The first time I had a crippling panic attack, I was only 7 years old. Just one year later, a bottle of anti-anxiety medication was prescribed to me and eagerly handed over to my parents by my psychiatrist.
With a nod of approval, we were hustled out the door. It was unbeknownst to me at the time that a tumultuous journey had started as the battle in my mind begun.
I was always pretty nervous as a kid. There was plenty of happiness, fun and adventure. But it all seemed to be punctuated by periods of irrational anxiety about my mother going to the supermarket and leaving me for an hour, or questioning what could happen if I was taken by strangers in the park.
It just seemed like a part of my day-to-day. I was hyper-aware of my fears around exams or making friends. Because of that, my entire personality became an adaptation of what it potentially could have blossomed in to.
In hindsight, I gravitated towards controlling friendships and felt an incessant need to be likeable. It gave me a sense of structure and control — a way to pump the brakes in my brain and let someone else take the reigns.
Ready, Set… Implode
When I was in University, the day-to-day became a little more difficult. It was the best years of my life — and I didn’t want it to feel any different by letting anxiety take over.
A focus on my main goal of graduating allowed me to supplement my over-thinking. I could throw everything into studying to achieve what I wanted more than anything — a Degree. However, I had failed to question how I would feel once this was completed.
But that didn’t occur to me until I had finished University. I was okay, or so I thought. I was 21 and just quit my retail job. I had been off my medication for a year — determined that I could do it all cold turkey. I had my degree. I had a great relationship. I should have been on top of the world. I was doing all of these fun things.
But for the first time in my life, I didn’t have anywhere to go every day or anything to do without school or work.
Where Do You Go When You Lose Yourself?
That’s when the thoughts started to come. Slowly at first, and then all at once they converged — the panic, anxiety, restlessness and tears.
In my personal life, I was watching my brother battle his own immense and dark struggle with mental health – namely Bipolar Disorder. After falling into a psychosis spanning six months, I saw as he slowly lost himself.
It forced our family to turn inwards and face the mental illnesses that we had inherited — the ones that we needed to admit even existed.
It was not until I was travelling to Brisbane for a wedding that I realized I needed help. My mother and aunt had spent over an hour searching for me around the shops.
I had turned my phone off, sat paralysed in panic against a wall and bawled my eyes out because I couldn’t summon the bravery to enter one store.
I couldn’t make a single decision for myself.
To feel helpless, overwhelmed and scared of yourself when nothing is technically going wrong in your life is hard enough to personally admit, let alone describe to anybody else.
It was then that I decided to get professional help, and I have been doing so ever since. There is a pang of particular guilt that followed — maybe I didn’t have enough to be upset about? Or I needed to toughen up?
I am now so grateful that I didn’t try to tackle this battle alone.
The Road to Recovery is Paved with Struggle
It wasn’t as though I was suddenly better, but after 4 weeks back on my medication, in therapy and doing the work — I was in a better place.
I was thinking about finding a fulfilling job, I’d started the gym for the first time in years and after pushing my relationships away, I was becoming comfortable with myself.
The point of telling this is that this story isn’t unique, it isn’t different and it certainly should not garner sympathy — it should inspire action. Every journey is different and for some people in my life, like my brother, it has taken a long road to recovery forged with sacrifice and tenacity to heal.
I am on my way to continue healing. Tough times are inevitable and hell, just last week I became redundant in my job and had to fork out a few thousand dollars for an emergency. However, I can see my progress in the way I cope with these curveballs now. But it’s not about the problems, because they will always exist.
It is in our ability to deal with them — not alone, but with help.
It’s okay not to be okay.
A Chat with Osher Günsberg on Mental Health
The conversation below is from an interview that I gave to Bachelor TV Host, Author and Mental Health Awareness Advocate, Osher Günsberg.
I remember reading his book “Back, After the Break” and immediately sensed that his struggle with depression, anxiety and addiction would resonate with so many.
As a Media student at Sydney University, I was fortunate enough to speak with him for an assignment and have shared a few of his poignant answers to the questions below.
As you have discussed in your memoir “Back, After the Break” and on your podcast “Better Than Yesterday with Osher Günsberg”, everyone has a different journey with mental health. What was a pivotal turning point in yours?
There was a number. Getting sober was massive as it meant not only ineffectively trying to self-medicate what was going on, it also taught me a lot about coping strategies, calling people to check in on them and indeed checking my own behaviour with someone I trusted.
All of these things were instrumental in saving my life when I got really, really sick. When the suicidal ideation started, the habit of calling someone and talking to them when I was in trouble was what helped keep me focused on getting well.
I also looked at the management of my mental health as a project I needed to work on and set up to run itself.
I addressed it methodically, seeking expert opinion where I had gaps in knowledge and committed to action based on that in the course of achieving the goal of feeling in any way different to how things felt when it was most awful.
I’ve heard you describe the “self-stigma” that you experienced when coming to terms with your mental health. How exactly did you work to overcome this?
In my experience, I have found to be true that the number one symptom of alcoholism is convincing you that you don’t have it.
Similarly, I did not want to have a brain that was so sick.
I didn’t want to have OCD.
I didn’t want to be having paranoid delusions.
I didn’t want to need to take antipsychotics.
Alas, all of these things just lead me to delay seeking and applying the right amount of rigour to the treatment I needed. I had to wait until it got worse than I would have liked before I accepted it, and took the drugs properly and did the work. 12-step fellowship’s first step “to admit I was powerless over this” was a hard step to take.
However once I simply accepted that this is the brain I was born with, I was able to begin the path towards getting healthier — and this step I have to take still every day.
In opening up about your mental health to those around you, what advice would you pass along to others who are hoping to do the same?
I would never pressure anyone to disclose. For me, I felt safe, secure, and on a path to effective treatment when I did. And I discovered that when I disclosed and talked about how I was managing things, it took the pressure off the other person to ‘fix’ anything.
Resources I use:
Get immediate help for depression and anxiety - Beyond Blue
Last year over 78,000 Australians contacted us about their concerns - both big and small - and you can too.
Mental health resources and tools - Black Dog Institute
Mental health resources and support tools that you can trust knowing that everything that we produce is…