Picture this: you feel like Eminem in the song where he’s knees weak, palms sweaty, but instead of mom’s spaghetti, you’re at home curled up under your desk (being in an enclosed space helps), and instead of freaking out before a high stakes underground rap battle, you’re going out to dinner with your friends. They’re cool, but you’re also like, 90 percent sure you’re going to die at the very idea of it. What is it? You’re not sure exactly, but that doesn’t matter. You can’t stop hyperventilating, your fingers are numb, and your heart feels like a bird battering itself against your ribcage, trying to explode out of your chest. Also, you’re definitely running late for your bus.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, according to Beyondblue. Up to two million of us have it in some shape or form. And twice that amount of people believe that we’re faking it. Which is totally cool, because I mean, I do fake a lot of things. For example, I fake that I’m not on the verge of tears at work, or that I don’t watch reality TV (it’s anthropological research, I swear), or that I like those four million people who think I’m a fake.
Of course, everyone gets anxious sometimes, with the exception of Donald Trump, who is clearly a terrifying robot sent from the future to destroy us all. Everyone gets anxious about job interviews, or about talking to their crush, or about climate change and rising sea levels. Oh, and public speaking – one of humanity’s top fears of all time, often more so than dying, or clowns. But there are two million-ish Australians out there with some form of anxiety disorder, and that’s a whole different beast.
Suffering from an anxiety disorder means that you’re often anxious for no particular reason, or that something that should only make you a little anxious, or that shouldn’t make you anxious at all (for example, going out to dinner with friends) leads to a panic attack, which usually lasts for 10 minutes to half an hour. And then you’re anticipating the next panic attack, which makes you more anxious, and means your anxiety shitstorm comes full circle and you’re constantly panicky or anxious or both. Good times.
And the problem with anxiety is that it’s not just the anxiety. It’s what everyone else thinks – a recent BeyondBlue survey showed that more than 10 percent of Australians aged between 30 and 34 believe people with anxiety are untrustworthy. Plenty more people think that people with anxiety use it to get out of situations they don’t want to be in. So if you have anxiety, you have to be selective about who you tell, which adds a whole ‘nother layer of anxiety to the anxiety cake. For example, do I tell my friends that I’m late to dinner because I was having a minor panic attack? Will they think that’s a shit excuse? (Hot tip: never wear eye makeup. That way, you can break down and cry before OR after you do your makeup, and still get to your bus on time.)
Or, if I tell someone I’ve just started dating that I may occasionally curl into a ball and hyperventilate for 20 minutes or so, I assume they’ll probably be out of there. And honestly, I wouldn’t blame them: between that, and my propensity for overanalysing pop culture (I have A LOT of thoughts about Peter Parker’s inclusion in the new Captain America film, let me tell you), I’m kind of the worst. But if I tell them too far in, have I been tricking them into thinking I’m normal? It’s anxiety catch-22. Either way, anxiety wins and everyone else loses.
But Sharona, you say. Why don’t you just go see a counsellor and get that all sorted out quick smart?
Well, old-timey reader, the last counsellor I saw asked me: what’s stressing you out? What’s making you anxious? What’s wrong with your life?
And I said: nothing really, I guess. (Also, aren’t you meant to be like, educated in mental health issues? Isn’t the whole point of anxiety is that I’m not panicking about anything real? What is even the point of you?)
No, actually, I only said that first thing. But the point is: even people that are meant to understand, often don’t really understand. So what’s a slightly (extremely) anxious girl to do?
Recently, big names such as Kristen Bell and Chris Evans have shared their experiences with anxiety. This has put the issue into the spotlight, ironically for a mental illness that usually comes with a crippling fear of the spotlight. Knowing that real people that people actually look up to can also have anxiety is strangely comforting. Not to mention it’s good to know that other people are learning about it, and the stigma is gradually being broken down.
So okay, say you’re not one of the four million people who think that people with anxiety are “putting it on” (http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/one-in-five-australians-believes-people-with-anxiety-put-it-on-20160415-go7aw9.html). Instead, you want to help your friends with anxiety. Firstly: that’s really cool of you. Secondly: let me share the best response anyone has ever had to a panic attack of mine.
I was in the hallway just after a cinema studies tutorial, and felt a panic attack coming on for no explicable reason. Luckily, I made it to the stairwell, which was relatively deserted, and sequestered myself into the corner, kind of like the creepy ghost child in the corner, who the mother thinks is just her regular child, but then it turns around and it’s all you know, terrifying and mangled and ghost-like. That, except curled up and hyperventilating in-between tears.
As more tutes finished, people started trickling through, and a couple people stopped, and asked things like: “hey, are you okay?” Obviously the girl sobbing in the corner of the uni stairwell is not okay, but they did their best. “I’m” – gasp – “fine,” I replied, digging my nails into my palms so hard that they went numb. “Oh…okay,” they’d say awkwardly, and continue on their way downstairs.
I was still in the midst of the panic attack when a couple of guys walked past me, and one stopped his friend, and said to me: “hey, are you okay?” I did the gaspy “I’m fine” thing, and could tell that the guys were exchanging looks.
“Well, clearly not,” he said, and told me that he used to have anxiety in high school, and that it sucked. “You’re from my cinema studies tute, yeah?”
I looked up, trying to hide my gross face, looking at him through a haze of tears. “Uh huh,” I said, still between sobs, burying my head back into my hands.
“I liked your X-Men t-shirt,” he said, and he and his mate talked about comic books and films for the next fifteen minutes, until my breathing eventually returned to normal and I can joining in on their conversation.
I never catch his name and I never bring it up with him again. Two weeks later semester ends and I never see him again. I probably never will. But I still remember that time that someone just stopped and looked at me and told me: “This sucks and I’m sorry it is happening to you.”
Image: Susanne Feldt
Sharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.