September 30, 2014
by Maryam Hassan

This is part of a recurring series of essays on social anxiety in punk. For more, click here.

There I was, locked in a toilet stall in the restrooms of the Forum in London, shaking uncontrollably. I was trying desperately to muffle my crying because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was having an anxiety attack at a show. Anxiety attacks are shitty at the worst of times but to have one during a show, in a dirty restroom full of loud people was unbearable. There was no one at this show that I could call to help calm me down, I’d already been told on more than one occasion that I had to learn to hold myself together because people were starting to think I was weird. This was the lowest point of my social anxiety, which was triggered by falling into a crowd of people who weren’t really good for me and feeling like I’d isolated myself as it all started to go really wrong.

In 2011 I had a breakdown, started to hate going to shows and really couldn’t talk to people anymore. There were a lot of nights where I didn’t want to go take photos so I wouldn’t leave my room, and other nights where I went to shows only to be shouted at and made to feel like I was the person no one wanted to have around. The prior year, I overcame a lot of my shyness when I started to photograph bands. You have to be social and friendly when you do this job because it’s essentially about getting people to want to hire you to take photos. I was forcing myself to talk to bands, promoters, people at magazines and it was working even though I thought I was awkward and always saying the wrong thing. The issue I was having was as I found all this new confidence, I began to make more friends and meet new people, but I was naive and always overly trusting. When people turn on you, they turn on you fast.

My social anxiety has always been there but has usually manifested itself in shyness and generally being quiet when I met people. I grew up in a family where I am the odd one out; you don’t get a lot of Pakistani daughters who decide punk is their passion. Also it never goes down well when you go to school in a predominantly South Asian neighbourhood and NO ONE likes anything you do. I felt I was a disappointment to my family and while it took me almost 30 years to get my head around the fact that I am not, it made me always question myself and act shy around new people. I also come from a family that has always been taught to swallow their emotions and never discuss them with anyone, which I did for so long but am terrible at. The more I hide things from people the worse my anxiety is, and it took me a long time to realise this because it’s so programmed into me. I’m almost 30 and am still trying to master being able to communicate how I feel to people around me; when I come across an emotion I can’t process I freak out. Safe to say, back in 2011 I was holding a lot in and it wasn’t doing me any good.

When my social anxiety took a turn for the worst, I was being told I was ruining everything I’d built for myself because I couldn’t hold myself together anymore. I was being told I was weird, crazy and a let down to people around me. No one hated themselves more than I did back then, and as a photographer my work was suffering a lot. At this point I wasn’t going to punk shows, I want to say I was just photographing big venues and rock bands, whatever it was it wasn’t really music I liked or connected to. After that night in the toilet in the Forum I knew I had to make a change. So I did two things: 1) I cut out everyone in my life that ever made me feel bad when having an anxiety attack and 2) I bought a ticket to Chicago for three months, which included a trip to FEST.

I understand that this could be seen as a rather extravagant way to deal with your anxiety issues but I think it was a necessary one for me at the time. I had to get away from people in my life, very good friends of mine I thought, who were also the people feeding my anxiety and making it worse. By the time of my trip I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t a fuck up, I wasn’t weird and that people didn’t hate me. I thought if I went to a new city where I didn’t know anyone and made friends it would prove all the negativity in my head wrong. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done but the punk scene was what I needed.

I don’t know what to say about FEST. I travel on my own a lot, but usually get picked up by family on the other end of a long flight. So to go to Orlando and travel down with friends I didn’t know so well, stay with other friends I just met that year and then work with people I’d only met once before was daunting to say the least. But what I experienced in Gainesville was this super relaxed, all inclusive, everyone is happy vibe where I started to relax. The whole atmosphere at punk shows is sort of unique, because although you do get very cliquey parts of every scene, the majority of people are so nice to anyone that is new, and the more I began to interact with people like that the happier I started to be. At FEST I was okay on my own, I didn’t talk to everyone I met and I wasn’t as outgoing as I have been the last two years but that first FEST when I was stood on the stage on my own taking photos of two of my favourite bands (Ted Leo and then Against Me!) was the first time in a long time that I’d felt okay. I went back to Chicago and I spent the next three months there going to shows on my own, forcing myself to talk to people at those shows, forcing myself to arrange interviews so I could meet new people and talk to new bands and ultimately making friends. I’ve gone back once or twice a year ever since because I feel like it’s my sanctuary, and I’m moving there next year.

By forcing myself to do things that scared the shit out of a very broken me helped to actually heal me. By the time I went back home I knew what I had to do with my photography career to make myself happy. I stopped shooting all of the big shows and any band I didn’t like, I started to shoot smaller, DIY shows and concentrate everything on the London punk scene and I’ve made fantastic friends through that. I also began to open up about my anxiety more because although I am no longer at rock bottom, it hasn’t gone away. The difference now is I know when I talk about it to people around me, they do not think I am weird or call me crazy. If I have a panic attack in public, people do not shame me for it. I recently had an anxiety attack at a friend’s house in Chicago. We’d gone to a house show and gotten pizza and during the pizza I knew I wasn’t feeling great but we were going to a house party and were playing Wineball because I’d specifically asked to play whilst I was there. Within two rounds of that game, I knew my anxiety couldn’t handle a bag of wine thrown at my face! So I sat it out with some friends who were not participating and explained a little about what was happening and they included me in on the videos they were watching on YouTube, we had a nice chat and then after a while one asked if I’d like a lift back to the apartment I was staying in. This is a stark contrast to when I was in the toilets at the Forum after being told I was crazy because I asked for help.

The other thing that helped me was punk music. People in punk tend to be a whole lot more open about their issues in song than other genres of music I’d been involved in. I wasn’t taking very good photos around the time things were bad and when you start doing badly at the thing you love it just adds to everything. At FEST 10 I started to take photos I liked again, but it took me at least a year after that (probably the start of 2013) when I began to take photos I was really proud of again. There was a show in a tiny venue in Kingston called The Fighting Cocks where Koji and Into It. Over It. played. This was just before I went to Chicago and I remember it all well, because it was the night I decided to cut the shit out of my life. They both played sets that were uplifting and kind of good for the soul, at least that’s how I felt at the time (this was a week after the Forum Restroom Breakdown). I left that show knowing I needed a change and then I made it. Screw the consequences, my mental health came first. I’ll repeat this because it’s very important: my mental health comes first. Thinking this is not selfish, it is an act of self-love. I only take photos of bands I am passionate about now, and I am lucky enough where I work for places that actively encourage new music and try and approach things differently. I’m not cut out for the cutthroat world of the music industry but I am always happy and feel welcome in any punk scene I’m in. I’m not being forced to compete against people, I’m being included in a community that loves what they do. That’s important to me; it keeps me from feeling so alone.

There’s one other band/photography moment I want to mention. The Wonder Years have three albums that deal with anxiety fantastically (The Upsides, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing and The Greatest Generation) and have really helped me deal with my own issues. Dan Campbell writes about his own issues in a way that everyone can relate to, and the first time I saw The Wonder Years live I’d had abuse shouted at me all day by someone I was working with who then took my photo pass away and proceeded to find me at the show to shout at me again. I lost them in the crowd but that show stands out in my head because it was the first one in a while where that didn’t leave me having an anxiety attack. Fast forward three years and I’m taking photos at Reading Festival in the UK and The Wonder Years are playing the Lock Up stage. I’ve got my mojo back for photos and I’m having a good time and the band play “Local Man Ruins Everything” which has the line “It’s not about forcing happiness, it’s about not letting sadness win” which is something I still say to myself all the time. I have a picture of Dan just staring at me and laughing because I was singing along far too loud in the photo pit, but that song and those albums sum up so much about dealing with this and learning to live with it. I couldn’t NOT sing along, but the difference here was I’m happy, comfortable and doing something like that and having someone see isn’t scary to me anymore.

Working on your social anxiety is an ongoing process; there is no quick fix and not everything works for everyone. I learnt to deal better with mine by cutting out the bad vibes in my life and forcing myself into situations that scared me. If you meet me I will talk to you but when I’m uncomfortable talking to a person, my anxiety comes out as me coming across overly excited or a little manic and always so awkward. I still get nervous when I’m in a room on my own, or when I have to go talk to new people but compared to locking myself in a toilet stall the nerves are a vast improvement. It’s hard to see what works best for you, but opening up to people is always a good place to start.

What I did learn was that no one who cares about you truly will ever use your anxiety issues against you. Sometimes when people are especially close to you and doing this it’s hard to be able to see objectively that they are in the wrong and it’s not you that’s the problem. To echo what everyone is saying in this series, you are not alone. There is no quick fix to anxiety of any kind as I’ve said already, but it is not something you should ever be made to feel ashamed of. Talk to the people around you who you trust, sink yourself into music that connects with how you feel (seriously, it’s really cathartic) and know that it does get better.