I had my first panic attack when I was 18 years old. It was 7.30 am and I was supposed to be up for college. I remember thinking that I couldn’t afford to miss class when I was already falling behind, but for reasons unknown to me, I couldn’t move. A feeling of dread was settling in and it felt like my brain had disconnected from the rest of my body. My vision was blurry, my heart was racing and I was sweating while the air-conditioner was set at 18 degrees Celsius.
The next thing I knew, I was hunched over the toilet pot, throwing up. I ended up passing out in the washroom and skipped the rest of the day. These episodes became so regular that I eventually began therapy, and was later diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Looking back, I wish I could pinpoint exactly when and why anxiety became such a huge part of my life. As a child, I was shy and mostly kept to myself. When we’re little, things like hesitating before placing orders at restaurants or feeling nervous before presentations are common. But children are expected to grow out of that.
I overcame my fear of placing orders at restaurants, but it was replaced by an irrational fear of eating in front of people. One time, a friend stayed at my house for a couple of days, and I was so nervous to eat in front of him that I ended up going mostly hungry for the entire duration of his visit. When I started work for the first time, I was afraid to order food and eat in front of my colleagues because I thought they would judge the food or the way I ate.
Another exhausting aspect of my anxiety is the constant fear that I’m going to lose everyone I’ve ever loved. I have recurring dreams in which I’m burying the bodies of my loved ones. One time, my mother had an incessant bout of hiccups that wouldn’t stop no matter how much water she drank, and I panicked because I couldn’t stop picturing that Grey’s Anatomy episode where Meredith’s stepmother died after she was admitted to the hospital for non-stop hiccups.
My best friend suffers from severe depression, which results in him going off the grid quite often to remain sane . I’ve known him for four years and understand his need for space, but every time he doesn’t respond to my calls or texts for more than a certain number of hours, I can’t help but wonder if he’s finally decided to fling himself off his 17th-floor balcony. When my 11-year-old brother comes home late from football practice, I can’t help but wonder if he’s lying dead somewhere.
Anxiety is so much more than overthinking. It makes you withdrawn, highly irritable and leaves you constantly tired. It fills you with the false belief that worrying means control. And the way the world works is that most times, you don’t control the things that happen to you. It can be exhausting to have your brain constantly analyse every thought, experience, memory and moment. Even the days you spend lying in bed can feel like you’ve just run a marathon. Every little interaction is dissected and scrutinised. You’re always second-guessing everything you’ve ever said or done. It’s hard to be present in a moment when you’re dreading what it’ll be like when it’s over. When good things happen, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. When bad things happen, you think it’s because you didn’t worry enough.
People with anxiety are often told to not “think so much”, “calm down”, “go with the flow” and “live in the moment”. In theory, this sounds easy. But living in the moment is a far-fetched concept when every milestone you’ve hit is marred by a crippling sense of fear, worry and apprehension. Anxiety and imposter syndrome often go hand in hand. All your achievements seem like scams or coincidences at best. You feel like a fraud who’s going to be exposed soon. When you’re low, it’s because you deserve it. When you’re riding high, you don’t deserve it. High-functioning anxiety makes you come across as calm, collected and put together on the outside. Internally, though, there seems to be perpetual chaos because you’re constantly overthinking, overanalysing and seeking approval.
The thing about mental illness is that while you can learn to live with it, it doesn’t truly leave you. It might not be as crippling as it used to be, but every now and then, it’ll show up when you least expect it. It’s easy to fall off your wagon when that happens and it’s just as hard to get back on it. It can take a very long time to figure out how to function normally despite your deteriorating mental health.
I think a good way to navigate around mental illnesses is acceptance of the fact that you are, in fact, sick. You wouldn’t ignore a broken leg till it worsened to a point where you had to cut it off. The trick is to be just as kind to yourself when dealing with your mind. Having a good support system in terms of friends and family is essential, but so is the knowledge that ultimately, you’re the only one who has to deal with the mess in your head.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Highs of Lows’