Like me, Zayn Malik suffers with anxiety. Pulling out of his long-planned Summertime Ball performance, the ex-One Direction singer posted a succinct apology on his Twitter account about the affliction that continues to keep him off stage. The words aren’t lengthy, but they are upfront: “My anxiety that has haunted me… has gotten the better of me,” he writes, continuing with “I have suffered the worst anxiety of my career.” All jokes about his good looks aside, I’ve never wanted to hug Zayn more than when I read that. He clearly loves what he does, and is good at what he does, and yet here is his anxiety, robbing him of the ability to do it.
Over the next couple of hours I trawled his replies online, heartened by the support from fans but also deeply fed up with the awful responses from so many others. They seemed to range from dismissal (everyone gets nervous!) and incredulity (what does he have to be anxious about?), to disbelief (but he posted a happy tweet yesterday!) and then, of course, outright mocking. I wish I was surprised at how many people seem shocked that someone confident, or loud, or fun, or creative, or even supposedly talented can experience anxiety, but it’s something I’ve heard for years. Strangers, friends, and even my own mother sometimes don’t take my anxiety seriously; don’t realise that I don’t just feel “a bit anxious” because I need to do a lot of work, or have a big poetry reading coming up. My anxiety can be crushing, and I’m endlessly frustrated at how the other parts of my personality – things I typically like about myself – are used as an excuse to disbelieve how bad it can be.
So, where should I begin when speak about my own anxiety? Perhaps it’s best to start, as Drake says, at the bottom: my feet. Anxiety makes them stop working, freezes my calves, locks my legs in place. I can’t move. I go to bed or sit in the corners of my bedroom and stay still, because moving means doing, and doing means things can happen, and the things I think – no, the things I know will happen – terrify me, no matter what they are. Then, my stomach: my anxiety fills me with dread. Real dread, the sort of fear that starts as a seed that quickly grows into a jungle in your belly. Not butterflies in my stomach but flapping crows that become stampeding elephants, sometimes trampling on my capacity to eat anything for hours, sometimes squashing my ability to stop comfort eating at all.
My anxiety squats in my guts, lines my bones, settles around my heart and makes me feel horribly sad, and heavy, and afraid
My anxiety squats in my guts, lines my bones, settles around my heart and makes me feel horribly sad, and heavy, and afraid. It’s a weight that stays somewhere in my chest, and it renders me useless and unable to do the things I need or even want to. I’ve felt this weight since the anxiety attacks I’ve had since childhood. I remember being young – seven, maybe – and lying on my side in my bedroom in an anxiety thought spiral about who made the person who made the world. After the initial shakes and hyperventilating, I stayed there, anxious about the world and my place in it, for so many hours my Mum assumed I had fallen asleep. My anxiety works much the same way now: unable to cope with people I put my phone on airplane mode, and either sit in dark rooms in silence, or scroll endlessly down Twitter feeds taking very little in beyond acknowledging my need to do something that feels safe, familiar, distracting.
Thank you for joining The Pool
Finally, my anxiety is rooted at the top of my body – in my head, but also my mind, and the thoughts that seem to dance around it too quickly. It's both too many thoughts but also not enough, and never the right ones. I find myself overwhelmed with what I need to do so I can write to-do lists obsessively just to stare at them, and sometimes I think about every terrible thing that could ever happen to my family and my friends and the world as a whole, and I drown in those thoughts. Selfishly though, my anxiety is mostly about myself. How will I cope and what will I do when someone dies, or everyone dies, or I die, or I don’t die and am all alone, or I live but I live a lie. I think of all the terrible things that could happen if I do that performance or write that article. Short-term, I physically can't breathe. Long-term, I find myself in useless vicious circles where I get anxious about money, so I take on more work, so get anxious about my writing, so can’t work, then get anxious about not working enough, so get anxious about money, and so on, and so on.
There are, of course, ways I get around this. Breathing exercises help; running too; as well as making sure I regularly spend time alone doing something repetitive that doesn’t let me think too much, like painting my nails or reading trashy novels. “I know those who suffer anxiety will understand and I hope those who don’t can emphasises with my situation,” wrote Zayn. Anxiety is painful and frustrating and embarrassing enough without the world denying its existence, or dismissing how awfully it can make you feel. Anxiety is an illness of contradictions, a state of feeling totally responsible but also unable to do anything to change things. In a tiny way, this is right – we can’t change everything, but we can change the culture of silence and dismissal around mental health issues. And reading Zayn Malik’s note about his suffering and believing him at face value is a very good place to start.