(Content note for anxiety and depression issues).
“What are you anxious about?” It’s a well intentioned question but for someone with chronic anxiety it’s also one of the most perplexing to answer.
The answer is “nothing and everything.” If someone with chronic anxiety has the courage to tell you they’re struggling right now, “nothing and everything,” is exactly the right answer.
For many of us suffering chronic anxiety, the cause is not usually worry over a job interview, being late for a meeting, or travel or any other happenstance. I’m happy to be proved wrong but I think those are situational stressors, debilitating in a different way.
For some of us crippling attacks come on gradually, for me it’s triggered by absorbing more than enough angst for the entire population of the planet, over whether something is my fault.
Anxiety had me suddenly by the throat over the weekend while driving my car up one of Sydney’s arterial roads to collect one of the boys. I’d had a stupid fight with someone I love and I was feeling shame. I had acted badly, I was hurt, it was my fault, I was a bad person. Harsh words were exchanged. My world came crashing down. Tears streamed down my face, my stomach started to double over and cramp. Ladies and Gentlemen please pull over and unfasten your seat belt for the sobs because there they were.
My body shook, I gagged and sobbed, until finally I could feel the blessed relief of zone-out kicking in. Zone-out allows me to disconnect and numb from pain and angst I’m feeling at such times; psychologists call it disassociation and it’s a deeply embedded management strategy I learned as a child.
Sounds good, doesn’t it, but like any mind numbing activity zone-out is unhelpful in the long term. It makes for a zombie state, numb to everything. It’s the state you see in the eyes of traumatised children in war zone photos.
After some heavy-duty therapy I’ve learned amongst other things, to recognise the zone-out phenomenon and as I felt it kicking in that night, I tried instead to feel, I mean really feel the pain I was in, so I could own that sucker. So there we were, my agony, shame and I staring each other down in a dark, leafy North Shore street.
As part of the therapy journey, mindfulness is used to help people recognise and allow painful negative emotions, to see them as a part of our psyche yet not let them own and control our thoughts. One of the techniques is to picture yourself as a sky or a river and imagine your thoughts are leaves or clouds passing by, “this too will pass.” Instead of zoning out it allows us to observe what’s going on with compassionate curiosity when the meltdowns come.
On this particular night though, no summer sky or babbling brook for me, my sky was black, full of thunder, lightning and hail. Those damn clouds weren’t going anywhere. The deep sense of failure followed, the sense of what a train smash I am, questions of how can I have come this far in life yet be so goddamn broken? The shit-storm in my mind is so deafening when this happens, I struggle to hear the still small voice of reason. I’m in fight or flight, I’m terrified, I just want it all to go away. I’m in utter amygdala hijack, I cannot reason with myself.
I sit, wallowing in my own shame and pain, beating myself up and hating myself. I start to wonder who to call, who will understand. No, I will deal with this myself, I will beat this. The sobs get louder, and then, nothing. Just nothing. Silence.
It has passed. I have conquered the beast.
The storm has passed and I’m spent. Wearily, slowly I put my seat belt back on, wipe the snot and dribble off my face and neck and drive on.
I could go on to justify why I feel such deep rooted pain, but all I can really bring myself to say is that I have been a victim of abuse, deeply shamed, and let down many years ago by people I needed to trust. Sharing this story is painful because it forces me to confront and accept my own vulnerabilities in a world that lauds entrepreneurs, exits and the Kardashians amongst the heroes of life.
I’m slowly starting to accept my own humanity and embrace the reality that this is simply who I am. There will be some who read this and judge, some who share their own stories.
I’ve written this little story because I needed and wanted to, and I hope it will help you if you or others close to you feel the same. Whenever I write about anxiety, sadness, depression, into my inbox or Facebook PM will pop a series of “oh me TOO” whispered messages. If we start a conversation, which otherwise wouldn’t have happened, I reckon that’s a good thing, don’t you?
The journey to forgiving ourselves and healing long-held, deep rooted pain and coping habits is a long, slow painful trek and it’s exhausting. So for those of us on it, know this:
If you’re suffering from anxiety or depression, please go to your doctor for professional help. I can’t tell you how much it supports and helps us as we journey through this fragile life.
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Lifeline 13 11 14