Panic at the Grocer’s

This was written at the one year mark of the shutdown for a prompt asking the author to write about the aftermath of Covid-19. Apparently I was strangely prescient, because I made the lockdowns last 18 months, and it is looking like that is right around where we are going to end up. This story is about a woman who handled the pandemic well, but isn’t handling things so well afterwards, there are descriptions of panic attacks, and anxiety, so if this upsets you please turn back now


She could feel the panic as a man bumped past her on the way into the grocery store. It surged as she reached up to adjust a mask that she wasn’t wearing. She could feel her breathing getting faster, and she tried to do what the therapist had told her: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste.

It wasn’t working though. Seeing all the people, hearing them milling about made her aware of just how many were in the store. Every smell she could smell was a reminder that she wasn’t wearing a mask. She flinched at the thought of touching something, the disinfectant by the door long gone. All she could taste was the copper of her own blood as she bit down too hard on her tongue.

She turned and fled the store, not stopping until she was in the safety of her car. Here the overwhelming smell of isopropyl alcohol lingered from her post gas station disinfection and calmed her nerves.

She felt embarrassed as she sat shaking in her car, needing groceries, but too afraid to go back in. She could get them delivered, but that wasn’t the point. It had been years since the pandemic, and still more weeks that not she couldn’t make it through the entire shopping process. Ironically she hadn’t had this problem during the pandemic, the public health measures made her feel safe.

It was once they started peeling them back she had trouble. At first it had been manageable. It was when the hastily installed Plexiglas had begun to crack, and was taken down instead of being replaced, that something within her broke. To be that close to a stranger, mask-less, without a barrier, it was terrifying.

The third public panic attack had prompted her to seek help. The official diagnosis was PTSD- Post traumatic stress disorder. Apparently she wasn’t the only case, but still she didn’t tell anyone. She was far too ashamed. This was a diagnosis given to people who had fought in wars, and all she had done was spend a 18 months indoors.

She was one of the lucky ones actually, able to work from home throughout. she hadn’t missed an hours worth of work. She was better off financially now than she had been before, with so many month’s of shopping taken off the table. It seemed wrong for this to be her diagnosis, when so many others lost everything they had. No one that she loved, or even knew had gotten sick. With everyone vaccinated, it was unlikely that would change, at least due to Covid.

She had thought she was handling it all well. Her social life moved on-line. She had done outdoor visiting when allowed, and she kept her spirits high throughout. She couldn’t understand why it was only after that everything had fallen apart. The only good news was that the business she worked for had decided to continue on with remote working due to the cost savings on office space. If they hadn’t, she knew she would be unemployed right now.

No one knew though, what she was going through. Her friends and family were far away, and even with the travel restrictions lifted they couldn’t just visit. The pandemic had done a number on everyone’s finances, so no one thought twice about her not being able to make the trip either. As long as she was on the phone, or even a video call, she was fine, and so they had no reason to worry.

She sighed, feeling weak and shaky now that the panic attack was over. She stayed there for 20 minutes trying to decide if it was worth trying again, but ultimately she headed home. She knew if she had another attack she wouldn’t have the energy to get home safely, and this wasn’t worth dying over. Her breath caught at the inadvertent association, and she took a few deep breaths to calm herself back down.

As she walked up the stairs to apartment, sweaty and tired, she felt like she had run a marathon. She held her breath instinctively as she passed a couple on the staircase, an practically ran the last few steps to her floor. As she opened the door and saw her landlady at the end of the hall, the panic must have been visible on her face because the woman started heading straight towards her.

Gasping she pulled the keys from her pocket, desperately trying to get into the unit before the woman reached her. She half sobbed. “Busy now, sorry” over her shoulder as she burst into her apartment, closing and locking the door behind her. She collapsed against the door, sliding to the floor, still gasping for breath. She startled as the landlady banged on the door, but it was several minutes before she had the breath to answers. It was only the threat of calling for help that made her answer. “Was late for a meeting, sorry to worry you” She said, in the most even voice the could manage.

It was even true she realized as the sound of her alarm going off finally permeated. She pulled herself up, and headed towards the computer. She dropped in the chair, and when she wiggled the mouse she could see the open video call invitation from her calendar. She pushed the button and it was only a half ring before the recipient picked up on the other end.

The other person started to say hello, how are you, when they stopped as the camera finally focused on her face. The face on the computer turned concerned. “Grocery trip?” Her therapist asked, despite knowing it to be the case.

She nodded, trying to say yes, but choking back a sob instead. “Did you try the grounding exercises?” They asked.

“Didn’t work” she replied breathlessly.

“Didn’t make it better, or made it worse?”

“Worse.” She replied, irate.

The therapist took a deep breath and let it out. “That’s okay, it’s not your fault.” I wanted to reply I knew that, but I felt a sudden knot of tension release at the statement, and so I said nothing.

“We can try something else. This isn’t the end, there is always something else we can try. You will beat this, I know you can do it.” And the last knot of tension released. I could do this.

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