At first glance you wouldn’t think that someone like me has an anxiety disorder. The girl with the sparkle in her eye and the laugh funnier than the joke itself. I mean if I met that girl with her shoulder pads and whiskey in a bar, anxiety wouldn’t cross my mind either. But if you strip away the shoulder pads, the crazy stories and the sparkle you see me, a girl filled with anxiety. A few weeks ago I had a phone call with my mom, and I told her that I never wanted to be the girl with anxiety. It wasn’t the picture I envisioned for myself, but even as a dreamer I quickly realised that the pictures in my brain are often far from what’s happening in reality.
So, hi there, my name is Isabel-Marié and I live with an anxiety disorder. But this isn’t the story where I tell you about the feeling you get when an anxiety attack creeps in or that I’ve forgotten what it feels like to NOT have my heart constantly pounding in my chest. The story I’m going to share with you is how you – the friend, the flatmate or the guy – is the hero, saving the blazer girl from her anxiety. Even if it is only for a moment.
She won’t tell you that she is feeling anxious because let’s face it, that is not the best topic for a first date or when searching for the perfect flatmate. She will excuse herself from the table at a wedding to deal with the panic attack outside, even if it’s in the rain. She will come back after a few minutes and drag you to the dancefloor and you will think she took a phone call from her boss. On a rainy Tuesday morning you will wake up next to her, with her heavy breathing and shaky hands acting as your alarm. You will look at her, and know something is wrong, but she will laugh it off with a silly comment about a bang babelas. Even though you know that it is far from the truth, you will let her be. She looks strong and as if she has everything under control so you will go on with your day. When you offer her some dinner, she will decline, saying that she is not hungry. You know that’s not true, because she hasn’t eaten anything throughout the day and besides cooking together is one of your favourite things to do. Now you eat alone, while she sits on the balcony.
So the lingering question you may have now is what can you do? How can you help someone with an anxiety disorder without making her feel as if she is broken?
Without saying a word about my anxiety disorder, here is how the friend, the flatmate and the guy helped me, without even knowing it.
I have a friend, Pieter. We call him seuntjie. Not just because he is younger, but also because he has this innocence about him. One weekend in Robertson we attended a wedding, and as the celebrations occurred I felt an anxiety attack creeping in after something which reminded me of a dark time in my past triggered me on social media. I stood up, dealt with the anxiety attack and went on with the celebrations. The moment I came back I saw in Pieter’s soft eyes that he knew something had happened and I suddenly dropped my head in shame. He grabbed me by the hand and took me for a spin on the dancefloor. That entire night he danced with me and did not break eye contact with me once. Pieter didn’t say a word, but in his eyes I could see the words “You are strong” and “I’ve got you”. It helped to calm the anxiety that I was feeling, because when someone asks about your anxiety attack and reassures you that you are okay, you instantly feel ashamed of this part of yourself. But instead I didn’t feel ashamed, I felt safe. And that is the power that the friend holds for someone with anxiety: making them feel safe.
I’m privileged to have the best flatmate in the world. You will recognise him as Nick in my New Girl life, but to me he is just Hencs. We spend a lot of time together. Not only are we flatmates, but we are colleagues as well. So when I say a lot of time, I actually mean ALL OUR TIME. He is the only one I have opened up to about my anxiety disorder and he saw it happening more times than I can count. He has a very different approach to Pieter. He is strict. If I say that I’m not hungry, Henco makes food and watches me eat until I am done. Something similar to when you were a child and your mom told you that you couldn’t leave the kitchen until your food was finished. When I don’t want to visit the doctor for some medication, because I don’t want to leave work for a moment (I love my job and I’m a bit of a workaholic), he looks at me with a serious look on his face, and forces me to make an appointment.
You have to be cruel to be kind. That is how this kwaaitjie calmed the anxiety. To all the flatmates out there, you are the only people that can be strict and serious with the girl with anxiety, because she trusts you and won’t feel judged by you. You are the person that knows her the best and you’ve seen her at her best and at her worst. Multiple times.
I don’t have a boyfriend and my relationship status is “very single”. But recently I started hanging out with a guy I met while I was the girl with the funny laugh sipping whiskey in the bar. We spent a lot of time together, having dinner with his friends and dancing on the stoep. He doesn’t know anything about my past, my anxiety disorder and how it all became a reality for me. Not the type of conversation I want to start while standing next to a fire with his best mates (let’s hope he doesn’t read this article then). Last week I felt really anxious. To the point where my legs wouldn’t move and my heart dropped to the floor.
In that moment, while I was just waiting for it to blow over, he messaged me to come over for a braai with some of his mates. I pulled myself together, got in my car and went over. The anxiety was still there, but I just stomached it, like every other day.
I walked through the door, introduced myself to everyone and sat down for a glass of wine. The night went by and without even knowing it, I took a deep breath and exhaled. This group of people doesn’t know anything about me so the conversations are not about whether I saw the new girlfriend my ex has or when the last time I spoke to that friend from varsity was. It was lighthearted stories being shared about their lives and about him. That breath of fresh air that was blown into my lungs on that Friday night was one of the best moments of my life. At that moment I was the girl that I pictured myself to be. The power you have is definitely the strongest power. Why? Because you help her to get out of her head and back in the moment. You have an energy that is not drenched in her heartache, past and anxiety. You embody everything that is new, clean and fresh. And it is important for her to feel because sometimes all she needs is to realise, yet again, that life is good and that she is good. You, the guy that introduces her to your friends, asking about her day and making her coffee when she looks a bit off, you will give her strength without even knowing it. And she will revisit that feeling of strength long after you are gone.
So yes, I’m the girl with the anxiety disorder. But just like I’m owning my shoulder pads, I’m owning this disorder. Because I get by with a little help from my friends.