Trigger warning for ableist slurs and anxiety attacks.
Words by Anonymous. Illustration by Ummairah Shariff.
Mum was already waiting on the couch when I got home.
“So, what did the doctor say?”
I could already feel the muscles on my neck tensing up and a million thoughts racing through my head as I debated what to say, how much to tell her. Fight or flight? Knowing that talking – or at least, trying to talk – about the counselling session that I’d just come from was inevitable, I buckled myself down for the ride.
If you were to ask me now, I can’t remember the how the conversation went, but I remember the one question that she kept repeating.
I know that she was, and still is, trying to help in her own way. But every time she asks me why – why I’m anxious, why I’m getting help, why this problem exists – it only makes it worse for two reasons; one, I wish I knew how to explain what I’m going through in a way that’s easy to understand, but I don’t know where exactly my issues lie either. Second, it’s not easy to talk about anxiety while getting it triggered at the same time.
From the get-go, I knew that seeking professional help for my anxiety was not going to be smooth-sailing, especially on the family front. My parents, much like most of their generation, don’t have the vocabulary for mental health like we do today. To them, mental illness is “all in the head”. It’s heartbreaking to hear people you care about invalidate a problem that’s all too real for you.
While my sister is my closest confidante, sometimes she refers to my outbursts as dramatic, which, frankly, sucks. I know that I tend to blow things out of proportion, but that’s precisely my anxiety acting up. Dismissing my reaction as an “overreaction” and invalidating what I feel during that moment, instead of helping to walk me out of the slump, is just as dangerous as calling me ‘looney’ or something.
I remember finally bringing up my decision to get help, to which my parents’ immediate reaction was something along the lines of “they (who?) will label you as crazy and toss you aside, do you want that?” There was one night after a particularly heated argument which ended in me crying myself to sleep. The next day, my mother woke me up and explained that she was not angry with me but with the system that would stigmatise me. I know that as parents, whatever they say usually comes with the best of intentions. But, in reality, no matter the intention, the things people, especially your loved ones, say can really hurt. For instance, there was once my mum said something like “have the doctors decided you’re crazy?”, which was infuriating and painful all at once.
With all of this coming into play, talking to my family about my mental health tends to be, for lack of a better word, combative? Most times, we tend to speak first and think later. Fearing that what I say in frustration would hurt my family, I try to stay quiet and keep myself out of the conversation. It’s hard to build bridges when both sides are playing defence.
This, unfortunately, has led to a cycle of half-started and half-hearted conversations ending snappily, with no one benefiting from them in any way. My family still doesn’t understand the issues I face, and I feel unsupported by the very same people I’d give the world for.
Of course, there’s plenty I’d love to tell my family about my anxiety. I don’t know if I’ll ever pluck up the courage or find the words to do so, but I’d like to leave them here. I guess it’s in the hopes that somehow, these words will find them or that I will find the courage to bring them together.
Dear Amma and Appa,
So, yep, I have anxiety, and a little bit of depression too. I’ve had it for a long time – the earliest I can remember is having an attack in secondary school, but I can’t remember what exactly led to it. I think you can also tell that I’m not exactly “normal”, not the way plenty of other kids my age are. I freak out over having to make small talk – especially on the phone, that’s the worst – and I die inside every time I have to ask for help of any sort because I hate feeling like I’m being a burden. You can’t see it, but when my anxiety comes around, my heart starts beating really hard, my hands go cold and the urge to cry always lurks around the corner.
I wish I could give you the lowdown on the who, what, where, when, and why of how it all started, when it all began, but that is something I’m still learning about myself. There’s plenty of baggage I’m only just starting to slowly unpack, and as much as I wish I could properly explain it to you, I really can’t.
I don’t know if mental health issues can just disappear over time, if there’s a cure and what that cure would even look like. But know that, at this time, seeing a psychologist is the best help I can afford myself. I’ve let myself suffer in silence for too long. I only decided to get help now because I couldn’t bear with the pain any longer. And hey, I guess it helps that being in the army allows for free healthcare.
I don’t blame you and I don’t want you to blame yourself. It’s not your fault that I’m like this. I’m not sure if it is anyone’s fault. I’m still far from reaching the roots of the strangler that my anxiety’s become. I might not get better soon (what does better look like?), maybe even for a long while. But hopefully, I’ll learn to better manage my anxiety in the face of things to come.
While, yes, my anxiety does impact the way I navigate the world and live my life, I’m still the same me that you’ve always known. While my anxiety affects how I say and do things, if and when I do them, it doesn’t change that I’m still your son, brother, and whatever else you want me to be.
Most importantly, it doesn’t change the fact that I love you.
Ummairah is a self-taught illustrator who is currently doing her Bachelor's in Culture and Design. Previously the Head Designer of The Local Rebel, she dabbles in all sorts of designs and doodles. When not illustrating, she is on Pinterest looking for more inspiration.