The Other Me
‘Looking For Answers’
One evening, I was watching TV when my sinuses spasmed, then closed-up. It became almost impossible to breathe through my nose – possibly hayfever. Dr Warren tried various medications: sprays, which did nothing; and an antihistamine, which simply made me insatiably thirsty.
Hayfever had begun to affect me the previous year, the year of Black Saturday, when horrific bushfires had razed Kinglake. I wondered if the loss of trees, or all the soot in the air, were perhaps somehow the cause, as I knew others who’d never had issues with hayfever but had now begun to suffer from it.
Sometimes, I also began to feel a wooziness in my head. When I was examined, I was told my ear canals were an angry red – possibly the same allergic reaction that my sinuses were having – and that might’ve contributed to feeling the way I was. Other times, when I’d take my evening walk, I’d feel momentary black-outs – just for an instant, everything would go dark, and then I’d rouse myself, the way you might late at night when you try to stop yourself falling asleep in front of the TV.
The stomach pains – perhaps simply through my course of starvation – levelled off from severe to moderate, although I lost seven kilograms in the process. Gradually, I tried to get in the habit of eating, using a diet the naturopath had set for me. For example, for breakfast I’d have a couple of pieces of toast (using something like rye bread), a two-egg omelette, and a glass of pineapple juice.
But around lunch, I’d feel the first pangs something wasn’t right, like little unsettling jabs in my head. The anxiety, at times, also became dominant in a way I’d rarely experienced – often, it was like being amped up to the crest of a panic attack and left there.
One Sunday afternoon, I had a lunch of roast, mashed potatoes, peas, and carrots, then set off to meet a friend for a coffee only to feel panicky the whole time. Another time, I had a similar lunch, and became so frightened my hands shook. On this day, I had an appointment with Dr Warren for something unrelated, and showed him my trembling hands. Tremors had never been one of my anxiety symptoms. It seemed my anxiety had worsened, or my capacity to deal with it had degenerated, and I couldn’t blame low blood sugar because now I was eating.
Because medication was unlikely after my failure with Anafranil, I read lots on dealing with anxiety and depression. One of the authors whose memoir I’d edited was a psychotherapist, and she suggested some books which I ordered from Amazon. In my desperation, I also bought a lauded course in dealing with anxiety.
The core philosophy of all this literature was anxiety was not debilitating because of the anxiety itself, but the fear it would occur, so you lived in this constant state of hyper-alertness, growing increasingly worried that anxiety would hit until it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Years earlier, when I’d become agoraphobic, that’s exactly what had happened – every time I had to leave the house, I put such pressure on myself to not feel anxiety, that’s inevitably what always happened. If I was out and felt anxiety, I had to rush back to the safety of home, which only set up in my mind the cycle, If you’re out, or try to go out, the anxiety will get you. Stay home. Stay safe. In doing that, though, I shut myself away, until I became a shut-in, too afraid to venture into the world. It was like painting myself into a corner.
Something else these books espoused was that trying to cope only made the situation worse, because you set up a psychology that something was wrong, which again fed the cycle of fear. It was like building a wall that the anxiety would bounce off quicker and stronger. Then it was a game of handball until you missed the ball.
Instead, these books and this course suggested welcoming the anxiety, and challenging it to get worse. Racing heartbeat? You could either panic about it, or challenge your heart to beat faster, to beat harder, and to do whatever the anxiety feared might occur – if you were worried a heart attack was going to hit, challenge it to hit.
When you bore through it this way, you showed yourself that whilst the symptoms might be unpleasant, whilst they might be outright awful, they actually weren’t dangerous, that there was no critical overload (like a heart attack), and you then dismantled that fear that something terrible was going to happen. Your body assimilated the symptoms, and by virtue of that your mind defused them.
I tried this now wherever I went. I’d go to the shopping plaza, light-headed and dizzy, and as the anxiety fired up, I told it to do its worst. Sometimes, I’d find a seat on the promenade, and just sit there for an hour or more, show the anxiety that it wouldn’t beat me back home the way it used to. One night, I went to the movies with a friend, and felt anxious and breathless throughout, as well as again having bizarre images in my head. I challenged it all, told it to get as bad as it could, to take me out.
Some walks, I’d become breathless until my head span, and the anxiety would taunt me that I’d collapse, miles from home. I’d counter now for the breathlessness to worsen, that if I was going to pass out from hyperventilation, so be it – my body’s autonomic system would reset, I’d regain consciousness, and everything would be okay.
My head had always been awash with racing thoughts, usually my imagination tumbling ideas around for my writing, but the health issues of the last year – the neck problems, the ear infections, the relentless and excruciating stomach pains for the last several months, the hayfever, all of it – had channelled this overthinking directly into an anxiety about health, about what my body was telling me, about the anxiety overloading.
So this became the ongoing fight inside my head, this constant battle between myself and the anxiety, me always challenging, often frustrated, and relentlessly counter-arguing, the anxiety manic – if not gleeful – in its chatter that my symptoms would escalate, that symptoms were endemic of something worse at play, and that I was either going to fly apart or suffer some sort of physical trauma.
Most times, at best, I held an uneasy stalemate with the anxiety, but given my past, right now a stalemate was the best kind of victory.