Living with anxiety is not an easy feat. I’m not talking about getting nervous before a stage show or getting butterflies in your stomach before a job interview. I’m talking panic attacks, shaking hands, puking your guts out and avoiding people so that your heart does not dance tango inside your chest. Anxiety is living in constant fear that you might get a panic attack while you are out with your friends, on a date or just strolling through the supermarket. It’s a feeling in your gut, fluttering of your heart and often cold sweat running down your face because you feel like the world is about to close in on you.
The first time I had a panic attack, I was at my birthday dinner with about 12 other people when I was 22. I started breathing heavily, felt like all my blood was rushing to my brain and wanted to just get out of that goddamn restaurant. I did get out of there, then I felt like puking. The instant reaction was people rushing to my help and surrounding me, which only made it worse. I did not want anyone near me. I was still trying to figure out why I could not breathe. Then came the tears and incoherence. I had just made a public scene and wanted my dear friends out of my face. I did not know it was a panic attack. I dismissed it as an one-off thing and tried to move on. The next time I was at a gathering at my university in Hyderabad, where I was pursuing my Masters, I felt it happen again. My hands were shaking and I just wanted to get as far away from people as I could. I struggled to keep calm; a concept that was baffling at that point of time. So I left early and retired to my room. I was lucky I had someone who could recognise my symptoms and suggested I go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist at least.
Summer holidays ensued and I went home to Kolkata. I could not tell my parents what was happening because I did not want to be kept home from university. I realised how pronounced my condition was when I had a panic attack on the road, an hour away from home among people who thought I was exaggerating a little discomfort. I realised how ignorant people were about mental health disorders. Before I saw my first therapist, I had already faced assumptions that I was being a attention seeker because I sat down on the steps of a mall and could not talk to a single person because I could not breathe. I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety disorder a few days later. I kept it to myself and went to a therapist once a week under false pretences. I did not know that one disorder would alter my personality, my relationship with people and how I conducted my life.
Soon, living with anxiety meant not going to restaurants, avoiding crowded places, taking autos instead of buses and dreading human interaction. I would get panic attacks in class, trying to keep my hands from shaking, my heart from bursting out of my body. I would rush to the bathroom whenever there was any conflict in my life. Anxiety not only makes you puke out your guts but also visits south of your body. Nothing clears out your system like a good panic attack. I was on medication for a year and a half till my doctor told me the occasional panic attacks will have to be dealt with without continued medication. I still have my SOS medication that I remember to carry with me even if I forget my wallet.
It’s been four years since my diagnosis and it hasn’t gotten easier. Yes I can manage my anxiety now which largely means I ignore elevated heart rates and plough through conversations and social situations. I ignore shaking hands and try to override my anxiety by talking about things I know. It has taken great mastering of “faking it” to reach my level of normal which usually means smile, talk and run to the bathroom to take refuge when you can. The office bathroom in all the offices I have worked in has been my one true ally. I have escaped to the bathroom to get over a spell of hyperventilation because my boss wanted to talk to me. I have talked myself out of a panic attack, I have puked out my guts and then gone to a meeting and I have sat nervously on the toilet for over 15 minutes just crying till my nerves calmed down. Yes, the office bathroom has been good to me.
When I was diagnosed, I googled the hell out of Anxiety Disorder. I learned what my symptoms were and how to control them. I realised later that reading about a disorder only heightens your awareness of the disorder, it does nothing to alleviate it. Everyone who is diagnosed with the disorder suffer in different conditions. Mine came with associated depressive disorder which later turned into Clinical Depression. You know how your body jerks when you taste the most sour of lemon slices? Imagine that happening to you repeatedly because you are anxious. My anxiety manifested in full body jerks in 2012. I would just lie there trying to breathe and stop my body from jerking madly. It took a full year of medication to tone it down. I still get jerky when I am particularly anxious. Now I know how to move on from that.
Getting through university was easier than manoeuvring the work culture with an anxiety disorder. I did not absolutely have to be surrounded by people when I was studying. I had friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. When I got my first job, I did not let them know I had mental health issues. I did not think it was necessary to tell them that. So I suffered in silence and went to the bathroom a lot. I’ve realised since that first job that my mental health issues have and will affect my work. I have since told my seniors about my condition when needed. They have all been very good at giving me blank looks and advising me on my disciplinary issues. Of course I have disciplinary issues. I can’t fall asleep at night because of the myriad devastating thoughts running through my head. I can’t wake up in the morning because I don’t want to face anyone or anything; I don’t want to adult. When I do wake up, I’m anxious about my day and the fact that I am already late to work. Sadly, “I’m anxious like hell, leave me alone, will you?” is not a valid excuse.
Living with anxiety is a daily struggle. Every tiny thing is a huge deal. A rip in my denims, my dog chewing out my shoes, HR calling for a meeting, talking about my writing with someone, calling my grandmother after I haven’t in a long while – everything is a big deal. I feel like fleeing every party I attend. I have a pounding heart and shaky hands every time I meet someone new. Sometimes I don’t even know what the trigger is. I remember last year I was sitting at a cafe in Bangalore, reading a book, sipping coffee and enjoying pasta. All of a sudden it felt like all my blood wanted to settle in my brain. I was sweating and was cold at the same time. I could barely keep my head up, so I put it on the table. The waiters were scared and kept asking me if I was okay. Other patrons were staring at me, making it worse. After about five minutes of excruciating existence, I managed to totter to the bathroom. I puked and looked into the mirror asking myself to calm down. Another fifteen minutes and I was okay enough to get out and get back to my seat. I felt about 15 eyes on me when I got back to my table and asked for the cheque. What had triggered the worst kind of panic attack at that beautiful cafe in Indiranagar? I don’t know. I will never know. That’s the problem. I can’t keep a lookout for panic attacks, and have to deal with them like they are part of life at the same time. Even writing this piece made me anxious. It took me two weeks to just start writing .
The entire purpose of writing about my experiences is to let people know that when someone says they are suffering from anxiety disorder, it’s a big deal. Be compassionate. Don’t ask them to calm down. They can’t. Don’t ask them to chill. They can’t. Don’t throw random solutions at them. They don’t need it. They need someone to just hold their hand, or hold them while they ride it out. Don’t tell them it’s all in their head, ‘coz D’uh. Also, I keep hearing how it is strength of mind and soul that keeps anxiety at bay. That’s bullshit. Everyone who is living a “normal” life while suffering from anxiety, is strong, so so strong. Unless you are in our shoes, you won’t know how much strength it takes to wake up in the morning and be human. So, be kind, be understanding, learn more about anxiety so that you can be there for a friend, a colleague, a relative. Mental health disorders need to be talked about more. Be the one to talk about it.
Featured Image Credit: Social Anxiety Ireland