themighty logo

The Stranger on the Bus Who Helped Me Through My Anxiety Attack

I am always amazed at the extraordinary kindness people provide absolute strangers for nothing in return. Typically, I am far quicker to point out the lack of empathy some people I encounter have, or the lack of consideration for others. That’s far too easy because no matter where you look, there’s always someone being under-appreciated. Even though it’s not as simple, it’s far more rewarding to acknowledge compassion, no matter how small the gestures may be.

When I first moved to Ottawa, I had a rough start. I was sleeping on my best friend’s couch downtown until I moved into a three-bedroom townhouse in Kanata with two roommates. I had just started working at a call center that sucked every ounce of passion out of me.

Heading home from work one night on the 96 bus from downtown on Slater, I was hoping I could manage to catch the 93 so I wouldn’t have to walk home from Eagleson station. I sat in the middle of the bus, while a man, probably in his early 30s, was sleeping beside me.

Every stop the bus filled up more. I think my initial mistake was sitting in the middle of the bus while I was tired, hungry and thinking too much about catching the next one and just getting home.

I felt it first in my chest, then I thought – not here, not now. That’s when your body betrays your brain. I started counting stops while trying to focus on my breathing. Thinking about my newfound therapist and coping techniques. Box breathing, deeply…

Yet still, within 10 to 15 minutes when I couldn’t get off the bus, I turned to the random man beside me and blurted out, “Please help me, I can’t open my hands.” It often happens to me when I hyperventilate, where my hands lose enough circulation that the muscles severely contract. Quite often after, they’re sore enough that without knowing better, I would think I was throwing bricks in a repetitive motion for multiple hours in succession. It’s my own body trying to preserve itself, while also causing further harm and temporary discomfort.

I could tell he didn’t really know what was happening, but he knew I had to get off the bus. He carried me from behind under my arms, while my legs were also extremely weak. He sat me on the bench at Pinecrest station. I sat in the dark trying to wrestle the multiple bags I had in tow while also trying to wrestle my phone out of my pocket, with hands still cramped completely shut, just so I could try to call my boyfriend.

Despite having absolutely no idea what was going on, this man still willingly helped me through a relatively terrifying experience. However, when he called my boyfriend for me, I realized he didn’t really understand why he helped me off the bus. He just thought I wanted to get off the bus. I don’t resent him for not knowing. I realize now it’s not that he didn’t care to understand, but he didn’t have the capacity to. I hold myself accountable in that I never truly put myself first or understood what I needed, so I don’t resent him for not knowing either.

The point of telling this story is because a stranger saw me in distress and he helped without ever needing to understand what was happening. I feel this is true kindness — it comes from a place that wants to alleviate the burdens of others regardless of cause. Despite this truly terrifying incident occurring over five years ago, I still distinctly remember this man. It’s understandable that when we see our loved ones in pain, we want to understand why. Sometimes there isn’t a why, explanation or cause. Sometimes people just need someone to hold space for them when they’re unable to alone. And if you truly care about someone, you should trust you can still help them while also not going beyond yourself.

I got some of my wits about me while I started my conversation, and within 30 seconds of dialogue, the bus that I had hoped to catch initially, rolled up and the man waved him down and ran me and my stuff to the front door.

I had to stuff my phone in my pocket, and after finally feeling some relief that I would be going home, I picked the call back up, feeling so guilty that my boyfriend had left his taxi stand, I got off at the next stop, very disoriented, to wait for him since he had gone to the trouble of coming for me in the first place.

If you see someone who is vulnerable and distressed, please reciprocate the kindness the man on the 96 Eagleson bus route (March 2014) did for me. The compassion you have for someone without judgment, is something they’ll likely never forget. If there’s nothing you can do to help them, the fact that you acknowledged them is an example of empathy without borders.  Sometimes just being seen as a person can be as profound as being saved from drowning. We are all human beings, and within our own boundaries, we deserve to be.

Getty image by Pavlina2510