The Reluctant Londoner

Panic attacks on the Underground

I am a very reluctant Londoner.

When I arrived in the city, the merest sniff of the Underground air would leave me in a cold sweat, my heart banging crazily at my chest.

The gaping mouths of the dark tunnels terrified me. The crowds terrified me. Even the closing of the tube doors was extraordinarily frightening. What if someone became trapped and the train hurtled away, regardless?

I’d huddle into myself on tube journeys, hugging my own body even as I was pressed (inevitably, being 5’2) into a stranger’s fragrant armpit.

I’d tap my wrist, counting in a whisper to distract myself from the black air outside the windows rushing past us and the pressure of other passengers around me. The coloured lines of the Underground would snake in front of my eyes as I locked my gaze on the maps in my carriage.

I’d even start panicking on the escalators, convinced that they were moving me towards a place I’d never emerge from and never see sunlight or the sky again. I wondered how others could hop on tubes so coolly, coping with rush hour as if the sardine tin packing of carriages was utterly ordinary.

I couldn’t possibly feel at home in a place where the very veins of the city filled me with unreasonable dread.

Weird City – Harriet Williamson

Stubbornly, I continued to use the tube.

It became a point of pride. I hated everything about the Underground but I was still going to force myself to tap in.

After weeks of panic attacks, things slowly started to improve. It wasn’t that I’d stopped being scared. It was more that exhaustion from the terror had overtaken me.

I could still feel myself tensing before ApplePaying my way through the barriers, but instead of exploding with raw panic, my chest would sigh as if my body was just sick and tired of being so fucking scared.

Day by day, inch by hard-won inch of space, I began to feel strangely connected by the tube. It was my lifeline to central London, to work, to see friends, to art galleries and brand new, previously unknown destinations. I’d run the stops through my head, from Hammersmith to Victoria to London Bridge to Canary Wharf.

Stepping on to the platform, I had alighted.

The impatient shoves and every-man-for-themselves-ism no longer gave me reason to pause. I could thunder down the escalators, tap my phone and hang on to the plastic straps like millions of other, diverse Londoners do every single day. I became slowly accustomed to the rush (not too quickly, though) for spare seats, and to the awareness of other passengers who might need that seat more than me.

Instead of evil maws, the tunnels became grateful points of necessary connection. I never feel more part of a strange city than I do when I’m between stations on the tube, moving forward, no longer needing to self-medicate with Propranalol or Diazepam.

This city must become my home, and with each day that passes, it is more so.

Sadiq Khan says that London is open. It opened for me through the Underground.