“Just, I mean—you know, get over it,” was the common response across the board. I’d been hearing that since I was four.
Jennifer Neal

7 Apr 2020 - 9:41 AM  UPDATED 18 Aug 2021 - 3:50 PM

My anxiety has a mind of its own—literally. It’s like a brain inside of my brain with overriding features that shut down all logical thought processes and function. I can’t eat, sleep, or complete simple tasks. My brain sends a message to the rest of my body that makes it short-circuit and shut down, and I re-emerge on the other side as a shell of my more well-known, energised self. My friends didn’t understand. My partners didn’t either. My family—least of all. 

“Just, I mean—you know, get over it,” was the common response across the board. “You got things to do.” 

I’d been hearing that since I was four. 

My first therapist was kind. She didn’t say I was crazy, and when I broke down crying in her office because it was the first real time I didn’t feel like I was losing my mind after talking about my anxiety, I laughed—because being listened to seemed just as absurd as it was important, and yet we aren’t really taught this basic skill. Can it really be that simple? 

“I just feel so stupid. I shouldn’t feel this way,” I said. 

“Why shouldn’t you?”

“There are just so many people who have it worse.” 

When pure anxiety isn’t enough, I could always count on myself...to guilt trip...myself.

 I blamed myself for pain that I had not caused, and I punished myself because it was the only power I had in how any of it played out. 

She was a cognitive behavioural therapist, and she focused on correcting my internal monologue of self-criticism. It wasn’t easy. One of the most significant things I learned from CBT, was that I had become hard-wired for just that. When others didn’t take responsibility for the hurt they caused, I held myself accountable. I blamed myself for pain that I had not caused, and I punished myself because it was the only power I had in how any of it played out. I find that difficult to admit—even now. 

When you have a life that’s considered respectable, you learn to just ignore everything else that’s difficult. And if my anxiety hadn’t pushed me through the door of her practice on the heels of a fight that deprived me of sleep for seven days straight, I might’ve continued to believe that I was fine—even as I sat at my desk at work drooling from fatigue. In therapy, I learned that there are two very different lives: what we project to the world, and what’s really going on. In her office, I was allowed to let the two exist simultaneously.

I began to see light at the other end of a dark tunnel obscured by a part of me that felt broken. It took me to a place where I was allowed to feel better about myself—because it turned out, I needed to give myself permission to do even that. And though my self-esteem improved, and the panic attacks became more sporadic, they still came. When I moved across the world I digressed into old patterns re-emerged—far away from the comforts of her Melbourne office. And when I went on extended sick leave from work, I knew it was time to go back.

After an extensive search, I stumbled upon a psychoanalyst thinking, “Sure! This will be exactly the same.” 

This time I really was wrong. 

When pure anxiety isn’t enough, I could always count on myself...to guilt trip...myself.

If CBT treated my symptoms, then psychoanalysis treats the internal bleeding underneath. My new therapist is not concerned with petty arguments about race and politics. She prods the deep-seated reasons as to why I needed to be right with people who were clearly wrong to begin with. When did I first feel the need to feel right about anything? Did I grow up in a house where my voice mattered because it was the loudest, or the softest? If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody’s around to fight with it, will I still rise to the occasion because I have something to prove?

When I left her office the first time, I felt like I asked a muscle I’d never used to lift a hundred kilos. I reasoned in my mind that therapy wasn’t supposed to make me feel this way. It wasn’t supposed to make me sad or angry (spoiler alert—it’s supposed to do exactly that). I told myself that she wasn’t the right fit. But that was only my instinct to feel comfortable, pushing back against the much greater need to grow. So I asked her:

“How am I supposed to do this? It feels like I’m doing this wrong—am I?”

She said that it wasn’t for her to validate me. She wants me to learn how to validate myself.

It seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. I had been going to therapy for validation, and in doing so—I came to depend on the person sitting across from me for that purpose, and I had denied myself the opportunity to be a stronger support system for myself. It was an unnerving moment—the first of many yet to come, because I kept going back. I still do. 

I walk away from our sessions re-assessing an entire lifetime of habits, good and bad, as an extension of my childhood, my family, and my inner monologue, only to realise that I still have so much to learn about myself. Thankfully, one of those things is no longer whether or not I’m “enough.” Because of the support I’ve received, I know that I am, in fact, so much more.

Jennifer Neal is a freelance writer. 

The Truth About Anxiety with Celia Pacquola premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 3 October on SBS and SBS On Demand, as part of the Australia Uncovered strand of documentaries. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September.

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