A woman finds herself unable to shake a single incident from her past.
There’s flour down my shirt and butter in my hair. I’m making oatmeal cookies, in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. I dump in the sugar, the flour, and the butter. Checking the ingredients list, my cookies call for vanilla extract. I’m out of vanilla extract. I’m searching the cabinet frantically, pulling out every single bottle on the top shelf. No vanilla extract. I head for Google. Can I fix this? Am I in control? On a baking site, it calls for a substitution of maple syrup. Thank god. I separate the baking flour, salt, and oats. I turn my hand mixer on, and watch as the butter churns into a whipped delight.
After mixing, I put on a pair of gloves and get to work. As I shift the dough between my fingers, pressing down hard, the oats crunchy between my fingers, I feel the tension in my shoulders start to relax. I haven’t realized I’ve been holding my breath, but I have, and let it out, slowly, deeply. It is here, in this moment, I can finally start to breathe.
I can’t speak. I can’t breathe. This is how I’m going to die, I think. This is worse than death.
That is what I think every time I have a panic attack. I look terror-stricken, my eyes full with horror, my arms clasped to my chest. My mind races, and I’m unable to say a word.
Panic attacks have turned me into a person I can’t recognize. A stressful event can bring me to the cusp of panic in only a few short minutes.
When my panic attacks are at their worst, I shun the phone, using my energy only for important conversations. Simple phone calls, which I used to love, can seem overwhelming. Basic tasks need to be broken down. Social visits are limited, and I’ve become a prisoner, trapped inside my own home.
And when I do decide to leave? I’m painfully aware of the crawling sensation settled on my chest. I crawl out of my skin with worry. At my favorite bookstore in the city, I walk in, and instead of feeling at peace, I feel overwhelmed. I have the incredible urge to bolt-anywhere, really, to the street, to get out of the store because something terrible is going to happen and I am going to die right here in this very store. I feel smothered, like a pillow is being hung over my nose and mouth. I look around the store wildly, and notice the shop owner eyeing me with concern. I’ve been in there for five minutes, maybe less, I wasn’t counting. My heart is racing, and nausea sits in the pit of my stomach. I can’t escape. I’m losing control, and as I take a deep, shuddery breath, I can’t catch my breath. I can’t, and I give into the panic, running at full speed out of the bookstore in Philadelphia. I run headfirst into a crowd of people, and I don’t stop running until I reach the public bathroom.
In the bathroom, I sit, my head between my knees, afraid that I’m going to pass out, tears streaming down my face. And in a public bathroom that reeks of urine and feces, I think about what my life has become. I am not brave, not even a little bit. I’m a coward.
My anxiety started the summer after I finished classes. I was 22, living in an unsafe section of the city. Wearing a low cut dress, I got off the subway at 12:10 AM, right before the subway was about to close. I wasn’t afraid of being bothered-why would anyone bother me? I wasn’t even wearing makeup.
But four boys have been following me on the subway. I pay them no mind, even as they head in my direction.
All of a sudden, I hear the sound of pounding footsteps closing behind me. They are chasing me, and I am wearing black flats. The kind that were always a size too big. I look behind me, and they’re getting closer. I trip, and keep running. But it’s eight blocks to my apartment. The streets are dark and deserted at this hour, and not a soul is walking the streets.
Halfway home, I realize I’ve lost my black flat somewhere along the way. But they’ve caught up to me, these boys in hooded sweatshirts and grimy sneakers. It only takes a second, but a boy reaches up and tries to open my dress from the backside. I struggle away, my hand hitting a face in the dark. Adrenaline floods my system as I run home, with only one flat left on my feet.
I reach the front door. Where are they hiding? I look around nervously for the boys, but they are gone, out in the night, and back to the shadows.
For months, I didn’t tell a soul I was suffering from panic attacks. Even as they changed me into a person I didn’t recognize, I stayed silent. Each day, it feels as though I’ve been doused with fire, set on fire, and watched to burn. Only no one can see it. Alone in my room, I’ll bite my hand, trying to calm the swirling thoughts of a 24-7 anxiety fest.
I channel my panic and anxiety through the only method I know: baking. Nothing fancy, for fear that I’ll drop an egg shell, or crack a bottle of milk on the kitchen floor. But something about baking eases my mind, and therapeutically offers me a way to escape from my thoughts, in a way medicine never could. It’s in these baking moments I find the calm I’ve been desperately seeking.
In the kitchen, I bake to save my soul. I’m in control, even though it may not seem like it to the outside world. Measuring cups are left in the cabinet, and typically, there will be little bits and pieces of whatever I’ve baked strewed across the kitchen floor. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to look like the front page of Bon Appetit or Saveur, but when you taste it? It better taste like heaven, because I’m baking for my soul.
When the smell of oatmeal cookies whips through the air, I’m transported to a moment of bliss. I take a bite, and close my eyes, and for those brief, brief moments, all is right in the world. All of my anxious and panic thoughts can fade away, and I’m at one in the kitchen.