In 2011, I spent the entire year with a headache. Tired of the pain, I went to our family medical clinic sure I would be diagnosed with a brain tumour. I came away with a prescription for antibiotics and a general feeling of malaise.
Unsatisfied, I went home and Googled cancer and brain tumours and depression, because they were the only words I knew to describe what was going on beneath my skin and in my wired mind. My Google Machine would understand me in ways the doctor didn’t, and wouldn’t make me feel ashamed for my obsessive thoughts about illness and death.
It turned out the brain tumour was all in my head.
When I was eventually diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder, I imagined my diagnosis would ring out clear like a bell. I watched the GP’s mouth move, and I heard the words, but I had prepared my mind for CAT scans and chemotherapy and surgery. What exactly does she mean, anxiety? How could my thoughts give me a headache?
The diagnosis didn’t ring clear for me because I hadn’t officially met anxiety yet. When I did, it was like meeting my shadow, or an evil twin, for the first time; it was dark and strangely familiar, so familiar I’d never looked directly at it before. When I did, it articulated all that I ever thought was wrong with me as a person. Being permanently, sometimes debilitatingly worried, was my normal. Having a sore stomach at swimming lessons: refusing to do show and tell: avoiding oral presentations: skipping class and valuable teaching because of it: avoiding parties and social events: panicking in my year 12 English exam, even though I had aced the subject till that moment. And then the mountain of guilt that comes with living a life half lived. A lifetime of worries concertinaed into one neat little screwed up package of Not Living.
When the anxiety got on top of me as it did in 2011, I struggled to explain to my husband exactly how I was feeling, because the things I thought about hadn’t happened yet. How can you rationalise irrational fears and concerns? My worries were vivid imaginings, catastrophic dreams that happened when my eyes were open. My mind was so full of these thoughts that even folding a basket of washing or doing some housework seemed overwhelming. All this while trying to raise three kids under five.
“But it’s just housework,” or “You’re doing a great job,” my husband would offer, trying to soothe me, not knowing that my tears weren’t over the housework or the kids. It was the feeling that I couldn’t stop the thought trains that ran through my head. This was the point when my worries began to strangle our lives.
I wasn’t living, I was trying not to die.
Anxiety is something I’ve learned to manage through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and meditation. Two years on, I can’t say I’m free of it permanently. Armed with these tools and knowledge of the condition, I’m better able to manage my worries, talking myself around irrational thoughts and coaching myself through fearful situations.
I refuse to let anxiety get the better of me.
This is what anxiety looks like.
In Australia, approximately 14 per cent of the population experiences anxiety, which makes it even more common than depression.
Beyond Blue are currently running a campaign to educate the community about anxiety and to give us the tools to untangle its symptoms. You need to know anxiety to be free from it.
If any of this story sounds familiar to you, please visit Beyond Blue to get to know your anxiety and learn how to free yourself from it.