Having a Panic Attack in a Costco Parking Lot


Javi is Grotto’s senior producer and has experienced the life-changing impact of regular therapy. This is his story about the moment he came to recognize his need for help, and how reaching out to a therapist transformed him. 

Your rock-bottom moment might not come with a bang. Like mine, it might come in the form of a panic attack in the Costco parking lot.

You might just be shopping for some bulk goods — the packs of chicken breasts sold by the dozen, maybe the three dozen chocolate chip cookies you know you’ll eat all by yourself. But the good shoppers of Costco keep bustling about you. A cart overloaded with bulk garbage bags and Sunny Delight cuts you off. The aisles seem to be closing in on you and so you abandon the cart and the chicken breasts and get out.

As you white-knuckle the steering wheel of a parked car, clench your teeth, and try to breathe, you will know that something isn’t okay. You’re not okay. You shouldn’t feel like you’re dying after exploring the aisles in search of bulk goods. Something is wrong. So you panic further, willing yourself to breathe at regular intervals. You know enough to know that you’ve had these before, that you aren’t actually dying, but this one is bad and you need help.

This is a freeing moment. It is a good moment. Your heart feels like it’s about to explode and you can’t understand why it’s happening to you when everyone else at Costco seems so content to get a free sample of the bite-sized pizza bagels — but this will become a starting point.

It can be easier to call out for help when you’ve been knocked off your feet. There’s no pride when you slip on the ice — you feel so silly and embarrassed, but it’s clear you’re in pain and need help. So once the panic finally subsides and you go home without groceries, you decide you need to talk to somebody. You’ve tried therapy before and it didn’t stick — the therapists were all awful — but you just had a panic attack in the Costco parking lot. So you call out for help.

The call goes to a hotline, mercifully set up by your employer to handle such things. It’s an outside, third party company. Your bosses and coworkers won’t know you had a panic attack in a Costco parking lot. The hotline attendant asks you questions. They ask if you’re in current danger of self-harm. You feel embarrassed — “No, it’s nothing that bad.” But the hotline attendant is kind and patient and assures you this is a normal and serious thing. It’s so normal that her whole day is filled fielding calls like yours. It’s serious enough that she’s setting you up with someone to meet in person. You’re stepping into a system and a process. It’s a good thing.

You’re given three free therapy sessions to find a counselor who works for you. You’re referred to a practice not far from your house. Your appointment is during work hours. You’ll have to miss work. That’s terrifying. You get in the car, you park in the parking lot. That’s terrifying.

You walk to the front door and realize that passing traffic might see you. You momentarily frighten yourself with the idea that people in traffic are stopping to see who’s entering the otherwise-unmarked counseling offices. You open the door and walk in.

This is the start of a really, really good adventure. You wanted a challenge, a new ocean to cross. This is that. You start talking, the therapist asks questions. The office is warm and cozy and without the sterility you expected. You aren’t lying down talking while a man with a pipe takes notes. You’re just talking to a nice lady in an office decorated with sunflowers.

The first session begins by talking about your recent panic attack in the Costco parking lot. You start to explore it, she asks you more. You share how frustrated you became at the lack of order. It felt like chaos and you were trapped by it. She suggests you may have generalized anxiety disorder, but that you’ll have to discuss it further. She asks if you’d like to return. You would, because this feels warm and good and right.

Maybe by the fourth session, you are going deeper. You say some of the big stuff — the deep-down scary stuff you never wanted to. You come out with it and look at your therapist with fear — did she just hear what I said? She looks at you without judgment. The deep-down scary stuff sees the light of day, doesn’t kill you by its mere presence, and you move forward. You learn that the deep-down scary stuff is puny.

Perhaps around the tenth session, you realize you’re happier. Nothing is perfect but you’ve been learning to listen to yourself. Your therapist won’t let you just sit in your angst and despair, she’ll make you talk about it. So you learn to talk about it with yourself: Why am I anxious right now? Okay. Do I need to be anxious about that? No? Then how do I move past it? Yes? Then how do I deal with it?

You have other panic attacks. They don’t just stop. The one that comes as you’re having a nice walk with your dog really takes you by surprise. You talk about it at therapy. You move on to a new day.

You have sessions where you cry and feel really sad. You have sessions where you laugh a lot. There are sessions you dread — when you feel like you don’t have anything to fill the hour. There are sessions you can’t wait to jump into — when you feel like you might burst with conversation. You usually leave feeling better after both.

You start to tell others they should get therapy. You tell everyone who will listen they should get therapy. You become a zealot for therapy. Everyone should have this magical hour where a licensed professional has to listen to you without judgment and help you sort out your brain’s nonsense. It’s the best.

And then, on a whim, you go back to Costco in search of a deal.

As you pass the 100″ TV displays, you catch yourself. This is where it all started. A Saturday afternoon at a Costco where the overenthusiasm of discount shoppers triggered a response in your brain that led you to have a panic attack — a physical response in your body where your chest tightened, your breathing became rapid, and you feared you might die.

So you take a breath, you push your cart, and you explore the meat department.

Be in the know with Grotto