I took a trip on the train to the country this week. The train was not fully booked, and so I sat on the seat opposite to the one I’d been assigned. The lady I was supposed to be sitting next to told me a lot about herself before the train departed. She told me that she is afraid of heights and that I would need to help her when the train went over a bridge.
I wasn’t expecting the level of anxiety she faced. I wasn’t sure how I’d help her. I have only had one recognisable panic attack. I had just had a conversation with a friend saying that I was unsure about helping someone with mental illness, and I hoped I was doing enough by asking ‘Are you ok”.
As the train went over a bridge she put her pillow over her face and started to cry and take short breaths. It was very sad to see. She’d ask me if she was over the bridge yet. She would look out of the window because her psychologist had told her to do that.
I tried to reassure that we were safe and tried to talk to her about good things like her upcoming holiday. I suggested she drink water. I did the things a nurse did to me when I have a blood test, when I cryperventilate over the needles.
Each time the train tracks reached ground level, she apologised, thinking she’d been silly. She thanked me profusely, and said “All my prayers were answered. I got worried that I’d sit next to someone on the train who would think I’m a freak but you’ve helped me so much. I am so glad I sat next to you.”
As the trip went on, she told me about a violent, traumatic situation she’d experienced last year. She was about my Mum’s age, maybe a bit younger, and I felt so sad when she told me of her experience. I gave her a number for a government helpline and encouraged her to call it when she is able. She told me she would call, with her husband’s support.
When I got on the train, I was looking forward to reading and resting. Selfishly, I wanted to be alone for a while. I didn’t think I’d have an interaction like this. And I didn’t feel prepared to help someone through a very difficult time. But even though I have not experienced the level of anxiety she did, I still had the tools to help her.
Sometimes we’re worried we don’t know what to do to help others. There aren’t enough guidebooks or tool boxes. But we can all offer love and kindness – even to those who we’ve only just met. If we treat people how we’d like to be treated, or in a way that has felt loving and comforting for us in the past, it can make the world of difference to someone else.
We don’t know the struggles of the stranger opposite us on the train. But it’s so important that we make that stranger feel like they’re our friend. We can look up from our smartphone or newspaper, say hello to our fellow passengers and help them through a bad time if they need us to. Sometimes that’s enough.
If you need to talk to someone, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14, Kids’ Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. And Colour Me Anna has written a post about helping someone with anxiety.