I live streamed my panic attack on Instagram

If the world asks you to distribute your pain pro bono for the benefit of others — SHOW THEM THE MIDDLE FINGER.

Nothing in this piece is to be construed as medical advice. Always — always — seek qualified help if you experience the conditions described here. Also, I use the words ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’ purely as literary devices and not as a comment on anyone’s lived experience.

Hearing you speak right now is bliss.”

I don’t remember if that was the exact comment. I was distracted — my head felt like it was being slowly rotated inside an industrial stone crusher — but I’m pretty sure something close to this did pop up on my screen towards the end of my first-ever Instagram Live.

It was sometime last week. Half a dozen of my followers were watching me live stream a massive midnight panic attack.

The plan at first was just to dip my toes into this medium that’s supposed to be a gold mine for ‘creators’, and promote the newsletter. As I turned on the camera, I noticed the mild hum of harmless, garden-variety anxiety in my chest that I’ve learnt to ignore. I sat on the sofa in my study, glancing behind my back to make sure I’d locked the door so I wouldn’t wake my wife and son. I must do something about the lighting in this room, I remember thinking, because it makes me look like a ghost.

And then — snap! From ghost my mind hurtled to death and from death to the railway tracks and soon my body was rattling from the impact of the incoming train. That’s how my panic attacks are generally scripted. I’m tied to a pole millimetres away from the track as a high-speed train rushes by. I know from past experience it won’t kill me, but the noise drives me crazy and the jar hurts my bones.

Aside: If we ever meet, don’t talk to me about how the ‘universe is made up of vibrations’. I fucking hate vibrations. My mother has just started on anti-anxiety medication, and it causes her whole body to break into tremors. She was a nurse for 30 years. Her injection skills were legendary. Now look at her, constantly shimmying like one of those madwomen from Strasbourg’s dancing plague.

Anyway, I try to look through the train’s windows and scream for help but it moves too fast, and all I can see is my own face reduced to an ectoplasmic blur. I love trains, so I don’t know where this comes from. Panic attacks are bastards for taking the most innocent things and turning them into instruments of torture.

At some point during the broadcast, I found myself reassuring the audience I was going to be okay because I’d already popped two Etilaams, the mouth-dissolving kind, and I could taste the sugar on my tongue. But mostly I sobbed and shook and sweated and stared vaguely into the camera and in brief moments of lucidity tried to mouth profound things like, “I am doing this because I want to spread awareness about what a panic attack really looks like.”

Good old Tanmoy, always busting stigma.

Hearts were floating up on the screen rapidly. Then came that ‘bliss’ comment.

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Through intense brain fog, I remember thinking, wow, ‘bliss’ is an unexpected reaction to this performance, but I’m glad someone got their time’s worth.

I’m always surprised when people react to my worst moments with grace. Like, yeah, this is pretty fucked up, but hey, we admire the fact that you chose to share the fuck-up with the whole world so other fuckers-up (fuck-uppers?) know they are #NotAlone.

I’m mostly grateful, but sometimes it makes me angry, this sweetness. I feel like a child who scribbles some gibberish and gloating elders rush in to declare him a savant. A crappy painting that makes people go aha simply because it has made it to the exhibition gallery, and if it’s up there it must be good.

Welcome to the world of a mental health influencer.

It’s been days, and I still have so many questions. Why did I choose that as the content of my crucial debut on Instagram Live? Why didn’t I simply turn off the camera?

Did you know Instagram helps 80% of its users decide whether to buy a product or a service? I have been woefully inert on the platform. I have just a couple of hundred followers there, and everyday I see fellow writers kicking ass with their Reels and Stories and IG Lives and amassing followers by the dozen, I feel jealous and guilty for falling behind. But when I did choose to do something, this is the best I could come up with? My shit show could have put people off. It could have cost me business.

Except, this shit show is a key part of my business.

You see, I have two personas. One: professional mental health journalist. This is my wise, organised, heavily curated persona. You’ve met this persona in deeply researched stories on racism and psychiatry or the role of science in fixing workplace mental health. This persona is propah, and is responsible for the output that I hope will help me make a name as a serious journalist doing important work. This is the persona I hope will make you click the strategically placed ‘subscribe now’ buttons in this newsletter.

But I know it is my other persona that is the beachhead — the top of the funnel in marketing speak — that draws many in. It is the persona that is responsible for keeping a Twitter diary of my daily experiences of depression, anxiety, and self-harm, a fumbling, floundering mess without any window dressing. It is the persona that gets accolades like ‘brave’ and ‘inspiring’ for laying his heart bare about parenting with depression.

It is the persona that was born to say things — troubling, unedited things — that I couldn’t say elsewhere. People told me this persona helped them feel seen and heard, so I kept nurturing it, and it grew into what I learnt was ‘advocacy’. I had no expectations of it except to feel connected with you.

But somewhere along the way, I lost my job. I had to turn entrepreneur. Everything in my life became a resource. And so this persona took an additional role. It became my lead generator.

There’s this creator named DissociaDID that I am low-key in awe of who’s a great illustration of what can happen when these worlds collide.

DissociaDID, legal name Chloe Wilkinson, lives with dissociative identity disorder (DID). In 2018, at age 21, they started a YouTube channel to demystify DID — a poorly understood and horribly stigmatised condition in which a person shows the presence of at least two distinct personality traits, thought to be a protective response to early life trauma. In pop culture, DID is often presented as a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-type syndrome that lends itself to violent murder mysteries.

Wilkinson, with all the charm of a bona fide rockstar, took a hammer (oops) to this stereotype. Their channel, where they capture their switches — the transition from one ‘alter’ to another — on live camera, has 1.19 million subscribers. But the rapid fame also brought a torrent of vicious trolling and character assassination, including claims that Wilkinson was faking it. In a bizarre turn of events that reads like a Gothic novella, Wilkinson was hounded off the Internet for a while.

As I researched this thriving subculture of ‘DID creators’ — it’s telling that a supporter of one of Wilkinson’s fundraisers described them as ‘an educator and an entertainer’ — my mind gravitated to a question I’d never encountered before.

Am I ‘faking it’ too?

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Where does my reality end and my performance begin? I immediately went back to my Twitter thread and started reading all my old tweets, trying to remember if what I had written was real.

Did I really pass through hell? Do I still, every day?

Am I becoming the very thing I have resisted all my life — a mental illness denier, that uncle who gives you that look that says ‘kid, your charade is up’, the state that dubs you a malingerer?

You know what? FUCK THAT, I say.

If you have a condition, with or without a diagnosis, that you can use to both tear apart the dirty veil of stigma and make a livelihood without cheating or hurting anyone else — USE IT.

If you can both educate and entertain — DO IT.

If the world tells you that you must remain a do-gooder, distributing your pain pro bono for the benefit of others — SHOW THEM THE MIDDLE FINGER.

If they ever make you doubt your pain — DON’T YOU DARE LET THEM.

The only person you owe anything to — answers, honesty, the right and the material means to live with dignity — IS YOURSELF.

The next time I had a panic attack, my first thought was whether I should quickly go live.

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