Anxiety does not discriminate

OR: An informal essay showing solidarity with Zayn Malik

The creative mind can be a janus I tell you! It can string together words and ideas to create something so beautiful. Then it can just turn around and create the most awful mess within seconds.

When I heard that Zayn Malik had to pull out of a performance in June 2016 (Capital FM’s summertime ball) because of his struggles with anxiety, all I hoped for was that he had someone close to him who could give him a huge hug.

When it happened the second time in September 2016, I hoped his buffer would be strong enough to withstand those who may ‘politely’ lose patience with him.

I’ve struggled with anxiety for half of my life, and it is a debilitating affliction which I widely speak about.

The past few months have fuelled the boosters for my anxiety to sky-rocket! And last week I reached escape velocity. Today I’m floating in space and taking things easier as I strategise on how to re-orient myself to the life I want to live.

As a PhD student with loads going on in my personal life, things had already been stressful. There are things that I do on the side which replenish me. Writing is one of them. Yes, it can be daunting and draining at times to be honest on paper about my experiences, but the feeling of articulating myself to my heart’s content gives me irreplaceable joy.

Teaching is another avenue for happiness. My part-time job as a tutor invigorates my mind. Standing in front of the class of 30-or-so students, teaching them study skills in a workshop setting, is usually very rewarding. So what happened last week was a punch in my already bruised gut.

I’ve been teaching for over a year. Earlier in the year I stopped for a couple of weeks after a family bereavement. When I was back at uni, I jumped right back into it. Sure, it took me a week or two to adjust. And being someone who doesn’t particularly like standing in front of others, my ‘usual’ nervousness was close by. But I got through it. Mission accomplished: moving on with life.

For various reasons, last week was difficult.

Things were piling up onto an already filled plate. And suddenly, as my co-tutor began handling her part of the workshop, I started feeling an uncomfortable heat rising up my arms, heat curling round my ears, as a queasy panic threatened to take over.

Those friends who have seen me present in front of an audience all know I have my usual routine of ‘panic, threaten to faint, start speaking, then actually do well.’ I’ve always managed it somehow. And with my teaching, even overcome it to a large extent.

But last week was different and scared me shitless!

Seated in front of the class, I kept my smile pasted on my face, certain that if I ignored this long enough it would disappear. Within five minutes it was clear this unwelcome guest was going nowhere!

How could this be? I’d been teaching for over a year. I was able to dive right back in after dad died. Suddenly, just because of some additional stress, my mind felt it appropriate to try to fuck me up in front of a whole class of people who trusted me to deliver what they came for? Really? REALLY?

So when the time came for me to take over the workshop and deliver my part, I clung to the lectern and breathed deeply. I made some excuse about feeling sick for few days (and whispered to my lovely co-tutor that I felt faint, and needed her help with all the parts that required walking around.)

Now here is the irony: I smashed my teaching in that workshop, and in the two that came after. Even though the panic never left.

And that is the trick of panic attacks: they convince you the worst will happen ‘any moment now’ even though it probably never will.

BUT IT DIDN’T END THERE!

So, because I was able to barrel through a day of work, I foolishly threw away my concern about having a panic attack (for the first time)over teaching. That is, until a week later: a day before my next workshop delivery.

The night before this workshop I felt panicky. What if I felt faint again? What if I actually fainted in front of the students? That would not be a good look.

I imagined that sleeping would mute my fears. The next morning they awoke me, singing in my ears. I dragged myself through the day, till I just couldn’t anymore. And to cut a long story short, I ended up confessing to my boss that my confidence had taken a knock due to my previous panic attack, and I wasn’t certain I could handle my workshop in a few hours. Tears were shed (by me of course.)

Thank God for a helpful and understanding work environment and co-workers.

My anxiety has struck at inopportune times in the past. But the most annoying thing is that this time it had tried to rob me of something I genuinely love doing. So now I need to take a break and re-strategize so I can reclaim what belongs to me.

Here I am, entirely shaken by this whole episode, with a couple of noteworthy points:

  1. I know I am a good teacher. I’m confident in this. While the first panic attack did knock me a bit, I still believe I am good at workshop delivery. Anxiety is a fog that doesn’t discriminate when it strikes (or who for that matter.) It doesn’t care even if you are the best of the best. It doesn’t care that you are confident. It demands, no, seizes your attention so you are entirely focused on it. So rather than focusing on my confidence, I spiraled into the fear that I may or may not faint. It wasn’t even that I questioned my skills. I ignored my triggers and got caught up in a phobic distraction. And just maybe I could have actually delivered my sessions if I’d pushed myself, but my mind was at 100% survival mode. My defence was up.
  2. This is something that has indeed been building up over time. I’ve claimed I would get help, but something or the other always came up. A gentle reminder here that problems are best treated by nipping them in the bud. This in no way means that they are untreatable if/when full-blown, but in terms of practicality they may be more easily managed if you apply yourself to stopping them in their tracks. A lesson I’m learning the hard way.
  3. Having people who can help you make an action plan for your treatment (and work you may have to miss) makes all the difference in the world.
  4. The feelings I have, have layered up like an onion: irritation that I’ve let it get this far, desperation as I hold onto hope that I can get back to work ASAP, shame as I try to still share my narrative in a controlled way, disappointment that I’ve let myself and others down, defensiveness that I still deserve another chance, a strong desire for empathy but not pity. The list goes on.

I cannot hazard a guess as to what exact feelings Zayn Malik has been experiencing lately. Neither do I believe he owes any of us full disclosure. What I know for sure is that he is a talented young man who has admitted to having some episodes of anxiety that have stopped him from doing something he clearly loves to do. And this, in front of a global audience. I can only imagine what he must be going through. In my own little way, in front of a potential audience of just about 30, I experienced an episode. And it was so very disheartening.

Dear Zayn Malik, if singing in front of crowds is something you still want to do, I pray the day comes when you can do it uninterrupted by anxiety. And even if the interruptions still come on occasion, may your strength and growth remind you to be kind to yourself.

With all my understanding, Furaha.

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