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A tribute to all the toilets I have had panic attacks in

When Zoella recently revealed that she turned down the chance to have afternoon tea with Prince Harry due to her struggle with anxiety, everyone was surprised.

Everyone, that is, except anxiety sufferers. We all got it. Many of us would have done the same thing. Because anxiety makes no distinction between a bog-standard Tuesday and a date with royalty. You can’t postpone it, or save it up for a better day, or talk your system out of it because OMG a PRINCE is offering you a cucumber sandwich.  

The other fun thing about anxiety is that it affects everybody differently. For some people, panic attacks feel like a heart attack, or drowning. They can make you giddy and breathless, or sweaty and shaky. Some people’s face and fingers go tingly and numb, others feel like they’re choking on thin air.

Me, I feel sick. I get dizzy and breathless too, but nausea is my anxiety’s special signature move. Its personal brand. And despite the fact that not once in my whole life have I actually thrown up during a panic attack, anxiety is such a wiley trickster that I still end up convinced I will – and so, the only logical thing to do is lock myself in a toilet until it is over. Any toilet. 

I’ve spent quality time locked in toilets all over the country. In cafes and restaurants, service stations and tourist attractions. Sometimes I’ve spent so long locked in there, waiting for the panic to pass, that I’ve started thinking about how I might decorate the cubicle (IKEA would deliver to a toilet, right?).

Over time I’ve almost begun to feel affection for my tiny offices of turmoil. And while they vary in size, location, smell (ick) and luxury amenities, they all have at least one thing in common: I’ve left them, eventually, and got on with the rest of my life. Because that’s the other thing about panic attacks – they might throw a spanner in the works, but they never win in the end.

Here are some of my most memorable loos of doom.

Toilet at a restaurant, Derby

I was seven, and out with my family at a restaurant that my dad was reviewing for free for a newspaper. Most people’s natural response to a free slap-up dinner would be something along the lines of “Hoorah! I WILL HAVE THE LOBSTER AND ALL OF THE PUDDINGS!” – but instead, my brain and physiological system got together and decided a more appropriate response was to freak out before the starters even arrived. So I ended up trapped in the loo with my mum for the whole meal while my brother demolished a hot fudge sundae. At least we had plenty of notes on the toilet decor for Dad’s review, though.

Toilets at the Hawth Theatre, Crawley

I don’t know what it is about theatres that sends my anxiety into overdrive – maybe the tiny seats or the knowledge that if I need to suddenly rush out of the auditorium, I’ll have to climb awkwardly over a row of 15 people to do it – but some of my most prolific panic attacks have happened in the middle of shows. This one, the regional final of Global Rock Challenge school dance competition, seemed especially illogical as I’d actually danced on stage in the competition itself for two years beforehand with absolutely no bother. But hey, nobody likes to be predictable!

I spent a peaceful 45 minutes in the toilets nibbling a ginger biscuit and trying not to vom, while guessing who had won what by listening to the applause through the wall. Love a bit of culture, me.

Toilets on a P&O Ferry in the middle of the Irish Sea

To be fair, locked in the loos on a ferry while crossing the famously rough Irish sea is a pretty natural place to be. It certainly makes more sense than being in the cafe eating a tuna baguette, or in the duty free perfume shop dousing yourself in Britney Spears Fantasy – both things I did on this fateful journey, just before the floor started lurching, my little brother turned green and my brain/stomach double act banished me to spend the rest of the journey in my safe space. The loos; breathing deeply, re-reading the ad for incontinence pads on the back of the cubicle door until Dublin appeared on the horizon. Not so smooth sailing. 

Toilets at fashion magazine offices, London

When you’re a 17-year-old living out your Devil Wears Prada fantasy as an intern at a terrifyingly chic fashion magazine, the panic potential is high. When you spend the whole of your first morning collecting newspaper clippings, inadvertently cover your whole face in grey newsprint smudges and don’t find out until you look in the toilet mirror at 5pm, it’s basically inevitable.

On the downside, they didn’t hire me as the youngest ever junior editor but instead sent me back to Sussex after two weeks. On the plus side, they were pretty fancy toilets.

Toilet on a plane, somewhere over the Atlantic

You know when you’re on a plane and you start thinking about how gravity works and then immediately start thinking about the plane falling out of the sky, and end up locked in the teeny tiny plane toilet for so long that you miss the free biscuits being handed round? No? Well, it’s even less fun than it sounds.

Toilets at a Mexican restaurant, Christmas party

‘Tis the season to be anxious, fa la la la la la la la la! All that eating, drinking and merriment means that I spend more time in toilets at Christmas than Santa does in chimneys. This was a particularly memorable session, partly because it involved me hiding in the loos for so long that everyone assumed I’d snuck out and gone home before the karaoke started. But also, because I bravely rode through the panic and ended up totally fine again, belting out Mariah’s All I Want For Christmas Is You. A festive happy ending!  

Toilets at Caffe Nero, Covent Garden

The good thing about having a panic attack in central London – rather than, say, in an empty field in Somerset – is that there are loads of loos to choose from. The bad thing is that there are loads of people, also trying to use those loos. Potentially about 4.3 million. Or at least, I’m pretty sure that’s how many paraded through the toilets at Caffe Nero, Covent Garden, the day I had a colossal meltdown and spent a full hour sat in the world’s smallest cubicle, breathing slowly and trying not to gag on the combined smell of wee and hazelnut lattes.

Every couple of minutes someone would come in and bang on the door and I would stay silent, hoping they wouldn’t assume I had died and try to kick the door down. Eventually my boyfriend came to rescue me, at which point I immediately felt better and went for a huge pasta dinner.

Part of me feels there should be a blue plaque in that cubicle, for historical significance. ‘Lauren Bravo panicked here, 2016’ it would read. ‘But she was totally fine in the end’.   

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Image: Hailey Hamilton

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