26th November 2008: I returned home late at night after a cozy dinner with my wife at our favorite Italian restaurant. Everything was perfect- the food, the ambience and the Bangalore weather. It was my birthday and I was mostly reflecting on the year gone by. 2008 was an eventful year for me- I got married in Feb, joined a new company in June and lost someone very special to me in October. I was in no mood to celebrate but my wife insisted that we should at least go out for a dinner and I was glad we went out.
Just out of habit, I switched on the TV to catch the headlines as soon as I entered the home. There was breaking news flashing on every news channel. There was a terrorist attack in Mumbai and the live coverage of the entire operation was being aired. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. If the enemy can attack hotels and hospitals of this country, then probably no place is safe. It almost felt like an invasion into our personal space. I was hooked to the coverage and kept watching the new channels whole night. Didn’t realize that I slept off on the sofa, with the TV on.
I woke up with a mild headache and a strange feeling of guilt. I kept thinking that what was a special day for me turned out to be such a bad day for many who were stuck in the attack. In a strange way it all felt very personal. Like every Indian I kept following the news through out the next few days, praying for the victims to be safe. Never before was I so agitated by an event.
Few days after this event, I was slated to travel to Mumbai for work. I loved traveling and was glad that my profession gave me that opportunity to explore so much. In fact, I took huge pride in the fact that I was a platinum member of a loyalty program of a popular airline of those times.
But this one time- I didn’t feel like going. One, this was the first time I was going to the city after the attack and two, I was going there for some work that was completely alien to me.
It was an early morning flight on a weekday and contrary to the usual rush on the morning flights, they were very few passengers on this flight. I was happy that the other two seats in my row were vacant. I wanted to sleep as soon as the boarding was done. Everything was normal for the first one hour of my flight. Then suddenly, out of the blue- some random negative thoughts started to occur. It was nothing like I had felt before. The thoughts were absolutely nonsensical, but immensely scary.
I started feeling overwhelmed and scared. It was a peculiar feeling of helplessness, of losing control over my self, I felt like I was going crazy and it almost paralyzed me. The news images of terrorist attack kept playing like a reel in my mind. I was feeling like I was in grave danger. I was gasping for breath, my palms were sweating, and I felt like I would pass out. The feeling that you are going mad, losing control over your own self is the most terrible feeling I ever felt and it was happening for the first time to me. I felt claustrophobic, I wanted to run but felt stuck in that aircraft. This state lasted for a good twenty minutes and believe me those twenty minutes felt like a lifetime.
As the pilot announced the cabin crew to prepare for landing, I started to calm down. Breathing deep and praying hard, I just waited for the flight to land.
As soon as I landed, I called up my wife and explained what had happened to me. My voice was choked and I was crying. I kept repeating the same question “I am going mad? Am I going Mad?” and she kept reassuring me that its just some stupid thoughts and that my mind was playing games with me. She reasoned out that I was hesitant to travel this time and was also stressed about the work, hence such negative thoughts. It’s all stress and nothing else.
I had a return flight the next morning and I was paranoid of how I will be able to take another flight. I wanted to Google and read about this condition, but was worried that I might discover something fatal and things will deteriorate further. That one-day in Mumbai was the most horrifying day of my life. I felt overwhelmed by everything- the city, the traffic, the people, the hotel room- as if everything was coming on to me. The anticipation that I will again feel like what I felt in the morning was freaking me out. It took me a dozen calls to my wife and parents, to muster up the courage to fly again. I think the strong urge to reach home and figure out what I was suffering from was a strong motivator that helped me fly back.
I kept praying through the flight. Tried talking to fellow passengers, listen to music, read something, did many things that helped me distract my mind for ninety minutes of that flight time. I was full of self-pity, for feeling so vulnerable and lonely. As soon as I landed at Bangalore airport, I immediately started googling on my phone. Honestly, I didn’t even know what to search for. After typing and searching for couple of key words, I was finally able to frame my problem. I googled “Fear of losing control” and the search took me to a page on Anxiety disorders and for the first time I read the scientific definition of a “Panic Attack”.
As I kept reading the symptoms of a “Panic Attack” I realized that what I felt on the plane was exactly that. I had my first Panic Attack. But those twenty minutes of panic crippled me for life. Flying became a nightmare and hence started my struggle with anxiety and panic.
Why am I writing this? Because I have been fighting this condition for last seven years. Unfortunately till last November, I was fighting the battle alone, all by myself – a kind of grueling internal battle. I finally reached out for professional help in December and that has helped me quite a bit. My only regret is that I didn’t seek this help before and kept struggling like an idiot. I believe, there are many like me who are suffering quietly.
I have decided to come out in open and help those who are going through a situation like me. To start with, I am going to share my journey so far- my struggle with anxiety and how I have been trying to cope with it- sometimes scientifically and often naively. If through my story I can inspire someone to reach out for help- I will consider this effort and public confession absolutely worthwhile.