Last night I lay in bed listening to an Australian Writers’ Centre podcast in which memoirist Patti Miller was interviewed about her latest book, Ransacking Paris. The book’s about the year she spent living in France’s city of lights a decade ago, so she was talking about how important perspective is in figuring out how our travels and life experiences have shaped us.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised how right she was, and I got inspired to write down some thoughts about how living in India made me, 18 months after moving back.
I remember one day walking through our bustling local market on my own. I was just going through the usual routine – visiting the tailor in one of the back alleys, picking up marigold garlands, gathering veggies and grains for dinner from the little food stalls. It was chaotic, it always was, with women in colourful saris jostling past, stallholders yelling out to one another in high-speed Hindi, goats, chickens and the occasional lumbering cow finding a path between it all.
Something caused me to stop, I can’t remember what now. But for some reason I looked up to the sky, and found a moment to breathe and take stock.
How incredibly far I’ve come, I remember thinking. Put me in this same position five years ago and I probably would’ve been crouched on the ground, gasping for breath in the clutches of a severe panic attack. It was exactly the sort of situation that triggered them.
I’ll never forget the first attack I ever had back in 2002. How it swooped down on me from behind, caught me unawares and cloaked me in a thick blanket of terror. I was on a crowded bus on the way to high school, hurriedly looking over art history notes to prepare for the impending HSC, when just like that I couldn’t breathe. My heart started beating so intensely that it caused a deafening roar to fill my ears and my vision to blur.
“STOP THE BUS! STOP THE BUS!”, I remember yelling at the top of my lungs as I lurched through the crowd of shocked commuters.
No one tried to help me, I think they all assumed I was either nuts or drunk, maybe both. We were on a highway but the bus driver eventually pulled over and let me off on the side of the road. I just stood there, panting and trembling next to all that traffic, as the tsunami of terror washed away and I started trying to figure out what had just happened to me.
It took a while. Three years to be exact. Three years of intermittently experiencing these terrifying episodes, ignoring them and covering them up with denial and copious amounts of alcohol. The panic attacks usually hit at moments when I felt out of control: on planes, travelling across bridges or along highways where I knew I couldn’t stop, speaking in public, being stuck in the middle of big crowds, those sorts of things.
At 21 I moved to the south of France for a year to study and finally plucked up the courage to see a doctor before I left. Mainly because the attacks had gotten so bad that I knew I couldn’t get on the plane without taking some sort of medication. I’ll never forget the feeling of utter relief, and also of utter dread when the doctor, having just handed me my prescription for beta blockers (which I consequently abused for a few years before finally addressing my issues) looked at me intently and said, “this is very, very serious. You should have seen someone about this years ago.” Relief because it was a problem, which meant it could be fixed. Dread because there was something wrong with me, and now it was official.
The causes of my anxiety attacks were numerous and complex, mainly to do with issues of control and my love of beating myself up about everything, and something to be investigated at another time. But at that moment, standing in the middle of Mumbai’s Colaba Market with that throng rushing around me, I realized how potent this city had been for my healing. How much its chaotic crowds, its intense traffic and its complete nonsensicalness had pushed me to confront my deepest, most limiting, fears. Of being overwhelmed. Of fucking up. Of losing control.
It often gave me no choice but to take risks, or to do the unexpected. To take that half sinking boat to Elephanta Island or miss visiting a World Heritage Site sitting right there on my doorstep. To throw myself into the crushing crowds of Diwali, India’s Festival of Lights, even though it scared the bejeezus out of me. To step out of our apartment each and every morning not knowing which crazy, potentially devastating, happening would confront me.
No wonder I picked India as my home for that period. She was exactly the ointment my soul needed.
PLANNING A TRIP TO MUMBAI? READ MY CITY GUIDE HERE
OR MY INDIA FOR BEGINNERS GUIDE HERE