Facing the Fear: The Old Lady On the Train

This will undoubtedly be a series of posts where I recall times that I faced my fear (of anxiety, cough, cough) and I'd like to start with one I just randomly thought of while washing my hair. As I combed the conditioner through my hair, I thought of doing this Facing the Fear series in my blog and started to comb through all the stories.

"Oh my god, how could I forget that?!" I thought, when the old lady on the train popped into my head. 

Let's begin, shall we? 

One hot summer day in the year 2012, my sister invited me to a one-day women's retreat in New York City. We took the train into the city together, only an hour and 15 from my hometown, and did yoga, learned how to chop carrots correctly, and talked about other stuff. Honestly, I can't remember the retreat very well, aside from the chopping carrots part. 

My sister's plan was to stay in the city, which meant I was to take the train from Grand Central Station back home all by myself—for the first. Time. Ever. (I was 19 years old.)

Now, I wasn't afraid of being alone and I quite enjoyed it, so walking around the busy New York streets didn't scare me, nor did hailing a cab, but one thing that did scare me was busy trains. Crammed into a small space where I couldn't escape scared the shit out of me. 

Photo by  Kai Pilger  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

track 24

I got to the train early enough that it was mostly empty and I found myself a window seat in a row for three by myself. One by one, people started filling up the train cars. There must've been a Yankees game that just ended and everyone was going home. A man came and sat down in my row, leaving the seat between us empty as a curtesy. I thought I was safe until, just before the train was meant to leave the station, an old woman (probably in her 80's) came aboard with a middle-aged man. She told him she spotted a seat and came and squeezed herself in beside me. 

"Shit, shit shit", played on repeat in my head.

If I wasn't worried before, I was definitely worried now. I jacked the music up on my iPod and started playing on the Solitaire App to try and distract myself. It was hot. There were so many people on the train sitting and standing, clumped together without room for personal space.

The train started to leave the station and I was stuck against the window, nothing but black outside, and the artificial lights in the car blaring down on me. 

The anxiety starts with a thought. Not even a thought—a thought of a thought. 

I hope I don't start worrying about panicking. I'm fine. I'm alright.

And then . . .

I think I'm going to start panicking. Just breathe. Breathe. B-b-b-breathe.

And then the physical feelings—heart speeds up until I can feel it going pang, pang, pang against my chest. My ears crackle, cold blood rushes through me, and then the world starts to close around me, like an invisible bubble shrinking and shrinking. I had the entire train to get up and move around in, but I was convinced I was frozen in place. 

No, please, not now. Not now!

I knew myself well enough that I knew what I had to do.

Photo by  Dan Roizer  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash

asking for help

I tapped the old lady's bony shoulder.

"Excuse me," I said.

"Huh?" she said back, looking up from her magazine.

"C-can you please talk to me? I'm having a panic attack and I need some distraction."


"I'm having a panic attack and I need to be dist—"


Everyone nearby turned around and stared at me. My throat was dry but I swallowed anyway. 

"Hold on, let me get my hearing aides."

She had a small box in her bag at her feet. I waited as she placed the nude colored bud with wires sticking out of it into her ear.

"Now tell me again."

So I explained. 

"Oh, I see," she said. "Well you don't have to be nervous!"

She gave me a speech about being confident and not giving a shit about silly things like sitting on trains.

I blurred out the names she wrote on it.

I blurred out the names she wrote on it.

After that, she distracted me by asking me questions about myself. I told her that I was going to be a junior in college studying Creative Writing. She told me she came into New York with her nephew because he was going to the Yankees game and she wanted to get a facial. Apparently they offer very good facials for decent prices in China Town. She gave me the salon's card and told me to ask for this specific woman, tell her I knew her and I'd get a good discount. 

The anxiety I felt those initial five minutes of leaving Grand Central were completely gone to the point that I had forgotten that was the reason why I was talking to this woman in the first place. 

As the passengers got off the train and new passengers got on, the woman continued to talk to me. The new passengers would turn and give me sympathetic looks, thinking that I was stuck talking to this woman. Little did they know that I had initiated it.

When the woman got off her stop, just two stops before mine, she asked me my name and stood up, saying loudly,


As she left, a man beside me muttered, "Jeez, sorry you had to deal with that," and I smiled and shook my head, reassuring him that I enjoyed it. 

It's funny how people interpret things, but who would've thought that a 19 year old girl was pleading for help to a 85 year old stranger because she was having a panic attack? Well, that 19 year old girl was me and I'm forever grateful to this woman. 

If you're ever in public and having a rough time—whether you're lost or you're experiencing a panic attack, it's okay to ask for help. Wouldn't you help someone if they asked you? 

When was the last time you faced your fears?

Please share your stories below.