Trying to be alone in the crowd

Tonight was the last time I’ll see the inside of a Wal-Mart until after Christmas.

It was our last chance to stock up on slightly cheaper brand-name toothpaste, body wash and dog food. Corn Flakes, the big box, were less than half price.  There was also the West Wing box set complete with a pilot script that I probably shouldn’t have seen. But whatever we needed, we scooped it up fast—and we weren’t a moment too soon.  Tree-trimmings and sales signs seemed to hang close over my head. The ceilings, usually high and vast, seemed to tilt towards me. Every aisle I walked, from cake mixes to cosmetics to craft supplies, was jam-packed with early-ish Christmas shoppers. They weren’t at the panic point they’ll be in two weeks from now—but there was still a cloying whiff of frenzy-to-come in the air. The only place that offered any breathing room at all was oddly, the electronics department—and good thing too, since my love was adamant about me trying on the 3-D glasses and experiencing the wonders of a multi-dimensional Disney film. It was pretty cool—and for a few moments, it took my mind off the crowds I’d have to stand in to get through the cash and out the door.

Truth is, I won’t be able to be in any department store or mall—unless I take a day off work and go very early in the morning on a weekday—until long after the holidays. I usually spend at least one December morning a year sipping Peppermint Mocha on a bench in a near empty mall, waiting for the stores to open. It’s not so bad; the muffins are still warm then.  We’ll shop for food very early in the morning, on Sundays. And if we run out of toilet paper or coffee or I decide I we need to replace that box of Turtles I used when I forgot to buy a hostess present, my love will handle it solo. Because at this time of year, I can’t cope with being in a crowd.

I don’t know if I’m part of the six percent of the population who actually have claustrophobia but I definitely have claustrophobic feelings. They’re selective. I always hated phone booths and don’t miss them at all. At work, I get uncomfortable when someone stands in my office doorway.  I don’t like my escape route blocked. I have to sit on the aisle of the plane.  If you wanted to torture me, I figure a tanning bed would be your best choice. I don’t like small cars or tight sweaters and I can feel trapped by a phone conversation or a hug that goes on too long—but I have absolutely no problem with elevators, one of the most common locations for panic attacks. I have a big issues with store dressing rooms, so I buy a lot of my clothes online (thank heaven for Lands End) and know my sizes so well, I can usually eyeball something on the rack and know whether it will fit or not. I was attracted to the open-concept bungalow I live in now because it had no tight cramped spots—and very few walls. Difficultly in placing furniture was an easy trade for all that open space. We’re already scouting out apartment layouts for when the house gets to be too much work, to find some nice city flat where it won’t feel like the walls are out to get me.

Crowded public spots are the worst. I would love to go downtown when they turn on the Christmas lights, to go to an outdoor concert, to Time’s Square for New Year’s Eve—but I know those things would make me miserable, panicky and disoriented. I pride myself on my six incident-free trips to Walt Disney World—but I think that has something to do with all the open spaces and an uncontrollable passion for Dole Whip and Ice Cream Mickeys—and the fish and chips at Epcot’s British Pavilion.

Happily, with a little planning and some deft moves around those who can’t see the panic in my eyes and move in too close, it’s mostly possible to stay out of situations that bring on claustrophobic moments and keep those instant headache-waves of nausea-can’t breathe-want to scream moments to a minimum.  If you share this affliction, you’ve probably developed your own protection strategy. For me, it means staying away from midnight madness sales, opening day at movies (although I did brave it once on a Sunday several years ago to see The Hours—but the members of the half-dozen book groups who shared the theater with me were a pretty calm bunch), sporting events and airports during school breaks.

I’ll do whatever it takes to not be another face in the crowd.

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