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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

when the doors close

Today came like a piece of fusilli pasta - a short spiral and a lot of unraveling. For the sake of full transparency, I had a minor mental health backslide. I ruminated on some things I don't often allow myself to think about, which of course, led to me to mimic the body positioning of a sleeping Patrick Star, prone on the grey fabric of my couch. I haven't felt that low, well, since whenever the last time it was that I let myself. Now, my body is tired, but my heart rate is at like, 105, and my mind is even more alert.

The worst part about a panic attack is that your body is eliciting a 'flight' or 'fight' response from you own mind. So, where do you go? Well, you have nowhere to run to, and you have nothing tangible to fight against. Instead, you neck grows hot and the air gets thick, and you think for a moment that you're going to die. That panic becomes visceral within your body, making nausea rise up in your stomach, and causing a icy cold sweat at the back of your knees and your forehead. The circumstances seem dire, but from lived experience, you know that they're not. So, you don't call anyone, or stand in your parent's doorway to wake them up - you curl up and you wait until it goes away and try to find the hope that this will never happen again.

I used to hate elevators. At resorts, museums, or my grandma's retirement home, I refused to get on them. I would take the stairs, whether three flights or ten, terrified of what would happen if I were trapped in that tight space. I tried, sometimes, to get over the fear. But, when I stepped foot inside, the second that I saw the doors flitting in front of me, or I felt the elevator dip slightly as another person walked inside, I would fling my body out of the perceived death trap, immediately gasping for air.

I knew my family thought it was ridiculous. Even, I knew that it was. But what if? What if the one time I let my guard down, was the time I was in that enclosed space with a psychopath, or there was an earthquake, or the cord were to snap. What if? What if the elevator stopped, the lights cut clean and dark, and the air became sticky hot and thick? There would be no escape, then, suspended in the air by a presumably rusty, rickety cord. I'd be surrounded by panic and terror, with no rationality or resources available to me.

That's what a panic attack feels like.


Before I met with my current therapist for the first time, (hi bae) I sent her an email to inquire for a session. The method was rather avoidant, especially considering I had spent an entire summer answering the phone and booking reservations as a restaurant host, but I was too anxious to speak to her directly. (This was a while ago so forgive my memory.) She tried to call me back, which obviously, I didn't answer. Leveling with me, she sent me an email asking if I was still interested in meeting. I said, "Yes of course, sorry for not answering!", (even though I had been thinking about how I would answer for about two days). And then, bless her heart, she allowed me to email back and forth, finalizing out first session date on the Friday before I went back to school my senior year.

I'd had three therapists before, but none of them ever clicked with me. After three months with one of them, the best word she could use to describe me was "polite". While not exactly untrue, I felt like it was a very round-about way for her to say that I was closed off. And that was true. When I told her that, at 16, I had convinced myself I had a glioblastoma to the point that I had developed a psychosomatic fever, migraines and made my mom book me a doctor appointment, she unintentionally made my hypochondria worse. Her only advice was that her friend had headaches, gotten a brain scan and then died a few months later. I think she was attempting to validate that I wasn't crazy, but it wasn't what I needed to hear. Cue, a sleepless, panic-filled few weeks and a fear to divulge an new anxieties to her.

In August 2023, my therapist, (calling her bestie for anonymity) did an intake session. Maybe it was this session, or the subsequent one, but I remember some words I said to her early on in our acquaintance. (Probably after a spiral). I said, "I just don't think I'm capable of being happy, like at all. Like, I just don't think that it's in the cards for me because I always end up back here. Sad. And depressed. And alone." (I say 'like' a lot when I'm nervous).

And she probably said something along the lines of, and this is paraphrased, "Well, that's okay for now because that's your reality. Listen, it will take a lot of work to get there, but let's just take it one day at a time."

And it did. And then it didn't. And then it did again.

The way that my therapist and I work on my anxiety is through a process called EMDR therapy. Basically, this form of therapy involves bilateral stimulation where you discuss a piece of mental injury and then follow a blue ball back and forth across your computer screen. The interesting thing about this is it essentially heals the pathways of your brain (paraphrasing), by increasing the speed in which your brain processes a trauma. Eventually, you will start to develop adaptive thinking as opposed to trauma-informed behavioral patterns.

Using a general example, let's say your middle school best-friend sent you a text ending your friendship and called you "a bad friend." And then, in high school, you had a similar experience with a boyfriend who broke up with you and told you that you were "too much." Now, you have these two negative perceptions about yourself, as told by people in your life who you at one point loved very much. Maybe now, with your current friend group, you are convinced that there is a timeline on the relationship where, eventually, they will decide that you are inherently "bad" and certainly "too much" to maintain a friendship with. There's your negative belief about yourself.

EMDR is not easy (your brain will sort through every related negative experience, even those you didn't remember), but it is astonishing. You can go from being entirely unable to walk on a certain street, to strolling on it casually a year later, completely unaware that you were even in that neighborhood. Metaphorically speaking. It brings your brain to an informed state, where, you know why something was upsetting to you, but maybe, you feel it just that much less. And even the slightest decrease can feel like enormous progress. Going from a panic-level of an 8, to a stable 5, well, that's a victory.

Because it is kind of like opening a wound, the in between stages of the processing can cause very vivid and emotional reactions to reminiscent experiences. I look at it like this, nothing can be worse than the way it felt the first time you experienced it. But, sometimes, your mind convinces you that you are back there. And, of course, that does not feel very nice.

Not that I've never stated this, but I'll share it again. My negative belief is that I am incapable and undeserving of happiness. I'm not talking about a rah-rah, woohoo, sunshines and rainbows existence where nothing goes wrong. I mean, I don't see myself as a person who is deserving of positive relationships, experiences, or milestones. It doesn't mean I don't celebrate them, or want them, or bask in them when I get them, it means that I don't think they are meant for me.

Well, maybe because of the first kindergarten friend that did not invite me to her birthday party. Or in 6th grade, when I watched my three good friends sneak into a car together to head off to a play date, giggling stupidly as they left me behind. Or when I realized that my high school friends had all blocked me on their stories so that I wouldn't see when I wasn't invited to hangouts or parties. Or any other experience from birth to now that reinforced the idea that, hey, maybe it's true.

So yeah, I often think I'm highly unlikeable, even if I receive feedback and validation from friends and family that I'm the opposite. The cycle is harder to break than we want it to be. Hence, me having a panic attack thinking about the way a relationship had ended and believing that it validates my greatest fear. Because maybe that really unloveable thing that they saw about me, maybe they were right. And if that's not worthy of a panic attack, I don't know what is.

Here's the reassurance. Two years ago, if I had been subject to such a negative line of thinking, I would have been stuck to my floor, self-destructing in some way that would make the recovery even harder the next day. If it were to even come so soon. I would have cried so hard that my head would be pounding, and I would have fallen asleep exhausted and hopeless.

Today, I had my moment, I felt the terror, and I lived with the gut-curling, guttural anguish in my chest for a few moments. Then, instead of sitting there and picking myself apart, I picked up a pen. (My laptop). I wrote myself into a quiet lull, a focused state, an intentional concentration to remind myself of who I am now and how far I have come.

For the same reason I can take an elevator up to the fortieth floor, or fly on a plane across the world, or swallow a painful thought and digest it like an herb from an apothecary. Yes, the trapped, sticky, disgustingly horrible and suffocating sensation feels imminent and world-ending, but, the moment will pass. Your heart rate will return to its resting state, and the panic in your chest will subside.

The elevator doors will close. And then they'll open again. And you'll walk outside with vaseline on your scars and a healing heart.

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