I'll never forget my first panic attack in the backseat of my mom's car
Driving from my house to move in to college my freshman year, our route took us through Stamford, Connecticut. I’d only every heard of Stamford because it was where Jim from The Office transferred in season four after he kissed Pam, but about five hours into the six hour drive to campus, we passed a sign letting us know we were somewhere in the vicinity. That’s when my dad chimed in from the driver’s seat.
“You know, I remember this place. I was here on business and I had to leave early because I got a hysterical call from Mom saying that Emily wouldn’t get out of the car at school.”
This phone call was seven years ago. I was ten, and had recently plunged into a state of constant anxiety, exhibited by low-level relentless nausea and periodic panic attacks. This would continue in earnest for the next two years, and for a while after at a much lower register. “Anxiety” was a new word in my growing vocabulary, along with “adrenaline,” “psychiatrist,” and “Zoloft.” These words helped me navigate this strange world I’d been dropped into, but they didn’t make it any easier to understand.
On the day in question, sometime in November, I had gotten out of bed with the usual, unavoidable pit in my stomach. But somewhere along the way to school, the idea of getting out of the car and spending six hours in a classroom began to seem impossible. Not just undesirable, but laughably insurmountable.
We pulled up to the carpool circle and my twin brother hopped out of the car, no hesitation. And I didn’t. There were about thirty seconds before my mom realized something was out of the ordinary, before I couldn’t just be looking for something or tying my shoe or some other reasonable excuse for staying in my seat. But every second I delayed made the outside seem even scarier. So I just stayed. If I went inside I would be at risk, off balance, in danger. That was what my pounding heart and sweaty palms and dry mouth were practically shouting at me. So I just stayed.
I blurted out that I didn’t feel well. This wasn’t anything new, and was no longer really a viable excuse not to participate. When most daily activities and responsibilities make your stomach turn somersaults until you’re afraid to open your mouth, you don’t really get to play the sick card. But for a moment I thought it might work. My mom would look at me with concern, say that of course I shouldn’t go to school if I felt sick, and of course we would turn back around and go home right away, and maybe if I felt better later in the day we would reevaluate. I would spend the rest of the day in my perfectly contained and secure bedroom, with its warm yellow walls and white bookshelf filled with pages filled with words filled with chances to escape, which is all I ever wanted to do.
This little fantasy gave me a moment’s reprieve from the aforementioned pounding heart, sweaty palms, and dry mouth. When I heard the way my mom sighed and said my name in response, they came back.
“I know it’s hard but you have to go inside.”
Silence from my end.
“Come on.” Her voice rang with strained nonchalance. She wanted to believe this was still salvageable; she wasn’t yet willing to admit how bad it could get. “I’ll walk you to Ms. Robinson’s office, and then she’ll take you to class when you’re ready.”
Ms. Robinson was my guidance counselor, with whom I had regular meetings with, and a free pass to leave class and take refuge in her office as needed. I didn’t use this as often as you’d think. The thing about anxiety is that you’re scared of what’s going to happen, before it does. If you buck up and do it, it’s rarely as terrible as you imagined. But you aren’t allowed to remember that for next time. You have to start all over again. A tip from experience: don’t tell a person with anxiety that they have nothing to worry about, because they’re already telling themselves that. If they don’t believe themselves, they won’t believe you, either. Anxiety is all foresight, no hindsight.
“I can’t,” I said in the small and wavering voice of someone trying desperately not to cry. I knew, in some part of my brain that various chemical imbalances didn’t allow me to listen to, that this response was silly and immature and unacceptable, and quite possibly untrue. I said it anyway.
“You have to.”
It went back and forth like this for almost three hours. At least one of those hours was spent on an emergency conference call to my therapist. She was calm and collected and comforting. She was also not in the car with me, and therefore very easy to ignore.
My mom had pulled into the school parking lot, conceding that this wouldn’t be an easy fix, but clearly willing to wait it out. It was clear to all parties that I could not be allowed to win, for my own good. Many years later, in my intro psych class, we would call it operant conditioning. If I were rewarded for bad behavior, it would continue. If you buy the candy for the kid throwing a tantrum in the grocery line, they’ll do it every time.
Eventually, to my extreme embarrassment, the school principal came out to the car. In my twelve years of pre-college education, I’d never been sent to the principal’s office, and I maintain that this totally does not count. The principal, who in memory looks exactly like Steve Martin, crouched in the school parking lot by the open door of the car, talking me down. He patiently reasoned with me, telling me how important it was to attend school, that I could come sit in his office for as long as I needed, that he really believed I could get through the day if I just went inside.
I did not agree, and told him so. But he kept at it long enough to wear me down. I was tired: tired of arguing, tired of crying in front of grownups, tired of not doing what I was supposed to — which can be surprisingly exhausting. I was tired enough that my mind slowed down. Slowed down enough that I could breathe. I could listen. I could get out of the car. So I did.
My dad took a train home from Stamford, Connecticut that night. The next day, he drove my brother and me to school. Until he offhandedly mentioned it as we passed by a sign on the highway all those years later, I had never considered that it took any particular effort or inconvenience on his part. It’s the job of parents to take care of their kids no matter how hard it is, and it’s the job of kids to not have any idea how hard it is at all. At the time, I was too young and too caught up with trying not to be broken to think about something as abstract and complicated as how my actions affected other people. And once I was old enough and whole enough to have a different perspective, I didn’t want to think about it at all.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to. I had a bad couple of years, then got better. And I stayed better, for the most part. In middle school there was no longer a need to leave class or miss out on birthday parties. By high school I was no longer on medication. There were still periodic meetings with my therapist, but they went from weekly to monthly to phone calls when things were particularly overwhelming. For many people, anxiety is not something that one grows out of, or gets over. It never fades into the manageable background noise that I can almost always ignore. I didn’t move past my anxiety because I was stronger or tried harder — I was just luckier.
I stored away my “anxious phase” and all the messy details that came along with it in a tightly closed drawer in the corner of my mind reserved for formative childhood experiences and personal tragedy. It’s a drawer I rarely open. Sometimes it cracks open for those sleepaway camp fireside-bonding sessions, where trading secrets is a form of currency. Once, it opened for a friend who needed reminding that you can come back from rock bottom. It emptied out completely during those late night calls with my boyfriend at the very start of everything, voices that grew hoarse as the sky grew light, whispering into the phone, eagerly reveling in the shivery thrill of a secret spoken out loud.
When the drawer burst ajar on I-95, headed north, without any ceremony or profundity, it was a shock. And as we barreled along in a car packed to the brim with dorm room essentials that my mom had spent all week checking off of a list, suddenly the dark and ugly thing inside seemed less like a beast I had bravely overcome than a burden I had shoved off on the people around me, mainly my parents, and then claimed victory over as my own. There is a certain flavor of shame to things that you don’t regret until it’s too late to apologize.
That day on the highway, when my dad recalled my mom’s panicked phone call, I deflected it with a joke: it was a good thing he was the one driving me up to school rather than my mom, who was helping move in my brother. Then I thought that maybe my parents had carefully planned this arrangement with that very thought in mind, and were secretly holding their breath waiting for me to detonate. And I thought I just might. But even when I falter, there’s a lot separating me from that stubborn ten-year-old who backed herself into a corner and stayed there for half a school day. She will always be me, but somehow I’m not her. Whatever it was she struggled against or shuffled off, I’m happy to be free of it. And I’m happy that I was able to get out of the car upon arriving at college without any of the many school officials intervening.
Emily Harburg is a freshman at Yale University who will tell you what she plans on studying just as soon as she figures it out, promise. She’s definitely a reader, sometimes an actress, and hopefully a writer. It’s all pretty much up in the air at the moment, to be honest.