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“I Am An Outspoken Social Activist, And I Suffer From Anxiety Disorder”

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By Ria Sharma:

Anxiety is such a complex devil. The thought of writing about my anxiety gives me anxiety, and as I write this, I stop for a couple of deep breaths. Reliving my moments of anxiousness is not easy but it is so important to write about this. People often ask me where my anxiety stems from, they tell me that there has to be something that triggers it, these questions and assumptions are so normal but it’s very hard to explain that anxiety is like any other medical condition that doesn’t need to be triggered, it just exists.

Image source: Flickr.com
Image source: Flickr.com

The first time I had a panic attack I didn’t even know I had anxiety. I remember the evening so clearly, I was watching an episode of Greys Anatomy in my college dorm room. After I had finished watching the episode, I went to the bathroom to wash my face and get ready for bed, and that’s when I felt it. A massive weakness in my knees, and what followed were the symptoms of a heart attack. I felt lightheaded like I couldn’t breath, and my hands and feet started going numb and cold. My breathing rate increased rapidly, and one could say most of these symptoms were a result of my imagination but I was so convinced that something was wrong that I subconsciously, probably, brought on most of the things I was feeling. For someone that’s never felt this way, I was freaking out, I thought I was going to die. I called my parents over Skype while they were fast asleep in another country, and while I was hyperventilating, my parents were helpless with not a clue of what to do. They tried to distract me, but it didn’t work, and I eventually did pass out in front of them. My father had to call the police, and the next thing I remember were the paramedics breaking down my door and waking me up with all sorts of wires attached to my chest. They wrapped me up in a warm blanket and tried to revive sensation in my arms and legs that were plagued with pins and needles. Meanwhile, my parents had to see all of this while sitting in another country. When I tried to breathe my chest would hurt, and they explained that this was normal because right before I passed out I was breathing so fast that the muscles in my chest were probably exhausted. The entire experience was terrifying, to say the least, but from there began a secret lifelong battle of being scared of getting onto a plane, to being scared of being stuck in a traffic jam and occasional social anxiety.

I couldn’t explain how I could be extremely sociable and outspoken, and yet have a problem so severe that it completely shakes my entire being. It’s not just a mental problem since all its symptoms resulted in a physical state of numbness and fear. I, slowly, over the years developed fears I never thought I would have. The long drives I used to enjoy once became an absolute nightmare. God forbid, I got stuck in a traffic jam; it would freak my brains, and I feel so claustrophobic, but I would try and keep it together fearing that I would pass out otherwise. Getting onto a flight would only trigger thoughts of being stuck in a metal box in the middle of the sky, and then I would suffocate. I don’t think people took me seriously though because I was extremely normal; I love talking, and I am extremely outgoing. The problem with mental illness is that people put you in a stereotype, and if you don’t match that image, then your problem isn’t serious enough.

I had the opportunity of talking at TEDx recently, and it was such an honor, but it soon became my worst nightmare. I was prepared, and I had been talking to myself about how great an opportunity this was. I have learnt to categorize myself into two different people since the panic attack. On one hand, I am an optimist, and, on the other hand, I battle my anxiety. So right before I was going on stage I tried to appeal to my anxiety with my optimism but as soon as the spotlight came on, my anxiety took over. If there’s one thing I know, it’s really hard to battle a pang of anxiety with any amount of optimism, for when anxiety strikes you are not yourself. You are a person you don’t recognize, and your ability to think fails you. I got onto that stage, didn’t say anything for what felt like the longest time and then apologized, and walked off stage. When I was walking off something clicked, and I walked back on. I started talking about how I suffered from anxiety and what I said in the next 18 minutes is a mystery to me. I just remember concentrating on my actions. Words were flowing out of my mouth, and I like to believe it had something to do with the fact that I had memorized my speech. I don’t know if I stuck to my revised version. A few of my friends who had the link to the live streaming of the speech claim I didn’t mess up that much (I seriously doubt that), but at the end it was so hard for me to explain how I was feeling. I spent the next one hour still not feeling an ounce like myself, and breathless. I would have probably been better off running a marathon. All I know about this TEDx talk I gave once was that it was the hardest I have ever fought with myself to just not faint.

Anxiety is a constant battle, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it. I battle it every day in the smallest ways. There are times when I am listening to music, and suddenly a song comes on, and I have probably never heard it before but I get bad vibes and the battle to tell myself that nothing is wrong begins again. Sometimes, when I’m typing, and my speed doesn’t match up to what I’m thinking the feeling of anxiety gets triggered. In a way, anxiety is an out of body experience because while I’m freaking out and driving myself insane, a part of me leaves me for a second and observes just how wrong this is. There a part of me that wants to take care of me, and that’s what I rely on to keep me sane because if I give in to this constant misery on a daily basis, well then, life would be unimaginable.

I could be lying in bed, reading a book, alone, and feeling amazing, but I would read something that would trigger my anxiety, and in a second I would stop concentrating. One second I would be completely alright with being alone and in the next I would start thinking of how if I were dying right now, no one would be here, and then the symptoms start on their own.

I work with acid attack survivours, and a part of my job involves visiting some of the most grief-stricken people. I see a lot of suffering but sometimes I also see a family and the victim being hopeful, that brings me strength. My family always wondered how this never brought on more anxiety, but you just have to find what works for you. In this case, my passion keeps me stable no matter how stressful it may be. It brings me peace to help people; it makes me feel like I’m in control of my battle in a strange way. It’s the only thing that distracts me. Working with the survivors is the easy part. What’s hard is having to talk on TV shows, on TEDx or giving interviews. I want to do my work justice; I want more people to know what’s happening, but it’s so hard. I enjoy writing, when no ones watching, no one is judging. I wrote an article once that got published in a leading Indian newspaper after which I was invited for various shows to give my opinion. While they asked me all these questions, I couldn’t even remember what my article was about! It’s hard to feel so powerful in one second and then be a complete wreck in another.

My father says there is no mental illness that is not treatable and that I should see a counselor because I may have some baggage but how do I explain that I am happy. I have a happy life, but I just battle anxiety. I don’t want medication because when I tried it once, it made me a whole lot worse. This doctor once told me that the decision is completely yours. You can tell yourself that nothing good is going to come out of panicking, you’re eventually just going to tire yourself out and faint. It has helped me quite a bit because when I feel it coming on, I tell myself that this is my decision. I choose to make myself miserable or not. It’s frustrating to live with such a condition, especially when no one takes it seriously or knows what a battle it is, but I think that makes me stronger sometimes.

I have dreams of travelling, of meeting new people and letting them see who I actually am and even though the anxiety makes it hard for me to do that, I have full faith that it will still not define me. Even though its an every day thing, I have victories that no one knows about, and sometimes I feel like doing the victory dance because I successfully avoided a meltdown but I have a feeling people would brand me strange.

I’ll do the victory dance if I want to, there’s no reason to hide such things anymore. People label and stereotype sufferers of mental health and it’s sad because sometimes even the most outspoken and free spirited people suffer. It’s easy to look at someone and think that they don’t have their demons to fight, but there’s always more to the story.

Hi, my name is Ria, I am an outspoken social activist, and I suffer from anxiety disorder, and it’s alright!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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