A Little Worse than a Bloody Nose

When people bring up the TV show Ted Lasso, I always commend it for its approach to mental health. I truly feel it destigmatizes the subject in a way that’s not overbearing but seeks to educate its viewers — particularly the episode in which Ted has a panic attack. As a person who’s had panic attacks in the past, I felt the episode did an accurate job of depicting the sensation of one. How your surroundings can be perfectly harmless — fun, even — but as the individual, everything feels wrong. Your sense of reality gets lost in the fray.

Towards the end of high school, I had a couple panic attacks that I didn’t recognize to be panic attacks until after the fact. I felt this tremendous sense of foreboding in the boarding school classroom or hallway that something was terribly wrong, and I found myself practically sprinting back to my dorm room to protect myself. Gratefully, I’ve eluded the affliction for quite some time — until recently.

It was almost a month ago that I received the news that I would be laid off from Clif Bar & Company on April 7. Try as I might, I struggle to shake the grief I feel over it. I didn’t have time to process the news initially; I left on a trip that very evening, a trip that had been on the books for a couple weeks. In all the hullabaloo of travel and connecting with friends, I was distracted from the reality of the situation. The return was brutal. While I informed all my closest friends and family straightaway, each day thereafter was a new coworker or friend who hadn’t been informed. I had to do everything in my power not to cry as I explained that I’d been let go for the umpteenth time, describe the timeline and what it all meant. Nearly every time, I got a little choked up.

I know everything will work out just fine. I will find a new job. Once I find a new job, I’ll be able to move forward with larger goals I have, including buying a home. With any luck, a new job will get me closer to the path I wish to be on and earn me skills that take me new places, or at least further than where I am now. Maybe a step closer to determining what “the dream” is.

Yet despite this self-assurance, I’ve been panicking regularly.

The first occurrence was the day of the layoff news. Ryan and I had planned to go to the climbing gym over lunch, and having just found out I had only weeks left at my beloved company, I thought climbing would help. Climbing is where I feel physical and mental self-efficacy. It feels safe, comforting. I was sure it would make everything better.

I should’ve known from the start that I wasn’t in the right headspace. The hurt and anxiety I felt about my job consumed me as I tried to redirect toward new boulder problems and projects. I found myself falling off problems that I had sent multiple times before and incapable of tackling new problems perfectly within my range. My mind started racing. This is the only place where my head is right. Why is my head not right? Why can’t I climb like normal? Why can’t I shake these feelings? It was then that I started panicking in a way that I never had before — it felt like my throat was closing. I couldn’t breathe. I tried breathing in through my nose without success, then started to choke and gasp for air. I can’t remember how I calmed myself down, just that Ryan found me in tears and held me in the mostly-empty middle of the gym while I sorted myself.

While the experience was horrible, I figured it was an anomaly. The news was so fresh and I was obviously not equipped to be out and about so soon. But two days later, it happened again.

We had left on our trip and were heading from Salida to Moab. We were meeting friends in Grand Junction to convoy to a campsite in Moab, and with time to kill, we figured we’d go for a run.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this run was an example of peak performance. We headed out at a pace that felt easy and reasonable and discovered we’d finished a mile in 7:44, no problem. So we kept pushing. The next mile was 7:35, and the next 7:21. At 5K, we stopped to catch our breath. Ryan asked if I wanted to keep pushing the pace on the way back? I did.

We turned around and quickly hit our 4th mile in 6:51. Then our 5th mile at the same speed. But it was sometime between miles 4 and 5 that my breath was becoming consistently labored. Ryan was encouraging me the whole way, the gifted athlete and coach that he is, but I felt myself spiraling out of control. As I lost my breath, I was transported back to the climbing gym and the panic I felt just two days prior. I couldn’t calm down. Just when I was going to sputter out some words, I started receiving a call.

We stopped short so I could answer, and it was our friends letting us know they’d arrived in Grand Junction. “Great,” I responded breathlessly. “We have a half mile left of our run.” Once I hung up, I broke down in tears, much to Ryan’s surprise. “Oh no! Hey, hey, it’s OK. What happened? Did I do something? You were running so well!” As I tried to reassure him that it wasn’t anything he did whatsoever, I got a bloody nose. Such a mess.

When I finally got control of my breathing again, I explained what had happened. “It’s not about the run. I wanted to run fast. Nothing is wrong. My body just thinks it needs to panic because I’m short of breath.”

We finished the run with a final mile pace of 6:34. It was the fastest 10K I think I’ve ever done.

Panic-run aside, the trip ended up being exactly what I needed during this time fraught with anxiety and heartache. The first day back home, however, proved ruthless. I was in four separate meetings that forced me to tell coworkers about my lay-off. By the time I got to the climbing gym that evening, I was emotionally spent. I foolishly thought this time would be different, but within minutes, as soon as my climbing started going south, so did my demeanor. The gym was packed this time, and I felt especially vulnerable trying to hold back my tears and keep my breathing steady. One couple noticed me panicking and asked if I was alright. With a shaky laugh, blinking away tears, I said yes, thanks. One of them responded, “I’ve been there — just a little shot at your dignity, eh?” They thought I was crying that I had fallen off the wall. If only it were that simple. Eventually, a new friend of Ryan’s and mine, Eric — an incredibly vivacious, optimistic, and smiley individual — arrived and buoyed me. The three of us proceeded to climb together, and between both Eric’s and Ryan’s support, I regained control of my climbing mojo.

Since that initial panic, I’ve panicked four times. I can’t do a speed run without it happening. As soon as my body recognizes that I’m having trouble breathing, it shuts down. This last time, I even had to gasp out, “Ryan, I’m panicking.” As I took some steps into the shade and tried desperately to breathe, I overheard Ryan talking to a stranger.

It was an elderly man asking for directions. I could hear Ryan saying something to the effect of, “I’m sorry, I’m not from around here.” It pulled me back to reality. Still hyperventilating, I wandered over. “What are … you … looking for?” I coughed out.

“I’ve been walking back and forth for ages looking for this park everyone told me to see. I can’t find it anywhere. It’s on this side of the road, right?”

“Oh … that must be … Joan Durante Park. You see that sign? 500 feet ahead. Just head that way and you’ll see a big sign.” I was finally breathing normally again.

“Ah, thank you! I’ve been looking everywhere. You know, I’m 90 years old and am trying my best, but sometimes I get turned around.”

Ryan and I laughed and reassured him that he was doing quite well for himself at 90 years old and not to worry. He thanked us and went on his way, and we finished our run — we had only 0.1 miles left when I felt like I was going lose my ability to breathe.

In the moment, I didn’t recognize the importance of that man’s arrival. “He saved you!” Ryan said later, and I suppose he did. The more I’ve thought back on it, the more I’ve wondered if his arrival was some mysterious work of the universe — that perhaps this experience could break the spell that’s been binding me since that awful day that I got laid off by my dream company.

Sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating Clif’s importance to me and thus these reactions I’ve had are unwarranted. But when I really stop to examine it, the history I have with Clif explains it all.

I’ve told so many people how Clif was really the first bar I chose myself and liked. I picked out a Chocolate Brownie bar at my climbing gym at age 9 and never looked back. I have consumed Clif products for nearly two-thirds of my life and have never tired of them. I’ve always appreciated their branding and the company’s spirit. When it occurred to me in college that I could work for Clif, it always stayed at the top of my list and the back of my mind. That’s why I say that getting hired was “a dream come true.”

The layoffs at Clif are not a reflection of the workers involved. I know that those of us being let go aren’t lesser than those who are staying. It’s simply the nature of the merger. Mondelēz International already has its own employees; it doesn’t need all of us, especially if they have someone already doing our specific work. Still, telling others that I’ve been laid off feels slightly humiliating. It makes me feel pathetic and like a victim, two things I never wish to be.

The reminders are everywhere, too. Besides the fact that Clif Bars are stocked in my cabinet and virtually every bag I own, I’ve got Clif socks in the hamper; Clif Pet treats for my corgi, Chowder, waiting to be taken home; Clif chapstick in my car. Clif pervades my life because I wanted it to be my life. In essence, I want my life to be one where I work hard and play hard, hitting the trail frequently with good humor and even better snacks. I have achieved that life, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue. But I had made Clif part of my identity, and now it’s being taken from me without any control on my end.

In light of all this, it frustrates me that though I’m able to rationalize why my mind and body have been going into panic, I am incapable of stopping it. As an anxious person, I’ve become pretty adept at noticing my anxiety and realizing how useless it is — but it still lingers.

I am sure that years from now, I’ll look back on this layoff and see it as just a hiccup in the grand scheme of my life. I have to believe it’s teaching me a lot about mental and emotional resilience, whether I like it or not. For now, I am trying to see the beauty and humor in these difficult moments: the arrival of bright, optimistic friends at the rock gym, just in the nick of time; an elderly gentleman who’s lost his way; Ryan scrambling to find a tissue for my bloody nose. They are reminders that all is normal even under those circumstances that feel terribly wrong.

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