It was my first year living away from home. I’d moved to Chicago for art school and stayed in the city over the Thanksgiving break. On Friday morning, I remembered my grandfather’s birthday was coming up and decided to buy him a birthday present.
I started walking down Michigan Avenue, headed toward a candy shop I knew he would love, but before I knew it the crowds were denser than any I had ever been in. I had unknowingly wandered into Chicago’s biggest shopping destination on Black Friday.
It was a gorgeous day, with crisp clear air and beaming sunlight, but I couldn’t breathe. Human bodies pressed against me from every direction. I couldn’t walk; I could hardly move my arms.
And just like that, I began to panic.
When I say panic, I don’t mean your average teenage girl freak out; I mean a genuine, completely real anxiety attack. My heart pounded in my chest, my breath came in gasps. Tears poured down my face and my legs shook. The only thing that kept me on my feet was the terror that if I collapsed I’d be trampled under the crowd.
I began pushing against people, trying to escape the crowds, but there was nowhere to go. The shops were more packed than the streets. The streets in every direction were packed not only with shoppers, but with performers, Salvation Army Santas ringing bells, and street preachers with microphones.
The noise pounded in my ears like a fist, dizzying me. I screamed, “Let me out! Let me out!” but of course, there was nowhere to go. I pushed my way past people who yelled and pushed back until I finally saw a break in the crowd.
With a scream, I started punching people in the stomachs, kicking them in the shins, plowing my way past until I found the space to collapse on the sidewalk, dry heaving with my head between my knees, waiting for the tingly, fuzzy feeling in my face to subside.
Nobody stopped and offered to help. I walked back to my dorm without my grandfather’s present. I took the longest route imaginable, walking a mile out of my way in every direction to avoid the mob. By the time I got back I was ravenous, still shaking, and determined never to set foot on either the Magnificent Mile or any shopping center on Black Friday again.
That was my first crowd-induced panic attack, but not my last.
Since that day, I have to be careful in large, crowded stores. My husband knows the danger signs; he can often tell I’m in danger of getting panicked or even getting a pre-panic attack migraine before I do.
“Let’s find you a quiet place to have a sip of water,” he’ll say, and I gratefully follow him to an abandoned aisle where I can breathe softly and quietly for a while away from other people.
Over the last decade, I’ve done a lot of psychological “unpacking” to figure out what exactly caused my anxiety over crowds. As I get to know my triggers better, I’m able to go to places I know will make me uncomfortable and to prepare to be in them.
I know which times of day are easiest for me, whether or not to bring a Xanax along just in case, or to carry a cold water bottle and maybe some headphones with soothing music. I’m comfortable in front of crowds or onstage, and I’m even OK going into Costco alone … so long as it’s not peak hours.
Anxiety attacks are things you can learn to live with, even if it means the idea of taking your kids to a theme park makes your blood pressure rise and your skin prickle. I hope to take my children to Disney someday. And I already know that when I do, my first order of business will be finding a quiet corner where I can breathe, far away from the lines and the noise.
Crowds give me anxiety, but I live in the third most populous city in the country, and I’m OK with that.
Just don’t look for me on Michigan Avenue on Black Friday. I promise you won’t find me there.