mother told me during one of my relentless questioning sessions about all of her favorite musicians. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that with that news, I was hit— for no rational reason— with life-changing fear. My brain grabbed onto this idea of “death -by -choking” like a shark grabs its prey: What if I choke in the school lunchroom, nobody hears me over the chatter and I die? Days passed as that thought flipped and flopped and tossed and turned restlessly—violently—through my brain. Choke and die, choke and die, choke and die. I sat through school lunches half invested in the innocent adolescent conversations about lipstick and half obsessed with my imminent death. One March day, the thoughts were so overbearing that when I took a sip of my peach flavored Snapple, it went down the wrong pipe, coughing commenced, and I came into contact with my first debilitating panic attack.
“Are you ok? Jackie, are you ok?” The teacher spoke to me over the microphone, “stand up, stand up.” I stood up. I was overheated from both embarrassment and physical stress. I was already unpopular, but now an entire cafeteria of cruel ten and eleven year olds were staring at me. I gasped for breath and simultaneously considered my poor wardrobe choice that day. If I had known I was going to be the center of attention, I wouldn’t have worn that stupid pink cardigan and those unbecoming gray sweatpants. “Nod your head, nod your head,” the teacher was saying, “do we have to do the Heimlich?” I knew they didn’t have to do the Heimlich. After all, it was only Snapple that I was “choking” on. But I certainly wasn’t going to admit that, not after the spectacle I was creating. My coughing slowly subsided, and a breath of relief rippled through the couple hundred kids in the cafeteria… immediately followed by an outburst laughter. I sat down, wanting to hide, and suddenly—just like that— all of the ease I had previously lived with was gone. Who knew that it was a luxury to be able to interact with your peers, go to school, eat lunch, and exist in the world without a consistent feeling of impending doom holding you back? I tried to act normal. I walked with the herd to my next class, took my seat, stared at the chalkboard, and wrung my sweaty hands seeking some sort of solace in myself. Something was infinitely unsafe, but I didn’t know what so I couldn’t even protect myself. The walls were closing in on me, my friends looked like enemies, words were muttered, faces were fuzzy, and I burst into tears.
I was sent to the nurse’s office. I could barely speak by the time I got there. Sweating through that stupid fleece cardigan, I was crying so hard that I could only gasp out one comprehensible word at a time, “I—choked. and. am. —scared.” The nurse looked at me confused and harshly, got me a five ounce dixie cup of water, and led me to a small, poorly lit, corner room. There was one beige metal folding chair meant for me to collect myself on. “Sit in here and calm down,” she said. I took the seat thinking I’d rather be anywhere else or maybe nowhere at all. I wanted a hug desperately. That is what I wanted. As the nurse closed the door, I heard her say to her colleague, “I mean, seriously, she should be able to control herself, she’s ten years old. What’s wrong with her? My God.” Did she think I couldn’t hear her? I was so embarrassed, so ashamed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and if I could have controlled it—like she was suggesting— I certainly would have.
By the time I got home that day, I had decided that I should probably never leave my bedroom again and that I should definitely never eat again. If it was up to me, I would have lived a very small life. My parents got in the way of my ideas.
I cried through dinner one night, trying to spoon a small amount of plain broth into my mouth but every time I looked at the bowl of liquid, I was hit with the memory of “choking” in the lunchroom. I just cried and shook until my father lost his cool, dropped his fork and said, “What’re you gonna do? Never eat again? If you went outside and tripped and fell, would you never go outside again?” I felt pathetic. What I was experiencing was NOT logical and could not be beaten with logic.
My mother held me in bed that night as i sobbed and sobbed. I said, “I wish I had some physical illness. Even cancer. Anything but this. It’s so scary.” And I meant it. I was in unthinkable pain. Thankfully, my mother understood what I was experiencing due to her own turbulent history with panic attacks and, as a by-product, she pushed me. She wasn’t going to let me become a slave to my anxiety. It was strategic, and it was brilliant. She sent me to school everyday, she denied me medication even though doctor’s suggested it, and I was forced to take part in all daily commitments whether I sobbed through them or not. To this day, I consider it the greatest gift my mother gave me. To this day, I consider it her shining moment as a parent.
When my seventh grade field day came around, I was hit with a new deepening wave of panic. Who knows why. There was no real why. At 7:30 am, I hid in the closet sobbing, “I’m not going. Please, please, please don’t make me go.” I begged for an hour until the bus came and my mother lovingly pushed me out the door. I went. I mean, I WAS forced. I went full of terror, but I went. And, as the day went on under the suburban sun, the fearful pangs subsided. The distraction was helping. The sun was helping. Exercise was helping. I was easily able to take part in field day activities, and I even won a flimsy second place ribbon for a short-distance race. By the end of the day, I felt great, and I was deeply proud of myself. I sprinted through my door that afternoon, impatiently shouting at my mother, “mom, mom. I had the best day ever. Thank you for making me go! Look, I won 2nd place in the sprint!” She was so proud of me. In that one day, I had instanteously grown muscle where there wasn’t any, I had a new life experience that would forever change the way I lived—a reference point for what it felt like to feel the fear and do it anyway which remains a saying I try to live by. Curiously—or not so curiously— I didn’t have another panic attack for seven years.
At nineteen years old, everything I had learned about coping with anxiety was put to the test. My panic attacks came back, and this time they were not so easily defeated.
To be continued….