In my darkest, nastiest days I had a really strong desire to get out of the black. I don’t know where this desire lived when the nasty took over but it would come to visit me every now and then. Then when the colour started to return to my clouded, grey vision it sat closer to the front of my mind. It didn’t jump up and down but it did let itself be known. If it could speak, it would have said, “I have your back.”
It was this sense of hope that I believe helped me to get better. It was a really, really strong will to not feel bad anymore. And yesterday, as I stood in front of 1,100 students I realised that I had shaken the throes of anxiety.
Yes, I am a worrier.
Yes, I am a planner. Although lately I seem less concerned with this.
Yes, anxiety may come back to my busy mind some days but mostly, I feel free of it. I have recovered. I had hope so I found resilience. And although I feel like I have to fight it away each day, I am immensely proud. And calm. I am going to enjoy the ride whilst it lasts.
In those darkest, nastiest days there was a silver lining. I am the person I am today because of my anxiety. And I wouldn’t change my experience for the world.
I don’t quite know how to colour myself today.
I do feel very blue – calm + mindful. It seems like a good place to be.
Here is an extract from my speech as my first appearance as a beyondblue speaker. It has been modified due to the age of the audience.
I hit the wall in May 2012.
It is quite tricky to put into words how I felt when I was diagnosed with anxiety.
The main feeling was one of overwhelming panic.
It was the kind of panic that stopped me from making simple decisions. Some days I would stand at the kitchen bench completely frozen because I had no idea how I was going to get the kids their breakfast. Other days I would stare at my wardrobe trying to work out how I was going to get dressed.
If I had to just write down all the feelings that I felt it would look something like this:
Panic, indecision, fear, a racing heart, pains in my chest, unable to make a commitment to anything – fun or not fun, unable to deal with a change in my plans, I could not see colour – everything was black and white. I felt like I was wearing blinkers, that my vision was impaired in some way. It all looked grey. There was literally no colour in my vision.
I was constantly on edge with the tiniest thing pushing me into a state of panic or rage. Some days I even scared myself with how angry I could become and how quickly I could become angry.
I was so exhausted yet I couldn’t sleep. The most simple tasks were completely overwhelming. Some days it was difficult to breathe. I cried a lot. I cried at least every day and sometimes several times a day. I was exhausted from the crying and the lack of sleep.
I lost my ability to concentrate, my short term memory was awful and I lost the ability to complete sentences. I would quite literally stop speaking mid sentence.
At my lowest point, too many things were falling apart. I started to have panic attacks where I would feel like a really uncomfortable pressure was building inside my head and a weight was on my chest. My vision would blur and my fingers felt like they were tingling. Then my heart would start to race and I would begin to sweat. And panic more.
At work, I would sit at my desk and watch emails come in. I could hardly read them let alone action them. At home I just couldn’t hold it together and daily tasks would render me useless. One of my worst panic attacks was trying to pack a suitcase for a weekend away. It became too much.
I stopped wanting to socialise. I didn’t enjoy food anymore so I didn’t see the point in going out for dinner. I no longer wanted to talk to anyone. Conversations were really, really hard because I couldn’t concentrate on them. I would forget what people were saying just a moment after they had spoken. I was easily distracted and worst of all I had absolutely no resilience.
I knew that things were not right but I just could not articulate my feelings. I could not explain how my seemingly fabulous life was causing me so much sadness. And how I could literally feel my body falling apart under the weight of the stress I was putting myself under. I think deep down, I knew that something was really wrong but it took a panic attack in front of the kids and my husband for me to rally myself into action. Until then, I was really, simply, only just treading water to survive.
A series of appointments with health professionals highlighted to me my inability to cope. I had lost weight, my hair was falling out, my immune system was struggling and I was hardly sleeping.
After my most severe panic attack my mum suggested for me to see my GP. I think I had known that I needed to go for several weeks but it took someone else to tell me to. I was so indecisive that I needed that gentle push.
My GP referred me to a psychologist. I came home and spoke with my husband and my parents and we all decided that I needed to address things. I was 37 years old, a mother of four and I had to move back in with my parents, which was pretty embarrassing.
My diagnosis of anxiety made me feel humiliated, ashamed and so, so sad. Thankfully though, there was an underlying sense of relief that what I was feeling was not normal and that I could get help to feel better. I also remember feeling determined that I wasn’t going to accept that this what how I should feel. I was determined to get better. That was my sense of hope.
This sense of hope was vital because I was a complete mess. Probably the thing that really got me through it was my desire to not feel this bad anymore. And although it was a lot of two steps forward, one step backwards as long as I kept moving in the right direction, that was all that mattered.
My recovery was successful because I chose to do one simple thing. I listened to people and not my head.
I listened to my GP when he told me to stay away from alcohol.
I listened to my psychologist when she told me to meditate. So I meditated a lot. And I still do.
I listened to my naturopath when she explained the impact of blood sugar levels on mood stability. So I adopted a largely protein based diet full of greens and with very limited sugar.
I was, and still am, a very keen runner but a series of nasty injuries meant I had to listen to my osteopath and my body. I have become a big fan of Pilates, which also offers a degree of mindfulness.
I listen, every single day, to my body. I will let it rest if it needs rest. This doesn’t mean I stay in bed and sleep. It just means I might say no to a couple of things and allow myself to slow down for a little bit.
Every cloud has a silver lining. In my darkest, colourless days I began to write. It was a wonderful way for me to empty my very busy head. I kept a diary where my deepest, most dreadful thoughts were allowed to escape onto the page. Where no one would judge me. It was an incredibly cathartic way for me to manage and process my thoughts and emotions.
My writing has led me to a new career as a writer. I have a blog where I talk about my recovery from anxiety. It led me to an interview in a local magazine, which was read by someone at beyondblue and here I am today.
Every day I eat well. I get a good amount of sleep. I exercise because it is fabulous for my head and it makes me feel really good. I use the Smiling Mind app to meditate and I cannot recommend it enough. I practice daily gratitude both around the dinner table and in a journal I keep beside my bed. I write and I embrace colour.
I need to be mindful and careful when I get tired or too busy. If I get injured, I need to be aware of the impact a lack of exercise has on my head. I put my hand up when I am not quite coping. I talk to people and I ask for help.
The biggest lesson I have learnt from this experience is to ask, “How are you?” I ask this all the time on my blog and FB page. I ask it of friends and most importantly, I ask it of myself.
By being in tune with how I am feeling I can adjust my way of thinking to manage anxiety.
If you ask yourself how you are and the answer is not quite right then I can only encourage you to seek help. Talk to someone, your friend, your family, your GP or beyondblue. You cannot get better if you do not help yourself.
You also need to check on your friends or family. Ask them if they are okay. Tell them you have their back. Not one single person that I have talked about my anxiety with has been anything but amazingly supportive. Go on. Ask them, “How are you?”
I am a member of the beyondblue Speakers Bureau where I volunteer at community events and speak about beyondblue’s work and share my personal story about depression and anxiety. If you would like to book a speaker for an event, please email email@example.com.