18 July 2018, Tbilisi, Georgia
I was on a business trip in Tbilisi in Georgia and decided to go to the Anchiskhati Basilica of St. Mary to celebrate a milestone.
It was a humid Wednesday afternoon. I decided to linger for an hour or so inside the basilica. There were only a few tourists at that time, so I managed to find a space to stand and feel the energy that enveloped that place. As I was admiring the different paintings of the Virgin Mary adorning the walls of the basilica, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for surviving a year of terrible anxiety attacks. At that time, it has been a year since that first anxiety attack in Jakarta.
I realized I could not have survived a year without people around me who provided support. My family was my main source of inspiration. Though I could not tell my children just yet about my sickness, my wife had been my constant source of strength before, during, and after every anxiety attack.
I hesitated to tell her at first, as I did not want to worry her. But the sensitive person that she was, she could read through me. I was glad I was able to tell her about it a few weeks after the first attack in Jakarta because ever since she knew, she had been able to provide me with the loving and tender support I needed to survive through every ordeal.
I was also fortunate to have a few friends who were able to empathize. They listened to my endless ramblings about my fears and worries and understood what I was experiencing.
While it is true that admitting that you have a mental condition is difficult, I realized early on that dealing with anxiety required tremendous understanding, love, and support from the people around you. The journey towards healing is an uphill climb, and surviving it requires all the support you need.
I am writing this post for two reasons. First, I want to say to people with anxiety disorder why you need to speak with loved ones about what you are going through at the earliest possible time. Second, I also want to offer a few words of advice to people expected to provide support.
For those people with anxiety disorder, here are at least three reasons why you need to speak with family and friends about what you are going through.
- You need to make your loved ones understand what anxiety disorder is so they know what you are going through. Anxiety disorder is something you suffer on your own, but it need not be something that you suffer alone. You need to explain to the people you love what goes on your mind, especially when an anxiety attack occurs.
- You need to tell them what you need to be helped. You need to tell them, for example, what you need when you are going through an anxiety attack. In my case, I just want the other person to be there, to be present. I want to hold their hand when they are physically around or to be just assured that they are on the other end, waiting or reading my Whatsapp messages.
- You need to tell them how anxiety disorder affects your physical strength or ability to relate with others well. Anxiety attacks often zap the energy out of you. In my case, even an hour of anxiety attack makes me very tired for the rest of the day. Sometimes, my anxiety attack lasts for a day or two, and you can just imagine how this affects my strength and ability to relate well with other people. Letting them know these effects will help them understand your experience.
Telling your friends and family requires some degree of readiness and planning. You need to choose a family member or friend you trust, find an appropriate setting and time, and plan what you want to say. It helps that you can to tell them how you feel in the most concrete way possible. Be patient and be ready to answer questions as most people want to understand what you are going through. Be also ready to accept a situation where they won’t be able to understand right away.
For family and friends of those with anxiety disorder, there are at least three things I would like you to know so that you will be able to help your loved one with anxiety disorder better.
- Don’t dismiss what we feel as something trivial. Don’t tell us, for example, that we just imagine it. We know that our anxiety disorder is a mental disease, so it is likely that we may just be imagining it. Don’t tell us that it’s just temporary; that is our hope too. Don’t tell us that we need not worry because a lot of people are experiencing the same. Just listen to what we say and just try as much as possible to understand.
- Don’t ask us a lot of questions while we are going through an anxiety attack. Some of the questions I hate while going through an attack are – (1) What are you feeling? (2) Is there anything I can do to help? (3) Shall I take you to the hospital? In my case, I don’t really want to be asked questions. I will tell you what I feel when I need to, but questions make me anxious all the more. Your presence will be more than enough.
- Don’t try to rationalize our sickness. Don’t try to help us diagnose what we are going through. Sometimes, I don’t even believe what my doctors say to me, even though I know they are trained to do so. Don’t tell me, for example, “maybe it’s because you are so stressed with your work.” I don’t mind, though, when you say, “take care of yourself” or “eat and sleep well”.
I guess what I am trying to say is that you can help people with anxiety disorder best by just being present – by listening and even just keeping us company, physically or digitally. When the time comes that we need you to do something, including, for example, driving us to the nearest hospital, we will say so.
My experience has taught me that the burden of anxious thoughts can be shared with people you trust. In the last few months, I am glad that I am surrounded by people who have provided me with shelter in the storm. To them, I was, am, and will be forever grateful.