Dear… Well, Dear anyone who has ever felt this way,
It’s been about thirteen months since I released my first letter to my anxiety in London. Who am I trying to kid? It has been thirteen months exactly, give or take a bit of time difference. I can vividly remember where I was when I wrote the first one, just as I can remember the tube ride I took where I had to hide my face because my eyes would have showed how tender and fragile I truly felt. These people were all strangers. No smiles. No warmth. Crying in front of them would have made me feel less than small.
I remember the panic attack I had in Islington. The panic attack I had out the front of the Kensington apartment I was staying in. The tears I cried when I received a call from my drunk parents back home after they sold their house… My house! The house with all those memories. This wasn’t a passing bit of anxiety or a bit of sadness. This was a mind that had been crunched to the point of consistent unhappiness. Consistent sadness. As hard as it was to accept, my depression had caught up to me. A headlock from my anxiety had brought me to a state of perpetuated sadness. This was not ‘I feel a little depressed’. This was the message, ‘I need some help, and I need it now.’
I couldn’t tell them how much I missed them. How badly I needed to come home. How scared and vulnerable I felt. I couldn’t explain to them why I was so sad, so empty and so completely alone.
Thinking backward still hurts. The memory will never be erased, it can’t be. And I don’t mind that. Recalling those cold mornings where I felt nothing but… nothing… and if you understand me, I say sorry; I wish you didn’t, but you have, and now we are tied. Tied to something so many people try to explain but without experience you just can’t quite put your finger on it.
Anxiety, panic, hypochondria, depression. I suppose that was the order it all started to hit me. At least I think it was in that order. I am acutely aware of anxiety, but what struck me, from about the middle of August in 2016, was a force of nature I could not slay. Those days when the waves hit me were long and they never seemed to end. The only solace was my friends, and with my friends came the bottle, and with the bottle came relief. But with relief I tried to extend it as long as I could humanly manage because I knew that when I woke, I would feel worse than I had before.
There were days when I watched the trains go by and I thought the best possible outcome was throwing myself in front of one. I’d moved to London to run away, and things just got worse. My mind was fresh when I arrived, but very quickly the dust clouded and the rain poured. I had returned to Laos, the birth of the realisation of my disorder in 2010. Head spinning, heart racing, tongue wagging for oxygen and a reprieve – ‘LEAVE ME ALONE,’ I would shout at the top of my lungs. A stranger would shout back, ‘shut the fuck up, you piece of shit.’ And back and forth we would go.
But really, the stranger and I were upstairs in my head. I was screaming internally and there was the other part of me that was the inbuilt critic. Someone I really did not know, but still he stood there, pointing and laughing at this miserable sod. He’d throw things at me, launch at me, shout and scream at me. And I couldn’t say anything back, except grumble and moan.
That is mental illness. And the scary thing is that stranger is a part of me.
But I’m telling you. A mental disorder is not a death sentence. It is not the end of your social life. It is not the end of your dreams, goals and ultimate desires. It is not defeat. In fact, for all those bad days I have endured in the seven years of having anxiety disorder, along with depressive episodes, hypochondria and all the bullshit things my mind has ran with if given half a chance, I have learnt so much. I see the world differently. I have taken time to get to know this stranger, even though I have hated you. Loathed you. Wanted to expunge you from my veins. I have shone some light on the darkest side of my mind, instead of attempting to live up to the impossibility of perfection.
Yes, I’ve explored the exasperation, the lack of motivation, the complete lack of purpose on certain days. I’ve explored my self-destructive behaviour, my fear of failure, my failed relationships with women, my need for validation in relationships and my inability to finish what I have started. I’ve sat still waiting for the bad days to pass. I’ve explored the tight chest, the thoughts of impending death, the visions of jumping off the edge. I’ve sat with that stranger and cried over my failings as a person, a son, a brother and a man. But I’ve laughed with that stranger about the ridiculous expectation we all place on ourselves. I’ve cried listening to Jeff, Janis, Elliot, Amy, Ian, Jimi, Donny and Nick, thinkin’ they knew. They knew. I’ve shouted to no one in particular, ‘I’M GONNA MAKE IT! I’M GONNA MAKE IT!’ Hoping the stranger was listening and smiling. Feeling calm and feeling content with his body tucked into bed as the rain gently taps on the tin roof he sleeps under.
I’ve dropped the mask. I’m a mortal man. I am vulnerable.
I knew it when I had my heart broken in March. I knew it when I dipped my foot over the tube line one miserable morning, witnessing my subconscious jump before the train just a minute away. I knew it when I spoke in front of my friends and family, speaking of the depths of my loneliness and devastation. I knew it when I borrowed money from my mother and best friend. I knew it when I listened to Sampha sing ‘No One Knows Me Like My Piano’ and heard the ruminations of all those who had felt what I’d felt. I knew it when I threw on the headphones for my first podcast with my father and my hands shook. I knew it when I held the acceptance letter for my teaching masters and I cried tears of joy. I knew it when I deleted my social media apps from my phone. I knew it when I drove down the freeway to Portsea, repeating over and over ‘I am very, very anxious and it is okay.’ I knew it. I’ve always known it. But acknowledging it has taken the world off my shoulders.
So what can I say to the young boy or girl out there who has felt the weight of expectation, the tight hold of a rogue mind and the unexplained physical symptoms that come with a disturbed mind and soul. Well. There are so many things. But number one is that this is a process. It is a process. There is no cure. There is no sudden flip where all of the sudden you are back out there training and a certain football journalist will ‘joke’ that it must be ‘good drugs’. No. It’s not ‘good drugs’. It ain’t a miracle. It will never be a miracle. In fact, you will never cure a mental disorder. But the quicker you accept and act on it, the quicker you can come to manage it and neutralise it. The waves of anxiety or depression and the symptoms may return or may reoccur, but the sooner you accept and act on it, the more prepared you can be for the bumpy roads of a mind that is inclined to make you groan.
What’s the process?
Well, the beauty (hmmmm, sort of) of that is you can work out what works for you. Number one is to head to your General Practitioner. Depending on the severity of your condition will bring you to the next step, but I think everyone should be in conversation with a mind expert. Some for disorders, others to simply find order. What is your life? Why am I feeling overwhelmed? Why am I attracted to this person? Do other people experience this lull? Am I fucked? Why does everyone else make it look so easy?
We all have questions. So many questions. My god, some of the questions I’ve wanted to ask over the years… I waited six years to get significant assistance, and still I would just like to find someone I can talk to without having to worry they are judging my ludicrous questions about life. Sometimes you think you find someone who understands and they run away. Then the shoe is on the other foot and you feel yourself panting as they are crying out for you.
Sometimes I wonder how people are okay with what we are served up. We are born and we are expected to come to terms with the limitations the system places over us. We are mortal and we are told we have to wait in line for particular experiences even though we are very clear on the conditions and stipulations. We will inevitably die. At some point. You will try to fill the empty space with different things. Most of them will have a short-term impact if they are for little more than vanity’s purposes. The only legitimate thing you can attempt to fill that emptiness with is connection. With other humans, with other living things, with the planet as a whole. With new philosophies, new ideas, new cultures, new discoveries and new experiences. And don’t forget the old. Strengthening bonds, magnificent bonds that will never truly burn out.
You will never know what will bring you purpose and fulfilment without opening your heart and mind. I’m still just getting into the process. I still open and close too frequently. I open and then my desire is to shut myself off. I’ve been hurt before. I’ve been crushed. And through those experiences I have crushed others as a result. I have run from the goals I set to improve my own life through fear that it would do little to help my mental health. What if I fail and I hurt just like before? With that, I have leapt back to the short-term party, short-term affairs and short term fulfilment.
But the process I am in has opened my eyes to my natural impulses. I want to run because investment and care has previously hurt me. However, the reality of running results in a deeper and more prolonged unhappiness, so although it seems like I am making the right decision, this is not true. I am making the easier choice and it is hurting me.
The process is personal, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share it with the people you care about, and perhaps even more alarming, the people you are impulsively drawn to who you might not have considered to be an ally. Extremism is very rare, even though it seems like it is omnipresent. How often do you meet someone, particularly in Australia, who is outwardly extreme in his or her views? I’m not saying you should grab a bloke from the United Patriot Front or a religious fundamentalist and tell them how your personal process is going. Avoid that at all costs. What I am saying is that there are communities that are full of people who are inherently good, decent and warm. The way I felt when I went to AA in Mile End in London, just once. I gave my number to three people, and each of them contacted me to ask how I was going. They didn’t overdo it. They just wanted to help.
Not saying just give your number and address out willy nilly and throwing your trust around like a hot towel on a flight to Singapore, but there are plenty who have sailed stormy seas, and they will be able to help you in ways you never anticipated. Continue making connections with others, continuing exploring the journey you are on by growing your personal community. It will help you so much, both now and well into the future.
Okay. I wrote the following in the park when considering ‘THE PROCESS’.
Anyone who has been to a therapist or one of the psych family will likely have heard the phrase ‘trust the process’ whether in those guarded rooms or in a conversation about mental health and wellbeing. But everyone who has attempted to live their life by that adage knows just as well of the interruptions. These interruptions can be annoying deviations or severely impairing. Some we can predict, like enjoying a soy latte and feeling overstimulated and anxious for the rest of the afternoon. Others are random. Public food court, crowded. Intense claustrophobia. Hard at work, something descends on you. Where’d the spark go? Then there are the events we never wish to consider. Death in the family. Loss of job. Relationship breakdown. Relapse.
These interruptions will happen. Some you can control, others you cannot. There are occasions I never want to prepare for, but we are mortal, vulnerable human beings and these interruptions are, for better or for worse, going to happen. There are days when you will ask, and quite reasonably too,
‘What the fuck is the point!?’
‘Why the fuck do I even bother!?’
‘How has it all come full circle?’
I’ve been there, and it is a real kick in the guts. To be so vulnerable and fragile is pretty damned overwhelming.
One of the most important lessons I have learnt in such trying times is that others have been here before. You are not alone, even though right now it truly feels like you are. You are human and therefore you feel. Sometimes you cannot control these feelings. They manically bounce around in your head, or solemnly crawl to a standstill, or force you into a train of thought that is self-destructive and isolating. But you are not alone, and you have so much to offer the world, even if sometimes you really just don’t feel like getting out of bed.
Fight for your right to feel. Just remember you share this planet with billions upon billions of sentient beings, both your human brothers, sisters and those in between, and those who walk, swim or fly on four, six, eight and however many feet, hooves, paws, legs, wings, flippers and trotters.
Life is a journey. Our lives can be so many things. Our minds can be our personal paradise or private prison and release our bodies or trap our souls. Then there are those who will refuse to open their minds at all.
One can never prepare for the entire process because as much as we protect ourselves with gadgets, frameworks, doctrines, insurance, locks, firewalls, passwords, contraceptions and cribs, there are always going to be interruptions. And that’s okay.
Everything matters and nothing really matters.
In this very moment, this enormous, beautiful old tree could fall on top of me or I could have a major panic attack. Potentially a gang of ‘rabid youths’ might well slaughter me. A gang of rabid milk bacteria might expand and destroy me insides. Or perhaps a beautiful stranger will sit next to me and we will instantly fall in love with each other. Or a Powerball ticket worth $10 million might blow onto my path. Perhaps my mind will click and I will write a novel, which will change the face of history.
Most likely, I will continue to breathe, albeit with a slight deviation due to that soy latte I just devoured, continue to sit and continue on with my day, under this enormous, beautiful old tree.
Over the past thirteen months I have come to terms with the stone cold fact that there are things I can control and things that I cannot. I can promise myself and others I will change. I can apply for a new job. I can spend more time writing, just as I can spend more time worrying. I can treat people with respect or disdain. I can believe in a higher power, believe what someone writes or says about African youths or those of the Islamic faith, and I can travel near or I can travel far. I can trust in the process or I can let myself go.
I can’t control the weather, the minds and thoughts of those around me, the very next interaction I have, and as much as I may want to manipulate the timing of death, love, betrayal, heartbreak, loss, despair, hope, pain and destiny, I cannot.
‘The days are long but the years are short.’
There are things you can control and many, many others that you cannot. All these words and sentences are just that. They might have an impact on some, little on others and a whole load will never know these words ever existed.
The same goes with my anxious spirals and depressive episodes. They may come and they may go. Some I can control, and others I simply cannot. There will be those who understand, those that will try and those who just don’t.
Life is the great constant and the greatest leveller. It will always just be… going. We all start and finish the same humble way. What happens in between we simply cannot foresee.
For those of you who have struggled or are struggling, for reasons the untrained eye may or may not be able to see, you can trust the process but there will always be interruptions. Allow yourself to grow but be prepared to bleed. Feel deeply. I know there might be times it hurts so bad that you want to die, but it will help you relate to those around you. It might even help you understand and appreciate the ludicrous nature of life a little more.
How do you end a piece like this? I don’t know. Take time to listen, retain your lust to learn and explore the physical and the metaphysical, enjoy the moment, press pause from time to time and breathe in and breathe out.
PS: Willie Bee’s 103 took a backseat this year – but this was (probably) my number 1.