My hands are what I write with, turn pages with, paint with, pat my dog with. Their meaning is deeply embedded. They are the way I connect with the world, with others, create music, art and physical connection. And they tremble. They shake. Sometimes like leaves, often it’s nothing but a barely perceptible vibration, the echoes of a train approaching, thrumming through the tracks. I focus my attention on them and feel nothing but the shuddering and a sense of dislocation, amputation, as if they are submerged in a powerful current of water and are entirely out of my control.
My doctor can look at the symptoms, examine my blood, record its pressure and read the marks of my anxiety disorder upon my body. Many indicators are invisible; the strangling sensation around my throat, as though I am being slowly hung, that lasts for days and peaks in intensity, making me gag. Or the needle-like stings that suddenly drive through my eyes, the sudden onslaught of sharp pain in my heart, up my arms, as though I’m having a heart attack. The sensations have a feel of the occult about them. And the perpetrator is my own mind. My body has become a voodoo doll and some unseen force attacks it with assaults that are entirely, frighteningly real.
Even before I knew I was afraid, the physical came first. Butterflies, nauseating, severe and unrelenting, swarmed in my stomach for weeks on end. I couldn’t sleep and found myself crippled by fear and crying silently at dusk and dawn, as though some part of me was measuring each day that slipped through my fingers. I was on my gap year, alone at home, and found myself increasingly crushed by the white walls of my room. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy identifies the circuit of thought (I’m worthless and worthy of abandonment), emotion (self-disgust, hopelessness, fear), and physical sensation (butterflies, dizziness) which simply loops and loops, growing in intensity, until waves of vertigo, shortness of breath and my pounding heart would leave me curled on the floor and crying, afraid to leave my house and too tired, too filled with self disgust, to try.
Strangely, the root of these thoughts and emotions were buried deeply in my mind. Too deep for me to reach. I’d follow the instructions of CBT, accept and attempt to replace the negative thought with a positive, but found I was trying to reshape my own reflection. These weren’t the thoughts that were causing my distress, they were just words I’d placed above a sensation, a label and an explanation.
I had a year’s holiday ahead of me. I’d achieved incredible HSC results, I had loving friends, a family I adored and was under no pressure to earn huge amounts of money, study, do anything. I was eighteen and this was supposed to be the best time of my life. I needed to exercise, meditate, not drink coffee, employ CBT, get a job and make an effort to see my friends.
Instead, my body was subjected to wave upon wave of anxiety symptoms that progressed in severity, a different one manifesting each month, just to keep things interesting. The unease evolved into a band around my windpipe, then migraines and full-blown panic attacks that confined me in a void, my blood rushing in my ears, my breath rasping. I’d go walking at dawn with my mum, striding along Manly Beach’s concrete esplanade, staring at the black water sucking the rocks and filled with a hopeless urgency, surges of adrenaline and a deadening blankness that acted like a sound-proofed room, amplifying everything inside.
I waited. I was going to go travelling in April. I tutored HSC students and saved money. Even though the unknown terrified me, I booked my flights, wrote lists, spent a small fortune at Kathmandu and struggled out of the mall with a hiking pack filled with thermals, gore-tex rain jackets, fleeces and bacteria-resistant socks. I went to the doctor to get my vaccinations. She took my blood pressure and noted it was high. My hands were shaking. I pressed them between my knees. ‘Well. I’ve been having butterflies. For weeks. And I’ve been feeling nervous.’ The invisible hand sealed around my throat, choking. How could I summarise it? The crying, the conviction that my family was unsafe every time they left the house, the thrill of terror every time I heard an ambulance. I had become a raw wound and the world was slicing me open.
She looked at me over her glasses. We were at the end of our ten minutes. ‘You’re just nervous about the needles. You don’t like them. And the trip. You haven’t travelled alone before, right? But you have to go. It’s going to be amazing, you’d regret it forever if you missed it. I wish I was going to Nepal.’
I’d told my mum about the anxiety. She was a counsellor. But I don’t know if I ever explained, was able to elucidate, the extent of it. I steered away from the sadness. The dreams about car accidents that removed me blamelessly from the world. She offered to organise for me to see someone. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a small thing, or should be. Circumstantial, brought on by my virtual unemployment, my feeling of being left behind by my friends, stress about the trip. I felt weak. Everyone gets stressed in these circumstances. I was just being a drama queen. A hysteric of the 19th century variety. I still had moments of brightness. Every now and then a day of calm serenity. I laughed at movies, enjoyed books. I baked. The two-hour process of measuring, mixing and cooking made me happy. I still went out. Maybe four parties in three months. My knees shook when my friends hugged me. I couldn’t speak properly, or I was overly animated, talking too fast, manically bright, self deprecating. ‘What am I doing? Nothing! Just watching TV, lady of leisure. I’ve been getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s amazing. Hahaha. I did a trial shift at Michel’s Patisserie but they showed me what they put in their milkshakes and I was out. I’m just too lazy. They wanted me to work! What is this w-o-r-k? Hahaha.’
It was a relief when I left for Nepal. Something had to change. Blinded by tears at the airport, I dropped all my things at the baggage check and stuttered to the security guard. Unsurprisingly, I was checked for drugs. I watched Disney Tarzan on my little inflight entertainment screen and cried surreptitiously throughout most of the movie whilst munching feverishly on peanut brittle.
Kathmandu was a shock to the senses. The first was my introductory experience to plane sickness as we lurched and dropped what felt like hundreds of metres (causing people on my plane to scream) in unpredictable Himalayan thermals. The Indian couple sitting next to me were as cool as cucumbers, looking disdainfully at the screamers and rolling their eyes as the overhead luggage thumped and rocked above us. I was silently making reckless divine bargains; please don’t let me throw up, please don’t let me die, please let there be a sick bag. There wasn’t a sick bag. But I didn’t throw up. Iron control. Plus, they hadn’t fed us on the flight.
My first impression of the city was an aggressive cab driver who, mistaking the friends I had met up with for newbies, not veteran travellers, tried to double the rate for the trip from the airport. As one friend haggled furiously in the front seat, the other told me to get my bag out of the boot, quick, quick! The driver zoomed away, I nearly stepped in a pile of burning rubbish and a threadbare cow nudged me out of the way.
The crush in the streets was overwhelming, the constant cries of ‘you have a beautiful smile pretty lady, come over here, rickshaw!’ were alarming, but the attitudes of my old school friends made me uncomfortable. It was as though travelling had stripped away a layer of idealism and all that was left was defensive, prickly cynicism in the face of the poverty around us. ‘These people are just trying to rip you off’ they said. ‘They hate us. They think we’re rich, spoilt kids who haven’t worked for our money. We’re just walking ATMs to them.’
I was glad when I left the city. It was a twelve-hour bus trip to Jiri, a village at the base of the Himalayas. That was where a friend and I began the climb to Mount Everest base camp.
At the beginning it was torturously hard. He had long legs and was used to walking around foreign cities for hours. I was quite unfit and the constant ascents and descents left me crying with exhaustion as I lagged behind him after ten hours of walking. I hadn’t prepared properly but I couldn’t quit.
At first, I was needing to stop every ten minutes, pulled backwards by my twelve kilo pack and breathless, but every single day I grew stronger. At the end of the week we had climbed out of the valleys and had reached Namche Bazaar, 3500 meters above sea level and the gateway to the high Himalayas. I was finally fit enough to keep up.
The mountains were more beautiful than anything I had ever seen before. They are made of limestone, which means that once they were alive, before falling to the ocean bed to be transmuted to stone by time and pressure. It means that the Himalayas are built from bones. They feel like they are, haunted by spirits or ghosts. We walked along valleys where the mountains on either side were nothing but piles of tumbled stones, like the ruins of an ancient civilisation. The earth was black and sparkled with tiny flecks of pyrite. Worn, ancient strings of prayer flags were strung up high above us and fluttered in the breeze in complete silence, as though they weren’t quite part of this world. Cairns were piled on mountain ridges, impossibly high, eerie. Unexplained.
I was light and empty, all emotion seared out of me by the overwhelming colours, immense peaks and the icy cold wind. Muscles tight enough to snap and air so thin I was left breathless after wriggling into my sleeping bag. I was nothing but a person who walked to my limit each day, wrote feverishly in my journal, and felt happy and unafraid for the first time in months. Reaching Base Camp was pure elation. I had done something. Achieved something. Each day I had a distance to walk, a place to go, a goal to meet. I carried everything I needed on my back.
Then we returned to Kathmandu, caught a flight to China. That was when the first quivers of fear and sadness returned. I felt like I was wavering on the edge of a cliff within myself. The cities leached the mountains out of me, bit by bit. I was still happier than I had been, but I wasn’t soaring, I wasn’t quite free.
I was homesick. I wanted to go back to Australia. I cried with relief when I saw the Sydney stars through the plane window, but I was also afraid. The anxiety crept back like an unwelcome guest. The mountains weren’t there to dwarf me and I couldn’t hollow myself out with ten hours of walking a day.
It took me two months to go to the doctor, a new one this time. She tested me for a thyroid condition, then told me what I already knew. Generalised anxiety disorder, severe. Depression, moderate.
Armed with my new labels, I felt a surge of validation. I’d been graded, I’d passed. I wasn’t a fake. I told a few of my friends, sure to let them know I had the doctor’s stamp of approval. They finally had a name to put to years of absences at social events. I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on counselling (confession: to have my parents spend hundreds of dollars on counselling). For a few weeks I followed an online CBT course, holding onto my doctor’s promise of medicine for the panic attacks if I decided I needed it.
But labels and strategies weren’t enough when the world closed around me like a trap. I got an editorial internship, which filled my time. I often spent whole days in the office under assault, my heart pounding and head swimming every time the phone rang, feeling overwhelmed and disoriented in the crowded food courts on my lunch break. I’d be sitting on the bus on my hour-long commute to work and have no idea where I was, unable to recognise streets on the route I’d followed dozens of times before. When I was stressed, for a few moments I’d be unable to understand what the people around me were saying, it was as though they were speaking a foreign language. A sound on the office radio would remind me of the hornet’s buzzing of a muted mobile phone and make me feel as though I’d missed a step, the lurch, the swell of dizziness, the fear. A name shouted in a crowd would make me flinch – was it mine? I’d wake from nightmares or be just dozing off when I fell out of my mind and onto my mattress as though dropped from a height. And I was deeply unhappy. Was this what life was? Leaving home at seven in the morning, returning at seven at night. Too tired to go out. Or going out with friends and not enjoying it. Was this nightclub supposed to be fun? Should I be enjoying this conversation, this night? It all seemed incredibly meaningless, a way of marking time, filling the void.
Writing my anxiety is a form of catharsis, even as my hands tremble as they grip the pencil, or tap the keys. But anxiety isn’t easily channelled. It’s like trying to drink water when you’re drowning. It seeps and taints. And writing within it just perpetuates its dull darkness. My characters are full of hopeless rage, simmering resentment, zombie-like terror. I write the walls of my anxiety, define them with ink, then find the cracks. Naming gives us power, familiarity. It’s a little handhold. Language to hold out the blankness.
I am now far better than I was at my worst. The stress is always there, lurking, ready to leap forwards at the slightest provocation, but I can handle it. It is controllable.
I refused the offer of medication because I felt all it would do is cover up the hole I’ve found inside myself. I know the strategies and I use them. Maybe time will help fill in whatever is missing, maybe a job I enjoy, maybe a moment of self-discovery. Maybe I should just trek for the rest of my life. Or maybe I’ll always have to cope with it and in some small way, maybe it will define me, refine me and make me stronger. But it hasn’t just yet.
This isn’t the story of a victory, nor a defeat. It’s one of survival and endurance. I’m rebuilding who I am, writing my walls, painting my darker corners and knocking out windows. It’s a process of excavation, reconstruction. Anxiety didn’t lead to self-enlightenment or discovery, but it was a darkness that settled over me, forcing me to find a light.