I was 9 years old when I had my first panic attack.
It was a hot August day, and I was sitting in a cramped Italian restaurant in New York City. Family was visiting from out of town, so we took them to Manhattan. The day was booked trying to give our Midwestern suburban cousins a taste of the Big Apple.
It started out as a nice day to spend time with my family, with the exception of a few bickering fights about whose feet hurt most.
I remember feeling squeamish. I tried my best to sit still so I didn’t bother my parents while they were having fun with our relatives. I sat patiently waiting for my kid-sized spaghetti; it's probably the only thing I liked on the menu.
The tap water was warm, and tasted dirty. I was sitting in between my aunt and my father – big, loud grown-ups who had probably been drinking, each sip of wine amplifying their laughs. I kept feeling the servers rush behind me carrying big plates of pasta.
I heard the baby a few tables down start to wail. I heard the empty plates being cleared from the tables and I heard the dishes clanking in the back as they got cleaned. Conversations blended into one long murmur.
The smell of garlic filled my nostrils. I didn’t mind it at first, but then it was all I could taste. The taste became more and more bitter. I thought about drinking my water, and took a sip. Warm and dirty – again.
The room was hot and stuffy. I felt like I needed to gasp for air. I tried to swallow the big bubble in my throat that made it hard to speak. I stayed quiet. I wanted to be a part of the conversation, but I was just 9. I didn’t know what the adults were talking about. My older sisters and cousins were all teenagers, who were gossiping about nothing that interested me.
I felt alone, even though I was surrounded by my family.
Tears welled up in my eyes. Everything I was taking in came to the surface as I broke down crying and hyperventilating. I tried not to make a scene, though, because I didn’t want to bother anyone.
My dad noticed my heavy breathing and called to my mother, who knew exactly what was wrong, even after I had been hiding it so well.
She took me outside to breathe and then to the bathroom to wash my face. Later, when we got ice cream, she explained that the feelings I was having were anxiety and that I was probably having a panic attack. She told me, “Mommy gets panic attacks too,” and that it was OK.
I didn’t understand what she was saying but listened anyway. I didn’t know it was going to become a part of who I am.
After that frightening episode, my mom and oldest sister would teach me little techniques to use when I started to feel anxious. I was told to take a walk and to look for five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste.
As I grew to understand the world around me, suddenly my anxious mind became more complex.
About four years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to mindfulness meditation. I enjoyed the experience. From what I understood at the time, it was a tool to give yourself a break, like going for a walk or using my five senses.
I tried, but fell in and out of practice and could never commit myself to sitting down and letting myself be mindful.
Just under a year ago, when the world turned upside down with the pandemic, I found myself struggling with an anxiety that was more intense than I had ever experienced before. My thoughts raced with concerns about the state of the world, my health, my friends’ and family members’ health, and college. I couldn’t sleep or focus.
I was reminded by a friend to revisit my mindfulness meditation. With my extra time, I researched and read more about mindfulness. I learned that it is the practice of being in the present, which is achieved through the conscious awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations. Of course, defining mindfulness isn’t the same as understanding it.
I found a routine that helped. I started my mornings by examining things I could be grateful for and let myself experience the moment for five to 10 minutes.
When I incorporated mindfulness into my day, I began to accept my worries. I felt more tranquil and focused. Overall, it seemed to turn my life around.
I practiced last summer when I worked as a hostess at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. It’s a loud restaurant where you can hear a million conversations at once. You have to keep track of what’s going where, and navigate the floor so you don’t bump into anyone, while the kitchen is yelling orders and dirty dishes are being cleaned, as was the scene a decade ago across the border in New York City.
Instead of counting down the hours, I was aware of what tasks I was completing and tried my best to be conscious of the moment, rather than focusing on clocking out. The small mindset shift allowed me to stay calm amid the stress and be appreciative of my job.
Now, when I get overwhelmed with school or when I start to feel like my mind is in a busy Italian restaurant, I find this tranquility. I see sunlight, summer, lavender, and trees – all the things I love. I am safe.
Madeline Bataille is a student in the class of 2023 at the University of Rhode Island.