“I am worried. I was never like this. Fear was alien to me. But now, I open the pages of my book, and all I can see is disturbing images of rape victims, ISIS terror attacks, and the likes. I worry for myself, I worry for my loved ones. I feel that one day, we will all be victimized. I feel scared of the future. I feel terrified. I feel scared of even stepping out. I feel they are somewhere around, waiting to get us. My thoughts lose their clarity and brew into random thoughts that make no sense.”
This was the first time I was actually reading the account of someone who was going through a phobic disorder.
“Do you understand the magnitude and seriousness of the problem?“, the letter read. Almost as if the writer were aware that the reader would brush it away as a silly affair. If only it was that simple! If only perceptions and thoughts could be brushed away like the dust that settles on furniture! Perhaps, it was that easy for some people. Perhaps their perceptions and thoughts were just as light as dust particles.
“I talked to some people about this. They say it is a neurotic disorder and needs treatment. But how am I to meet a psychologist or psychiatrist? My mother would break down if she knew. Is there somebody who can help me? What do you think? What should I do?”
I thought back to the time when I had woken up one night, feeling an inexplicable anxiety. A panic without any reason. I remember how desperate and helpless I had felt. I was left groping in the dark, simply because I did not know the cause for that anxiety.
It was then that I realized that the worst fear one can have is of the unknown and unexplained. If my anxiety had a definite cause, I wouldn’t probably worry much; I would have worried about the cause. But when the cause or trigger was not obvious, it was my own self that I feared. I was terrified of my feelings. This fear of fear. The realization that until I knew where this anxiety was coming from, I had no control over my mind, shattered me.
Also, as the fear took over, the episodes increased and progressed. I was frightened of nights. As night approached, I would panic and that only worsened my predicament. Fear had gained the upper hand and I was now enslaved by that fear. Sometimes, I would be anxious even in the daytime. It was as if an infinite barrier had come between me and the world- I felt an infinite distance between me and the people around. I felt like a child who had been locked up in a house. It was as if I could see passers by from my window, but they couldn’t see me. It was as if I tried screaming for help and sticking out my hand, but nobody appeared to notice. It was as if I had been shut out from their world. I couldn’t think of an immediate remedy, but what I did know was that I dreaded darkness and silence- factors that brought me in contact with my own self, with my insecurities. What those insecurities were, I did not know. So I decided that all I could do was get a change of environment. That was when I booked my tickets to Bangalore.
It was a good decision. For once, the pace of the city, the crowded streets, the 24-hour traffic and the noise were comforting. They probably worked as distractions. My fear of nights reduced. That was important to me because I did not want my mind to associate nights, my house or my room with this panic attack. I wanted to break any such association that it was forming and feeding into memory. My friends and their children also contributed tremendously to the distraction. While in Bangalore, I was completely rid of the episodes. More importantly, by the time I returned home, I felt I was ready to take on the challenge. The will and courage had returned.
Deep inside, I was aware that these episodes had some relationship with all the reading I had done just before they had started. But my fear was preventing me from revisiting that phase of life and confronting the issue. I avoided thinking about it until I was symptom-free. I was relieved when I realized that though I had come back to the same environment that had triggered the episodes, the panic attacks did not resume. There were occasional episodes, but they were so mild that I would wait for them to pass while I practiced some distraction techniques that could engage my mind until they passed. I learned to get comfortable with the episodes. Like how one is terrified of a storm initially, but then learns to wait until it passes.
I gradually trained myself to dwell on the issue. Knowledge and awareness alone can dispel darkness, and it was important for me to trace this strange phenomenon to its roots.
Just before these episodes had started, I had been keen on pursuing a research career. My research area of interest was the human mind and I was to prepare a research proposal. Many questions had been playing in my mind for a long time. The question of prime importance in my mind was the connection between creativity and mental illness. That question seemed to hold the key to the fate of many creative minds- those beautiful minds whose minds deserved to be protected. The only minds worth being protected! However, that question was an ocean in itself. I shut myself out from the world, and locked myself in this internal world of infinity where all I did was read up articles on the mind and the paths it took-
The journey of an ancient, primitive animal brain through evolution…
Its journey through stress, pace and multitasking…
Its journey through creativity…
Its journey through what we label as mental illness.
I was fascinated, to speak the truth. In fact, I was addicted and obsessed. I read avidly, jumping from one article to the next. I read about famous people who were known to suffer from mental illness. I read about the life of Kay Redfield Jamison. And as I read, I was unaware that in those moments, my mind was in truth, walking the paths they walked. For when I read, I do not just read, I experience it all. In a short span of time, I had experienced these people and their minds. I had taken a journey into infinity.
As I reflected on the extraordinary nature of my engagement with these minds that I had read about, I realized the source of my anxiety. The unvoiced anxiety in my mind was from the fear that this journey had created in me. The horrors of their world had seeped into me for my mind could not differentiate between my experiences and theirs. And since these experiences were not mine, I had never imagined that they had anything to do with my anxiety.
That brings me to the concept of ‘empathy‘. I have talked about empathy in my previous post. Empathy is at the root of both creativity and mental illness. Empaths are unable to differentiate between their experiences and the experience of others, for they have the ability to become the ‘other’ momentarily. Even when they read fiction or watch a movie, the experience is very real in their minds because they have lived through the experience in their minds. An empath therefore has an extraordinary potential for learning and innovation because he is able to bring the environment alive within his mind. In his mind, he carries a universe, with the interconnections intact- interconnections that are often invisible to the ordinary, average individual. In his mind, he carries not just himself, but millions of people he has met or read about (even fictional characters), who have touched him powerfully. They have all integrated into his unconscious as a part of his self. The same empathy also makes him susceptible to social anxiety, panic disorder, phobic disorder, dissociative disorders, and many illnesses that are to do with excessive awareness of one’s perceptions. He is equally susceptible to depression when his perceptive ability does not find adequate opportunity in the world. He is also susceptible to bipolar disorder when pace drives his thoughts ahead of perception.
It all appears very natural to me now. Let me now go back to the letter I was reading. This letter was sent by an adolescent girl (let me call her S) to her friend (let me call her K) who was a student of mine. S was an only child, and she had lost her father when she was a child. She was raised by a highly protective and defensive mother. But S was in acceptance of her circumstances. She had learned to laugh at tragedy and she believed that life was not to be wasted in mourning and complaining. She had learned to be independent and to make the best of her circumstances. Optimism, passion for life, courage and resilience- these defined her personality. Her mother, on the contrary, was a passive and pessimistic person. In her house, S was the adult and her mother was the child. Her mother had remarried, but that marriage had not worked.
S was pursuing her education in a college in Bangalore, and it was in this setting that she had developed these phobic episodes. She describes her campus life as very restricting. Students have no access to life outside the small campus, and they are literally cut-off from the external world. The campus also does not provide much opportunity for recreation, and for a long time now, S’s mind has been feeling claustrophobic. In this period, she read about the Soumya rape case, the ISIS terror attacks, and other incidents of violence and brutality. Her empathy caused her to integrate these experiences into her own psyche. Against the backdrop of the absence of a protective male member in her family and the negative, claustrophobic environment of her college campus, these experiences took predominance and brewed into deep phobia.
I spoke to her yesterday. I was glad that I could speak from personal experience. Though my panic attacks had incapacitated me at that point in time, they transformed into insightful experiences eventually. It is only from that experience that I could write my book. From that experience, I have been able to connect to numerous suffering people who are incapacitated by the ‘oddity’ and ‘eccentricity’ of their minds.
Tips for the empath:
- Do not lock yourself up into your room of thoughts. Engage with nature and with the outdoors.
- Read stories. No matter what else you read, make sure your bank of stories is never empty. Read stories rich with fantasy, hope, optimism and a positive outcome. These will neutralize the impact of the stories/experiences with negative endings on your mind. In particular, read stories that take you on a journey from negative to positive.
- Talk to people. Both solitude and engagement with people are equally necessary.
- Write diaries. When you write, write also about your negative experiences. Imagine the ways in which these can end with positive outcomes.
- After 7 pm, do not engage in any mental activity that requires excessive alertness and keeps you aroused. Engage in light reading or entertainment.
- Practice mindfulness.
- Avoid excess of silence, excess of solitude, excess of engagement with people and their problems.