I have an anxiety disorder. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, I am confident, self-assured, people often say I appear “comfortable in my own skin”.
Fifteen years after being diagnosed with anxiety, I am those things. I now hold down a job, I am parent to a small person, I cook dinner every night and take out the garbage, I do the grocery shopping on the weekends and I like gardening in the sunshine. I seem; to the outsider, quite ‘normal’.
When my doctor first suggested anxiety, I was horrified. As I was obviously dying of some terrible fatal illness that was stopping me from being able to function as an adult, I didn’t believe it was anxiety. I didn’t feel anxious about anything. But I was unable to get out of bed or even eat much food, which if you know me, is perplexing as I am a devotee of consuming delicious things. I didn’t feel anxious, I wasn’t triggered by anything, there was nothing I found overtly stressful in my life.
There were concoctions of rose water and orange blossom consumed to sooth me, prayers over my bed and old Arabic rituals involving sleeping with pieces of bread under my pillow
I moved back home to my parents’ house hoping their support would get me on my feet but I felt even worse. My Lebanese migrant parents were convinced I had an undiscovered terminal illness. I would hear my mother quietly sobbing at night, and my dad would peer into my room worriedly, offering to make me a cup of tea, to do anything to get me back to being his bright and bubbly daughter. There were concoctions of rose water and orange blossom consumed to soothe me, prayers over my bed and old Arabic rituals involving sleeping with pieces of bread under my pillow. We didn’t believe in any of it - the rituals or prayer- but just in case it somehow helped, my parents were willing to try it as a cure.
From a medical perspective I had the gamut of tests. Scans. X-rays. Blood tests. I saw neurologists and physicians. Nothing new showed up.
When I finally accepted that maybe I had anxiety it was out of pure desperation and exhaustion. I started taking a type of antidepressant, which also treated anxiety, prescribed by my GP. I was willing to take or do anything to get some semblance of my life back, I just wanted the uncomfortable feelings gone. I didn’t think they would help in the slightest because of course, I believed my symptoms had nothing to do with anxiety.
Within a month, I had stopped casually contemplating suicide to escape how I was feeling. Within three months I had accepted, begrudgingly, that maybe the medication was helping and I started seeing a psychiatrist. My first session involved a lot of long uncomfortable silences as I did not think there was much to discuss. I eventually learned to trust her, and myself, and with time I felt like I could not stop talking.
Every time I tried to do anything I would have some sort of uncomfortable attack, I would faint or fall or shake uncontrollably
She asked me about my symptoms, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, extreme fatigue and exhaustion. Every time I tried to do anything I would have some sort of uncomfortable attack, I would faint or fall or shake uncontrollably. Even thinking about my symptoms would make me sick. I only felt comfortable when I was lying alone, very still. I learned this was because it was the only time I was completely in control.
I had to learn everything over. How to breathe (with anxiety), how to walk (with anxiety), how to interact with other people and everything else in my life, with anxiety. For a few years I was essentially like a baby. I would regress quickly. I would slip sometimes, find myself unable to breathe, sobbing to my partner that I felt 'not ok’, begging to find a way to make it stop. When I got my first job working in a department store after my diagnosis, it was all I could handle. I had gone from being a young working professional for a national NGO to being exhausted and exhilarated at selling someone a TV and stereo package.
I learned to switch between my work self and my home self. My home self was somewhat difficult to be around, I did not know how to handle the stimulus of sharing my life with someone, so the constant mental noise and I would crash. I would become insecure and my anxiety would flood back and wash over me. I would go weeks functioning normally then crash and retreat to my room. I needed quiet, I needed space.
It took leaving my partner, starting over, re-establishing my own sense of self to rebuild
It was a long process. Over five years. It took leaving my partner, starting over, and re-establishing my own sense of self to rebuild. It took years of cognitive behaviour therapy; acceptance and commitment therapy; talk therapy; switching medication and changing doses; examining all my relationships; and a heap of support from friends and family. It took understanding that if I didn’t show up to things, or if I did not feel up to making plans, that I still loved them. And they continued asking me, even if they knew I would not make it.
Ten years later, I am quite possibly a fully functional adult. I survived pregnancy, which I was terrified would bring about post-natal depression, and luckily, it didn’t. Or maybe it did. Those first sleepless few months were difficult and exhausting, but I had learned the skills to deal with all my feelings and sensations.
I am happy. I still take medication. I still have the occasional bad evening every year or so, where I feel overloaded and over stimulated and I cannot quite breathe right. I take a mild sedative prescribed by my doctor and I go to bed. I know that it is just anxiety, and that it will pass. I know that it is normal to occasionally feel overwhelmed and I know that I will wake up tomorrow and it will be ok.
If this story raises issues for you, contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.
Two-part documentary series How ‘Mad’ Are You? airs over two weeks, starting Thursday 11 October at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.