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My journey from being an atheist to a believer

“I don’t know how to revel in happiness. In success. I get too scared thinking, what if things turn around bad tomorrow,” said a friend over a call last week. We were talking about a new promotion, new chapters in life, and the reality of things finally being in order after a phase of turmoil. As she kept on pointing out instances of her being nervous and worried, I thought how eerily similar that all sounded to me. She said, “it’s just, everyone else knows when to be happy and enjoy it. I don’t even know how to handle happiness! Maybe, I was better when things were bad. At least I knew how to respond to them.”

At least I knew how to respond to them. It’s true, isn’t it. When one is sad, it’s very easy to know what you’re feeling and thinking. You feel gloom, you feel hurt, you feel empty and you feel like crying. Or maybe not doing anything. Or simply ignoring the reality and finish off the task at hand. Whatever it is, sadness has a way of reminding you what you’re feeling.

But what happens when you go through a phase of sadness, almost to a point, where anything happy is suspected of carrying a deadweight with it? A positive turn of events or a gradual ray of shining light through the thick clouds, but you still look for the looming shadow, the bad news to follow?

In my view, two things happen. Anxiety. And its denial.

The medical definition for anxiety stands as: “A general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying.” These symptoms differ from person to person, some feel breathless, some feel tongue tied, or sometimes, absolutely incapable of doing anything in that moment.

A bad news causes us to react with trepidation accompanied with sweaty palms, headaches, or dry throats. Gradually, it’s not just bad news. It’s simply news. Or a sudden call. Or a surprise visit. Or walking in late for work. Anything out of our defined terms of normalcy.

We are so familiarised with the negative emotions gripping us, that it becomes a pattern. If that pattern repeats itself over a period of time, our mind accepts the reactions as normative. So, even when the periods of pain are over, the anxiety becomes a part of us.

I write this all, because for a very long period of time, I did not realise this pattern, and was unable to handle my reactions, when entering any unfamiliar situation. I assumed, that something was wrong with me for not knowing how to control my bodily responses, while the rest around me did not undergo any such emotion.

Why did I have a stomach ache? Why did my heart beat fast? While the people around me in those situations, seemed to take it so normally. If my siblings can act mature, then why cannot I. If my friends can deal with it, then why cannot I.

So much so, that when good news reached my ears, I took it with massive dollops of salt. A new job, a positive feedback, a compliment, an opportunity, a validation; everything was peeled to the core to find, the missing negative connotation attached to it. And if there was nothing, then I created one.

I felt defeated even in success.

Gradually, I realised, that there was something I was ignoring. I was ignoring my emotions, masking my anxiety, to feel “normal”. To feel like others do. And that’s why, I was sinking further into denial. I was being an atheist to my anxiety.

So, I sat down with it one day and wrote everything I felt when dealing with a new development in life, good or bad. And the list pointed out to three things:

Hope. Doubt. Fear.

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It was cyclic and chronic. The first reaction would always be hope. I hope it isn’t too bad (in a negative situation). I hope this is real (in a positive situation). And the rest two would follow. Leading me into self-judgement. And self-critique. Worsening a bad situation, and ruining a happy one.

It went on, on repeat mode. The pattern was similar, leading me to miss out on the happiest of times. And it became evident: when I tried thinking about my happiest moments, and couldn’t think of even three immediately.

I had clearly read the ‘being happy memo’ wrong.

So I thought, okay. I know what happens here. The question, that remained — what now?

I had finally come face to face with my anxiety. What followed next?

As for any non-believer, the first path towards a journey of faith is acceptance. And so began my process of accepting my anxiety. I told myself. I told my family. I told my friends. I accepted that anxiety takes the better of me, when confronted with a new turn in life.

So, once the mask was off, the emotions came out raw. I began distinguishing between what I was feeling when anxious, and otherwise. I opened up to myself.

And I began devising techniques to handle it.

  • I wrote down what I experienced in tensed situations. “Feeling worried. Mind thinking of worst case scenarios. Throat going dry. Need to pee. Feeling restless. Need fresh air.”
  • I took deep breaths and focused on them. Tracing the path that my breathing took, feeling it in my chest, lungs and the heart. When I knew my mind would wander back to anxiety, I aimed to get three focused deep breaths. Just three. Then maybe five. And so on.
  • Recognised that the worst case scenarios were a result of my anxious mind. “Yes, this job call might be a rejection. I might not get that job. My writing samples might be the worst. Then? I got to write more. I got to write better.” I began distilling between the anxiety and the reality. And the moment that thought struck me, I actually felt at ease.

Ultimately, working with an anxious mind worked far more successfully, than working against it. Accepting my anxiety, has helped me handle tougher situations better, and value happier moments even more.

It has taken the pressure off me to conform. It has taken off the veneer of what being an adult means.

Becoming adult does not happen overnight with a quick fix to everything one thinks and reacts to. It doesn’t simply mean turning old. It doesn’t simply mean taking on bigger responsibilities. It means recognising who you are and what you comprise. The good, the bad and the unknown.

In the middle of it all, you handle the joys, the responsibilities, the sorrows, the wins, the setbacks and the free passes of adulting.

A gradual summation of accepting what you’re made of, and using it to your best ability, is what makes you, you. Builds you to be the best version of yourself. Nurtures you, to find who you truly are. And finally, leads you to be comfortable with that.

Anxiety is simply one such characteristic of mine.

Mariyam Raza Haider

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A journalist by training, Mariyam Haider is a writer and performance poet in Singapore.
She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree.
Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing and Kitaab.

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