Not-at-all-random Act of Kindness
Updated: Mar 8
Little-known fact about me: in April of 2018, I suffered a debilitating panic attack on a New York City subway car. I actually love riding the New York subway – it’s so beautifully gritty and vibrant. So, it really took me by surprise when the attack came absolutely out of the blue. Paul and I sat comfortably down on the bench seat taking in the sights and sounds. As the doors were closing, Paul said, “Oh, we must be on the express train; it won’t be stopping for a while.” And, with that, I was done.
Suddenly, there was no air. I felt overheated and yet I had chills. Every rapidly thudding beat of my heart was painful as it went into overdrive. My peripheral vision closed in on itself; my whole world reduced to what was behind my closed eyes. My fight, flight or freeze brain kicked in to high gear as it searched for ways to escape.
Sweet freedom came less than a minute later but, when you think you are about to die, that minute can feel like an eternity. As soon as the train came to a stop, I was up and heading for the door. Pretty sure I crashed through the people like a defensive linebacker, focussed only finding air and space. Once above ground, I scanned the streets like a cornered, terrified animal sensing imminent danger but unable to see it. Death, in my survival brain, was now around every corner and in every enclosed space.
So, for more than a year now, I have been living with heightened anxiety and the fear of another attack. Technically, they call this a panic disorder. I have altered my life considerably (and, by extension, Paul’s) so as to avoid triggering situations – no trains, no subways, no buses, no planes, no elevators. Coming to a standstill in highway traffic, a narrowly guided drive-through lane in which we are boxed by a car ahead of us and a car behind us, sitting in the middle of a movie theatre row, even the enormity of the Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game – triggers I learned to avoid. Not ideal.
I sought counselling. I started the practice of yoga, I work energetically, and I immerse myself in Mother Nature. Because there is something for me to learn in all of this, I am trying to have patience with myself, let this run its course and, hopefully, understand and heal from the cause of the initial attack and, ultimately, experience a healing release at a much deeper level.
The symptoms have become less immediate, less frequent. But elevators still pose a challenge. I navigate the anxiety with forbearance (and with Paul who, quite literally, has the loving patience and compassion of the biblical Job). If there are other people on the car, I mostly don't get on. If people start to pour in from another floor, I get off. Sometimes, I step on, feel the immediacy of the panic, and get off again before the doors close. I get on, I get off. I get on, I get off.
Which brings me to last weekend. Paul and I were staying downtown at our favourite hotel, the one in which we were married, and continue to come back to because it feels so much like home. Our room was on the 12th floor. Our first attempt to get there took a while. I’m not sure how many floors we had to get off on our way up, but I do know that, this time, I was frustrated and angry with myself. This had been going on for so long now and I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to get back to doing the things Paul and I love to do together which include travel, theatre, road trips, and hanging out in a hotel room doing absolutely nothing (in fact, we believe we have perfected this particular activity).
Somewhere between the Lobby and the 12th Floor, I made a silent plea for help in releasing the fear that was trapped inside me.
The next day, I was going through the usual elevator routine for the nth time. I’d let a few overcrowded (read: more than two people) cars go by. I’d attempted to get on one or two but backed out just before the doors closed. Eventually, though, the doors opened to reveal only two waiting people. I hesitated but felt a gentle inner nudge and so we got on. I felt obligated to offer an explanation for my hesitation and blurted, “My claustrophobia doesn’t get along well with others” or something equally nonsensical. I was going for a self-deprecating tone, feeling embarrassed and foolish, like a scared child. Without skipping a beat, and without moving away from me, the woman passenger said, kindly, “Well, I am nurse so if anything should happen …” My mind started to race. My heart started to slow.
And then, she did the most remarkable thing. She held her hand out to me, open-palmed, and quietly offered, "Here, take my hand,” she said. And I did. I placed my hand in hers and gripped it. And started to cry (the palms of our hands being an extension of our heart chakra). She made small talk, her voice steady and calm, keeping me focussed, my hand lightly enfolded on top of hers. I note that she did not place her other hand on top of mine. She allowed for the possibility that I might need to free my enclosed hand easily. She offered help, a way out of my fear. I made the choice to accept it. It was a moment of self-love and self-determination.
Before I knew it, we had reached the Lobby floor and the elevator doors opened. For the first time in months, the need to flee the confines of the elevator car was diminished. I could have stayed there longer with my hand in hers. Instead, I removed it, knowing it was time to let go. She gave me that choice, too. I looked directly at her and I said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” She smiled and exited the car.
We didn’t see her again but for the rest of the weekend, I got on and off the elevator with little hesitation. I’d take a deep breath and just walk in. I stood in the same place on the car where she and I had previously stood, enveloping me in the comforting energy of her presence.
Divine intervention? Hand of god incarnate? Oh, yes. It feels like there is more space within me now. More room to stretch and expand. Something has been released, freed from its confines within and received by the loving embrace of the Universe.
The most important lesson for me in this is that at the moment I was truly ready to let go of the fear, the anxiety and the panic, I sent a silent plea from the heart and the Universe literally sent me a way out and gave me the space to choose it every step of the way.