Occasionally my mom calls me from Ikea wordlessly screaming. I always know where she is, because it’s very specific—the combination of a stage-whispered scream that implies respect for fellow shoppers, and the kind of awful scream in nightmares where your sleeping lungs refuse you full volume.
On my first trip to Ikea a week ago, buying a new mattress with my girlfriend, I texted my mom on our way there, and she replied, “Is it really your first time? I have a panic attack every time I go there!”
I’ve never seen a store that size. We circled the parking lot for over half an hour, I think—as if at sea, my senses of scale and direction disintegrated when immersed in such hugeness. As Mary Anne works at a salvage company, she facilitated this process with a well-honed intuition for who had bought a quantity of stuff physically impossible to fit in their car.
I was extremely cranky by the time we got inside, and within minutes, totally disoriented. The show-room model for displaying goods, versus the hardware store shelves I’m accustomed to, made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, her height undulating like an accordion after sampling magic potions.
There was something unsettling about the layout, and while trying to figure it out, I felt a familiar sensation a bit like knowing you’re going to puke. It was the inception of a panic attack. Fortunately I’d popped a Klonopin in the car, which kept my nervous system’s impending vomit at a manageable gag-level. It’s the spiral, I realized, The showroom is a spiral and it’s making me—
“Look!” Mary Anne motioned to a red-faced man sitting on some striped end table in a showroom, hunched over, massaging his temples. “He’s having a panic attack!” We hurried to the mattresses, hoping he hadn’t noticed our acknowledgement of his unfortunate state. “I wish it were okay to go up and ask if he’s okay,” I said. “Me too,” she agreed, “but it’s so awful when somebody notices.”
The actual mattress shopping was very enjoyable, especially flopping onto the display beds together and loudly announcing we were going to fuck on them right now. The cafeteria was another highlight—I craved the veggie meatballs with quinoa chili at dinner with an intensity normally reserved for drugs, but couldn’t think of anything less than absolute necessity that would make me return to that place.
I found common causes of panic attacks listed succinctly on a blog called “Tranquil Living:”
- A tragic experience, such as the death of a loved one
- A traumatic experience, such as losing your job or getting injured in public
- Prolonged exposure to high-stress environments
- Being around others who are constantly fearful
There was nothing tragic about Ikea in the sense described above, but a crowded, seemingly endless spiral of staged rooms that no one actually lives in certainly constitutes a high-stress environment. And, being around others who are constantly fearful, well, there was that guy we saw on the way in.
Still, I long for those meatballs.