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Like many teenagers, I started working when I was 16.
I got a job at a local grocery store as a cashier. The life of a retail worker is rife with the stress of providing the best service despite rude, entitled customers. My co-workers had this amazing ability to let the bad experiences roll off their backs. They'd compose themselves, call a manger if they needed to, and perk right back up for the next customer in line. Later, they would laugh about it, trading stories of the worst customer experiences they'd ever had.
I envied them.
I remember the first time a customer got heated with me. I was still wearing the white T-shirt of shame that told everyone I was just a trainee. It was the first day I had to work alone without a trainer. The first few hours were alright. I was nervous and slow. I had to look up most of the produce codes on the rolodex above my register. Most customers were understanding, offering words of encouragement and telling me I was doing a great job. All of that changed when she came through my line.
My first customer from hell wore a deep-set frown and a condescending glare. She made no pretenses, telling me the only reason she had bothered coming through a trainee's line was because she was in a hurry and the other lines were too long. I was flustered. I stayed polite and fumbled through her complicated order of organic produce, looking up every code to the tune of her exaggerated, impatient sighing.
I finished scanning, took her payment, and gladly watched her hurry away. My anxiety was at a critical level, but I was able to take some deep breaths to calm myself down.
Fifteen minutes later, the customer from hell came back. Her demeanor had changed from annoyed to angry. Her cheeks were red, her brow furrowed; her frown twitched at the corner of her lips. I was with another customer, but that didn't stop her. She marched up to me and dangled a bag of fruit in front of my face. They were apricots. Now she was screaming. Apparently, I rang her apricots up as apples.
She threw her receipt at me and called me a worthless idiot. She told me I'd never amount to anything and that I was good for nothing. Somehow, I was able to hold my tears in until she went to find a manager. I left my register and the waiting customer to hide in the bathroom. I barely made it into the stall before the familiar symptoms took over: inconsolable sobbing, racing heart, chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, and the overwhelming fear that I was going to die.
I didn't know it then, but I was having a panic attack. This was the first (of many) that I had at work.
I worked at that grocery chain for the next four years and had panic attacks frequently. Anything and everything set them off: an irritable customer, a note that my manager wanted to see me, performance reviews, lunch breaks, till audits, schedule changes.
The work anxiety even affected me away from the job. If I had to work the next day, I wouldn't sleep that night, afraid I'd miss my alarm and arrive late. If I had a busy or stressful day, I'd come home, crawl into my bed and sob for hours. I never enjoyed my days off because I'd be worried about going back and what sorts of things might happen. I got really good at hiding my anxiety and perfecting the well-timed bathroom break.
I left the grocery store in favor of an urgent care medical office. I thought the anxiety would melt away without the "customer is always right" mantra of retail. It didn't.
In fact, it got worse because the stakes were higher. The pay was better and I was working full time so I had benefits to worry about. Oddly enough, when emergent medical situations would rush through the door, I was able to handle those quickly and without anxiety. A woman having a seizure on the floor of our waiting room was easier for me to handle than the five minute conversation I had to have with my boss about ordering new file folders. It was like my brain had trouble defining the appropriate stress response for a given situation.
The anxiety escalated to where I would cry on my way to work, forcing myself to take deep breaths before walking into the building and pretending like everything was fine. I would read emails from my coworkers and overanalyze every word to decode hidden messages about how much they hated me.
I worked closely with my manager and every time she needed to see me, the familiar panic constricted around my heart and turned my stomach sour. Every small exchange, no matter the reason, would envelop me in anxiety that lasted for the rest of my shift and sometimes for days after. It made me so exhausted that days off were spent curled on the couch, unable to do anything but worry about going back to work. Depression set in.
Therapy and medication came next and I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It became increasingly clear that living in a perpetual state of work-related anxiety wasn't sustainable. After my husband graduated college and after a lot of thought, I left the workforce to focus on finishing my degree.
For the first time in many years, my anxiety abated. The medication and therapy seemed to help a lot more when work stress wasn't a factor. I still had GAD, but I didn't feel wrapped up in a constant state of anxiety like I did when I was working.
Having now finished my degree, the struggle is back. I've realized that leaving the workforce was only a temporary solution to a serious, debilitating problem. I have applied to jobs that are in line with what I went to school for; jobs I want. Each interview brings with it memories of constant anxiety and frequent panic attacks. I come home and cry because I know if I get offered the job, I will decline to "pursue another opportunity." And I'll apply to another, go to that interview, and hope this time something will be different. It never is and the cycle continues.
For now, I get by with freelance work. It comes with its own problems. I have to force myself not to read and fixate on the hundreds of demeaning comments left on my published work and across my social media. When the insults manage to reach me, it's easier to ride out a panic attack in my own bedroom than in a bathroom stall at a busy office or grocery store. I like having a computer screen between me and whatever's causing me anxiety.
It's hard for some people to understand that my work anxiety isn't a conscious choice. Hell, even I have a hard time understanding that sometimes. I want to make my own money and be professionally fulfilled, but something in my brain won't let me.
I want to do what I went to school for, to work outside of my home without the fear of GAD symptoms. I'd like to go to a job interview without having to note the nearest bathroom in case a panic attack hits. I want to read emails, talk to my manager, engage with people, take breaks, enjoy my days off, sleep well and wake up ready for work. It would be nice to see an apricot and not feel a rising panic at the memory of an angry customer yelling in my face.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I want to have an actual answer. I want to feel normal. But I don't know if I ever will.