While I was in college, I developed a serious case of panic disorder. Every time I would walk into my classroom my body would start to shake, my thoughts would race, and I felt a strong need to flee.
I’m not talking about just walking casually out of the room. I had a strong urge to announce my departure loudly because I absolutely believed everyone in the room was noticing my mini-breakdown. “Hey human comrades, I’m going to go die in the hallway now. Please don’t follow me, it will only make it worse. Tell my mother I love her.”
I was struggling so hard that I almost had to take a leave of absence from college to get myself sorted out. I missed a lot of classes, literally walking in and walking out 5 minutes later because I couldn’t pull myself together mentally.
Unbeknownst to me, no one noticed, no one cared, no one ever said anything to me. People were in their own world. I wish I had realized that at the time.
At home I read books on overcoming panic disorder, and they helped a little (we had no internet back then so researching was done at a library with actual books).
I’m telling you this because of an incident that happened in my Introduction to Statistics class. I was sitting there before class, trying to keep my hands from shaking, saying my mantra over and over in my head (“I’m okay, everything is fine, this is fun.”)
And my friend Jennifer turned to me and said, “I admire you, Erin. You really have your shit together. I wish I could be more like you.”
To say I was stunned is an understatement. My mouth made no words.
She continued, “You’re so smart, you ask a ton of questions, you’re such a great student. I feel so dumb and lost all the time.”
Finally I found my voice. “Jennifer… no. You have me all wrong. I do NOT have my shit together. I’m a mess. I’m terrified to be in public places. I lay awake in the night wondering how I’m going to get through a class. I panic if I’m in a room of more than 3 people. And the reason I ask so many questions is because I’m terrified I’ll miss something, so I feel like I have to stay on top of everything.”
It was her turn to be stunned. She said, “Really? I had no idea. You always seem relaxed and calm to me, like you’re in full control of yourself.”
I just kind of looked at her and she just kind of looked at me. And I had many realizations in that moment.
Someone could be struggling to exist but appear like they’re completely fine. You never know when someone is minutes away from a breakdown.
I adopted the idea that everyone around me might be struggling with an issue I knew nothing about, and I wanted to pay more attention to my friends so I could help them if they needed me.
Even the people in the world who seemed the most confident and successful could be fighting demons we would never see.
Jennifer and I went to lunch after that class and we both poured our struggles out to each other. She helped me feel loved and safe in public. And I reflected for her how smart she really was.
We became each other’s biggest supporters. She helped me stay calm in class and I was able to take that sense of support into other classrooms, allowing me to avoid panicking nearly so often.
If she hadn’t said to me what she said that day, I don’t know what would have eventually happened to me. I might have had to quit college altogether.
Talk to your friends. Set aside time when you have time to talk without interruption and simply say, “What are you struggling with right now? I would love to support you if I can.”
Then listen, hard. Be empathetic. Resist the urge to solve their problem and just listen. You can offer advice when they’re ready to take it, and not before.
But above all, be kind. Some people are living lives of quiet desperation. Some are right on the edge of falling apart or letting go. See the struggle. Help where you can.