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Lifelines: Life After Paralysis

C. Saphir

I remember my first panic attack as if it happened yesterday. In truth, it happened 38 years ago, when I was 20 and expecting my eldest.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

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I ’m standing in a New York City subway station waiting for the train. Suddenly, the walls of the station start to close in on me.

Like a giant boa constrictor, the walls wrap themselves around my body, squeezing the breath out of me. My heart catapults against my throat. Wham, wham, wham. The people standing on the platform start to swim before my eyes. The boa constrictor tightens its grip. I can’t breathe! In another moment, I’ll faint. Help! Get me out of here!

I bolt from the subway platform, fly through a turnstile, and gallop up a flight of steps. Fresh air! I am free!

I remember my first-ever panic attack as if it happened yesterday. In truth, it happened 38 years ago, when I was 20 and expecting my eldest daughter. It was the last time in two decades that I would set foot into a subway station.

From then on, I took the bus every day to Touro College, even though it added a considerable amount of time to the trip. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my husband or my friends at school, why I had stopped taking the subway. “It works better for me,” was the only explanation I gave. How could I tell anyone that I was afraid the subway station would squeeze me to death?

About a month after the subway incident, the thought of being on a bus started to frighten me as well. I couldn’t avoid taking buses, but each time I got on a bus, I couldn’t wait to get off.

After that, I added a new fear practically every day. What if I step into that elevator and it gets stuck? What if I’m in the car and there’s a traffic jam, and I need to get out? What if I collapse in the simchah hall during a wedding?

The fear itself created its own fears. What if I’m grocery shopping and I have a panic attack in middle of the vegetable aisle, in front of everyone? I was so afraid of panicking that I started to avoid going out. I ordered groceries by phone so I wouldn’t have to risk anxiety attacks in the supermarket. I stopped going to weddings and other social events, with the excuse that I wasn’t feeling well. Each time we received an invitation, I became a nervous wreck. How could I possibly attend my neighbor’s son’s bar mitzvah? I’d have to go to shul!

I managed to cover up my anxiety and keep it a secret from everyone, including my husband, Shaul. When I was afraid to go somewhere, I said I had a headache, or a stomachache, or some other health problem. I was deeply embarrassed about my fears, knowing that they made no sense. But the knowledge that my fears were irrational did nothing to mitigate them.

I graduated college with a degree in early childhood education and began working as a preschool teacher. One morning, about a year after my first panic attack in the subway station, the thought of leaving the house made me feel violently ill and nauseated. I was sweating buckets, my heart was pounding, and I could hardly breathe. So I called my principal and told her I wasn’t feeling well.

This is crazy, I thought. I just called in sick, even though there’s nothing wrong with me.

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