Anxiety and Depression (part 1): the cousins no one likes a visit from

This blog letter was originally featured on The Vine on 10 May 2013.

Dear Future Self,

You know how much I enjoy talking about anxiety and depression. I mean, where do you even start? How do you wrestle a bear? I suppose you would respond: ‘at the beginning’. Yes, you’re probably right, but delving into those memories can feel inexplicably dangerous—like wearing the same underwear for two days in a row, or using change rooms at public pools. It’s as if, somehow, you cross a line, and you’re not sure if something is going to come back with you from the other side. But with time and distance these things get easier to revisit, to dismantle. So I think it’s time I wrote to you about them: the cousins that no one likes a visit from—Anxiety and Depression. I call them cousins because, to me, they’ve always felt related to each other—different but similar in that familial way. And they’ve also felt related to me, almost part of my own inner family for quite some time.

I’m sure you still remember how it all started? It was the summer of 2000. And despite global fears on New Year’s Eve 1999 that every computer in the world was about to stop working and plunge us into an accidental apocalypse, I’d survived another year. In fact, the ticking time bomb everyone was worried about, Y2K, turned out to be a giant fizzer. Strangely enough, for me, it was NYE the following year that turned out to be the real time bomb. As I waved goodbye to the year 2000 and welcomed in 2001, something in my brain went haywire. Perhaps it was a programming glitch, an oversight in the original coding, or maybe my internal processors suddenly reached capacity and had to use an emergency release valve. Whatever it was, on the first day of 2001 there was a knock on my door and I had my first visit from a certain cousin I hadn’t come face-to-face with before: Anxiety. And he’d brought with him one of those burly, knee-capping types who would take you down without a second thought: Panic.

I’ll never forget that first visit—maybe because the onset was so sudden, so strong. If there was a lead-in, or an early warning system—like the ones they use for tsunamis and earthquakes—I hadn’t noticed. The first sign I had that something was wrong was being slapped in the face by a giant wave of fear and doom—the kind of fear I’d expect if I was being lowered from a helicopter into a warzone, not walking in the front door of the Mooloolaba Surf Club. I mean, at certain moments the surf club might resemble some kind of dating warzone: drunken sunny coast zombies amped up on rum and coke, hungry for fresh meat. But this wasn’t one of those times, and there was no simple explanation for the way I felt.

I was having lunch with some close friends—the McClure’s, or ‘my second family’ as I often called them—and we were supposed to be celebrating the first day of a new year. But as I sipped on my beer and looked around the room it was as if I could suddenly see everything. Everything all at once. It was like the part of my brain that normally filtered out the unimportant bits of visual information—the colour of the walls; the worst Hawaiian shirt in the room; how many women had unwittingly deviated into drag queen territory by bathing in fake tan and applying so much makeup you’d need paint stripper to remove it—decided these were just as important as any other detail. (And this wasn’t some awesome moment where I felt like I had suddenly acquired an X-Men-esque superpower—I’m pretty sure Wolverine wasn’t about to welcome me to the fold because I could now spot accidental drag queens; the feelings that came with the visual chaos were overwhelming.) I was filled with panic and a burning need to run from the room—as if I could somehow outrun these feelings, outrun myself.

It was fight or flight. It was the survival instinct programmed into all human beings, passed down through the ages: it had helped my ancestors escape wild beasts in the jungle; it had helped me escape men at music festivals draped in the Australian flag, arms branded with Southern Cross tattoos. But this time there wasn’t an obvious enemy, any external threat. Fight or flight. I didn’t fancy myself as a fighter, and there was nowhere to run to, so I just stood there and tried to pretend that everything was normal, that I was OK. I’d been doing it for years—pretending I was fine, even to myself. It was something I was good at, very good at. But I simply couldn’t do it any longer—it was precisely the thing that had got me into this mess in the first place.

When my parents found out that I was having constant severe anxiety, seasoned with the occasional panic attack, they took me to the family’s favourite getaway. It was the place we’d often gone to escape our busy lives and find some peace: Fraser Island. On the first night, as the three of us huddled inside the tent, getting ready for dinner, Dad noticed that the valve that separated the gas bottle from its lamp was loose and tried to tighten it. Except he wasn’t tightening it. The new valve he’d bought just days earlier screwed left-to-right, not right-to-left as all the others had done in the past, and enough gas escaped from the bottle to set the lamp on fire. Dad quickly grabbed the lamp and threw it out into the bush, burning his leg in the process. And as the flames took hold of the tent, Mum and I had to—literally—jump through a wall of flames to get out. The British backpackers we’d bemoaned camping right in front of us, rushed up and helped us put out the fire in the tent, and the fire now raging in the bush, with buckets of seawater. Soon the fire was gone, and the air was filled with the smell of melted plastic. Obviously none of this particularly helped my anxiety, although, for once at least, it felt like my overactive fight-or-flight mechanism was warranted. It had helped me escape a burning tent, after all.

That night we slept under the stars, and for the rest of the trip I slept in a half burnt-out tent, with melted, blackened bits of plastic hanging down from the roof. Every morning I’d wake up, hear the waves crashing on the beach, and for a split second I’d feel OK. And then I’d open my eyes, and remember where I was, remember who I was, and within a few seconds it would all come flooding back in.

In the twelve years that have followed, I’ve had quite a few visits from Anxiety and Depression, and each time I’ve been able to deal with it a little better. As you know, Future Self, I’m not talking about the kinds of clinical anxiety and depression that some people face—requiring ongoing medication, intensive therapy, and even hospitalisation. I’m referring to lows that, in the ebb and flow of life, seem to bottom-out further, burn brighter, and stick around longer. For me, at times, this meant anxiety that made me desperate to escape my own skin and silence my harsh mind; and depression that made it almost impossible for me to get out of bed, see anybody or do anything. And both these things meant going to therapy and getting help.

The hardest thing I’ve had to accept about visits from Anxiety or Depression is that they’re not unwarranted. I might like to throw my hands up in the air and curse them for being so rude: ‘How dare you show up unannounced and wreak havoc on my life!’ I might even act surprised when I see one of them standing on my doorstep, but the real gut-kicker is, I know that I invited them. Hell, sometimes I’ve even asked them to stay for a cup of tea! So when I get lazy, when I slip back into old unhealthy patterns, they are the harsh reminder that there’s something I’m resisting: something I need to change, pay attention to, let go of. They come to remind me that I need to take the next step on the path: that I need to become more authentic. They come to destroy something old so that I can build something new in its place; when all civil negotiations fail, they are the wrecking crew of my mind. Sometimes it can feel like a part of you is dying, and sometimes it is—to make space for something new to live. And yes, they can be horribly painful to deal with, but I also know that, in my life, they have served a purpose. They are my creation and my responsibility. And that has been hard to swallow. So each time they come—even though I want to slam the door in their face—I know it’s my job to acknowledge them, sign a new authenticity agreement, and bid them farewell again.

I don’t know if I will ever live entirely without the occasional visit from these two cousins, but if I do, I’ll know that I made that happen, too. You see, I learnt something important way back in 2001: about Y2K, fear, and fixing the system. (And it mightn’t seem like much, but I believed it—and that made all the difference.) I realised that if my brain was that powerful—powerful enough to create these horrible feelings and emotions—it was also capable of doing the opposite, of fixing it. And suddenly I knew—I understood—that if I had the power to destroy something, that same power could be used to heal and rebuild. And it was this simple belief that got me through some of the toughest periods, because I stopped looking for an external cure, and started looking within.

When I’ve thought back to January 1st, 2001, and the years of struggle and painful growth that followed, I’ve often thought of it as the worst day of my life—the worst thing that has ever happened to me. And as true as that has felt at different times, I know that it’s not really that simple. For starters, I had to admit the difficult truth that, however I framed it, it hadn’t happened to me : I had done it to myself. Taking responsibility for who I am and where I am in my life has been important. What’s been even more important is the understanding that, in fact, this was the best thing that ever happened to me: the best thing I have ever done to myself. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. I’m actually thankful that I had my ‘identity crisis’, my wake up call, my awakening—whatever you want to call it—and I’m thankful that I had it at the ripe old age of twenty, when there was still plenty of time to change. I didn’t have to wait till I was fifty for a mid-life crisis to jolt me awake from a life-coma and start me wondering who I really was. No, not me, I started early.

Sometimes I also think about my life prior to January 1st, 2001, and how different I was. If it wasn’t for that day at the Mooloolaba Surf Club, and the chain of events that followed, who knows where I would be today—who I would be. It was the catalyst for change in my life, the opportunity to discard the false and embrace the authentic. It has been the hardest thing in my life I’ve ever had to go through, but it has also been the most important. It has brought with it great change and learning, and at times even a sense of inner peace. It made me who I am today. I made me who I am today—both a terrifying and wonderful thing to admit and take responsibility for. So I am grateful for those two cousins, Anxiety and Depression, who paid me that first visit all those years ago, because, though their methods may have been brash and devastating, their purpose was to bring me to myself. And that, Future Self, is something I wouldn’t take back for anything.

Yours forever in the here and now,

Former Self

*This blog letter is dedicated to Hercules Kollias: the greatest teacher I have ever known.
*If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or panic attacks, beyondblue is a good starting point to find out more.

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