By Ayushi Khemka
A year or two ago, I remember seeing a popular “women-centric digital platform in India” selling their own merchandise, specifically a hoodie with “ANXIETY! ANXIETY! ANXIETY!” written over it in big, bold letters and bright colours. On probing further, I found out that the product description contained words like “quirky” to flesh out the mood of the product. While capitalism does keep on disappointing me every now and then, this niche product marketed at young girls like myself, treating “anxiety” like a fun, little quirk with a set aesthetic jarred me to no extent. I have been battling anxiety for around three years now, or at least I am aware that I have anxiety for three years. As someone whose day job as a researcher requires her to examine all things social media, I could gauge where the brand was coming from. It was coming from the place where mental health is becoming a hot cake that everyone wants a piece of. It is, to put it simply, becoming a buzzword for marketing agencies across sectors. Despite knowing all this, it did hurt me intensely seeing that something for which I have been taking pills, seeing a therapist every week, spending a lot of money to treat and manage, was described in a frivolous way as a quirk.
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My struggle with anxiety began alongside my struggle with depression. Now, I had heard about how depression and anxiety are those two pesky extended relatives in your family, who always come uninvited to your place, you don’t like them, they don’t like you and nor do they like each other. And when all three of you come together, you can only expect chaos. However, experiencing all of this first-hand was quite a confusing experience, to begin with. To give a little context, my struggles with mental health began during my higher studies while I was pursuing a research degree. Being a 23 year old student, a lot of my anxieties were around the coursework, my academic performance, the academic stress passed off as rigour in our educational institutions and the like. Clearly, due to my depression, I was unable to focus on my studies and was quite disinterested in the course. However, with my anxiety, I was also obsessing over the coursework and my disability to gauge the nuances of it. This dichotomous mode of being is what troubled me then and continues to bother me even today after almost three years have passed.
Living with anxiety is extremely difficult to explain. More so, in the current social media ethos, when anxiety (along with other forms of mental health issues) has been reduced to an aesthetic and a quirk to bedazzle one’s personality or lack thereof. Anxiety is not nervousness. Yes, every single one of us feels nervous at some point in our lives but all of us do not take medication for or seek treatment for anxiety as a disorder, as something that starts affecting your day-to-day routine and makes you a jittery mess. Finding anxiety translated into some cute and even intellectual trait in the annals of Instagram has been a source of anxiety for me. I wonder if this is ironic, but who’s to say.
As a person who lives with anxiety, I find a lot of the things that are quite normative and normal for others, extremely difficult to navigate through. Loud noises increase my heartbeat so much that I can’t hear the noises after some point. Crowded places make me feel as if the world is closing in on me. A basic, generic fight with my partner makes me feel like this is the end of the world for me. On some days, merely after waking up it feels like a thousand elephants are trampling upon my chest. A slight change in my schedule or a minor hiccup in my work makes me run to the loo a number of times that I still don’t feel comfortable disclosing on a public platform. I wish at least one of these things were “cute” or “aesthetic” but alas, that is never the case.
Anxiety is disabling in ways that a lot of people can’t even begin to imagine. I remember my first ever concrete verbalisation of suicidal thoughts occured whilst I was having an anxiety attack. To tell you the sheer absurdity of anxiety and the overpowering characteristic of it, let me tell you that the first time I wished to kill myself was because I was unable to perform at a cousin’s sangeet function as I was high. That is all it took for my brain to convince me to end my life and be gone for good. Of course, there was a lot of backstory attached to the incident and the location, but my anxiety needed just one minute change in my schedule for the next 30 minutes to tell me that I needed to die. As I type this, I am still baffled by the magnitude and disabling nature of anxiety. To be truly honest, it still does not fully make sense to me.
(Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know is feeling vulnerable or suicidal, or at-risk, please do reach out for help. Some third-party helplines are listed here)
There are numerous incidents that have happened since then, some everyday incidents and some exceptional ones, all of which have made me feel incapacitated within myself. While medicines have helped me to a great extent, taking therapy and having a tiny but reliable care network have done wonders. As repetitive and borderline cliché as it may sound, but talking does help. Knowing that you can lay bare your vulnerabilities in front of your loved ones and then not be judged or chided for it is a cathartic feeling, so much so that even while typing this, I’m heaving a sigh of relief.
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However, these realisations came only quite late in my journey with anxiety. I’d kill to go back into time and just let it be known to my younger self that anxiety is a real issue and not something that I am making up on my own. The world might continue to call me a drama queen because it does not know how to handle the very concept of an “extra” woman, let alone an anxious extra woman. I do believe that had I paid more attention to listening to the needs of my mind and body and less on how people would perceive me, I would have been in a much better place a lot earlier. I would also remind myself that anxiety is going to affect my body too with horrible back pains and permanently tensed shoulder muscles and that I better listen to my psychiatrist and get down to doing some exercise.
As is with the physical manifestations of anxiety, it does get extremely tiring hearing the nagging voice in my head over and over again asking me to recheck if the word I just spelt is right or not, if the post I just read had that exact word that I think I read or not, if people like me or not. The list is endless. What the list is not is a fancy way of describing nervousness. It is not something that goes away instantaneously if one asks me to “calm down”. It is a tear-inducing, panic-striking, body-trembling, mind-numbing condition that has nothing to do with the pastel coloured aesthetics that multiple brands and influencers of today’s social media world would like to suggest.
About the Author: A 26-year old Delhiite, Ayushi Khemka created Mental Health Talks India in April 2018. Living with depression and anxiety herself, she wishes to end the stigma around mental health in India. She is also a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University working on the intersections of gendered violence and social media. She believes in channelising one’s vulnerabilities into an honest conversation that can potentially bring about a change in how we live and exist in the world.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. The Health Collective cannot substitute for expert advice from a trained professional.