I know this is a travel blog and all, but today I wanted to mix things up a little and write about something close to home: how it feels to have an anxiety disorder and depression. Yesterday my friend Amy from This Heart Fire posted a beautiful piece that perfectly encapsulates the emotional and physical journey of dealing with depression and anxiety – the ongoing battle that is very real and very confronting for so many. The piece ‘My Anxious Heart’ by Katie Joy Crawford, is a series of poignant and thought-provoking self-portraits using her own stories and experiences to capture the raw essence of anxiety. I have published some of the images below. If you want to view the full piece the link is at the bottom of this article.
“A captive of my own mind. The instigator of my own thoughts. The more I think, the worse it gets. The less I think, the worse it gets. Breathe. Just breathe. Drift. It’ll ease soon.” – Crawford
“Depression is when you can’t feel at all. Anxiety is when you feel too much.” – Crawford
Why is it that even though almost half Australia’s population have suffered from a mental health disorder at some stage in their life, and around 14% of adult Australian’s have a recurring anxiety disorder, our society still fails to relate to people with mental health issues? Maybe it’s because as a collective we tend to want to ‘fix’ a problem and have it be done with. We have plaster casts for broken legs, surgery for liver-transplants, but when it comes to complex disorders of the mind it seems we are lost for words. There’s no easy fix because everyone’s unique. Better to just keep those people ‘hushed’ and ‘shamed’ in a closet than to deal with something that may never be cured. But the saddest thing is, the majority of people with anxiety and depression seem to go along with this discourse. There’s a fear of being the ‘other’ if we talk about what we’re going through. But that sort of isolation is completely counter-productive and doesn’t do us any favours in the long-run.
With these kind of stats above, why we – as a whole society – don’t talk more about this growing epidemic is beyond me. Ominous public service announcements on TV starring that dude off Love My Way and websites such as Beyond Blue aren’t really cutting it, what society needs is real life stories from people in the midst of it all, told simply and succinctly, so that those who don’t quite get it can understand mental health isn’t the big bad elusive wolf it’s made out to be. They can understand that the best way to help those suffering from it is to talk to them about what they are going through not once, not twice, but as an ongoing topic of dialogue. Joke about it, make light of the situation, make like it’s no big deal even when it might be. Contrary to what the media portrays, people with anxiety disorders are normal, (usually) functioning human beings on the outside, but on the inside their inner dialogue and turmoil is deafening. They don’t need to be patronised or ‘babied’, they don’t need a pep-talk, they are the world’s thinkers, the achievers, they can do everything everyone else can do. But what they do need is for society and indeed the people they care about to genuinely listen, ask questions and ultimately collaborate emotionally with them throughout their life’s journey.
It’s up to the people who suffer from anxiety or depression to blow the lid on this issue and the only way that can happen is if more sufferers proudly step out of the darkness and talk about it. In an age where everyone is constantly online, social media is the tool to make this to happen. Some of my favourite and well-respected bloggers from all industries (travel, fashion, beauty, you name it) candidly talk about their experiences managing anxiety or depression (sometimes good and sometimes bad) – so hats off to you Travel Blogger Lauren Juliff of Never Ending Footsteps and beauty Vlogger Zoella… you’ve paved the way for others, like myself, to talk about it too.
While I’ve never really suffered from clinical depression, I’ve been dealing with generalised anxiety disorder for over a decade now, and in the last six months things have certainly taken a turn for the worse. In the last year or so I’ve let my health drop to rock-bottom on the life priority list. Something that is easy to do when you’re dealing with deadlines, new business ventures, relationships and travel… so. much. travel. Stuff that is especially detrimental for someone who suffers from chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Not putting my physical and mental health first has always been a recipe for disaster for me in the past. On and off for the last decade I have suffered through periods of debilitating anxiety which has left me unable to think straight and breath properly for weeks on end, I’ve felt my heart-racing through periodic palpitations for no apparent external trigger and at the very worst i’ve gone to hospital from severe panic attacks. The kind of panic attacks where I was so sure I was going to a) have a heart attack or b) die. If you’ve ever had a panic attack like that you’ll know fear takes over and all rational thought leaves you so fast you don’t know what hit you. You would literally do anything to make it stop.
If I’m honest, it’s not until I had a scary wake-up call recently that I started taking my anxiety and health very seriously. Even when I started having strange problems with my voice going hoarse and sounding ‘strangled’ a few months ago due to the chronic anxiety and stress I’d been feeling for most of the past year I didn’t really take it as a warning sign my body was crying out for help. I just thought it might go away after a while. Stupidly I adopted the same pseudo-denial tactics I have used the past decade to deal with it: crash detoxes, a little bit of yoga, a little bit of exercise and some journaling, but because I never saw the results immediately (after all, us gen y-ers are all about instant gratification) i’d give up and get back on the binge drinking bandwagon as a way to de-stress and basically just make my overactive mind go numb for an evening or two every weekend. Obviously this was never going to be a long-term solution; it was just prolonging the inevitable, and fucking up my health in the interim. And the inevitable wake-up call wasn’t pretty. But thank the universe it happened because just sitting back and living in denial wasn’t working in the long-term. Hope is not a strategy.
Ask yourself this: if you haven’t got your health then what do you have? Not much. That’s why it’s so important for people to get on top of anxiety and depression. There are so many ways to tackle it – like daily yoga and meditation, exercise and anti-depressants, but the best way to manage mental health is to talk about it with people who truly care. And believe me, I know the fear that goes hand in hand with the possibility of being so vulnerable with someone when you suffer from chronic anxiety. I know you’re plagued with self-doubting questions like “what will they think of me if I open up”, “how will they react”, “will they think I’m just being weak”, “will they understand me”? My answer is bite the bullet and make them understand. Because trust me, you are hurting everyone more (including yourself) by bottling it up inside. You’ll burst. And it won’t be pretty.
Trying to explain chronic anxiety to someone who has never felt it can seem hopeless at times, but it’s so important that we try and educate society as well as those close to us so they can support and emotionally participate in the dialogue that we so desperately desire. Never fearing or feeling like you’re on your own is a pivotal strategy in managing mental health.
The shortness of breath, the constant yawning, the irrational over-analytical thoughts, the hot and cold sweats, the social nervousness, the fatigue, the heart-palpitations – sometimes triggered by absolutely nothing – it’s all there, living in the sufferers DNA bubbling just underneath the surface of their soul. It’s never going to completely go away, but by practicing acceptance, learning ways to manage it and chucking it out in the open means it doesn’t have to seep to the surface.
You can see the full ‘My Anxious Heart’ piece here