A few weeks after the worst had passed and I was better able to function, I sat across from my therapist, curled up on her couch. She regarded me with concern and compassion in equal measure. I felt safe for the first time in a long time. I felt like we were going to fix this. Together.
“How would you feel if I said I think you had a nervous breakdown?” she said slowly, carefully, her eyes fixed on me in a cautious manner I’d not seen before.
I considered her question.
As she waited for me to elaborate, I noticed an internal rush of something that felt very much like relief. Yes, I was relieved by the thought I’d had a breakdown. Oddly reassured. The 12 days I had spent in a state of crippling panic and anxiety had felt as big as a nervous breakdown. And as bad. I wanted it to have a dramatic sounding name because that robbed my experience of some of its terrifying power. It existed. It was something that had happened to other people, people who had survived it.
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I was also reassured because a nervous breakdown sounded rare. Not something you would have regularly in your life. Not just a paralysing new way of being. It sounded like an event with a start and a finish. A one-off. Twice, tops.
“Good. I feel good about you calling it a nervous breakdown.” I replied slowly. And I exhaled for what felt like the first time in weeks.
……It had all started, oddly enough, with a week at a health retreat. This is where you’re meant to go to remedy a health crisis, not trigger one.
I can’t even recall exactly why I went although I recall it was a freebie; a trip offered in exchange for me writing honestly about my experience. It’s the kind of thing I usually loathe – group activities, no wifi, deprivation of any kind – but I was feeling a bit restless on my goat track and I recognised I probably had a few grooves that were running a little too deep. I wanted to shift my headspace.
They’re unnaturally intense places, health retreats, despite the surface pretense of tranquility. People tend to visit them when they’re at a crossroads, when they have a big decision to make or when their lives have somehow become out of control – physically or emotionally.
Addictions, relationship breakdowns, mental illness, stress burnouts, sudden career changes; people arrive at the gates of a health retreat with more baggage than Heathrow and there’s a very high ratio of dysfunction among guests willing to spend upwards of $10K for a week of outdoor exercise and extreme fibre.
People’s vulnerabilities tend to bubble to the surface at the compulsory communal meals as you’re stripped of the armour of your regular life. Lymphatic drainage combined with 5:30am tai chi and extreme carb deprivation puts a person quickly off-kilter.
When I’d enquired at this health retreat about a possible visit in the week before Christmas, they told me they would be delighted to accommodate me during their ‘sleep week’ program designed for people who had trouble with insomnia or other sleep disorders. The only sleep disorder I had was not getting enough of it due to 15 years of parenthood, a toddler and a business which was relentlessly sucking all available hours from my days and frequently my nights too.
As with most health retreats, this one informed me that the formal program of lectures and activities was optional but “we strongly encourage it so as to maximise the benefit of your stay”.
I’m very bad at resisting peer pressure and I suffer from chronic FOMO so I reluctantly decided to do all the activities and suck it up - even the 5:30am Tai Chi class, the health lectures and the group meals. I loathe group meals. I would rather self-harm with a fork.
I did enjoy my week, even though I hated everything for the first 48 hours with ferocious predictability. As you always do when thrown together with random strangers, I ended up bonding with some unlikely people including a hilarious wealthy couple who invited me back to their suite for a threesome one night after our sustainable, high protein group dinner.
He was in his late sixties, she her late fifties.
I graciously declined.
The regime at the retreat was strict. No sugar, no caffeine, no dairy, no wheat, no alcohol, no soy, no processed food and very few carbs. Basically my entire diet. Gone. Poof.
There was also no Internet or mobile phone use of any kind. For the first couple of days, I reeled. The withdrawal from sugar and tea and connectivity was brutal and I inhaled Panadol at regular intervals to deal with my crippling headaches.
But by day three I was kind of euphoric. Drunk on nothing but fresh air and pulses. The meals tasted delicious, the company was enjoyable and my chronic addiction to total sensory stimulation was interrupted. Much to my surprise, this interruption felt like relief.
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I’ve always been happiest while multi-tasking. I like having stimulation bombard me from many different sources at once. Radio, screens, eating, drinking, TV in the background, the sound of people talking…I like to dive deep into sensory overload, even while I write.
Put me on a mountain with nothing except spearmint tea and a strict timetable of aqua Pilates, reiki massage and small talk with strangers and my system went into abrupt shock before reluctantly and then enthusiastically recalibrating itself.
I started loving the shit out of this clean living Zen business.
I’m nothing if not extreme. But would it, could it last? Was this kind of pure life sustainable for me?
The only other time I’d been to a health retreat, I’d celebrated at the airport on the way home by eating the biggest Kit Kat I could find washed down with a Chocolate Moove but this time I decided to take the detox home with me. Embrace it fully. Live the clean life forever.
This was a mistake.
At the time it seemed righteous and sensible. A clean break from my mildly toxic former lifestyle.
But it’s clear to me now that it was the most reckless and foolish thing I could have done and if you’re anything like me, I caution strongly against it.
You see, in the parallel universe of health retreats, there is - perversely - very little time to be idle or even think. Your days are jammed with activities, lectures, intimate conversations with strangers about bowel movements and treatments with exotic names and ambitious purposes like “Chakra Realignment Facial”. It can border on frantic. Also, everything is taken care of.
Someone tells you where to go and hands you a little card with your daily timetable on it each morning while you throw back your 6am shot of apple cider vinegar. You have no watch and no phone. There’s a team of people to cook and serve your sustainable meals and every need is pre-emptively met.. Someone is always there to tell you where to go next and what to do. You make no choices about food and you barely even have to decide what to wear; it’s 24/7 tracksuit pants, no make-up and dirty hair shoved under a cap. A health retreat is the opposite of real life in every possible way. It’s like being a very small child who is only expected to do the most basic of things for themselves, like chew their food and go to the toilet.
You’re also heavily indoctrinated in the evils of life’s pleasures: sugar, salt, alcohol, caffeine, bread, and connectivity. In one of my ’treatment’ sessions, I was warned by the naturopath of the carcinogenic effects of many of the things that held my life together, including stress. I instantly became extremely stressed about the idea of stress causing cancer.
Having drunk the sugar-free, organic Kool-Aid, when I returned home, I vowed with evangelical fervour that I would maintain these new healthy habits I’d formed in the previous five days.
I would make my entire life a health retreat dammit. Naturally, this meant dashing to the nearest health food store and spending hundreds of dollars on Amaranth flour, organic activated walnuts and Australian-grown chia seeds. I’d already bought every cookbook available at the health retreat gift shop, which, for someone who doesn’t cook, was impressively optimistic. I resumed none of my ‘bad’ habits after I returned home. No tea. No sugar. Few carbs. Nothing that wasn’t organic. Including beauty products and water. And I kept my external stimulation down to an absolute bare minimum including no radio of any kind, not even music in the car.
Of course this was much, much harder to do surrounded by a world of “normal” people who were just getting on with their lives than it had been when I was safely ensconced in the retreat bubble. This cooking my own meals thing was a goddamn bitch.
Still, I pushed through.
It was just before Christmas, work was winding down and we left for our annual summer holiday to Byron Bay with the kids. Just to make sure I stayed on message, the universe took this opportunity to crash the hard drive on my laptop. It couldn’t be revived.
The significance of this technology fail on my psyche cannot be overstated. As a writer and online publisher, I have an intensely intimate relationship with my laptop. It’s an extension of who I am. It’s my handbag, my wardrobe, my office, my creativity and my brain in physical form. I am hugely dependent on it not just to do my work but also to live my life. I think it would be easier for me to live without my car. Or tea.
So yes, thank you Universe for leaving me completely untethered and alone with my herbal fucking tea and my bullshit Acai berries.
My nervous breakdown commenced very quietly on day three of our holiday, with a simple twinge in my lower abdomen one morning.
It was my ovary. I had cancer. It was obvious to me in the same way I knew I had brown eyes. An unshakable fact.
I knew ovarian cancer was usually terminal and that it worked quite quickly. It had few symptoms which would explain why I seemed otherwise healthy. But I was going to die. That small twinge on Christmas Eve as I got out of bed was all it took to catapult me into a crippling anxiety attack that would last 12 days.
On the outside I appeared relatively normal if withdrawn. My husband later said he could tell something was up but he was fairly accustomed to my moods so he had no idea what I was experiencing, even as we spent every day and night together with the kids. Children are wonderfully self-absorbed so they wouldn’t have picked up anything either. I wasn’t curled in a corner. I wasn’t in bed. I was walking around and talking and going to the beach and to dinner and all the normal things you do while on holidays.
We had Christmas and took photos and all the while, I was going through the motions while my mind and body were virtually paralysed with fear.
There was the clenching in my stomach. The absolute frantic dread that made my heart beat fast and my bones ache. All day. The unshakable belief I was dying. What about my children? I was so stricken at the thought of leaving them, I could barely function through the horror.
Every day, hundreds of times, I imagined saying goodbye to my family. I imagined my funeral in vivid detail. I imagined my kids growing up without me. And it was sickeningly real, like watching a documentary about someone else’s tragic life cut short by a terrible disease.
All overlaid with the utter certainty that this was real and inevitable and happening to me right now.
. I couldn’t tell Jason because by some magical thinking, that would make it even more real. I couldn’t deal with his reaction to my impending death. We would have to tell the kids I was dying and I couldn’t bear it,
I went through the motions of preparing for Christmas, buying presents for the kids, assembling a makeshift tree and it was all made deeply poignant and tragic because I knew it would be one of only a handful of Christmases left for us as a family, maybe the last. How the hell were my children going to live without me? How was I to bear the agony of not seeing them grow up?
If depression is a heavy, listless, exhausted feeling, this was the opposite. It was panic. Like I was under a dramatic, imminent threat.
The only thing that brought me any brief respite from the terror and dread was exercise. I went for long walks and runs on the beach, I did surfing lessons and I went horse riding. When I was active and madly distracted, the tsunami of fear receded just a little. Adrenaline and endorphins helped. So did wine.
I began to crave my nightly glass because it took the edge off. Within days I began contemplating drinking in the morning. The tiny part of my brain still rooted in logic stopped me from doing it but I could see how easy it would be to self-medicate anxiety with alcohol. Going a few generations back in my family tree, I suddenly saw how that may have been happened.
When I was exercising or drinking wine, I wasn’t able to have fun or enjoy myself - not even close - but it gave my mind some very brief respite from the anguish and grief about the fact I was dying and my children would have to grow up without their mum.
Bizarrely enough, the only other time I could escape was when I was asleep. I had no trouble sleeping during the 12 days of my anxiety attack; something my therapist and other doctors later agreed was extremely rare.
I’ve always been able to sleep, no matter what else was going on in my life. It’s a gift. Or else I’m just really shallow. Either or. There was one other brief moment of respite and it came from Jennifer Hawkins. Just after Christmas, a new issue of Marie Claire had come out with a naked, unretouched Jennifer Hawkins on the cover. It was their ‘body image’ issue and it had provoked a predictable media storm during the traditionally quiet New Year news cycle. Many people were furious that a genetically blessed former Miss Universe had been chosen as a symbol of body acceptance.
Through the fog of my panic attack, I had strong feelings. I always do on the subject of body image. And so I borrowed my husband’s computer and I wrote about it with laserlike focus for Mamamia. The hour or two I spent bashing out my story was a blessed respite from the suffocating panic I’d been strangled by for days
And then it was back to the fear. The relief I’d felt from connecting to the world should have given me a clue as to a possible source of….treatment, if that’s the right word. Working, writing, engaging makes me feel good.
But I didn’t make the connection between my stringent detox and the anxiety that had parachuted in to fill the space created when I dismantled the very scaffolding around which my life was built.
This panic attack response seemed to be a massive fuck you from my mind, pissed off at having all its toys taken away.
Years later I would sit in a giant theatre listening to author Elizabeth Gilbert talk about how crazy she gets when she’s not working, saying of the creative mind, “If it’s not making something, it’s breaking something” and I would feel a jolt of recognition surge through me. That’s exactly it.
My mind had nothing to do so it was trashing the joint.
And I was feeling truly trashed. It was a dirty type of adrenaline this anxiety, like speed. I was utterly devoid of endorphins.
Ordinarily, the way I deal with things is to talk about them, with my friends, my husband, my Mum. But for reasons I couldn’t understand, my anxiety was trapping me behind very thick glass. It was like being in that nightmare where you tried to scream but no sound came out.
The worst part of mental illness of course, is not being able to find respite from your own mind. My anxiety was like my evil conjoined twin. My ugly shadow. And the realization that I couldn’t escape made me despair. I understood how intertwined depression and anxiety could become and I sensed myself slipping further down into the quicksand.
About a week in, it got so bad that I considered seeking medical help. A doctor….hospital. But because I was in Byron Bay, my irrational mind was certain that if I tried to tell someone how I was feeling, they would scoff and assume I was just on drugs.
Eventually, towards the end, I began to open up. The first person I confided in was one of my closest friends who has struggled with depression. I knew she would understand the shame that comes with admitting your mind has taken a really bad wrong turn. I haltingly told her about the ovarian cancer and she interrupted me, insisting I speak to an ex-boyfriend of hers who had experienced the same thing. “He was convinced he had prostate cancer! Oh my God, he described it identically to what you’ve just said”
She gave me his number and promised to tell him to expect my call.
Within half an hour I was speaking to Mark and it was a revelation. My condition had a name: somatism. The anxious belief that you were suffering from a particular illness, often a form of cancer, that leads you to experience phantom symptoms of that illness, further convincing you of your diagnosis. It’s like a severe form of hypochondria but very specific. That phone call with Mark - who described my twisted thought-processes with incredible accuracy as he told me about his own experience and eventual recovery - marked the beginning of the end of my 12 day nightmare.
Slowly, my adrenal levels began to lower, the anxiety gradually releasing its hold around my throat and my heart. After speaking with Mark, I found the courage to tell Jason and his reaction astonished me.
He dismissed my cancer diagnosis with an affectionate and sympathetic smile, like you would when a child tells you they’ve had a bad dream.
He encouraged me to call the therapist I sometimes saw and she was fantastic too, calming me down, and pointing out that my extreme detox had triggered a severe reaction.
For the rest of my holiday and for weeks and weeks afterwards, I was exhausted. The 12-day adrenaline surge had taken a huge toll and I felt like I’d run 100 marathons.
I returned home with my family and began a series of medical appointments with various doctors and specialists to try and diagnose what had happened.
And of course the fear of it happening again walked beside me like a malevolent shadow.
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Now that I was calmer, I had the time and ability to reflect. Slowly, I realised I had suffered from anxiety all my life. As I child I’d often been convinced my parents had been killed in a car accident when they were a little late home from work. I’d imagined my trusted babysitter was in fact a kidnapper who would rip off a mask and reveal her true self at any moment.
Since I’d become a mother, my anxiety had manifested into a chronic fear of flying. I knew with complete certainty that the plane was going to crash and my body spent the days before I had to board until the moment we landed, braced for that crash. I had to take medication to fly, even domestically. It was exhausting and debilitating.
Apart from every time I had to board a plane there were two other occasions when I’d experienced panic attacks similar to my 12 day nightmare.
The first time was 10 years ago when I was in New York six months after 9/11 for a work conference. I had been terribly anxious about going in the first place due to terrorism and my fear of flying was at its peak but while I was there there was a new terrorist scare and I went into an instant spiral of intense panic that lasted for days until I landed safely back home.
As always, I continued to step through my normal life but I was like a ghost. Twisted into knots inside, my mind racing, my mouth dry.
More recently, a couple of years ago the same reaction was triggered by a routine breast examination when my GP found a suspicious area and suggested I get a mammogram to check it out. She wasn’t worried, she reassured me, it was just a precaution but I couldn’t process that. On each occasion my mind skipped straight to the part where I was going to die with such unshakable certainty that it was excruciating.
This most recent attack had been the worst though, and unlike the previous two situations, which had at least begun with some real level of legitimate threat or health concern, this one had been totally sparked by my imagination. The brutality of it had left me shattered and shaken.
Clearly, I had a problem. And with three children to care for, a business to run with my husband, employees to manage and a life to lead, I could not afford to live like this, waiting for the next attack. I needed help to manage it. So my therapist referred me to another counsellor she knew who worked specifically with anxiety patients.
This guy was a believer in anxiety attacks being the body’s way of dealing with some latent, supressed trauma. I couldn’t think of any major trauma in my life beyond the usual personal challenges that everyone goes through but his belief was that even minor trauma could cause major damage to our psyche.
In the one session I had with him, he said that he recommends just being still and curling up until it passes, even if that takes several months.
When I recounted his advice to my own therapist, she was dismissive. “For heaven’s sake, you have a family and a business. You can’t sit in the foetal position for three months! No. We have to fix this now.”
I was relieved to hear this because I was didn’t think I could spare three months or even three days to curl up and be still. Not to mention the fact a version of that is what got me here in the first place.
My therapist sent me to a psychiatrist who specialised in treating anxiety. He was a lovely man who listened to me and nodded and then gently said, “Mia, from what you’ve told me I would say you have a severe form of generalised anxiety disorder.”
He explained it to me like this. The adrenal gland in most people will release adrenaline when your mind senses you’re in danger. So if you’re walking down the street and you hear footsteps, it will release adrenaline so that if you need to run or defend yourself your body will be ready. The is known as the fight-or-flight response. But just say those footsteps pass you and you realise you’re not actually in danger, your adrenal gland will stop releasing adrenaline, your heart will stop beating and your mind will stop racing.
When you suffer from anxiety, your adrenal gland behaves as if a homicidal maniac is chasing you, even when you’re sitting alone in your lounge room drinking a cup of tea.
It’s a chemical imbalance. One that can be treated with medication. That’s not to say there aren’t other ways to treat anxiety that can also work. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be effective for some people and so can regular talking therapy.
But if anxiety is impairing your day-to-day functioning as it was mine, he explained, medication can make a big difference.
He prescribed a drug called Lexapro, which is used to treat anxiety, and he cautioned that sometimes when you start taking it, the symptoms could get slightly worse before you feel better.
This terrified me and so he suggested starting on half a tablet. I was still wary and he smiled patiently before he very kindly said, “I can see you’re getting anxious about your dosage of anxiety medication”.
We had a chuckle about that and I left his office feeling massively relieved.
Four years later, here’s where I’m at. I take Lexapro every day and it has changed my life. The knot in my stomach is gone. And it was only after it had gone that I realised how prevalent it had been.
For me, the cancer fear and the somatism was an extreme manifestation of my anxiety but on most days of my life, I had just lived with an uncomfortable sense of unease about nothing in particular. Occasionally I could tag it to a particular situation in my life but mostly it was just….there. Making everything feel somehow ominous and joyless.
I still get breakthrough anxiety sometimes and I’m still paranoid about cancer. But when I started talking about my anxiety to my friends, my colleagues and my family, I was startled to learn how common it is. People with anxiety can remain very high functioning – on the outside. They can still care for their children and do their jobs and go to school and mix in with the world. But they’re going through the motions, living with their minds somewhere else and with fear in their bones.
It can be chronic and crippling.
Along with Lexapro, I’ve learned how to manage my anxiety in other ways too. I need lots of sleep and I need to exercise every day. I need to keep my mind busy and active and I don’t drink coffee or take drugs. And I try to limit my exposure to stories about cancer or mothers being suddenly taken from their children.
Also, I name it. When I’m having a bad day I say to my husband “my anxiety is really bad today”. Or when I get a twinge or a pain and I feel that familiar fear, I will say to him quite seriously, “Do you think I’m…sick?” And he will reassure me and I will remember that my mind likes to play tricks on me.
I also have regular health tests; mammograms and ultrasounds. I do it probably more for my mental health than my physical health and it’s expensive but I don’t apologise for it. If that’s what it takes to help alleviate my anxiety, it’s worth it.
It’s taken me a long time to write about this. Years. There is a stigma about mental illness, no matter how much there shouldn’t be. There are also ill-informed buffoons who shoot their mouths off in the media, sneering that it doesn’t exist, trying to shame anyone who seeks help for anxiety or depression and calling them whingers or wimps or bad mothers.
Actually, I find the opposite to be true. The best thing I have ever done for my children, my relationship, my career and my SELF is to seek help for my anxiety and to take the advice of experts.
I come from a long line of anxious people and sadly, many of them were unable to benefit from medication or social and medical understanding of mental health conditions like anxiety.
Gratitude is a word that is overused these days. But I don’t think I’m being trite when I say how grateful I am to be able to seek help, to get it and to speak about it so that others who are suffering in miserable, anxious silence might be able to do the same. If you think you have a problem with anxiety, you probably do. But it’s a problem that can be fixed. Reach out. Get help. It’s the strongest, bravest thing you can do.
To find out more about anxiety – including what causes it, the signs and symptoms and the types of treatments available – click here to go to beyondblue.
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To find out more about living and dealing with anxiety try 'Finally Free' - a strategy filled e-book that teaches you how to understand, manage and conquer your panic and anxiety. Read more about it here.