Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Photo: Natasha Badhwar

It is okay to talk about this

Our world has always been a difficult place. It makes us anxious, depressed and apathetic about existing. With love, we will find a way to sublimate it all

I wish I had Aliza’s courage." I woke up in the morning and read this message from a faraway friend on my phone’s screen. Last week’s column on dealing with teenage anxiety inspired many readers to write in.

“Aliza is my courage," I typed back.

I showed the message to Aliza later in the day. “Courage?" she said, squinting her eyes at me. “It doesn’t feel like courage."

“When one refuses to change to fit in, when one is willing to suffer the discomfort of sticking out, it seems like a brave choice to others," I said to her. “To the person, it probably feels like a compulsion. Like you have no other choice."

Aliza nodded at me.

“How did you write the Aliza piece?" another friend wrote in. “It’s so hard to read. My heart."

“Aliza helped me write it," I wrote back to her. “Like children do. They guide us."

Another friend sent me a cautionary tale about a famous writer’s son who was estranged from his father and bullied ruthlessly by his schoolmates. All because his father used him as a character in his very popular books.

A reader asked me more directly, even if tentatively, “Doesn’t Aliza mind being written about like this?"

Aliza and I are secret partners. There is a Word document on my computer’s desktop titled—“How to talk to a child with anxiety". Over several months, as we tried to understand and deal with what had descended on us, I used this document like a diary, jotting down many of our conversations, to see if we would be able to join the dots as time passed. Sometimes, the child would open it to see the words I had been collecting. She didn’t feel inclined to write her own journal.

In another document, I collected inspiration and wisdom for myself. Here, I find a combination of notes to myself and the words of others that resonate with me.

“You are important," I wrote spontaneously one day. “I have time for you.

“Your concerns are valid. It is okay to have an opinion you have not heard anyone else expressing. Speaking up is good. It shakes off anxiety."

On another day, I have counselled myself with these words—“Trying to be perfect as a parent makes me fail. Abominably. Being mediocre at the most important job in my life is the best way for me to be good at it."

I found another clue in an interview with the South Korean novelist Han Kang, who won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her book The Vegetarian. “When I was writing," she says, “it felt as if I was getting closer and closer, day by day, to a certain part inside us which cannot be destroyed, which cannot be harmed."

Han Kang speaks about her parents’ grief and loss. About “a mixture of mourning and a sense of precious life". The vulnerabilities of others fortified me to face up to mine.

One day, Aliza told me that she doesn’t believe God exists. When I asked her why, she said, “Mamma, maybe he exists, but he doesn’t seem to do anything. The bad people get away with everything and the good people remain ineffective."

When I had been exactly Aliza’s age, I had discovered that God exists. I had been hospitalized and was in tremendous pain, and I had discovered that when I have no control over anything else in my life, there is a force I can summon within me that gives me the solace to be able to bear the unbearable. I named it God.

I wondered how I could communicate this faith to my own child. The answer appeared before me in the form of these lines tweeted by the poet Kaveh Akbar, where he quotes from the poem Thicket by Kazim Ali.

It’s the father who believes in God.
The son believes in the father.

Just like that, problem solved. More than how to speak to a child with anxiety, we were learning how to listen to a child with anxiety.

In one phone conversation I had with my elder brother, he said: “Aliza is just like me. I understand exactly what’s going on with her. Do you want me to speak to her?"

I was puzzled. Bhai is a high-functioning, high-achieving, adrenalin-pumped super-specialist doctor and the child we were talking about was barely being able to get out of bed. Many of my friends had also reacted like Bhai. Last week’s messages from readers brought many more Alizas into my life.

“I wish I had the wisdom to understand myself and my anxiety at 12," wrote another reader. “I carried it with me, a pit in my stomach, all these years and now I am letting it release slowly, mindfully. Aliza and I, we will hate on Comic Sans together."

I shared the messages with Aliza. Many of them were laced with a sweet humour, addressing her directly.

“I feel like I am invisible," Aliza had said to me at the height of her distress. “No one can see me." Now, when we had given ourselves permission to speak about what had felt very isolating, we discovered that so many people were being able to see themselves in her story.

“Either we all live in a decent world or nobody does," George Orwell had written.

Like Goethe, I expect we will also arrive at the “frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous."

Our world has always been a difficult place. Its hierarchies are toxic, its excesses are hurting everyone. It makes us anxious, depressed and apathetic about existing. With love, we will find a way to sublimate it all.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets from @natashabadhwar

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