I wrote the majority of this blog a few months ago, and have only now built up the courage to release it. I figure that it’s all well and good for me to carry on week in, week out about de-stigmatising mental illness BUT if I choose not to publish this blog then I’m only perpetuating the problem.
1 in 4 Australians suffer with anxiety.
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in Australia.
Panic attacks – the tight chest, the sudden rapid onset of breathing and the foggy head – are more common than one might expect.
Children, adolescents, mothers, CEOs, millionaires – no one is immune.
I tell my patients with anxiety that there is a light at the end of the very dark and muggy tunnel. Eventually things can get better – the panic attacks die down and the negative loud voice that dominates your brain with its ruminating monologue can gradually become softer.
I know, as a GP, that there are different options that can help (psychology, relaxation strategies, mindfulness, medication to name a few). I know, as a GP, that by practicing good sleep hygiene sleep can come easier. I know all this because I’m a GP. But I also know this because I’ve lived through it.
Many times in my consulting room I have looked into the eyes of an anxious patient and said the words, “you are not alone” and “it can get a lot better.” But what I really want to say is “I 100% understand what you are talking about because I have been trapped in that foggy dark tunnel before, but I made it through and so can you.”
I have suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. 8 years ago as a medical student trying to juggle an intense degree, relationship, social life and normal personal issues, I found myself in the dead center of a cyclone – panic attacks, inability to sleep, constant ruminating thoughts about everything that could possibly go wrong – was today the day I was going to die in the car on the way to uni? Was tonight the night I would fall asleep and not wake up? Did I have cancer that I didn’t know about? And if I did have cancer where was it?
It was bad. Really bad.
I would have panic attacks multiple times a day. Anything could trigger them. My friends and family would know how to settle them with some gentle counting to slow my breathing down. But boy did I feel like a failure – I was meant to be a high achieving successful student and here I was crumbling. It is only now I realize I was crumbling beneath my own expectations and anxiety’s hold on me.
I have painful memories of this time in my life. I remember driving to a friend’s house (I had been there 100 times) but being so caught up in my ruminating thoughts I got completely lost and went 20 minutes further than I should have. I arrived at her house distraught, it was the distinct moment I realised my brain had changed. I had a panic attack on her kitchen floor. I recall not sleeping a wink for nights in a row – I would lie there analysing anything I possibly could and breath a sigh of relief when, finally, the sun came up – I could now get out of bed. I will always remember the moment I walked into the GP’s room ready to address the problem – her door shut and I couldn’t utter a single word for 10 minutes because I was crying so heavily. I remember it all.
8 years ago I saw a health professional. I took medication. I practiced mindfulness. I kept a diary. I took up yoga. And 10 months later suddenly I started seeing the old Preeya again. I noticed the negative thoughts had dulled. The panic attacks went from daily to weekly to never. I was “me” again.
I often have patients walk into my room and as the door shuts I notice them clutching their hands, head hung low and the story comes pouring out. I have heard the words “I’m just not me anymore” more times than I can count. And that’s the line I connect with most – I remember when I was in my dark moments I would think “where has the fun-loving Preeya gone? How do I get her back? I’m NOT ME.” I get it. I really really get it.
So when something like anxiety is so common why don’t we talk about it more? Why DON’T I say to patients “hey, I know first hand what you’re going through.” Is it pride? Is it weak to admit I too have suffered from this common mental condition? As doctors we refrain from sharing too much about our personal life with our patients so as not to blur the professional therapeutic relationship – but does me sharing my own battle and normalizing a horrible experience for you hinder, or does it help?
When I say I know how it feels, I do. When I look back on that patch of my life I shudder but I also pull my shoulders back with a sense of accomplishment because hey, I survived it and it has definitely made me a more empathetic friend and GP.
So why have I shared this with you? And why now? Because after so many of you privately contacted me with your own experiences I felt it could only be of help for you to know that no one is immune. That I, the person who now treats patients with anxiety, have been there too and it certainly doesn’t make me immune to it in the future. When I sit across from you and say “this is a really difficult time” – trust me, I know what I’m talking about. But also know, that I’ve come good now, and maybe with the right help you can too. Whilst you may be stuck in a long dark tunnel I promise you there are people standing by the light who will do anything to drag you through to the other side.
If you, or someone you know, is suffering from anxiety or depression please speak to your GP. Lifeline 13 11 14 is a 24 hour counselling service available in Australia.