Updated: Jun 19, 2021
“You are starting your college life, isn’t that exciting?!” they said. “No more uniforms. Only freedom and enjoyment”, they told me. “It’s going to be the best time of your life, you’ll see”, they promised. And yet, my welcome-to-college-life gift was months of panic attacks.
My day would start at 5 in the morning. The first event of the day would be fighting the growing dread in the pit of my stomach. Eventually, I would lose the fight and break down. I would miss my usual trains and sometimes, my morning lectures too. Somehow, I would drag my anxious self through all the lectures and bolt as soon as the bell for the final lecture rang. Sweet release! Noon would be a pleasant time but evenings would bring with them another bout of panic attacks as I felt the next day coming closer with each ticking second. Whenever the waves of panic would hit, I visualized myself falling endlessly in the darkness as an unknown weight crushed me from the inside.
It was difficult for me to say even the least. My friends were unhappy with me because I refused to explore the college area with them and instead chose the comfort of going home as soon as possible. Home was indeed my mental safety net. My family was worried, yet slightly baffled as to why college was inducing anxiety in me. The neighbors were their usual nosy self but had their hearts in the right place. “Nazar utaar do har roz iski, sab boori shaktiya bhag jayengi. Aaram milega bacchi ko”, they enthusiastically recommended. Fortunately, soon I had the privilege to talk to a professional and with the right guidance provided to me, I was able to help myself.
It’s been a year or two now since those terrible months. Those panic attacks helped me replace a few toxic relations with healthier ones and have made my family sensitive to mental health. The only thing it did not manage to achieve was convincing my neighbors that I got better due to therapy and not due to burning the salt and pepper that was used to remove my nazar. However, the best thing that probably happened out of those terrifying months was that I became aware of my inner strength.
Fast forward to a few months later when I had gone for a trek to Naneghat. I am a tad bit uncomfortable with heights but since trekking is my passion, those varying degrees of discomfort was a price I was willing to pay. The trek was a relatively easy one. Not many challenges, just a small patch of rock climbing, another patch of navigating through the woods, and a narrow pass where one has to climb a singular rock while actively avoiding the adjacent beehive. It was rather exciting! I had expected that the beehives and the rocks might pose a problem for me. To my extreme surprise, however, the real test was something else!
While we were a little more than halfway up the mountain, we had to follow a trail that was wide enough for only two people to walk at a time. There was a mountain on one side and a deep valley on the other. I glanced at the valley expecting to be a bit unnerved. To my extreme shock, I was more than a bit unnerved- I was downright terrified. Somehow the seemingly endless depth of the valley triggered my anxiety. The scary visuals that I associated with my panic attacks had come true right in front of my eyes! On the verge of breaking down and giving up, I stood there paralyzed. Funnily, my fellow trekkers thought I was enjoying the scenic beauty. This was another harsh reminder of the way my friends just didn’t seem to notice my misery while I suffered right in front of their eyes, not many months ago.
It was tough. I wouldn’t paint a fairytale picture and say something like, “suddenly inspiration struck me and I decided to get over it. Then I marched on and bravely conquered the mountain peak.” No. In real life, mental health issues work a bit differently and in a somewhat less cinematic manner. I probably sat there for twenty minutes or so. Fortunately, the first-timer trekkers were so slow that by the time their exhausted and panting selves reached where I stood, I could stay right where I was without breaking away from the group. The silence did me some good, gave me the courage to open my phone to the virtual cue cards. As advised after therapy, I had made some cue cards and carried their hard and soft copies with me wherever I went. Eventually, with some major efforts and probably a few tears, I managed to pull myself together and started to climb again. “Physical movement helps channel the left-over physical remnants of anxiety”, I had read somewhere. Soon, I reached the peak where the others waited.
“I did it?”, I wondered. I’ve scaled quite a few peaks, so that didn’t count much. What counted was that I was able to pull myself together, in public, even when I was away from the mental safety of my home. “I did it!” I thought. I cannot possibly put into words how I felt at that moment. There were many times that I had helped myself before when I was experiencing a panic attack. But it was always with my home close by or while I was in contact with my therapist. This was probably the first time that I managed to stay above the water on my own, with no safety nets. It felt simply empowering!
There was no fair maiden to be saved, except for my mental health. No ferocious dragon, except my anxiety. There was no knight in the shining armor except my privilege of getting therapy and the support of my family. But after the trek, I discovered the sword and the shield of my knight- my inner strength. There is no happily ever after to this story yet. Even today, I have days when I drown in tsunami-like waves of anxiety. Fighting seems useless when you are tied down with iron chains of paralyzing fear, as torrents of panic engulf you. But somewhere deep down, I know I can ride these waves. There might be many people out there who consider ‘inner strength’ to be nothing more than a fancy word used to propagate philosophy. I was one of them too. Thanks to my anxiety issues, I am on the other side of the fence now. Perhaps with time, we can share each of our stories openly, not only as a cathartic exercise but also as honorary speeches for having won our personal battles!
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Written by - Sanika Kulkarni
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