There’s something about a heavily air-conditioned subway car in the middle of August, sweat drying on the back of your neck while you’re pressed inside a mob of fellow New Yorkers, that makes the perfect setting for a panic attack.
Anxiety was rearing its ugly but not unfamiliar head. I remember standing as still as I could, terrified of making a scene but grateful that no one seemed to notice my uncontrollable shuddering. Then again, it’s New York City. Far stranger things have happened on the subway than a girl biting her tongue until it bleeds to keep herself from sobbing. No one gave me a second glance when I whispered to myself and raced out the doors as soon as they opened. And no one said anything when I lost it on the platform, wailing into the sticky, subway air.
Minutes later I was still crying on the street when a woman, about my age, tapped my arm and asked if I was okay. Instead of running away, I shook my head no.
“Do you need a hug?” She asked.
It was humid and I was sweating and she didn’t know me and I didn’t know her, but I hugged her and sobbed into her shoulder and she let me. Maybe because she was also sweaty or maybe because she just understood I needed a friend for a moment.
“Thank you,” I whimpered as we stickily pulled away from each other.
“It’s going to be okay,” she promised me as she crossed the street and I continued down the block to my apartment.
She was right. The next morning, when I returned to the same subway station, no one recognized me as the girl who had been crying uncontrollably on the platform less than 12 hours prior. Instead I was blissfully anonymous in the comfort of the crowd, like any another capable New Yorker on her way to work.
Living in a city like New York is what keeps me from burning out. It’s a fundamentally empathetic place and moments like this happen often. After all, there’s no way to live with over 8 million other humans in such a small area if everyone’s not nice to each other most of the time. And since New Yorkers have seen it all, you’re given the space to grieve, to breathe, to cry in public if you need to. But New Yorkers also know how to care for their neighbors in a moment of crisis — a lost wallet, a panic attack, a national tragedy.
No matter what happens, this city is big enough that you’re granted a fresh start to be who you are every single day. And really, there’s nothing more hopeful than that.
Feature photograph by Jewel Samad via Getty Images.