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All Shook Up: Living With Anxiety

I was 23 years old, sorting through bills that I was struggling to pay, whilst turning my mind to the then pointlessness of my life more frequently than I should have. I turned the television off, engaged in my night time ablutions and climbed into bed. As per usual, my mind wandered away from pre-sleep delusion and delved into the mist of my subconscious to find the dark and chaotic thoughts that lay dormant there.

Unlike most nights, my mind didn’t tire of the irrationality of what was rightfully kept hidden for the better part of the day – this time it embraced it. I remember chasing half-formed fears and assumptions around my head before turning my mind to the speed of my heart beat, and the irregularity of it’s drumming. Heart palpitations were not unfamiliar to me, but on this particular occasion, I became fixated and increasingly concerned by my struggling cardio-vascular system.

Before I knew it, I was so short of breath that I had thrown myself out of bed in shock, grabbing at my chest as I became convinced of my impending death. My muscles stiffened and the shower I’d had before bed was rendered pointless as my body poured out sweat. Gasping short breaths, I staggered to the toilet where I dry-reached over the bowl for some time before realising that there was no reprieve for the churning in my stomach.

Tears streamed down my face as I dragged myself to my couch. “This is it” I thought, “I am going to die alone in a state of confusion and terror..looking this bad.” I made what I thought was my final hustle to my bedroom, grabbed my phone and rosary beads (although my temperamental Catholic faith was of little comfort to me as a pondered the timing of my grizzly end) and searched frantically through my phone for someone to call.

Not wanting to upset my family any sooner than they needed to be, I considered friends who may appreciate the final words of wisdom I was about to impart on the earth (I’m sure I would have thought of something gloriously life-changing). Only then did it occur to me that were I able to rouse any of my friends from their slumber, the likelihood of them being anything other than dazed and frustrated was slim.

My heart slowed down. The nausea mildly abated. The throbbing in my head grew silent. My muscles began to relax, as did the rate of trembling in my hands. I spent the rest of that night being controlled by my thoughts, which worked in a pattern to lull and aggrivate my fears and delusions. The sun finally rose and things began to feel less like a dream as I prepared for work that day. The first thing on my agenda was making an appointment with my GP.

That experience, my first panic attack, changed my life. It was later accompanied by a number of symptoms which are now a regular part of my everyday routine. My GP was surprisingly laissez-faire toward my story of such a close encounter with death, as she uttered a rather broad diagnosis: Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

Just like that, it were as though a switch had been flicked in my neurological design, transforming my self identification from “sane, functioning woman” to “scared, incapable girl.” I’d always been aware of my elevated level of hypertension, but assumed that my nervous disposition was normal. Hell, I’d even grown to love it. I’d noted it responsible for every success in my life up until that very point. This development, however, was a little hard to swallow.

As I perused the material my doctor had printed for me, and listened with confused disinterest to the treatment options available, I began to recall the warning signs that I’d failed to recognise (or chosen to ignore).

For sometime my sleeping pattern had been erratic (if the term ‘sleep’ could even be used to describe the dozing sensation I experienced as I tossed and turned). I began the tiresome habit of attaching a disproportionate amount of urgency to everything I did. I was irrationally irritated by even the smallest of nuisances. I began smoking. I started drinking alcohol as much and as frequently as my body would sustain. I engaged in the use of recreational drugs more than I care to note. Despite my attempts at relaxation, I was in a perpetual state of unrest.

None of the above characteristics were particularly pleasant for me, but I would have happily accepted them as my fate than find myself staring down the barrel of insanity as I believed I was in my doctor’s office that day. Unknown to me at that point was the fact that my life could be that much more enjoyable than it had been. I had no option but to force it to evolve beyond the tunnel it had become.

I spent the next few days staring at the ceiling from my bed, feeling completely flattened by a sense of dread and fear. I mused over the finest details of the most irrelevant things. I reluctantly studied the information my doctor had provided to me and, despite my adamant denial of her conclusion, began assessing my choices.

1) Medication. 2) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. 3) Ignorance and continued denial. The latter option seemed easy, but realistically ineffective on a long-term basis. The first option seemed fairly straight-forward as well, but the mere thought of it made me uncomfortable and dizzy. I figured I owed it to myself to try every alternative before considering the selection of (prescribed) drugs at my disposal. It looked like CBT was the winner.

My first counselling session seemed futile by the time it came around. I was back at work and whilst still uneasy about the panic attacks, my fragility was tolerable, so I almost cancelled the appointment. Rather than being automatically cured of my tension, I was devestated to walk out feeling no different to when I walked in.

We’d discussed my family, my childhood, my friends, my lifestyle, my employment, what I’d been recently experiencing and even the perfume I was wearing. Verbalising what I already knew seemed like an embarrassing waste of time. How wrong I was.

As the weeks progressed and the counselling sessions continued, my knowledge and acceptance of my condition grew. My attitude was forced into offering a hand of help and patience to my struggling mind. I’ll be honest, on several occasions I left my therapist’s office in a march of defiance and frustration, cursing her with sentiments that would cause a sailor to blush. The opening lines of every hour long verbal masturbation felt excruciating, but grew easier with time (the fact that the treatment was heavily subsidised by the Government also assisted me to relax).

Slowly I realised that there was no easy fix. Infact, there was no solution at all. Anxiety was my little baby. Were I to even attempt to remove her, the good things about myself would also disappear. There was no way to eradicate this pest from my life. I had no other option – I had to love my anxiety and learn the best way to manage it.

Volunteer model. Photography by Ally Oliver-Perham

Volunteer model. Photography by Ally Oliver-Perham

Diet, exercise, muscle relaxation and breathing techniques, focus on thought patterns, sleep pattern development and communication were all key elements in managing my anxiety. By working hard at manipulating the way my mind naturally wanted to destroy everything in sight, I was able to avoid the use of stronger medicinal means.

Admitting the problem wasn’t voluntary for me, and I wish I’d caught anxiety hanging out in the pink mush of my cerebral cortex earlier. Sometimes I wish that I’d been able to avoid self medicating with drugs, alcohol and other risk-taking behaviour..but those times were also excellent fun, so I’ll let anxiety win that argument. It’s taken me over a year to shake the shame of my affliction. Now I wear it without loss of dignity (the knowledge that up to 3-8% of the population are also friends with anxiety helps in this regard).

Usually when I experience heartburn, I am convinced that I have gone into cardiac arrest. Often enough, when my phone rings, I prepare myself for devastating news. Every night when I go to bed, my brain kicks into overdrive and attempts to collapse over thoughts of disaster. Sometimes the very notion of performing mundane tasks, such as having a shower or collecting my mail, sends me spiraling into a panic attack.

Everyday I live with anxiety. And I’m definitely at ease with that.

If you’re feeling like stressed or anxious, you should think about talking it over with a professional. You don’t need to suffer with anxiety alone.

Click here for a list of Support Services.