TRIGGER WARNING: This article talks about panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
I’ve always been an anxious person; more anxious in some situations than others. But I don’t suffer from ‘anxiety’, except that I did for a brief period.
My generation opened up the conversation around mental health; if not for the few courageous millenials—who spoke unabashedly and brought these conversations to the fore—this subject would still be taboo. Until recently, you were not supposed to talk openly about the troubles going on in your mind. You were expected to keep it under wraps at least, if you couldn’t ‘keep it together’.
In a recent post, I hesitated to use the word ‘mental state’. And I took that as a sign to examine my hesitation; so here I am, writing about it.
I had a strong brush with anxiety for a few years in my life.
It all started during my twelfth standard, although I’m inclined to think it had been in the making two years prior. The stress of performing well in my 12th board exams was so high that I buckled and my personality—which wasn’t even fully formed—caved in. The peak of this anxiety was me having panic attacks—something my family and I refused to acknowledge. Neither did we know about it, nor did I seek help.
The first time I had a panic attack was on 26th December 2004. It felt like I was losing control of my breath and my heart was beating abnormally fast, all while feeling an impending sense of doom. This feeling lasted for a few minutes and then it was gone. I had never felt something like this before. It was the most afraid I had ever been. I was seventeen.
I remember the date well because it was the same day a Tsunami ravaged through the Indian Ocean coastline.
I told no one about this experience. I did bring it up with my sister hesitantly, who asked me to calm down and drink water. I was scared to tell my parents. I didn’t want to acknowledge that it was a problem by telling them. My only preoccupation was scoring well in exams. Also, the Indian solution to nearly every problem seems to be “eat on time, sleep on time, everything will be alright!”. Whether it is a panic attack or a cardiac arrest, we are quick to pass this advice around. And if the silence is too awkward after the said advice, we throw in a sniggering ‘tch, don’t take so much tension man!’ and everyone chimes in with a laughter and a ‘yaaaaaaaa exactlyyyy’. That's our way of dealing with something uncomfortable; well-meaning but misplaced. Always.
I was in twelfth standard and it was highly competitive. I had only 'peers' with whom I discussed academics. No friends whatsoever. All my energies were focused on exams and getting into a good college in my city. I escaped this stress by taking naps in the afternoon while reading the newspaper—the only way I could justify not studying, to myself and to my dad. There was no mobile phone, no social media; TV time was restricted and I had no real friends. I was perpetually anxious—not necessarily 'studying', but just plain anxious.
During my final board exams, my anxiety went through the roof. One night I lay awake in bed, unable to sleep. My dad walked into my room to check up on me. In a rare moment of compassion—those few years, my relationship with my dad was strained over my academics—he ran his hands through my hair asking me, “What’s the matter dear?” I spoke up after a lot of effort—“Dad, sometimes I feel like I just want to end everything.” My father held me tight wiping my tears. I don’t think he was prepared to hear that. I didn’t fully understand what I was saying. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a father to hear their child say something horrific like that. He said—“That’s it. Fuck the exam! Don’t go to the exam tomorrow. Just fuck it.”
In a country where one student ends his/her life every hour, such a feeling was not to be taken lightly. After consoling me, he rang up a psychiatrist we knew, who prescribed a mild sedative. I calmed down and slept. That was a very difficult year for my family, we were all undergoing many transitions.
I am happy my dad didn’t brush it off and went to the extreme to suggest that I not go to the exam at all, which seemed like a crazy idea to me. But that gave me the confidence that it was fine even if I didn’t do well. I wanted to go the exam, I just wanted to be OK if I didn’t score well.
My uncle called me up around the same time. He pooh-poohed my ideas of wanting to “get into engineering for a stable job” and suggested that I move to my mother’s home town (a city he lived in), pursue animation and an alternative educational path. He had no idea what I was undergoing but I leaped at the suggestion with every bone in my body. I just wanted out… somehow.
I moved cities and went to an absolutely terrible college. I turned a deaf ear to my mother’s pleas that I “stay back and get enrolled in its (better) counterpart” without leaving home. I had written my parents and my city off. This was my ticket to get away from my anxiety. And the plan worked, after a while.
The one good thing about my college was that it was close to the central business district. This meant that I met people from all parts of the city and from all walks of life. It kept me away from the classist and parochial attitudes of my new home and locality, for the better half of the day. I got into a band and made a lot of friends. My social life had an uptick; a stark contrast to what life had been until then. I blamed my past city and its people, for all my anxiety; so I never went back to it even during vacations, for a year or two.
But through all this wave of positivity, I kept undergoing moments of anxiety. When I look back, I am certain that I had developed some sort of an anxiety disorder.
The next memorable panic attack I had was on stage, while performing (the first of a series of Beatles tribute nights) with my band in 2007. I had anticipated on the eve of the show that I would freeze on stage. In the middle of the show, as I stood in front of a few hundred people, I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore, that I would embarrass myself and eventually die. Nothing of that sort happened. I kept singing. The show went on.
And then another prominent one in 2008, this time while being an actor, on the set of a daily soap. I started having palpitations and I was so scared that I was going to keep messing-up my dialogue and forget acting altogether and eventually die. Again, none of that happened. All fears were irrational.
The pattern was the same—I would constantly be in fear of having a panic attack, then I would have it, then I would be afraid that I would do something outlandish, I would do no such thing; eventually, the panic attack would subside and I would be relieved, only to go back to worrying about having a panic attack.
This tiring cycle persisted intermittently, for three to four years. Until, one day, it was gone. Poof. I don’t know when or how or why it disappeared. I think I just got busy and moved on. All through, I was certain about one thing—I didn't want to take medicines. I knew deep inside that my situation didn't need medical intervention.
It is so difficult to trust your gut like that; to know when to seek help and when to say you are OK without it.
The last time I had a panic attack, was a mild one on a bus ride in 2013. But I knew I would be OK within minutes. I even forgot about the anxiety of the city I grew up in and relocated back to it in 2019. I have had to work hard to remember and recount these incidents. That is how far back they are in my memory now.
Now that I know I will survive and have (hopefully) left it all behind me, I am ready to tell someone younger, who is dealing with anxiety issues for the first time, with no empathy whatsoever—“eat on time, sleep on time, everything will be OK… tch.. don’t take so much tension you stupid f—! hahahahahhahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!”