This post is a personal story about how anxiety has affected me and my mental health over the past few years.
If that sentence surprises you, know that mental health affects 1 in 5 of us in Australia every year. That stat surprised me too. Maybe you’re that 1 in 5 too, or maybe someone very close to you is.
I’ve written, and re-written this post many times. Mostly because I want to ensure I don’t miss anything, but also because there’s a stigma and bias around mental health. People do treat you differently when they know you’re suffering with your mental health. I’m hoping this post helps remove some of that stigma and bias because no matter who you are, mental health does not discriminate.
Sweet Summer Child
If you’d asked me 5 years ago what anxiety was, I’d have probably said something like “oh it’s when you feel nervous about something – kind of like how you feel before you go to the dentist, or do an exam”. Little did I know that in less than a year, I’d be experiencing crippling, uncontrollable anxiety at the most unexpected moment that would dramatically affect my quality of life for years to come.
As with any good story, we need a begining.
I’d just finished work for that day in the city. It was a fairly normal workday – emails, making changes to design documents, figuring out if 3 cups of coffee before 12pm was too much. I’d said bye to everyone and had left the office to walk up to the bus stop at Wynyard in Sydney’s CBD, just like i’d done every other day for the past year or so.
As I stood there in the bus queue waiting for the bus I recall there being more people than normal around. Perhaps the trains weren’t running. I shuffle forwards in the queue. It’s my turn to get on the bus. I follow the slowly moving line onboard and take a seat right at the back in the corner, taking out my EarPods as I take a seat to listen to music. The bus feels a little hot and stuffy. I’d forgotten to take my jacket off and am starting to feel a little warm. Nothing out of the norm though for a late summers afternoon.
The bus continues to fill up with eager commuters for its journey to the lower north shore, via the Sydney harbour bridge. I remember a lady sitting next to me at the back. I thought about offering my seat to someone standing but quickly realised that even if they’d accepted, there wouldn’t have been any room for us to swap places.
A few minutes pass. That slightly stuffy feeling I felt a few moments ago is now sort of feeling a little more uncomfortable. The bus doors close and the little breeze that was being felt before has all but ceased. The drivers forgot to turn the air con on again. It happens. We pull off from Wynyard and start heading towards the harbour bridge.
All of a sudden, something almost .. flips inside of me. I can suddenly feel this .. electrical current running through my entire body. I can feel my palms becoming sweaty, my chest becoming tight, and I become laser focused on my breathing and how it feels like more air is going in than out. I paused for a moment and took my earphones out my ears as if to be able to focus more on what was happening to myself. That stuffy uncomfortableness went from a 2 out of 10 to a 10 out of 10 within what felt like mere seconds. Suddenly I had this uncontrollable feeling of panic wash over me. I couldn’t get out, I couldn’t get my jacket off, and I couldn’t breathe.
My eyes darted around looking for a way out of this situation. The lady sat next to me must have sensed something was off. Perhaps it was my almost .. floating above the seat beneath me trying to find more space, or I’d imagine the sheer look of panic on my face.
“Are you ok mate”? – I remember her saying as I must have looked at her with desperation. I remember her putting her hand on my shoulder, which was enough to bring my focus away from whatever was occurring to me at that moment to focus on her, and her words. The bits afterwards are a bit of a blur, but I recall taking my jacket off, calming myself down and then being relatively ok for the remaining of the 20 minute journey home.
All of the above, from feeling slightly uncomfortable to full on out of control, severe panic, to being back in control again lasted approximately 60 seconds. To me, it felt like an absolute eternity though. Worse still, at the time I had no clue what had happened and why I had felt that way. It wasn’t until I had got home and mentioned what had happened to my partner at the time did it dawn on me that I’d had my first ever panic attack. And boy did it scare the shit out of me.
The Start Of Something Bigger
I like to think that I’m a resilient bloke. I can deal with high stress situations like dispatching multiple fire resources to a major incident, or driving the truck under lights and sirens and then jumping out and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, or handling a major outage at a customer site. Those things feel sort of .. natural to me.
My job being city-based meant that I relied very heavily on the bus to get to and from work every day. The following morning after my first ever panic attack I head up to the bus stop again just as I have done many times before. I’m stood at the bus stop on Military Road in Mosman waiting for a bus to the city. The bus pulls up, the doors open and I get on and take a seat.
Normally I’d have pulled my phone out and started checking email or the news. Today though, I’m acutely aware of what happened to me yesterday afternoon and am suddenly again starting to feel panicky. “What if we get stuck in traffic on the way across the bridge and it happens again? There’s no way I can get off the bus there” I think to myself. “I better get off the bus until I calm down to be safe”.
So, the bus pulls up at Big Bear (the last stop before the bus goes express across the harbour bridge to the city), and I get off. I sit there at the stop for 40.. 45 minutes, with multiple buses stopping and heading to the city without me being able to mentally board one.
It’s now 9am. I’m late for work. I’m still sat there trying to build up enough “courage” to get on the bus. “It’s a 5 minute ride across the bridge I tell myself, I can do it”. I couldn’t though.
Instead, I called the boss and made an excuse saying I wasn’t feeling well and walked the 15 minutes home.
It took me 8 months to get on a bus again. During those 8 months, I paid between $30 and $88 a day to drive my own car into the city, and park in the CBD. I told no one I was doing this. No one at work suspected a thing. My credit card certainly got a work out for those 8 months, and sure.. I earned a lot of frequent flyer points! Mentally I’d have rather paid the $88 than try and get back on that bus for fear of having another panic attack again.
A friend of mine who I won’t name here will never know, but they were the turning point for me getting on the bus again. We’d caught up after work for a drink and they’d suggested we head back to the north side for another before we head home and that we’d catch the bus. I recall being stood in that bus queue with them absolutely terrified to get on that bus again. But we both did it, and although I probably didn’t speak a word for the entire journey, I recall feeling immense relief once we’d gotten off the bus at the pub.
I’d did it – i’d somehow gotten the bus and it was ok. This had bought me the courage i’d needed to do it again the following morning. I could give the credit card a rest for a while and go back to.. well, normality.
Fast forward to April 2022. We’re coming out of Covid, we’re back to being able to travel again! Except there’s a problem. I for some reason can’t walk to the top of my driveway and check the mailbox without having a full-blown panic attack.
“Wait a minute Craig – mailboxes and buses? what do they have in common?” I hear you cry. Not a lot, if I’m being honest.
We’d recently moved into a new apartment in Roseville near the train station. Prior to the move i’d been excited about the thought of catching the train to the office every day. The move was stressful, and probably was the cause behind a GERD flare up (basically an acid reflux disorder) that made it feel like my throat was closing up, and was also full of mucus every morning when I woke up. Which was fun.
Of course, waking up every day feeling like you can’t really breathe properly is anxiety-inducing. And would have guessed that one of the side effects of anxiety is acid reflux? You can probably guess where this is going…
I remember specifically one morning the Mrs is running late to school, and i’m stood there in an absolute mess pleading for her to stick around a few more minutes for me to clear my throat enough so that I feel like I can breathe again. I am eternally grateful to her for the amount of times I made her late to school, and her patience in supporting me through this – more than words can express.
People Begin To Notice
Its a Sunday morning and I’m running late again to RFS training. I’ve been stood at the front door psyching myself up to leave and telling myself that I’ll be ok on the way in. Once I’m there of course, I’m fine. It’s the Journey there by myself that I’m worried about.
It’s now 9:45. I’m 45 minutes late. I text the duty officer to apologise for being late again. He’s understandably not impressed as this isn’t the first time (or the second .. or the third…) this has happened. I get there and he pulls me aside and gives me a grilling.
A few days later some close friends ask me to hang out. I want to hang out, really, really badly, but I just can’t mentally bring myself to drive the 30 minutes alone to get there. So I decline.
Of course, decline enough events and people start wondering what’s going on. That can range from “Maybe he just doesn’t want to hang out?”, to “maybe he’s just busy?” even to “Maybe he just doesn’t like us anymore?”. Of course, none of that was true. I wanted to hang out, I just couldn’t.
Seeking help is really bloody hard.
It’s hard for many reasons. For me, it was because I struggled to put into words exactly what I was feeling, and why, and to actually find a GP who’d actually listen and take me seriously. I’m not kidding, either.
I attempted to start a conversation with my existing GP, who didn’t seem to get that I was REALLY struggling to go about my day to day life. No matter how I explained myself, the response was always “hmm.. ok, see how you go”. It took me three goes to find a doctor that would actually shut up and listen to me, take me seriously and actively work with me to find a solution. Friends that I have spoken to about this have said the same thing – you’re bloody lucky if you find a doc that listens on the first go.
My doc and I formulated a plan. This involved speaking with psychologist once a week to actually identify why I was feeling this way, as well as medication to control the anxiety so that I could have some sort of normality to my day to day life.
And would you know? This approach has worked. I went from not being able to literally walk to the top of the driveway and check the mail, to being able to hop on airplanes and travel to different cities by myself.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a good story if there wasn’t a twist involved. And this one certainly has a curve ball.
Having been on a low dose of medication for approximately 6 months, I had recently gone to the Doctor to say that I felt ready to come off of it. I felt good. I was feeling confident again – almost back to feeling like myself again! The doc asked a few questions, and said “Yup! you sound ready, reduce your dose to half for 5 days and then pack it away”. Done deal.
They say hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’m currently in the process of buying a property here in Brisbane (One of the most stressful things they say you can ever do!), and of course am also going through rounds of redundancies at work too (It’s in the news) which is naturally stressful. Throw in the side effects of coming off these pills and you can imagine the fun that can create!
To put it into laymen’s terms: It’s like being on a rollercoaster in the dark, facing backwards. You’re not sure how long the ride is going to last, but you hope it ends soon.
Last Tuesday I had a minor setback. The rollercoaster felt like it was out of control. I had just gotten off an incredibly stressful customer call and it was the straw that broke the camels back. I went out for 5 minutes, called the Mrs in tears and said I was having a hard time.
That afternoon I went for a walk with a colleague, and went back to the docs to discuss my progress and my concerns with perhaps coming off these meds at the wrong time (is there even a right time?). She told me in no uncertain terms that I was not attending work for the rest of the week, and to go home and rest.
I actually listened to the advice for once, and feel much better because of it.
Because of that self-care, I’m back and am doing well again.
Doing It Scared
I have a bit of a mantra that I now live by. “Do it scared”.
There were many opportunities during my recovery where I could have easily said “No”. Ferris wheels, walks with colleagues, ferry rides, RFS activities, birthdays, social events, speaking opportunities at work, those bloody bus rides.
Did I want to do it? Yes. Did I feel scared to do it? hell yes. Did I do it anyway? Yes!
This mantra has gotten me through some tough times. I’ve thought the worst going in, and have come out the other side feeling like I’ve accomplished something.
Is Any Of This Resonating With You?
If you’re going through something like this, speak to someone. For me, that was finding a doctor that would listen. It wasn’t a friend, a work colleague, a help line, a random person on the street or even my partner. For you, it’ll be whomever you feel comfortable sharing with.
Start by saying “I may not have all the words or answers right now, but I want to tell you what I am feeling X”.
Why should you tell someone? It actually really does help. Sharing your feelings out loud actually helps you understand them a bit better. You may even discover that the person you’re sharing with has something they want to share with you too.
So.. Are you ok now?
I kid of course. I am a LOT better than I was prior to seeking help. Even writing this post has opened up emotions that I now have the skills to deal with.
Mental health is always a work in progress. As I said at the start of this post, it currently affects 1 in 5 of us in Australia (and 1 in 4 in the US). There’s a VERY good chance someone close to you is being affected right now, but perhaps doesn’t have the voice to speak up about it.
I hope that this post goes some ways into helping those of you who are also suffering to show you that you are not alone and that things WILL get better.
Above all, be kind to people. They may just be suffering in silence.