For years I have struggled with crowds. But sometimes I can handle it. There’s never really been any way I can accurately predict when I will suddenly be unable to handle a crowd. I have been in huge crowds at Disney World and been fine. I’ve been in a smallish crowd in a living room and felt myself start to crumble internally first.
I’ve tried to not avoid crowds because there are so many things in life that I would miss out on if I couldn’t be in a crowd at all. School events for the kids are really important to them and I definitely don’t want to miss any of those things. I’ve missed so many because I was deployed so often when I was military. I can’t miss anymore, nor do I want to because I like seeing them in band and other school things.
I have a few techniques that seem to work some of the time, like having a fidget toy with me or a worry stone. I just need something I can mess with when I start to feel concern creep in. I try not to be alone because that is one factor that I have noticed starts off the worry storm inside me.
Before I had these techniques, I really struggled with recovering from the panic attacks. Once at Disney World they turned off the lights because there was about to be a castle show. I had Boy #2 with me and I completely melted down. All I could say to him was “Space Mountain” and so he led me there. There are a bunch of benches back there that are out of the way and very quiet. It was far from the noise of the crowd trying to see the castle show and it was almost empty back in that area. At that point in time, he was 11/12 and still very much locked in his own head and seemed indifferent to my panic attack, which was perfect. The last thing I want to do is scare the kids with one of these severe meltdowns. He texted my ex with our location and we waited for the rest of them to find us. It was close to the end of the night so we just went back to the hotel. I struggled to ride the bus back to the hotel, but I kept my eyes closed and breathed as much as I could. I recovered completely back at the hotel. It was one of the worst crowd panic attacks I’ve ever had.
Learning what the earliest signs are for me also have helped me get out of the crowd before it gets bad. If I’m out in public, I can escape to a restroom or maybe just another part of the store or another area wherever I am. When I start to breathe a little faster and I feel this chilling feeling rise up in my chest, I know it’s coming. I need to find a solution immediately. That’s kind of how it feels with all of the panic though, not just crowds. But with crowds, I got from the chilling feeling to dizziness and feeling like I might black out very quickly. I don’t actually black out there, I realized recently that I actually am disassociating at that point. It’s like I have left my body and my body turns robotic. I can walk in one direction, I can follow someone else, I can sit down, I can scan for someone I know. But I cannot think logically about how to calm down, what might make the most sense in the moment whether it’s leaving or finding someone I know. I can scan for someone I know, or I can walk straight ahead. I cannot talk to anyone except to maybe say I am not ok. I can’t make small talk, I can’t remember what set me off in the moment, and I can’t explain what I am feeling. I just try as hard as I can to not get to this place because the impact will last more than just those few minutes. I need sleep afterwards, lots of sleep. It’s like my brain drained all the way to zero and only sleep can reset it and fill it back up to fully functioning.
I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about how and when I learned to disassociate so easily. I do it with every stressful situation, even things like doctor’s appointments. I try to do it less now since I’ve been in fairly intense therapy for two years, but it still just happens sometimes. I am hoping I can learn to stop myself from doing it because it doesn’t feel good to me. It feels like in those moments, I am still not feeling what I need to feel to be healthy. It very much feels like the path to pushing feelings away from me and not acknowledging that I am not ok in those moments. Pushing it all away is my default still and I work hard to feel things when I am in a solid mental state and something hurts me. I don’t want to just avoid feeling anything. Although that helped me survive a long time, it didn’t help me be healthy mentally.
All of this to say that I have to go be in a crowd tonight, in a place where I am extremely comfortable and familiar, and I definitely won’t be alone. I will know where I can go if I start to feel messed up, and I will definitely bring something to fidget with, maybe more than one thing just in case I need some options or to hold something in both hands. I’m not sure if mental preparation will make me feel more confident like I can handle it or if it will cue up the anxiety once the party starts and I see the crowd. It’s better to try and be prepared, and if it doesn’t work I will know that it doesn’t work and I won’t prepare ahead of time again.
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