Debilitating anxiety: My story of suffering, shame and surprising discovery

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The kids are screaming, laughing. Taking it in turns to splash each other with cold water from the bath tap. I’m sitting nearby on the toilet – lid down! I’m watching, barely 1 foot away but I feel like I’m in the distance. I’m functional, doing what needs to be done, but there’s no playing now. I smile when I remember to, and go through the motions of bed-time. My mind seems still, quiet, maybe frozen.

Sometimes I feel some relief from the flatline when I focus on the children, tune in and reach out for the love I have for them. My heart responds and I think, I’m ok, its ok, we’re ok. Tonight while we cuddle I reach out again, looking for my love, some sense of connection…but there’s nothing. Its as if my heart has stopped. Still beating but dead… and I know I’m in trouble….but of course I don’t really care now…. I can’t…not anymore.

I’ve known for a while something’s not right but I cant put my finger on it. I know something needs to be done. I can see that I’m retreating, but it doesn’t seem like its something I’m doing. It’s something that’s happening to me.

The deep breathing exercises in the lounge room just make me anxious and Pete has boo hoo’d my solitary 4am walks in the dark neighbourhood streets.

I’ve made other attempts. I met with a counselor, she was ok but she was expensive, I talked a bit to my Doctor, she offered anti-depressants but I don’t want to go that way, it feels like a cop-out for me, a band aid, masking what’s really underneath and the idea of mucking with my brain chemistry and god knows what else doesn’t turn me on. Until recently I’ve been meeting with my girlfriends, as usual for coffee. I consider myself an open book and while they know I’m not jumping for joy I cant articulate how I feel. I’m just coming out of the baby bubble. My daughter has been delightful AND baby’s are demanding. I’m tired, money is tight, I can’t exercise due to a weak and failing back, I’m not working. Life occurs as a long list of things to do, a list I’m running fast to get in front of.

There’s not enough time and space for the slow trickle of understanding and deep discontent to emerge, my self esteem is flopping about in the toilet and I cant risk unpacking everything and then being cut off, needing to shove my bleeding heart into my takeaway coffee cup to get the bill and dash to pick up the kids. So it’s left unattended. I’M left unattended, at the bottom of a list of un-met needs.

I feel surrounded by messages to ‘be better, faster, happier, more zen, powerful, empowered, balanced. It seems the world is talking about women who have 14 children and are running a small country while breastfeeding and doing push ups. Add to that, those messages that have found their way into my FB feed and emails insisting if I do a little more, if I can just get it ‘right’ I can live my life on a beach, sucking on mangoes and sculling coconut juice.

It’s 9 o’clock at night. I call my friend Kelly. She knows me well, she’s a trained counsellor. I tell her I want her to come. I cant explain beyond ‘something’s not right, it’s like I cant move on the inside’. She arrives, we sit on the couch with Pete and I quickly retreat into total silence. I’m frozen. Soon she says, “We need to get some help, some professional help.”

The more I admit to myself and others that something is not right, the worse it gets. Anxiety finally breaks through, floods my body and consumes my mind. I panic in the face of my panic and it’s a rapid whirling descent that leaves me feeling completely out of control and terrified. I increasingly shut down. To try and keep control, to hold back the dam of emotion.

I desperately don’t want to be alone. And it soon seems clear that cooking dinner isn’t going to work. Soon after that I find that I cant finish a shopping list.

Pete organises me a roster of visitors when he can. My friends start to drop off food when they visit. The social norms are lost to me. I’m exposed, at my worst, I feel like I should care but I can’t.

Another friend who suffers anxiety drops in. I’m dressed but slump in my chair, which he gently points out, I hear some of what he’s saying, he’s trying to help and he is just by being there, by caring so obviously but he’s not offering a concrete solution and that’s what I’m listening for, that’s what I need. An answer. All I hear is a long road ahead of pain and suffering. The rest is drowned out by the racing voices in my head.

I see a psychiatrist Kelly recommends – he’s the best in Sydney when it comes to drugs. I have no room for faith in anyone’s ability to help me and yet it’s clear I can’t do it on my own so the best will have to do. I also see a counsellor recommended by my doctor and ship in one more recommended by another girlfriend. I can’t place my bets on just one. I can’t make a decision despite the repeated urging. I have to get this right and so I continue regularly with two.

The first night I take Lexipro I go to bed peacefully and am up within 45 minutes rapidly pacing the room like a boxer in the ring, blowing huge lungfulls of air through my teeth, rubbing my hands, telling Pete I feel like my head is going to blow off. Without stopping my rapid laps around the lounge room I tell him to call the hotline, something’s wrong, what can I do? What can I take to stop it?

I didn’t think to mention the ‘relaxation’ blend of herbs I’m taking. Turns out consuming St Johns Wort and an anti-depressant is not the way to go. My Doctor has the good sense to change my pills. More to do with managing my perceptions than any practical reality. I hate the idea of being on anti-depressants but I’m now more desperate to find a foothold before I fall into a sea of anxiety, before I loose control completely.

In my sessions with both therapists I feel like I’m digging around in the dark and so are they. Was I, am I being abused, maybe I need to leave my man, did my parents listen to me, what do I like doing? I look for reasons and solutions. I hate the apartment, if it wasn’t open plan it would be easier to keep clean, I need to get a few key pieces of furniture, move some of it around. If I wasn’t assaulted with mess in every corner from the front door, or if I embrace meal planning maybe that will make life a little easier. I want and need to work but cant seem to connect to any sense of my professional value despite my experience, obvious results, knowledge and great feedback. I feel trapped, powerless and a prisoner of “poverty” – the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney kind.

Most of all I go to therapy because when I’m talking there is some vague hope that they will help. I am doing something. Then the session ends and I am scared, sad and a bit pissed off that I’m going home in the same state, to try and survive another few days, a week. I am truly terrified and wonder if I’ll ever come back. I feel like part of me is missing, maybe it has gone somewhere else or maybe someone else has taken up residence in my body. Both seem possible.

I’m taking 2 sleeping pills a night just to get to sleep and sometimes a half a valium to kick things off. My body is as rigid as a rock. There are early evening meetings about me in the loungeroom after I’ve gone to bed. Perhaps also enquiring about my partners wellbeing. Offering support. He has been my rock. Poor bastard.

My Mum comes to stay for as long as she can. “If I could take it away I would, she says, I wish for nothing more in the world, but I can’t”.
I know, if I could, I’d feel hideous about the worry I’m causing, but there’s no space for it.

My grandfather dies. I always felt deeply connected to both my grandparents. Their obvious, unconditional love and constant presence. Their long lives, stories from another time. But now I can’t cry, I cant feel sad. Nothing. There’s no room.

I spend a lot of my mental energy trying to make the right decision about whether to go to Poppas funeral or not. My head is flooded with questions. If I go, what if I get more anxious, if I don’t go it might be worse, how will my mother feel, the kids might be scarred if they miss it, what would Nanna want, what will Poppa think?

I play out numerous imagined scenarios, deliberating all the options from every angle, desperately searching for the right answer. The one least likely to damage me, my children, my mother, my Nanna.

My Dad knocks on the door. He’s flown over to escort the kids and I back to Adelaide for the funeral. The decision is made. There’s a moment of relief.

The day of the funeral gives me the first hours of peace I’ve had in a long time. I’m surrounded by family. I’m a passenger in the days’ proceedings. The focus is on my Nanna. For a moment I feel like myself. And then, that night, I’m back, suffocating under a wave of dread and terror, overcome and overtaken. Mila wants to sleep with me. I’m guarding my sleep like a bulldog. I know I need it and after 2 sleeping pills and half a valium its an escape, a moment of peace and rest I’m desperate for. Torn between what she needs and what I need I’m down the slippery slope of indecision which twists my brain into overwhelm and waves of anxiety that threaten to overtake me. I make an after hours emergency call to my psychiatrist. After listening he advises I take a valium each day until I get back to see him again.

I have a session that makes a difference, although it seems insignificant at the time, there’s a shift and the anxiety slowly moves lower in my body – It doesn’t wash over my head, drowning me now. After 8 weeks of terrifying hell I at least feel like I’m in the room. I watch myself over the coming weeks attending my sessions. No longer in tracksuit pants. I upgrade to jeans. I brush my hair. I begin swimming. Taking baths. I keep talking.

I know my friends would describe me as a bit of a Herbal hippie…. I use homeopathy, buy organic, love yoga, had all natural births, avoid doctors. But I’m now clear if there weren’t any side effects to long term use of anti-depressants, I’d be front of the line for more. I have a greater, wider perspective in each moment. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I watch when Pete gets worked up trying to get the kids out of the house and I smile. It feels like the universe is on my side. It is a truly amazing thing to embody a truly calm person. I’ve never, in all my life had the experience of being this calm. From this vantage point I can see that there is actually very little in life that really matters.

Despite this I’m off antidepressants within 8 months. I did my anxiety like I did the rest of my life up to then. Hard and fast. I come of really slowly and prepare for some fall out. There’s none.

Then one morning weeks later, I wake and feel a ripple of anxiety run up my belly. The attached thought is inconsequential and I’m pissed at the completely illogical, physical response. I see Timothea Goddard. She ever so lovingly eyeballs me and suggests I commit an hour a day for 7 weeks and change my life. I do the Mindfulness course at Open ground. By mid course we’re all feeling the welcome and deeply transformative, subtle effects of meditating. I’m addicted. For me, I have found a way to produce the same results as anti-depressants.

I’m lucky really the stakes were so high, so dramatic that I can now give myself full license to do what works for me. I’m forced to put myself first, to step out of my own expectations of what life should look like. I let much of it go and look after myself. I discover the deep, quiet me, the one who whispers feelings, thoughts and intuitive prompts ever so softly. The more quiet I am, the more I hear.

I discover that I really need to practice feeling those unwanted feelings. I need to feel them, hold them, listen and be quiet enough to find their gift. I discover vulnerability. It’s excruciating. It’s excruciatingly beautiful. I discover that I can truly be at the centre of my life and that I can lean on others. That I must. That I can chose myself over my now more-often-than-not messy home, that I can serve baked beans for dinner if I’m just too tired without any guilt. I can choose swimming over emails if that’s what works best for me. I know that the right answer is what’s right for me – in the face of protest and potential perceived failure. Here. Now. In this moment. With my feelings counted, included, important. I discover that as women in this society amid the incessant, now barely noticeable messages of all that we ‘should’ be we need to practice coming together, connecting without masks and effort, we need to care for our bodies, what we put on and in them, we need to stay connected to our deepest selves, the planet and each other.

….and indeed we must because the stakes are high.

Kendra Greig is the founder of “Shit Bits — for Chicks who tell it like it is”, partner in trusted green beauty resource Wanderess Beauty, co-founder of The New Human Summit and mother to two beautiful munchkins. You can connect with Kendra by registering for The New Human Summit.

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