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The Moment of Kindness That Helped Me Get Through a Public Panic Attack

About a month and a half ago, my friends and I went downtown to celebrate Mardi Gras. Part of me really didn’t want to go because I knew there was a chance the overwhelming crowds could throw me into a spiral of panic at any given moment. But, the greater part of me wanted to go because I’d be with my friends all day. They promised me we’d have a good time, and I knew with them, that was always true.

So we went, and I was trying to have fun. But eventually, I found myself hysterically crying. Oh God, here we go, I thought. I tried to cover up the fact that I was breaking down in public but the tears just kept coming. My friend Justin pulled me aside and said, “Hey, Julia, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I lied. I felt everyone around me staring with judgment. I must have looked “crazy” to them. How could I be crying? I had no right.

“No, Julia, what’s wrong?” He grabbed my hands and held them gently. His girlfriend and my very close friend, Meredith, stood on my other side, looking me in the eyes, too. She cared, I could tell. I instantly felt safe. And I knew that something really was wrong with me.

“I don’t really know, but I am so overwhelmed.” This often happens during a panic attack, especially if I’m surrounded by people, even people I know closely. I can’t always put my feelings to words. The logical reasoning behind my panic doesn’t always exist.

“Julia, you are the strongest, most confident person I know,” Justin said, looking into my eyes. “I will never let anything bad happen to you.”

I kept crying, but the tears of desperation turned into tears of pure joy. Joy I hadn’t felt in so, so long.

I realized the assumption I had made about myself and my condition was untrue. I assumed that everyone watching me thought I was crazy. In fact, I assumed I was crazy. I told myself I was weak. Justin re-centered me and made me realize the falsity in that thinking. And I had every right to cry in the middle of a thousand people if that’s what I felt in that moment. What good would it have done to hold panic inside me, only to make it worse later?

Sometimes all you need is for someone else to tell you how strong you are in order for you to actually believe it. I don’t think Justin realized how much I needed to hear his words that day. Months later, they still have an impact on me and my progress in my everyday battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’ve never even told him I have PTSD, yet he knew exactly how to handle the situation. He knew the importance of being a good, kind, compassionate friend. In turn, he taught me the importance of being good, kind and compassionate to myself. And for that, I am forever grateful.

I often fear the assumptions others make of me when my PTSD symptoms manifest physically. But I’d never really looked at my own assumptions until that day. Negative thinking is definitely part of the culture surrounding mental illness, but it’s also part of the disorder. Some of the worst aspects of PTSD encourage us to fall into the unhealthy trap of telling ourselves we are at fault for how we feel, that somehow, we are at fault for what led us to developing PTSD. Really, though, all we needed all along was more kindness for both ourselves and others.

Surround yourself with good people. Treat your symptoms with grace. And always, always remember how brave you are for living every day just as you are, tears and all.

Getty image via Tero Vesalainen