My very first anxiety attack occurred when I was eight years old. We were on a family vacation at Disney World. The pictures from that trip—now faded and worn—reside behind a sheet of plastic in an overstuffed photo album. My younger sister and I donned Mickey Mouse ears while squinting from the sun in front of each ride.
We indulged on pink cotton candy and soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones dipped in rainbow sprinkles as we made our way through the Magic Kingdom. I remember the excitement tingling in my stomach the moment we saw a ride we’d seen in the brochure before our trip. Holding hands, my sister and I skipped together towards one of the main attractions at the theme park—The Submarine Voyage. Built to mimic the experience of riding in a submarine, without being submerged in water, the vessel floated atop a lake. As a girl who loved going on boat rides, I was positive that The Submarine Voyage was going to be the highlight of my trip. But, everything changed when I took my first step down into the boat. Still holding my sister’s hand, I was crammed inside with dozens of strangers surrounding us.
After a few steps further down, we began to walk forward inside the narrow sub. Moving along with the flow, I turned around to see if my parents were close by. As I did, I noticed that on the other side of the round porthole was water! At that point, I let go of my sister’s hand and tried to make my way back to the entrance. The crowds of people walking forward blocked me from escaping the sinking ship I thought I was on. Terrified that we were all going to drown, I cried desperately while trying to make my way back to the entrance, pushing as hard as I could against walls of people.
A wave of fear took control over every motion I’d made. Convinced I was going to faint or drop dead, I began to scream “Let me off, let me off! I need to get out! I can’t breath, there’s no air, let me off!” But my attempts at reaching the entrance were squashed by the crowd and my screams went unheard, drowned out by the noise of chatter within the airtight cabin.
With sweaty palms, a tightened throat, and wet face, I finally emerged from the ship through the exit, with a rash of hives covering my arms. I found my mom, latched on to her leg and begged to take the monorail back to the hotel. Whatever else we had planned for the day was cancelled. I was done with Disney, submarines, crowds, and small spaces.
There would be several more anxiety attacks throughout my life, yet it’s always that one, that first one that I remember most. I’ve had to learn to overcome, or at least cope with, my anxiety of closed in spaces, while living in a city where the main mode of transport is a jam-packed underground subway.
In therapy, I discovered that there are special breathing techniques, as well as “thought-corrections” to avert an anxiety attack if I feel one coming on. But still, there are some things that I will do my best to avoid, such as sitting in the backseat of a two-door car. Just thinking about it can bring on that panicky “I need to escape” feeling. In the real world, there are times when I must face my fears without allowing them to interfere with my life. If only I could live in a magic kingdom where nothing frightened me. Ah, but I think that’s called the Land of Make Believe.
Adrienne Gurman has over 20 years of experience in advertising, marketing and magazine publishing. She is currently the Vice President of 1212-Studio, a product design company in NYC. A native New Yorker, Adrienne lives with her husband and their vivacious chocolate lab, Anya. Adrienne began volunteering for Bring Change 2 Mind not long after the organization was founded, and has since been a leading advocate for fighting the stigma that surrounds mental illness. She has lived with Major Depression since the age of 12. Adrienne writes a weekly blog for esperanza magazine and continues to be a growing voice in the anti-stigma community.