It has been two months since then, but I can still feel my cold hands.
Monsieur Fathi’s email arrives as I board the plane for Paris, right at the beginning of a week that I dreaded for a month and half. The words are the same as many other messages by landlords and flatmates alike: Bonne continuation dans ta recherche. The translation: you sound nice and reliable, but we will not wait until your arrival in three hours, we prefer someone else to rush to the only free room in miles and get it done.
My main summer occupation has been messaging with perfect strangers online for the sake of not being homeless during my exchange in France, in the twisted partnership that we dare call flat-sharing. Like most romances nowadays, most people ignored my messages and deleted the conversation. A huge part teased and left me on hold until they texted back, coming up with excuses about age difference or incompatibility.
What they do not know as they inflict rejection on me, though, is that each of those messages feeds into my high-functioning anxiety. It is not an accurate diagnosis from a medical perspective, but it somehow describes my life since February: a workaholic with constant migraines and an irresistible urge to cry, who nonetheless manages to be at the top of her academic game, get her preferred exchange destination and obtain scholarships to fund that dream. All of this while waiting for the next panic attack to kick in and take my energy away.
Two months after a rough break-up which sparked the first of a long series of sleepless nights, the knot of fear in my throat pushed me to book in with the university’s counselling services. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. Ticking no for boxes about suicidal thoughts, self-harming and violent behaviour made me feel ashamed of my decision, as others were struggling with life-threatening issues. And yet, the idea of a panic attack getting the best of me while alone in Paris made me realise how selfish and sometimes necessary it is to ask for help when you are distancing yourself and indulging in negativity.
It is even more surprising to see the range of people affected by the same symptoms, once you walk into the waiting room. The sporty girl wearing her volleyball uniform, the geeky guy texting on his phone, the one revising for a resit, yourself… The ironic beauty of admitting a personal problem is that others from all walks of life – radically different from yours – are going through a rough patch too. You will nonetheless exchange a shy look for those few seconds before the staff pick up one of you, as in sharing a sense of community. It is solidarity at its best, a set of parallel lines suddenly recognising their isolation and converging.
That line found temporary relief in the counselling office for six weeks, while my flat was invaded by friends’ boxes during their move out and my flatmate went away to work abroad. I was supposed to make some space and start packing my own things for when the time comes, but the sense of loneliness that comes with an empty living room took over my organisation. I kept writing to-do lists and never managed to get round to them; instead of revising French, my only exercise was to complete anxiety record sheets whose common theme was inadequacy – and if that is not the most Sartrean attitude to life, which one is?
It was by talking to the therapist that I suddenly realised this had been a feature since I was 17. No matter what the context is, I refuse emotional trouble because I have no control over it despite my efforts. When deadlines are over, my brain feels no pleasure in being left wandering around to deal with anxious thoughts. The impact that people I love have had and keep having on me is out of my agency, hence the panic and the inability to speak out. Considering my endless blabbing around politics and popular culture, I am surprised I did not recognise I was conservatively trapped in silence: even worse, I was somehow ready to do so in a country known for flowery words and a taste for loquacious criticism.
As Fathi’s decision goes against my plan and we take off, a familiar dizziness takes over; however, the workaholic side abruptly rebels and fights for its life. The possibility of seeing another experience spoiled by unconscious behaviours is regulated by an equally unconscious (and dangerous) efficiency that will leave me overwhelmed. My eyes fall on the cognitive restructuring guidance sheet that I tucked in a book sleeve. One question stands out: How would you rationally respond to the anxious reaction?
Apparently I have already learned that, but in an extreme fashion. May Paris be a chance to un-learn.