A thank you letter to Zayn

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When I got Zayn’s autobiography in the mail on Tuesday, to be honest, I tore through the whole thing in 3 minutes just to devour all the new pictures. But when I finally took the time to really sit down with the book, the depth of the contents took me by surprise. I’ve read celebrity books before. I was expecting another One Direction “This Is Us”-type experience, with writing that was safe for a tween and fascinating tidbits like favorite colors. I should’ve had more faith in Zayn.

Embarking on this journey of self-exploration and -expression with Zayn since he left One Direction has truly been a joy. Although I, like many, felt anger and hurt at first when his departure from the band was announced in March of 2015, I’ve come to understand that he did what was best for him, and I’m so thankful to be able to continue following him as a solo artist. This autobiography reconfirms a lot of what I believed to be true—like he needed a break from the spotlight but didn’t intend to live “as a normal 22-year-old” forever—but what I really want to highlight is his chapter on anxiety.

Chapter 7 of his 8-chapter book is titled ‘Now I’m on the Edge’. The quote on the chapter title page reads, “I’m no stranger to anxiety… A lot of performers suffer from it in one shape or form, whether they’re in a band, are an actor, an athlete, whatever.” But few performers seem to actually open up and talk about it. It’s no secret that there’s still stigma around mental health issues, and to have someone with a platform of Zayn’s size take the time to dedicate an entire chapter of his first solo autobiography to his struggles with anxiety means so much to me, as someone’s who’s also no stranger to it.

When he canceled his performance last minute at the Capital Summertime Ball back in June, he explained on Twitter that it was due to anxiety, and my heart immediately went out to him. I’ve always kind of suspected he struggled with anxiety on some level, having seen him fade to the background in countless One Direction interviews and concerts and let his more outgoing band mates do most of the talking, but actually reading that a panic attack had stopped him from taking the stage—it was something I could relate to all too well. No, panic attacks have never held me back from performing for 80,000 people, but they’ve kept me from a lot of fun things in my life, and there’s something indescribably horrible about succumbing to your own mind that way.

“On the morning of [the show], an anxiety attack hit me like a fucking freight train,” Zayn writes. “I felt sick. I couldn’t breathe.”

How many times have I experienced something so similar? That paralyzing fear, coupled with misplaced adrenaline; a toxic combination that leaves you immobilized and hopeless. When you are able to push past it, to defeat it, the sense of accomplishment is unparalleled—”…I managed to break through that wall, or whatever it was, and I did it… it was like a huge victory for me: I hadn’t let me anxiety get the better of me; I’d done it,” Zayn says of his iHeart Radio Music Awards performance, when he was also suffering pre-show panic—but that doesn’t always happen.

By having someone like Zayn open up in this way, on such a public stage, means two things. One, it means people who don’t have anxiety may have a chance to better understand it and even sympathize with it. You can call out of work for the flu, but it’s still hard to be taken seriously if you call out on account of a rapidly beating heart, out-of-control thoughts, and a distinct feeling that you’re dying with no physical evidence of it. Had Zayn told the public he’d been too ill to perform, it would’ve been easy, but he did the difficult thing and told the truth. “Anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of; it affects millions of people everyday,” he says. “I know I have fans out there who have been through this kind of thing, too, and I wanted to be honest for their sake.”

The second (and more important, in my opinion) thing, is that people who do have anxiety will know that they are not alone. Someone like Zayn, who outwardly appears to have it all—a family, a girlfriend, a career, success—fights their same battle everyday. And for that, I just want to say thank you, Zayn. When you worried that people would be thinking, “Who the fuck does that Zayn Malik think he is?” I want you to know that I think you are fucking brave.

‘Zayn’ is available now in the US and the UK.

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