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The spinning wheel of anxiety and how one woman is beating it

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Did you know that 10% of all Australians will suffer from anxiety disorder at some time during their life?  That is one person out of every ten.   Next time you see a group of more than ten people, think of that statistic.  I do.  Why?  It stops me feeling so alone.  When I was in the grip of my anxiety disorder I felt incredibly alone.  No one understood.  I couldn’t explain it.  I was too ashamed and embarrassed.  I thought I was the only person who felt this way.   I always found ways to avoid situations.  Looking back, I’m sure I behaved quite manically at times … bordering on OCD.  I had rituals to avoid getting caught out.  I only sat in certain places.  I always travelled alone.  I never travelled on buses or trains.  I was always excusing myself in meetings.  I always appeared very busy, rushing here, rushing there.  In reality I was like a hamster on a spinning wheel; the spinning wheel of anxiety.

My anxiety was different.  I didn’t suffer the usual tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, feeling of impending heart attack or even death.  My anxiety manifested itself as diarrhoea.  My hands would sweat, my body would tingle, then the entire contents of my stomach and intestines would literally melt and I would need to find a toilet stat.  There was no waiting, or holding on.  It was immediate and there was no stopping it.

The first time it happened, it was frightening, but I managed to jump out of the car (relax – I was a passenger) and get to a bathroom.  It left me feeling a bit shaken, but I put it down to something I’d eaten.  No biggie.

The very next week, on the very same road, the very same thing happened.  This time I tried to fight it with my mind.  It wasn’t cooperating.  We drove quickly to the house of a nearby friend and thankfully they were home and crisis was averted.  This time I was shaken and unsettled.  My mind grabbed hold of the situation and wouldn’t let it go.  By the time we had to make the same journey the next day, a new way of life had begun for me.  I was on the anxiety roundabout and it seemed there was no way off.

As weeks turned into months, I became more and more lost to anxiety.  My every waking thought was spent worrying about when my next attack would happen.  Invariably my mind would bring on an attack.  Anxiety is very powerful like that.  When people say “it’s mind over matter” they are right.  Except when you suffer from anxiety disorder and are in the midst of all it throws at you, try as you will, you have no power over your mind.  Anxiety has all the power.

My family did not understand … I was continually told that it was all in my mind and to pull myself together.  “You have a great life, a husband, two children, a nice home, what more could you want?”

It wasn’t about wanting more or wanting less.  It was out of my control.  My anxiety had finally become me.  I was no longer the one driving.

One Friday the unthinkable happened.  I was on my way to work and I didn’t make the bathroom on time.  It was all kinds of awful.   When I think back now, while the actual physical event was gross, it wasn’t life threatening nor was it witnessed by anyone.  However the mental anguish that came with this event was debilitating.  Finally the “worst thing that could happen” happened.   All the books I had read always said, “What is the worst thing that could happen when you have a panic attack?”   It was always “embarrassment”.   It was never “death”.   In my mind I believed that my “worst thing” was much worse than thinking you were going to have a heart attack.   At least people would help you.  Crapping in your pants is not pretty and I can guarantee you won’t have a crowd rushing to help.

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I had totally lost control.  Prior to this “event” I would sometimes have to go to the toilet seven times before I could get in the car to drive my son to school.  School was five minutes down the road.   I was now unable to function normally.  I could barely leave the house.   I had been beaten by my anxiety.  It had finally become me.

I did seek medical help at this stage as I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.  I had two young children and was barely capable of being their mother.  This started the roller coaster ride of anti depressants.  I truly had no other option and they helped.  A lot.   Despite antidepressants allowing me to resume my life, I was not happy to be taking them.  I saw it as a sign of failure.  I always saw them as a temporary measure.  A short term fix.  Once I felt better I could stop and I would be cured.  Not so.   I would “come off” them and within 12 months I would be back on them again.  Each time this happened I felt more of a failure.

My psychiatrist, a beautiful wise lady, told me something one day which totally changed my way of thinking and started me on the right path to managing this disorder.  She told me that anxiety is like any other disorder – high blood pressure, diabetes, epilepsy and anything else that requires medication to regulate it. “Everyone has their thing,” she said “and yours is anxiety.  If you had diabetes, would you feel like a failure because you needed to inject yourself with insulin because your body doesn’t make it?  Would you feel the need to try and do it without medication?    Anxiety can be with you forever.  Sometimes it needs to be managed with drugs, sometimes it can be managed without drugs, but it will always need to be managed.”    She gave me permission to accept my anxiety.

I still had a long way to go, but her words gave me a starting point to move forward – I could finally take that first step.   It has taken years of management, including hypnosis (highly recommended), yoga, lifestyle changes, a divorce, being kinder to myself and yes, at different times I do still need to take antidepressants.  I am a work in progress and I’m ok with that.  The difference now however is that I’m in control.

I do so many things out of my comfort zone now, including a brand new job in an industry I’ve never worked in before.   I am under pressure and in situations where I just can’t get up and leave because I feel anxious.  Three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this – today I can.

My anxiety is there, it always will be, but it doesn’t define me and it definitely doesn’t control me, for the most part.  I don’t doubt that anxiety will sneak up on me again when I least expect it and it will mess with my head for a while, but I also know that I’ll come out the other side and I’ll be okay.  This I know for sure.

Annie Reuss is a mum to two teenage boys, a writer of many things, an anxiety wrestler, a chocoholic and a constant work in progress.  In her “spare” time Annie produces the Afternoon radio show on 1116 4BC in Brisbane.  You can follow Annie twitter @Annieb25 and her blog is www.lifeanddandelions.com

You can listen to Annie’s interview with Richard Fidler here.

Do you suffer from anxiety? Have you managed to control or beat it?

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