In a crowd of thousands of people, while Radiohead played “House of Cards” in 2012, I experienced my first panic attack.
Back in 2012, I attended my very first music festival at Coachella. That particular year boasted quite the lineup; I saw Kendrick Lamar, who played to a very small crowd in an early afternoon performance. I saw Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and even the famous Tupac hologram.
It was overwhelming how many amazing artists were crammed into three days, but the one I was most looking forward to was Radiohead, the headliner for Saturday night.
I had no reason to be worried or nervous about the massive crowds; I had never been scared or stressed by large groups of people or tight spaces. I was always the kind of person who would happily wait in long lines at theme parks. I even got stuck in an elevator once, and I didn't panic. I just made myself a nice seat on the ground and waited for maintenance to arrive.
Back then, my boyfriend at the time and I went to a lot of concerts. We always tried to get to the front row, no matter how cramped we were. My boyfriend stood at 6'2, so it was easy for him to weave through the crowds. Little me at 5'2 completely depended on him to clear the path, and he did so happily.
But the night we saw Radiohead, we were extremely close to the stage, just as we hoped we would be. It was perfect, and then everything went wrong.
It happened so suddenly. I didn’t know what was happening to my body. I’d never had a panic attack before so I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling.
In a crowd of thousands of people, while Radiohead played “House of Cards”, I had my first panic attack.
All I remember is feeling short of breath standing next to much taller people. People were smoking weed and cigarettes, and every time I looked up at my boyfriend, I wondered how fresh air must’ve felt so nice to the people around me.
As Radiohead played on, I felt like all the fresh air was being stolen by the people in the crowd, and there was nothing left for me.
I started to panic when I realized my breathing had changed. I pulled at my boyfriend’s arm and yelled that I needed to get out of the crowd. I remember he gave me a puzzled look like, “Radiohead is playing, what are you doing?”
I pulled at his arm again and yelled against the music to tell him that I couldn’t breathe and I had to get out. He led the way through the crowd. It felt like hours before we finally weaved our way into a clear path and then into an open space of green grass. And fresh air. I could smell again. I could breathe once again.
I sat on the grass and put my face between my knees.
I was trying to catch my breath and sob at the same time. I’m sure it looked like I was having a bad trip on music festival drugs or that my boyfriend and I had gotten into a fight.
Whatever it looked like, it felt ten times worse.
My boyfriend stayed by my side, gave me water to drink, and rubbed my back until I was back to normal.
He asked me repeatedly to tell him what happened and I couldn’t explain it to him.
One second I was fine with the smoke, the proximity of the surrounding people, and suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to get out of there and get oxygen back into my lungs.
Shortly after Coachella, I began having regular panic attacks.
They usually happened in public places where I felt like I was being overstimulated, there were too many people around, and I needed to step away from everything. One time, I almost fainted in the pet aisle at Target, and I struggled to walk myself to my car, embarrassed and panicked.
So, I started this habit of creating an exit strategy in every building I entered.
As soon as I walked into a building, my mind immediately noted where I would need to go if I felt like fainting, like I couldn’t breathe, or if I had another panic attack.
I wrote how far away I parked my car, where the nearest exit was, and how close to the exit I could sit or stand while inside a building.
After Coachella, it’s obvious that concerts were out of the question for me. But I discovered loud noises at movie theaters triggered me as well. I had to walk out of a movie with my best friend because my heart was racing and I felt like the exit was too far away for me to feel safe.
Then, the shooting in Aurora, Colorado happened just 2 months after my first panic attack. So like most people, I stayed away from movie theaters.
Over time, I learned to recognize the symptoms of an oncoming panic attack, so I could prepare to talk myself through it.
I knew what to avoid (loud and crowded spaces) and what could help me through it. Although I have gotten much better over the years and I don’t need to use my exit strategy method anymore, it helped me through my worst moments.
Music has always been important to me and I knew I couldn’t avoid concerts forever. So years after my first panic attack, once I had learned how to recognize my symptoms, I went back to Coachella and then Lollapalooza the year after. It was terrifying, but I wanted to test myself and see how I could best manage my fear.
I learned how to handle music festivals to keep myself comfortable.
Different strategies work for different people, but I learned how to best keep myself feeling safe.
To this day, I stay far back in the audience, in an open space, even if my friends think I‘m being boring by staying away from the action.
I’m aware I’ll probably never get in that first row ever again, and I’m perfectly okay with that.
I’ve also learned not to push myself out of my comfort zone with my anxiety.
If there’s a high chance a particular situation will cause me stress, I’ll stay away completely or manage in a healthy way, like staying far away during concerts and monitoring the exit door in movie theaters.
No matter how lame I may sound, I won’t force myself to the front row so I can hang out with the rest of my friends. It’s more important for me to keep myself safe than anything else.
But I’ll never forget that panic attack. I hear ‘House of Cards’ now and it gives me chills for all the wrong reasons. Such a shame, it’s a beautiful song.
© Jessica Lovejoy 2021. All Rights Reserved.