My first panic attack was when I was sixteen.
Mum asked me something like had I stayed at my boyfriends house, I think, and in a blind panic of being found out I started to hyperventilate and cry uncontrollably.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Tears felt like bricks trying to jump out of my throat. Hot flushes spurred over my chest, I got sweaty and couldn’t stand - or sit. Mum asked me to focus on breathing slowly, and eventually, I was able to sit back at the table, exhausted and a bit confused as to what just happened.
A few years later, in my twenties, I was at home at my parents house after months of feeling anxious (although I didn’t know what it was back then). I was making a snack from a selection of designer cheeses and couldn’t find the right knife. That set me off in a panic, and again, I started hyperventilating and crying.
I was leaning against the bench trying to breathe when Dad walked in. 'Help me’, I managed to stutter, breathing in three times and out once in fast successions. ‘Call someone - anyone’, I said.
He and mum got me back breathing normally, again, focussing on breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, slowly. They tucked me into a blanket on the couch while they phoned a family friend for advice. They got me to the doctor the next day.
The GP had me fill in a short questionnaire.
On a scale from 1 - 10, how frequently do you feel like ‘what is the point’, it asked. ‘Frequently’, I wrote.
‘You have anxiety and depressive symptoms’, the doctor told me.
It didn’t sound right to me. ‘I don’t feel depressed', I told her. 'Just really tired.’
I spent the next six months rotating between therapy, sleep, eating, crying and staring out the window wondering how the hell I’d ended back up in my mid twenties at my parents house. Just weeks before I was in a rock band, scaling the walls with a microphone and holding down a full time job.
What the hell had happened?
I’d been working for the last year at such a rapid state of exertion, I’d completely exhausted my adrenalin gland.
You know, the hormone you keep in reserve for fight or flight situations where you need to exert hyper levels of activity. Examples might include saving someone from a shark attack, jumping out of a burning building or perhaps surviving traumatic episodes or experiences.
The after affect of using up all your adrenalin, I learned, was a term called ‘burnout’. You’ve burnt your resources, like running out of petrol, and you have to refuel the tank.
I was miffed. Surely, a 9 - 5 job getting people in the newspaper didn’t really warrant a dramatic leave from work to sit at home and cry?
Well, that's not all that was happening.
I was working ten hours a day in a not for profit job. I’d been inhaling four coffees a day, smoking approximately up to ten a day. I’d been hitting the gym every day, sometimes twice a day, to burn off my anxious energy. I was in a rock band, and I thought I needed to look a certain way. And that way was thin. I couldn’t sit still to save myself.
And boy, did that fuck with my head. On one occasion, I became very defensive with a friend who tried to politely tell me I had an attitude problem and to reign it in.
So, I was tired, hungry, over worked, under fed and a complete pain in the ass to be around.
I did not like this new discovery.
I didn’t like not working for six months, stuck at home at my parents place. I did not like not exercising, getting ‘fat’. I didn’t like walking down the road to check the letter box and bursting into tears. I didn’t like it one bit.
My therapist taught me how to look at my behaviour and to identify why I was feeling the way I was. She helped me talk about my feelings without crying or getting angry. Ultimately she showed me I had a choice. To either continue with this behaviour and feel like this, or, to make changes.
So I did. I tried talking about my feelings a little more. I rested when I felt tired. I lowered my expectations about what was possible on one day. And, eventually, I returned to work.
Which isn’t to say it was 'bad 'n sad' then all good. It took me years to figure out how to handle symptoms and then use my tool kit to help myself.
Because, crucially, I started to notice when those symptoms returned.
A few days ago, those symptoms started happening again.
I was starting to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about things that weren’t worth worrying about (again. Early warning sign summin' ain't right). My breathing was starting to shorten in the mornings.
And just yesterday, I felt this familiar, uncomfortable feeling return - again.
I was walking back from coffee with a friend, and a wave of anxiety hit me. ‘Ugh, not this guy’, I thought. I felt the choke of my throat and knew where this was going.
I found somewhere to sit - quick. ‘Just breathe’, I told myself, just like mum and dad had done all those years earlier. ‘This is a passing feeling’, I told myself. ‘Breathe iiiiiiiiin and oooouuuuuuut’, I kept repeating, until the feeling dissipated.
And then, I took a photo.
I thought if there has been anything I have learned, is that shared experiences help other people just as much as they have helped me. The lighting, luckily for me was oddly flattering, and it actually made me smile a little bit. I laughed. I put down my phone and looked up. ‘It’s all good’, I said again to myself. ‘It’s Tuesday. You’re all good.’
I went back about my day, and later, on the train, I looked at the photo. I wondered who else was feeling like this. I posted it online, and hit the gym. I told my trainer I was feeling anxious and I wanted to tell him so that it forced me to say it out loud. He said he appreciated it as it helped him understand his clients better.
An hour later, I jumped online. And bloody hell, there were so many awesome anti-anxiety hack stories of people texting, calling and sharing online in response. People sharing their own tips and tricks and saying ‘hell yeah you’re not alone!’
‘Fucking hell’, I thought. ‘People are amazing’.
People. Are. Fucking. Amazing.
But there’s no way I’d feel like this if I didn’t share a little bit about myself. If I didn’t let other people know when times aren’t shit hot.
Because I know so many of you out there have challenges. I know because you’ve told me. Hundreds of people have shared intimate stories with me that I’ve kept in confidence. Traumas, thought patterns, intimate details of experiences they have endured.
And they’ve told me because it helps them cope. It helps them to know they are not alone.
Sorry to break it to you, but you’re not ever alone.
You’re never alone because the experiences you have are shared by others. The challenges you face. The trauma you have endured.
For every person who helps others rise up, supports one another, inspires and delights, helps and assists - there are multiple people who benefit.
So I’d like you to consider this.
Your experiences make you who you are but they don’t define you.
Don’t let your own personal challenges define you or limit what you will or won’t do in life. Use them to bring you back to a common thread that can help others.
Use the learnings you’ve gained from going through tough times and for fucks sake - when you’re feeling low, reach out. There will always be someone - or a community of people - who want you to stick around and reach your full potential.
I'm just one of them.
Australia lifeline 13 11 14, suicide call back service: 1300 659 467 mensline: 1300 78 99 78
New Zealand Lifeline 0800 543 354, suicide prevention 0508 828 865 youth line NZ 0800 376 633
USA LBGTIQ/questioning 1-800-4-U-TREVOR (24/7 crisis intervention lesbian, gay, transgender, questioning), youth talk line: 1-800-THE-GLNH
USA Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (24/7 hours)
Canada 24/7 helpline: 1-800-668-6868