Kerryn Johnston has read regional news for WIN and Prime Television for 25 years. She recently resigned to spend more time with her ‘tween’ children. Here, for the first time, she writes about her battle with the debilitating anxiety that crept up on her a few years ago, and threatened to derail her career.
I read live television news for twenty-five years. For the last three, I battled crippling anxiety. I know it’s become a buzz word and I am ashamed to say that I used to scoff at those who said they suffered from it. I thought it was the hypochondriac’s version of being ‘under the pump’ until I suffered my first attack, live on air.
My heart was a bass drum, my palms prickled with sweat, I could barely breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack. The physicality of it rendered me unable to speak – not ideal in my field. I stumbled through, took a huge breath and, after the bulletin, thought, ‘What the hell was that?’
Watch Mia Freedman discuss how she manages her anxiety.
It happened again the next night, and the next, and the one after that. This continued for three long years. The simple act of sub-editing introductions would set my heart racing. If I was alerted mid-bulletin to the inclusion of a new story, (something I’d been digesting with ease for 22 years), my anxiety would soar. The dread I felt each night as I walked down the hall to the studio became overwhelming.
With some creative sub-editing, I devised coping mechanisms to stave off attacks. I would separate live reads to give myself a chance to breathe while the vision rolled, I would rewrite paragraphs to shorten pieces to camera, lessening the chance of me having to stop, mid-read, to fight for air.
Kerryn had read the news for 22 years before her first attack. (Image: Supplied.)
I began to print my scripts across the page, rather than in columns, because I had convinced myself, like a superstitious madwoman, that it would stave off another bout. But it didn’t.
This wasn’t happening in my car or even a shopping centre, which would have been bad enough – I was live on camera beaming my sweaty breathlessness into thousands of lounge rooms.
Even allowing myself to think ‘I hope it doesn’t happen tonight,’ was enough to trigger an attack.
For someone who prided themselves on calm, consistent, mostly error-free delivery, this was excruciating and embarrassing. I felt so sick on the drive home most nights, but I still loved my job and decided that I had to beat it before it beat me so I sought help.
Lots of it.
The doctors wanted to give me beta blockers and anti-depressants. The young psychologist handed me a box of tissues, but I had no tears. I wasn’t sad. I was very, very angry. A friend eventually pointed me to a local practitioner of EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing.
It involves redirection and uses your own eye movements to distract or dampen the impact of emotions associated with trauma or, in my case, anxiety.
I had long conversations with this wise old owl, picking her brains for tricks. She gave me lots of reading and I stockpiled what I found useful. The fodder seemed endless and included visualising a remote control and imagining ‘switching channels’ when I felt an attack coming on.
Clenching my fists or tapping underneath the newsdesk to distract myself also helped change my focus. EMDR did not cure me but it provided coping mechanisms.
Medical professionals advised me not to speak with my co-workers about my condition, suggesting that while anxiety is talked about far more openly now than ever before, it’s still seen as a weakness by some.(Post continues after gallery.)
Each time a colleague would ask, ‘Are you okay? Did you just lose your breath?’ I would come up with an excuse about not concentrating, asthma or typos and go home thinking that today was the day I had been found out.
Mine was a peculiar problem in that I was always on-air when it occurred and I didn’t have an option to stop and take deep breaths. I’m sure that this would have been entertaining for viewers but may have raised a few questions about my sanity.
There wasn’t a single ‘lightbulb moment’ for me, but my husband and I identified that talking about the attacks and focusing on them was a trigger. The more I conducted post-mortems when I got home, the worse I felt. The less I obsessed, the less frequently I suffered.
Kerryn with her husband. (Image: Supplied.)
By the time I resigned four months ago, I had not had an attack in over a year. It was an agonising victory over the biggest challenge of my career. I am glad that I didn’t walk away when it had me pinned. I would have forever felt it was the victor.
(Incidentally, I still don’t like underground carparks, or lifts, or even some public toilets, so ‘cured’ may be too strong a word, but I’m getting there :)
Do you suffer from anxiety attacks? Where was the scariest place you had one?