Inside the walls of my mind
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Episode 1 - Torschlusspanik: noun, German (The fear that time is running out)
Recently, I watched an Italian movie, Jumping From High Places. One of the scenes showed the female protagonist, Sole, holding up a queue at an ice cream stall.
She couldn’t, for the life of her, pick a flavor even as the people behind her got increasingly impatient. So she changed her order a dozen times before settling for lemon. Only to give in to her mounting sense of panic and discard it in favor of…vanilla.
There was something incredibly familiar about this scene from Jumping From High Places.
Sole suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, and her story felt like my own. The only difference was that unlike hers, mine took place in Germany, in a city about 6,000 km away from my hometown of Delhi.
I was 22 at the time, a wide-eyed international student living on her own for the first time in her life. On a fateful autumnal evening, I had all of what seemed like a minute to bag my mountain of groceries and pay the cashier at Aldi €25.17. The items on the conveyor belt were heading for me at dizzying speeds—apples, oranges, a carton of eggs, a packet of bread, a bunch of bananas, and two tetra packs of milk. Somehow, I managed not to drop everything.
But the test was far from over. I still had to pay. You’d be surprised how much time it can take to fish the exact change out from a wallet when you’ve to pay in cents. Especially when you’ve quite a few angry-looking people behind you wondering what the holdup is all about.
The incident gave me a full-blown case of what the Germans call Torschlusspanik (literally door-closing panic or the fear of time running out). It sure felt like an eternity, the time I took to complete that checkout.
I still remember how it took the sharp shock from a gust of cold wind to finally halt the spiral of my anxious thoughts and bring me back to real life.
You see, I have spent three-quarters of my life holding my breath.
Like Sole, I am always waiting for something to go wrong.
So afraid that, on most days, I wake up to the sound of my heart beating, no, palpitating furiously inside my chest. About 50% of the time, it’s because I had a horrible nightmare.
The other 50% is because of what I’ve self-diagnosed as ‘high-functioning’ anxiety.
What does that mean?
It means that while I consistently topped my school from the third to twelfth grade, the idea of being second, being imperfect, used to send me flying into a frenzy. It made me believe I wasn’t good enough for anything.
And I’ve 5 backups of my photos because I am too scared to lose all the happy memories I wish would last forever—if not in life then, at least, on the cloud.
And that although my elocution is so flawless, no one can guess how much my legs tremble and my heart races every time I talk on the stage before a group of strangers. It also means that every morning, even as I wake up to the reassuring sound of my mother’s footsteps in the kitchen, I can’t help but anticipate the terror of the day when I won’t hear those footsteps. And that I mask it with a broad smile as I hug her tightly.
High-functioning means I function okay with anxiety in day-to-day life. Yet the calm is superficial. Inside the depths of my mind is a storm of what-ifs—billowing, twisting, and turning in loud, alternating reds and blues—like a siren on an ambulance that never lets up. My friends believe what hasn’t killed me has made me stronger. They don’t understand that it has also made me a nervous wreck who cries randomly on public transport when overwhelmed. I am not exactly a fan of pressing the self-destruct button and worrying about things that:
- never seem to happen
- seem to happen despite my worrying endlessly about them
It’s a lose-lose situation.
But, I like to think of myself as a winner, a survivor. And like every warrior, I have a few superpowers (read: coping strategies). I can hardly swing from skyscrapers like Spiderman or heal instantaneously like Wolverine, but I have always excelled at ‘doing what it takes.’ And this resilience, this die-hard optimism, this relentless romanticism of life and all its mess and magic dust is what keeps me going.
How did I get here?
The short answer is that I worked really hard on myself. The long answer is below.
I started by understanding what I could control about my fears and what I had to let be. Public speaking? I could rehearse my speech till I was confident and say “f**k it” if the audience laughed anyway. Failing an exam? I could study diligently and repeat it if it didn’t work out. Losing my mother? I could focus on loving her with everything until she’s here.
Instead of clutching onto the make-believe world of “what ifs,” I started to twine the fragile thread of my life around the truth of “what is.”
Four things helped me ground myself into reality:
- Practicing meditation (specifically, titration)
- Writing down affirmations to control my anxiety
- Making a gratitude list every day
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
With titration, I exposed myself to my debilitating fears in small doses so I could become immune to them. I lay on my back and imagined my worst nightmares coming true in gory detail. As I observed my body’s reactions to those thoughts and zeroed in on its anxiety centers, day in and day out, the thoughts began losing their power. Just as predicted.
Overcoming my negative thoughts also got easier with writing and reciting affirmations every morning and every night: “I let go of my fears and focus on gratitude. I breathe out my anxiety and breathe in a sense of calm.”
Maintaining a gratitude list supplemented the above practices. The initial difficulty of finding three things to be grateful for every single day soon transformed into the difficulty of limiting myself to one page every day. Habits are curious things, aren’t they?
But the one thing that made it all possible in the first place was therapy. It was where I finally confronted the painful truth that on most days, it was I, and not the infractions of the world, that made my life harder. Therapy empowered me with the realization that I could choose to be my ally and treat myself as compassionately as I did my friends and family.
Now, ~100 hours of meditation, six months of CBT, and a gratitude journal and a half later, my amygdala has learned not to keep the panic button switched on inside my head 24*7. My anxiety is not a blaring siren, just a background score that only rises to a crescendo under extreme stress.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because I want you to know that we all can be a lot of things at the same time. Afraid as well as brave. Anxious as well as excited. Worried as well as hopeful. These minds of ours contain multitudes—of magic as well as mundanity.
And the power to stick with lemon over vanilla, well, it’s largely with us.
Sole realizes this, too, just in time. She takes matters into her own hands and makes a list of her dreams, of things she wants to do despite her anxiety—diving off a boat without being held back, riding rollercoasters without dreading a fatal crash, and showcasing her art and confessing her love without feeling inadequate.
Because the only way to live is to stop being afraid of our one precious life.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of MyndStories.
This is a fortnightly column by Garima Behal on learning to ride the highs and lows of everyday life.