Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon.com.
Facing Fear: My Triumph in a Taxi
“You can do this,” my husband said, as we were about to get in the back of a New York City cab.
“No, Bob. I can’t.” Monstrous claustrophobic tentacles were rearing their hideous suction cups.
“You did it last year,” he said.
“I know. And I’ve told myself ever since that I could never do it again.”
We were standing in line outside Penn Station. Taxis pulled up, one after another in a whirlwind and whisked everyone, including the women and children, away.
What we tell ourselves influences our behavior. And I was giving myself all the wrong messages.
As our turn in purgatory approached, I thought, “I’m going to have a panic attack if I get in one of those cabs, and (here’s the important part) I won’t be able to handle it.”
This is the same thing that lots of people go through in elevators, dentist offices and airplanes – the fear of the fear.
I continued my line of “No, I can’t!” thinking. I imagined myself in the tiny space in the back seat with my huge suitcase on my lap smushed up against my face so I’d suffocate and die. This figures, I thought to myself. All this time I’ve assumed I’d die in a car crash, an airplane or from some horrible contagious disease. And here I am about to be snuffed out by a Samsonite.
Of course, my body systems began to sky-rocket into a full flight or fight panic response.
“Breathe,” Bob said, trying to encourage me to relax.
“I am,” I said defensively. “I’m just not breathing out.”
He stood in front of me so I couldn’t see the cabs and said, “Focus on my nose.”
“Focus on your nose?” By now, I assumed everyone was staring at us and thinking we were doing some sort of chi chi New York sidewalk improvisation routine.
“Now breathe,” he said, accentuating the word with his hands like an orchestra conductor. “And focus.”
“I’m not having a baby, Bob. I’m having a panic attack.”
There were only three families ahead of us in line. I told the couple behind us to take our place. I kept doing this with other passengers so we wouldn’t get closer to cab hell. “Until I calm down,” I said to myself. Now, that was not magically going to happen unless I changed the way I was thinking. But somehow, that didn’t sink in, yet.
“Picture yourself in our kayak paddling around Cape Cod Bay,” Bob said. I closed my eyes. “You see the dunes of Sandy Neck and the water is calm like . . . .” He couldn’t come up with a word.
“Like what?” I whispered, not opening my eyes.
“Like . . . .”
The noise from the streets started to invade my reverie. “Like what?” I said impatiently, before the spell could break.
“Like, um, like a . . . .”
I opened my eyes and shouted, “ CALM LIKE WHAT, DAMMIT?”
Now everyone was slowly backing away from us.
“Not like you!” he shouted back. “Give me a break here.”
I smiled uncomfortably at the couple behind me and said, “I’m not usually like this. I am NOT a lunatic. I know it must look that way.” I started high-pitched giggling like I do when I’m really nervous. They turned and scurried away.
I held Bob’s arm to steady my wobbly legs. “You’re not going to faint, are you?” he asked, terribly concerned about the red flare in my cheeks.
“No.” At a professional conference on anxiety, the speaker said that no one ever faints while having a panic attack because in order to faint, your blood pressure has to drop and when you’re panicking, your blood pressure soars. “I’m not going to faint. I may, however, throw up on your shoes.”
And so, as you can probably guess, I finally convinced myself that I could not get into the cab. As we walked the eight blocks to our hotel, I was filled with self hatred. This “relapse” as therapists would call it, was, in my mind, going to be permanent.
I started to cry as we lumbered with our suitcases down the crowded avenue. I was a pathetic sight, tears dripping down my face. I stopped and put my bags down. “Wait,” I said to Bob. Not knowing I was crying, he turned and looked at me with anguish on his face. “It’s ok,” he said, wiping my cheek with his fingers.
“No. It’s not. Everybody in the world can get in to a cab but me. I hate this whole thing . . . and I hate myself.”
“What would you tell me if I said I hated myself?” he said tenderly.
I caught my breath and thought for a minute. “I’d say, ‘You should. And everybody else hates you too.’”
I watched as cabs sped by, knowing they were forever off-limits to me. And that’s when the miracle and the magic happened. Bob, always mysteriously simpatico, put his arm around my shoulder. “Everybody’s afraid of something,” he said. He saw me eyeing the cabs. “You don’t have to do it, but if you wanted to, how would you pull it off?”
“With a whiskey IV.”
“I mean it.”
No one seemed to notice us as they walked around our suitcases. I tried to remember what had worked for me in the past. “I’d tell myself that anxiety symptoms are just that and that I’m not insane.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Hey!” I elbowed him. “You’re supposed to be helping me.”
“And I’d say that the symptoms feel terrible but they won’t last.” He nodded encouragingly. Now I was on a roll. I pictured myself in the taxi, not necessarily in a calm state, because I knew realistically that was not likely to happen this time. Instead I saw myself looking out the window, feeling quite anxious, but (and this is the important part) knowing I could handle it. I wasn’t going to go crazy or have a heart attack or whatever your fill-in-the-blank terror could be.
Becoming calm wasn’t necessarily my goal. Doing what I wanted in spite of and along with the anxiety was.
I wanted to hail a cab. I took one step toward the sidewalk. The prickly heat of tension covered my arms. I stopped. “I’m not letting you win,” I growled silently to my demons. I took two more venturing steps ahead. I forced my arm in the air and a cab slowed down. My knees lost most of their strength but they still held me up. I turned back.
I looked at Bob and could read his mind. “I can’t do it for you,” I knew he was thinking. “It has to be your victory.”
And with the hard steel look of an Olympian sprinter poised in the ready, I heard the starter gun go off in my head. With my level of terror only matched by my level of determination I raised my arm. The cab stopped.
I opened the door quickly before I could talk myself out of it. “I am doing this come hell or high water or anything you want to throw at me, you lousy panic monster!” The symptoms came on like a rushing army. “I can tolerate it,” I thought. My heart pounded; my body shook. I felt the dread of impending doom. “Nothing’s going to happen,” I said like a mantra. “These sensations can’t hurt me.” My breathing became rapid and shallow. “You’ve been through this a hundred times before,” I said to myself. “Breathe from your diaphragm. Long deep breaths to the slow rhythmic count of four. That will take you down. It always does. Just wait it out.”
“I can’t handle this!” I began to think.
“Don’t listen in,” I said back to myself. “Block the negative thought. It just compounds the fear. Concentrate on your breathing. You know you can handle this. It’s an adrenaline rush and I promise it will pass.” And then I added, with a loving whisper to my frightened brave soul, “I am so very proud of you.”
We made it to the hotel. I had given myself well-rehearsed “Yes, you can,” messages. And it worked.
Now lots of people might not think it takes courage to get into a cab. Not compared to scaling a mountain or speaking in front of two hundred people. But I tell you. It’s all the same. I believe everything in this life is what we make of it in our hearts and our heads and therefore our actions.
I celebrated my accomplishment in my usual sophisticated manner. I ordered room service. But I didn’t order fancy expensive New York entrees. Instead I stayed with the appetizers and desserts. We polished off buffalo wings, brie on bruschetta, some sort of seafood in a cream sauce, three Napoleans and two pieces of New York cheese cake topped with an apple crisp type thing. The total came to ninety-four dollars.
My parting words are this: If you panic in supermarket lines or airplanes or driving over bridges or in crowded malls and are able to muster the courage to proceed, even for just a tiny part of the way, then you are a medal-deserving Olympian hero, in every sense of the word.
The finish line has nothing to do with crossing that line or the having the fastest time. It’s taking the first trembling step.