Anxiety: a memoir by someone who had no idea what it was three months ago
I’ve never been an anxious person. In fact, I always loved public speaking, performing in school musicals, the pressure of goal attack. I thrived on pushing my limits and being the centre of attention. I liked to think it’s a mixture of how I am wired and how I was raised. My parents made me believe I could do and be anything I wanted. So, if it was soccer that tickled my fancy, down we’d march to the local team. How about guitar? Sure, let’s enrol in a term of lessons to see how I go.
So, it’s little wonder that when friends would tell me of their experiences with anxiety, panic attacks and depression, I’d empathetically nod along, remark how difficult it must be, and encourage them to keep speaking up about how they’re feeling. I would wonder whether they’d tried taking really deep breaths. Surely, they had some control, I’d think. I knew it was tough, but I felt like people who suffered from it could take back their power. They weren’t really at the mercy of their mind, were they? “I’ve read how helpful it is to go for walks and meditate,” I’d suggest, thinking I was being helpful. But really, I had no fucking idea what I was talking about. I was interested. But I didn’t understand. And after all, I didn’t have to. That was… until I finally ‘got’ it.
It’s been a rough few years, to say the least, but I managed to get through it without a panic attack, or anxiety of any sort for that matter. Rather, just a bucket loads of tears and the fragments of a heart painstakingly stitched together again. But that all changed one fine day almost two years to the day my fiancé walked out.
If there was a barometer to indicate the intensity of arguments between me and my ex, the pointing finger would be fixed on the “extreme” end for this particular round. It was epic. We were rapidly spitting venomous words at one another, abiding by the unspoken agreement the winner was whoever cracked their opponent first, when he became fed up and hung up on me. That’s when I felt it. The tightness of the chest. The racing heart. The tingling limbs. The dizziness. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe. I’d never experienced it, but I knew exactly what was happening. I was in the grips of a panic attack. It was exactly how people described. It was torture. I was completely helpless.
It had taken two long, arduous years to reach this breaking point, with the ferocious fight the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. My body was telling me it could no longer deal with the daily stress I was putting myself through. I’d been living in a state of flight or fight for the last 3.5 years, as despite most of my problems stemming from the official date of the relationship breakdown, the truth is the dynamic of our relationship had shifted from the moment I found out I was pregnant, gradually snowballing to the extent I now look back on my pregnancy as a time of great stress and anguish. So, as a result, my brain had become wired to be ready and alert for the next threat, which was always, and I mean always, lurking behind the corner, ready to pounce. I couldn’t relax, and in the off chances I did, I was always rewarded with a crippling metaphoric blow. So, I quickly learnt to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. But it was an exhausting way to live. My body was done. I no longer had the tolerance to manage the next crisis. I needed help.
That was April. It’s now July. And every day in between has been laced with anxiety of some degree. I feel it lurking just beneath the surface, ready to lunge, excited to snatch everything I love about myself and transform it into a version I don’t even recognise. Some attacks have been so severe I’ve ended up in hospital, others times it’s woken me in the middle of the night, prevented me from falling asleep entirely, greeted me when I wake in the morning and followed me around all day, sometimes it taps me on the shoulder when I’m at work, or chatting with friends, or getting on with my life, and that’s when it demands my attention. “Hey! Remember me!” it taunts, as it clutches my heart, sending it racing, my palms sweating, my belly nauseous, my legs ready to run from an imaginary predator as I innocently sit on the couch at night watching TV with my son. I can be in the middle of a task and I have to literally stop and take a huge, deep breath as it washes over me.
It whispers awful things in my ear. It tells me I’m worthless. I’m stupid. I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m useless. I’m not good enough. It demands I give up. My dreams are laughable. It tells me not to write, because no one cares what I have to say anyway. It loves to keep me small, because when I’m feeling insignificant, it draws its most power.
The adrenaline-fuelled highs give me the energy to outrun a tiger, but the crashing lows entirely wipe me out. The lingering after effects of the cortisol peak are debilitating. I never knew anxiety hangovers were a thing. I’m physically sick. My body aches. I think i’m coming down with the flu. I’m nauseous. My skin turns dull. I either eat everything in sight or can’t stomach a thing. I’m so fatigued I sleep 12 hours overnight and then I’m so exhausted by 3pm, I have to put myself back to bed. Or I don’t sleep at all – insomnia provides the perfect platform for every anxious thought to take centre stage as I toss and turn, deliriously begging for some rest.
Of course, this is no way to live, so, desperate for a reprieve, I decided to outsource. I couldn’t do this on my own anymore. I resumed life coaching with my soul sister Moni Barry, who taught me to meditate twice a day and helped me set goals in place to create the life I want to lead, my doctor referred me to a psychologist, I took control of the physical repercussions of anxiety by visiting a naturopath and a nutritionist, and resumed exercising in the form of high-intensity boxing circuits (to burn up that excess cortisol floating around my body with nowhere to go) and yoga to calm my mind. I underestimated the power of exercise. I leave every session feeling empowered and strong, both physically and mentally.
I’m also keeping away from the people and situations that trigger me, surrounding myself with those who love and support me. I say no to things I don’t have the energy for, and show up as the best version of me to the ones that capture my heart. I’ve been able to manage situations that just a couple of months ago would’ve set my anxiety soaring and crumpled me in a heap as a result. Taking such an active role in my recovery has shifted my outlook from feeling disempowered and hopeless, to empowered and powerful. Every little bit has combined to help me see it’s a bad day, not a bad life. But, it still lingers. It’s a very slow process. I take two steps forward, and another giant leap back, and it’ll probably be like that for a while yet.
Beyond Blue reckons one in seven Australians are currently experiencing an anxiety-related condition. That’s equivalent to 2.71 million people nation wide. While females are more likely than males to experience anxiety and depression. That’s a hell of a lot of us out there waking up to a battle of the mind every single day. I never thought I’d be a statistic. But, I hope that by sharing my experience, my words can provide solace for anyone else out there who finds it difficult to explain exactly what it’s like to people who don’t quite get it, just how I didn’t once upon a time either. Perhaps it’s been a lifelong struggle. Maybe it’s crept up on you too. Regardless, there are people to help you. I refuse to live at the mercy of my mind, and I take steps every day to claw that power back, and so can you.
So when you see my photos on Instagram, laughing with friends! Wearing nice clothes! My hair effortlessly styled! Jumping in the pool! On holidays! Remember, you never, ever know what’s going on behind those tiny boxes. They tell you nothing about how that person slept that night, the battles they face daily just to get out of bed, or the sadness behind the smile, as an unseen force snatches their personality, their confidence, their enthusiasm for life, and leaves behind a shell of the person they once were, before anxiety took hold, and completely sucked them dry, forcing them to literally stop and learn to piece their life back together again, one baby step at a time.