I’ve never had to face strangers after a panic attack until today.
It came out of nowhere. Triggered by something I don’t really understand. The tears started on the main road and the disassociation hit by the time the car pulled in to the curb. Not knowing where I really am or what really matters.
In the moment you don’t fully recognise the noises that you’re making. Upon reflection mine sound like a high pitched prolonged yelp that an injured dog might make. I was curled up in the front seat with my hand around my dirty gym towel which i’d used to wipe the snot away. I was lying on the gear stick and my eyes were glued shut. I knew I had to get out of the car but the energy hadn’t come yet. The hole was slowly being refilled.
It can take a long time to get up.
I was thirty metres from home.
As I walked out of the car I felt a wave of shame. What if someone had heard me? Seen me? I didn’t want to be seen. Not like this. I continued down the hill.
A mother and her two young daughters emerged from a driveway. The two girls, dressed in bright pink, were clutching the straps of their backpacks. They reminded me of little Sophia, bright eyed and bushytailed. They saw me.
Fuck. The last thing I wanted. As adults we learn not to stare. Or at least we learn not to stare obviously. But children don’t have a social filter. They stare when something doesn’t look right. I couldn’t look them in the eyes. I felt their gaze that continued until it burned the back of my head.
“Mummy, why is that lady so sad?”
I was overwhelmed by guilt. That these beautiful, innocent girls had been exposed to something so vulnerable and ugly.
All they saw was an adult, who should be the pinnacle of strength and positivity, holding a grotty green gym towel to her face with fresh snot on her singlet.
I wish I could tell that little girl what had happened to me. I wish she could know that I’m more often than not a positive person. I smile and I laugh. But sometimes I cry because my brain is a little bit broken. I wish I could tell her that, just like a cut knee, my brain needs a bandaid. It needs a bit of extra help because it doesn’t always work like other people’s.
I wish I could tell that little girl why I am so sad but alot of the time I’m not sure myself.
What’s most shocking about this incident is the fact that I still feel shame and guilt. I still wanted to hide the fact that I was struggling. I couldn’t handle anyone seeing the vulnerability.
And that’s why we need to keep talking about mental illness in all its forms. Because we shouldn’t be embarrassed that our brains aren’t working properly. We shouldn’t feel the need to hide. Yet I still experience the guilt and the shame. I know my experience isn’t uncommon.
Depression, anxiety, PTSD and bipolar aren’t visible. You don’t wear a cast or a sling. You don’t have a wheelchair or crutches. Your bandaid is months and years of ongoing psychological treatment. In some cases it’s medication. It happens behind closed doors, before or after work, and away from “real life”.
Still, to this day, I would be more comfortable telling my employer that I needed to go to the physio for a dodgy shoulder than to a psychologist for my anxiety. Because I’m still frightened of the judgement.
Sometimes I forget that my mental illness is not my fault. Realising that takes time and patience and understanding. I’ve come a long way but I’m not there yet.