It was like yesterday when I was in my early twenties, playing indoor cricket, socialising, bartending, and trying to make a writing career for myself. Now I was in my late twenties, with little social activity, still writing, and still living at home.
Still locked away in my fortress of solitude.
Everybody accepted me as a hermit. Everybody saw me as too fragile for the real world.
So I just lived the way I knew how.
Stan and I still caught up, although not as much we used to. As had occurred with my other friends, he’d moved to a house well outside my sphere of comfort. I went there once, but again used a lot of beer to desensitize myself to the journey.
It saddened me that my friends had moved on and I was stuck. I was happy for them, but it’s not easy to be left behind. How do you live your life when everything terrifies you? When you feared going anywhere because you’d have a collapse, when you were never sure your insecurities wouldn’t parlay into some madness, and you got trapped in ritualistic behaviours, like counting whether you have an even- or odd-numbered amount of Xanax?
Things had to change.
My cousins went to the football together, so they represented the perfect chance for me to get out again – not that they knew it.
Come 1999, I got seriously interested in the football again. Over the last several years, I’d listened to my team Collingwood on the radio, or watched games on TV. Now I wanted to go again, even if the club had deteriorated into a laughingstock.
If nothing else, their failure fired me to write. Being the internet age, I started a website about them. Some of my cousins also wrote. It quickly became a popular site – amazing given that up to Round 8 of the 1999 season, I’d gone to only one game in just over four years.
I made my return to footy in Collingwood’s Round 8 clash against Footscray. It was a night match, and I’d decided against drinking to get through it. I wanted to see if I could just be there. If worse came to worst, I had the Xanax in my wallet. If it really came to the worst, I could hit the bar.
It was all the same symptoms going there – occasionally gulping for breath, telling myself I’d be okay, all that. It was a broken record I was tired of. Underlying it, was a sense of anticipation, of excitement. We went up to our seats. I was able to get distracted in talking to my cousins.
When there was a lull, I sat there, up in the Great Southern Stand, looking down at the players run back and forth on a perfectly still and clear night, and thought, I can do this. All those little successes and all that frustration at myself had added up to give me the backbone to be here. After years of my head telling me what I couldn’t do, it was an amazing message – an old message that was now so new.
Not that I followed it up – not immediately. I didn’t go to another game for almost two months, and this time I drank, although it wasn’t to cope but just to socialize. Maybe it was wrong, but it was good to do something for the enjoyment of it.
These were little steps, but they were steps. These couple of tastes of footy opened up the world to me. From next season, it was time to go again. I built myself up to it. Things could be like they were. They needed to be. The world had ticked on. I had to catch up.
I went to a pre-season game and again knocked back beer. When the season proper began – a month earlier than usual to accommodate the Olympics later in the year – we were still getting summer-like weather. When Collingwood played Hawthorn, the temperature was in the mid-thirties, and I was afraid the heat would set off the anxiety: I’d get hot, I’d get stifled, I’d sweat – all anxiety-like symptoms that could put me in enough of a state to feel anxiety. They’d lead to shortness of breath, and then a full-blown panic attack. What then? My cousin Chris now knew about my condition, and had said if something came up we’d deal with it. I wished I could be so relaxed about possible doom.
Then, as we were walking up to our seats, I bumped into Dr Warren, (who supported Hawthorn). I didn’t recognise him initially, as I’d never seen him in life outside the clinic he worked in. It was like seeing Santa in casual clothes. If something happened now, he was close by. We exchanged hellos and then my cousin and I headed to our seats.
I survived the game, although there were minor incidents, times when I felt too hot, when my breath caught in my throat, and I thought the countdown to a panic attack had been initiated. But I was able to talk myself through them.
Later in the week, I caught the flu but come the weekend – Collingwood playing Adelaide – I was determined to go. I didn’t want to set up in my head the block that if I was sick, I couldn’t leave the house, even if I had a legitimate excuse.
I went to the game, which was on an overcast, miserable day, drizzle opening up toward the end of the match. I felt horrible throughout it. My cousins said they wouldn’t have come if they were as sick as me, and that was something, that I was still doing this regardless. I had to keep telling myself over and over that I was okay, but I survived.
As we left, I was convinced that was it, I was on my way out of the agoraphobia.
And it had taken only five years.