A moment that changed me: I hugged a crying girl in a playground – and overcame my paralyzing anxiety | Children

I was terribly shy as a child; almost mute at school and even university. I couldn’t bear to be noticed and if I spoke people would notice me, so I spoke as little as possible. I learned to pretend to be less shy as I grew older but, even in my 30s, I was still horribly self-conscious. I’d often desperately want to say or do something but if that action would cause people to realize I existed, I would feel almost paralyzed with anxiety, physically unable to speak or move.

It was a hot summer’s day about four years ago. I was with my partner and our toddler in a huge playground, a fantastic playground, the biggest we’d ever seen; there was even a miniature train you could ride on. We spotted some friends who just happened to be holidaying in the same place, which was a lovely surprise. It was sunny, there were loads of people: there was a fun, almost fairground atmosphere.

I noticed the two little girls almost as soon as we entered the playground. The oldest was maybe 10 years old and was bossing around her sister (I assumed), who looked about seven. They were both splashed with what looked like green paint. They were on their own, no parents nearby. I lost sight of them but after a while they came to play near where we were. I was very aware of them behind us, of how impatient the eldest was with her sister. I was facing away from them when our friends gasped; the eldest had slapped her sister. She pulled the younger girl away from us but couldn’t go far, as her sister threw herself on the ground screaming and crying and refusing to get up. We stood in our little group and watched them. I was longing to comfort her but felt unable.

Then I thought: what am I waiting for? Why am I waiting for someone to give me permission to do what I feel is right? Why don’t we do something instead of standing around tutting disapprovingly? I went over to the little girl and held out my hand. I intended to help her up and find her parents with her, but instead she pulled me down into a tight hug and wouldn’t let me go. It sounds melodramatic to say I felt a psychic bond with her, but I did. I instantly felt her emotions flood through me; the grief and loneliness of being criticized and belittled. Huge emotions that were overwhelming for a small child. We knelt on the ground hugging tightly for what felt like a long time; at one point I tried to move away but she wouldn’t let me go. We hadn’t said a word to each other but were sobbing in each other’s arms. I felt the deepest connection I’d ever felt.

The older girl had run off, and reappeared with a man I took to be their father. She pointed at me accusingly. He was a big bloke. Tall, muscular, tattooed. It occurred to me that he would probably be angry at a stranger hugging his child and might shout at me or even hit me. The thought obviously occurred to my partner and friends too: they came over as if to protect me. “The kid was upset,” they explained to the massive bloke. None of us were physically imposing or very tall, and I’m only 5ft 2in: even the fridge is taller than I am. I decided that it didn’t matter if he did hit me. At that moment, the only thing that mattered in the world was comforting the little girl in my arms. I knew that if the man said: “We don’t want her, will you adopt her?” I would have said “Yes” without hesitation, no matter what my family felt about it.

The man wasn’t angry. He just nodded and held his arms out to his child. She calmed down, and I could feel that she wasn’t at all afraid of him. We disengaged slowly and she went to him willingly. He picked her up and she wrapped her arms around his neck. He carried her away and the sister followed them. I wondered if the older girl would be in trouble with the people, and what the mum was like. I watched them disappear into the crowd, then rushed to the public toilet to wash the green paint off my arms and cry my heart out.

That day, I learned that I can speak, and if I can’t speak, I can take action, which is often easier. I still find speaking difficult and exhausting. But now I know that if I need to, I can. I no longer need to wait for “permission” (from what? From whom?) to be granted. I can give myself permission. I would love to see the little girl again – but I wouldn’t recognize her, unless she was covered in green paint.

It was just an ordinary day at the playground but it was, and still is, four years later, the most profound moment of my life.

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