health

'I was at a high school party when a crushing terror took over me. It's lasted a decade.'

Content Warning: This article discusses severe anxiety and may be disturbing for readers. 

The glass I was holding suddenly smashed to the floor.

I pressed the fingers of my right hand into different places along my left arm, shoulder and hand. Nothing. I had completely lost all feeling.

Cold sweat trickled down my neck and with shaky hands, I attempted to find my pulse in my neck. It was as rapid as a frenzied snare drum.

I think I’m having a heart attack.

It was 2009; I was 15. I was standing in the backyard at a high school party. I was in a bubbly mood, cheerfully chatting to friends. Then completely out of nowhere, this crushing terror took over.

I begged Mum to pick me up and as we drove, I looked to the horizon. Though my eyes were blurry and full of tears, I saw the twinkling lights of the sprawling city skyline and thought to myself that this was it. That was the last thing I would ever see. As the grip tightening around my throat and hysteria kicked in, I became at peace with the thought that this is how I would die. I didn’t know what was killing me, but something was plaguing my insides, turning them black and rotten.

What I had just experienced was the first of many panic attacks I’d have. In a way, I had wished it was a heart attack – I felt more at ease with my organs shutting down than accepting I’d lost control of my mind.

What followed was a year-long dissociative episode – feeling disconnected from my body and from reality – so spaced out that I felt I wasn’t me, but was watching a terrible movie starring me.

Paranoia took over. Daily life was disrupted by convincing thoughts of terrorist attacks, car crashes killing my whole family or the impending apocalypse. One afternoon at a football match, a balloon in the sky resembling a bomb sent me into a five hour hysteria.

Life was like this for years – I felt like a prisoner inside my own body. Thoughts of harming myself plagued my mind, as I was convinced my broken brain would cause my whole life to be a hellish nightmare.

But then, with the support of my mum, I began seeing psychiatrists, psychologists, GPs – anyone we thought could help end the pain. Soon after reaching out for support, a crucial message became evident to me:

I wasn’t broken. I wasn’t crazy. I was living with severe anxiety, but there was hope.

I began a variety of medications and therapy practices such as mindfulness, working through traumas and developing key strategies for when anxiety spirals start.

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One counsellor used Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – noticing and challenging my anxious thoughts to cut through and stop unhelpful thinking carry me away. I began learning to extinguish anxiety fires by plucking out anxious thoughts and saying, “Ugh, there’s bloody anxiety again. Shut up, thought.” As trivial as it sounds, it helped me distance myself from my anxiety and forgive myself for the pain I was in.

Throughout the nine years I’ve had anxiety, I’ve learned healing is not a linear process – there are setbacks littered amongst progress. Panic attacks happen frequently, but they don’t always seem as scary. I can recognise what they are and put into practice methods to quieten down the dread and let the wave pass by.

Having support networks of people has been a lifeline. Sometimes I need a vent, sometimes I need a cuddle, and sometimes I need friends to send me a hundred pictures of golden retrievers to calm me down. I feel so grateful for these people. Additionally, finding my queer community provided me a sense of belonging I never thought possible. Because the mental health rates are higher within the LGBTIQA+ community due to discrimination, often my queer friends can provide solidarity to remind me I’m not a broken human.

Through almost a decade of self-care (bubble baths, podcasts and more), celebrating my successes, allowing myself space to feel my feelings and a journey of self-forgiveness, I can say I’m no longer my own worst enemy.

I’m not completely better – I don’t know if I ever will be. I still have days where I crumble with fear and can’t get out of bed. But I’ve learned to love myself despite my brain not being always kind to me. Faith Harper in her book on anxiety aptly says, “there will never be anything else you do that is more radical than investing in your own self-worth and self-care.”

Anxiety feels like a beast sucking the happiness and ease from your life. Taming the beast is possible when you can recognise it, challenge it and show yourself love despite it. I put mine in a cage beside me. It’s still there shouting, but while it does, I can drown it out with the sound of having a life worth living.

Dani is a guest on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which hears from anxiety sufferers about what is helping them beat it.

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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