ANXIETY AND ME

Does it ever end?
I’m tired of the inner turmoil
I’m tired of being anxious
the rollercoaster ride of emotions
swirling and churning within
old scars reopen
past nightmares haunt
doubt invades, fear paralyses
silent screams that noone hears
I keep building my wall
uninviting, tall and proud
but the facade is brittle
weathered by the years
I’m lost in despair
unsure of who I am
uncertain of how to change
afraid of the road ahead
I am tired of being me

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WAVES OF EMOTIONS

Pre-surgery ramblings:

There are three large frames of dusty landscapes placed strategically around the room. Lines of orange and beige chairs face towards the walkway that leads to the reception desk. It’s unsettling having eyes on you as you walk in.

Two large rugs are hung on the wall behind reception; one striped with brown, green, orange and yellow, and the other with different shaped circles. Perhaps the interior designer used the varying colours of poo as inspiration for the room. It is after all, the specialist rooms for gastroenterology.

I’m sitting here, waiting for my husband to be released post-gastroscopy/colonoscopy. We are here for investigative procedures following complaints of severe stomach pains.

If you ask me, I believe it is due to the stresses of work and life. He is known put aside his own basic needs of food and water to accommodate work issues. He works long hours and rarely takes any leave. He is always on call, awakened at all hours of the night. On days of leave, such as today, his phone still buzzes with calls from work. Having a medical procedure doesn’t give you an out.

It’s got me thinking. Is there such thing as work life balance? Can you pursue and achieve a successful career without it impacting your health, family or life? Conversely, can you have a fulfilling life without some form of work?

Post surgery misery:

As soon as my husband entered the room, I knew there was something amiss. His usually unreadable mask broken, his face shrouded with unease. The news was not positive. He was speaking but the words weren’t computing. I had to read the papers that the specialist had given him, not trusting his words.

‘Four polyps removed. One single 20mm sessile polyp removed. All sent for examination. Repeat colonoscopy in a year.’

For most people, this information wouldn’t elicit extreme emotions. No definitive results other than some polyps. There is no point worrying until the polyps are tested. However, to a person who suffers from anxiety and prone to worst-case scenarios, my mind is having a meltdown.

I’m scared. A train of morbid thoughts plagues my mind; precancerous polyps, bowel cancer, mortality rates, death. Google is fast becoming my unwanted best friend.

What happens if they are precancerous polyps? What does this mean? How can I fix this? What can I do?

I just want to cry. I can’t deal with the unknown. The thought of anything happening to my husband makes me want to break down. He is my strength, my love, my everything. I can’t help but cry as I type this.

So as I enter these next few weeks of uncertainty, I pray that I can be strong for my husband and my children, and that I can put aside my own fears and anxiety to support the man who has always been my rock. For I won’t be the only person riding the waves of emotions.

Update: We found out the polyps were indeed precancerous types, ones that lead to colon cancer if not removed. I’m relieved the outcome was not cancer but I can’t help but feel upset that there is that looming risk. For now, we continue our healthy diet and annual surveillance. Thank you to everyone for your support and kind words during the times I was feeling overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.

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THE DREADED SCHOOL RUN

When my daughter started primary school, I had a master plan. Despite suffering from crippling social anxiety, I was going to shove my insecurities deep down where the sun doesn’t shine, pull up my big girl pants, and be sociable. I was going to make an effort to introduce myself to other mums because I understood that I was the gateway to my daughter’s social life, and I wanted her to have positive experiences. I didn’t want people to see me as the awkward and antisocial person that seldom spoke and therefore, unfairly judge my daughter.

So in the first year of school, I tried getting to know people. I soon realised that there were many cliques and not all were welcoming, not everyone was friendly and some would outright ignore me. It surprised me to see strangers becoming fast friends within such a short space of time. People were enjoying family holidays together, picking up each other’s children and organising play dates.

All the while, I was struggling to get an invite to the end of term park gatherings and classroom parent dinners. Most of the time, I was invited as an afterthought or at least, that was my perception. I couldn’t even secure play dates successfully, bar one mum who took me under her wing.

I would watch with envy and disappointment as groups of mums would leave for coffee dates after the school runs. Why didn’t they invite me? These situations would evoke powerful emotional childhood memories of insecurities and inadequacies, making me feel like that outcast once more. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of those early days hidden in the car until the very last minute.

Fortunately, I did make a few good friends that year, and I’ve clung on to them since (You know who you are – thank you!). School runs can be intimidating, especially for someone who suffers from social anxiety. On days where I don’t find a friendly face, I feel anxious waiting around. Small talk is a mammoth task for me, especially with people I’m not comfortable with or know well.

My husband doesn’t understand my irrational fears with the dreaded school runs. How could he though? He doesn’t have social anxiety. He wasn’t an outcast as a child in school. He is confident in his own skin and has his tight-knit group of childhood friends. He has no problem with small talk or meeting new people, even though he is an introvert by nature.

I, however, allow this debilitating mental illness to dictate almost every social interaction that I have. It has become a stranglehold that keeps me from meeting new people, forming friendships and sometimes even keeping friendships. I’m plagued by insecurities and anxiety over forming connections but at the same time, I doubt why anyone would want to be my friend. I’m not interesting, I don’t have hobbies, I’m not well-travelled, and I’m not worldly or cultured.

My husband made an observation that gave me pause. “Why is it that you think so little of yourself? Why wouldn’t people want to be your friend? Why don’t you ask to join them for coffee?”

Upon reflection, I surmised that I am simply scared. I’m scared to put myself out there, to allow myself to be vulnerable and be judged. What if I’m found to be wanting? What if people don’t like me? What if I let myself hope for friendship and be sorely disappointed? What if I’m rejected for being me?

Recently, I met a wonderful and kind school mum, by chance, at one of my daughter’s friend’s birthday party. It was only upon getting to know her that I realised that I am not alone in my feelings, that perhaps there are many of us that have our own doubts and insecurities. She made me understand that having meaningful social connections and friendships are important, and that it is worth pursuing, particularly for people who suffer from social anxiety.

This year, I haven’t hidden in my car or pretended to be on the phone as much and I’ve continued to work on my small talk and forming connections with other people. I would like to think that my social anxiety has lessened in intensity and that my communication skills have improved.

But as we creep towards a new school year, where undoubtedly there will be new faces to meet and new connections to make, I know my anxiety levels will rise and there will be an overwhelming urge to hide in the car.

Does it get easier? Can someone overcome social anxiety? I really hope so because I don’t like the idea of hiding in the car for the next decade.

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THROUGH THE LENS

Perspective – the way that you see something, a point of view.

An example could be a patient and his spouse sitting in the doctor’s room waiting for said doctor to deliver the verdict of the patient’s recent colonic biopsies.

Precancerous adenomas. One considered an aggressive form that can develop into cancer and needs regular colonoscopies for detection and removal.

The two people receiving this news could be hearing the same information but have differing perspectives. The patient’s perspective could be that this is good news and some changes to the diet might be needed. What will be, will be. His spouse’s perspective might be that this is devastating news and drastic dietary changes are necessary. A ‘all or nothing’ approach.

How is it that two people can have such differing views?

We are a product of our upbringing and environment. Our beliefs are influenced and shaped by family, childhood, culture, religion, life experiences and so much more. We look at the world through our own unique pair of lens. Our perspectives are formed by our core belief systems.

How can differing perspectives cause conflict for this couple?

Well, I would imagine the woman might throw a fit and demand that the dietary changes she’s made to reduce the man’s risk factors aren’t extreme and that kale doesn’t taste THAT bad! And eating couscous is like eating rice… 

I could see that the man might try to rationally and logically explain that crash diets don’t work and smaller changes are needed to maintain longevity. He might use conversational tactics he uses on work colleagues to get his point across. He might get frustrated at the woman’s defensive and increasing volume, and start talking to her as though he’s disciplining their seven-year-old stubborn child.

She might threaten to feed him more kale. Sure, it’s bitter and tastes like medicine but that’s why you pinch your nose and swallow whole.

He might suggest eating a meat pie once in a while isn’t going to lead to cancer.

Eventually, they will reach a stalemate with neither seeing the other person’s perspective. Something about Mars and Venus is at play. Someone will cry because crying is good for the soul and an effective stress reliever.

So how can they resolve their conflict?

Time apart can help them reflect on what the other person has said. It can allow them time to consider why the other person might behave the way they do and find common ground to resolve the issue.

The man might consider that allowing the woman to have control over the family diet will alleviate her anxiety and fears of the unknown. She’s only trying to help and she might need more hugs. Plus, she can become batsh*t crazy when anxious.

The woman might consider finding a middle ground with dietary changes, that an ‘all or nothing’ approach isn’t sustainable. She’s not the only one affected by the information and her emotions must play a secondary role.

They might want to sit down and make a list of possible changes and mark what can be achieved now and gradually over time. They need to turn towards each other for support and give the other person respect and love. They must remember that everyone is different. People see the world and its problems differently, and that is ok. They both have a common goal, reducing the risk factors that lead to colon cancer, and working together is the answer.

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FAREWELL UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

Stepping through the building’s revolving doors and swiping my work card for the last time, I felt overcome with nostalgia. My mind went for a trip down memory lane to the first time I stood in front of the security gates, desperately trying to get my visitors card to work so I that I could get to my job interview on time. I remember feeling self-conscious that I was holding up the flow of morning traffic as I did my awkward forward and backward shuffle trying to get the barriers to open. I remember rushing to the toilet to calm my nerves, flapping about trying to cool my sweaty body, and checking my armpits for embarrassing sweat stains.

I really wanted the job. At the time, this government role was what I deemed in my mind as the pinnacle of my career success in my profession. I believed that my self-worth was directly linked to my job title, and this role would be validation of that. It would satisfy my ego and dull that little insecure voice in my head telling me that my value and existence was defined by work and its accomplishments.

I remember taking extreme care in my appearance, rehearsing the lines that I would say, and trying to give myself the pep talk I needed to come across as a capable and confident person. I remember the elation I had felt at news of my success. I remember meeting my work colleagues and feeling nervous but eager to please. This job was pivotal to me feeling complete.

Over the years, I began feeling frustrated with the system, felt downtrodden with my inability to effect change, and resentment built to a point where I became an ineffectual team member. It was also around the time I was gifted with a second job title – mum – and my struggles with work-life balance, mother’s guilt and anxiety reared its ugly head.

Why did I stay, I hear you ask, if I was so unhappy?

I made excuses to myself: I needed a job, we needed the money, it was well-paid and secure, and I should have been thankful to have a job when so many others struggled to find one. In truth, I stayed for longer than I should have out of fear. I was fearful of the unknown. I didn’t believe in my own abilities or capabilities. What if I didn’t find anything better? Don’t they say the grass is always greener on the other side? My anxiety made sure to shred any remaining confidence.

And so, I stewed in my misery, negativity pouring from me like a poison, darkening my thoughts and affecting everyone around me. I was depressed and couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. People were moving forward, grabbing opportunities with gusto, and surviving within the murky waters of the workplace restructures. I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore and I certainly didn’t feel I deserved to be there, taking someone else’s spot. I was lost. I was a failure as a teammate and as a parent. I was in a very bad head space. For the sake of my mental health and my family, there was only one solution and that was to resign.

Today, as I said my farewells to my friends, I felt strong emotions of grief and loss. These wonderful people had become my second family, unwavering in their support, encouraging with meaningful words and enriching my life with their presence. Today, I close this chapter of my life with fond memories that will forever be etched in my heart.

Where will my new adventures lead? What does the next chapter look like? What are my plans? I do not know.

The only thing I do know is that I am ready for the magic of new beginnings.

 


To my friends, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

FT – I will miss your hugs and infectious laughter.
MD – I will miss your jokes, even though I rarely got your punch lines.
QG – I will miss your D&Ms, you gave me strength through some of my darkest days.
WY – I will miss your tough love, no-nonsense attitude.
GS/MN – I will miss your generous and kind spirits.
MS – I will miss your inner strength and words of wisdom.
GP – I will miss your wildly inappropriate but funny comments. Don’t go changing.
JL – I will miss hearing of your small wins with coupons and freebies.
EB – I will miss your words of encouragement and support.
HS – I will miss your self-deprecating humour.

And to the rest of the branch, who are no less important to me, thank you for being a part of my life journey.


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LIVE WITHOUT A NET

I am a control freak. It’s a coping mechanism, a safety behaviour, an intolerance of the uncertainty, that makes me want to take charge of all situations to ease my anxiety over not having control of the unknown. These vicious cogs of anxiety have me worrying over hypothetical situations, ruminating and overanalyzing interactions, and avoiding any circumstances that may induce negative feelings. Unchecked over the years, my brain has learnt that to eliminate the symptoms of anxiety, I must either avoid anxiety-producing situations or have complete control. You can imagine how tiring being me is, can’t you?

Part of my personal growth has been working on breaking the negative internal dialogue through graded exposure; small steps to challenge my fears. With that in mind, I left the organising of my father’s birthday dinner to my younger brother. I had relayed my wishes for an early dinner for the kids, and he already knew of Gary’s dietary restrictions, so it was simply a matter of booking a restaurant. There was no need for the control freak to loom her ugly head. What could go wrong?


We’re ten minutes late.

“Ugh, they’re late,” I groan as we enter the Korean BBQ restaurant. It’s a helluva lot warmer than standing outside in the cold.

“You have a booking Ma’am?” asks the waiter, standing at the entrance.

“Yes, it’s under Andy,” I reply, stamping my frozen feet to elicit some warmth.

“I can’t see anything under that name Ma’am,” informs the waiter. “Are you sure you have a booking?”

I call my brother and let him sort it out. The waiter walks to his podium, checks his book and shakes his head. He returns and hands back my phone. “Sorry Ma’am.”

I stare at him in confusion as I put the phone to my ear. “Hey Sis, sorry they got the date wrong. I’ll find another place and text you the details.”

So I bundle the family back into the car and wait for his text. Breathe. No big deal. Happens to all of us (not me). It’s still early, and the kids have yet to show signs of the dreaded hangry. Hungry and overtired kids make any outing a nightmare.

“Why didn’t I bring snacks?” I wonder. “This is exactly why I should always have snacks on me, like a vending machine.”

I’m only mildly anxious at this point. At least we are warm in the car.

Meet at Japanese Teppanyaki.

We head to the new restaurant and luckily it’s only ten minutes away. The detour has delayed dinner by a smidgen. It’s raining cats and dogs by the time we’re parked. We make a dash for the front door. The wind is fierce and icily cold. I get to the entrance of the restaurant, Henry weighing heavy in my arms, to find the doors unmoving. I peer into the restaurant to find the lights off and not a single employee in sight.

“Why did you leave the car? It’s freezing,” Andy stutters, shivering from the cold as he reaches the door.

“What are you talking about? Why is this place closed?!” I yell, frustrated at the turn of events.

We rush over to the nearby gazebo and take cover from the unrelenting rain. Gary has been tasked with the job of getting our jackets, an umbrella, the kid’s water bottles and Henry’s baby bag. I’m in anxious terrain now.

“It’s not open until six p.m. I thought I told you,” Andy replies, looking sheepish. “Sorry about the booking.”

“No you did not tell me, otherwise we would be in the car!”

“Relax,” Gary returns with our things and tries to calm me as I continue my rant, “we only have to wait ten minutes until it’s open.”

Eventually, we’re inside and dinner ensues. The cook is wearing a red toque and samurai-print robe, his belt fitted with several knives, and pepper and salt grinders. He performs a myriad of cooking tricks. Instead of looking entralled with his performance, Mandy just looks bored. She doesn’t even bat an eyelid when the salt grinder is flicked into the cook’s torque hat.

“Want to see fire?” the cook asks, looking at everyone for their approval. He lights the oil with some water and a whoosh of fire shoots up into the air.

Henry jerks back in fear before crying uncontrollably and screaming out “I’m scared! I don’t want the fire!”

For the remainder of the meal, Henry clings to me like a koala baby to its mum, while I desperately try to coax him into eating some overpriced meat. Mandy is slumped over her meal, tired and uninterested. It’s like she’s seven going on fifteen-years-old.

“Who wants to catch some egg?” the cook asks, holding some omelette on his spatula.

My brother and his girlfriend catch their egg on the first attempt. They make it look easy. I decide to step out of my comfort zone and agree to participate.

The first attempt has the egg flying past my face and landing on the floor. Ok, so if at first you don’t succeed, you try again. The second shot lands next to my mouth and falls off. I am so close that the cook insists on another go. The third bounces off my left eye and drops unceremoniously onto my plate. The cook gives up. He’s probably never had anyone as unco as me. In all honesty, I think it’s in my best interest to stop. I only have two eyes and my left eye is tearing up, ready to shut up shop. I gave it a go (three, to be precise) and that’s all that matters.

We end the night with a bill of over five hundred dollars and a drive-thru to KFC for a top up.


What did I learn from this experience? While there were some anxiety-producing moments, I think I coped rather well. The outcome of unforeseen events wasn’t catastrophic; we found another place (although more expensive), the kids were fed (eventually) and went to bed a little later than usual, and no one was worse off for standing in the cold. I climbed a step towards my goal of breaking the cycle of anxiety. Overall, a good achievement for me.

Does that mean I’ll let my brother book another family function? Of course not.

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REMEMBER TO BREATHE

Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. No big deal. They are children. You’ve presented to adults before, and they are a tougher crowd. This is easy peasy.

I stop fiddling with the computer, take a deep breath and turn to face my audience. The chatter stops, a quiet descends on the room and a hundred curious eyes stare back at me.

Shit in a box. Why are there so many of them? And staring so intently? Oh man, it’s ‘Children of the Corn’ creepy.

My face heats with embarrassment. Sweat beads form on my brow. My heart thumps like a jack hammer against my ribs. My armpits feel damp. Giant waves of nausea rolls through me. I could puke. The power pose and the upbeat song did little to quell my nervousness.

I stand next to the teacher as she introduces me to the grade one year level but I quickly make use of the nearby stool upon realising that my legs don’t want to play ball. I babble about needing to drink water for my non-existent dry cough. I rub my sweaty palms along my thighs. I take another fortifying breath and try to calm my frayed nerves. I’m a jumbled mess inside. I feel exposed and naked, like my self-worth rests on this one presentation. It’s no wonder public speaking is feared more than death.

“Hi everyone, I’m really excited to be here,” I say, mustering all the enthusiasm that an anxiety ridden person with a humongous fear of public speaking can. I hear the tremble in my voice. I wonder if anyone else notices.

As I begin my presentation, a glance at one of the teachers makes me lose my train of thought. People say to make eye contact with the audience and to find a friendly face to build your confidence. So what do I do? My eyes scan and fall on the one person in the room wearing a frown.

Why is she scowling? She looks like she’s constipated. Maybe she’s concentrating. Yes, that’s gotta be it. No way is she judging me so early in the piece. Fudge, where was I?

“Uh… so… um… you take a plane to get there?” I stutter as I point my shaky finger towards the map on the screen.

Fudge, I have no idea where I am.

People say to rehearse but not memorise because it will give you a false sense of security and can hasten brain freeze if you forget a phrase or sentence or are thrown off track. The increase in stress hormones causes a shut down of the frontal lobe making retrieval of memories harder. You can guess what I chose to do, can’t you? The distraction causes my stress levels to erupt to catastrophic levels and my mind decides that it has had enough. It erects a sign, ‘Gone Fishing’ and blanks. I cut my losses with this slide. One down, seven to go.

“Let’s move on to the next slide,” I mumble, turning back to the computer to press the arrow key. Nothing happens. The screen goes dark.

Shit. Train wreck! Can I have a meltdown now? I don’t need this. Fudge, carry on fool, carry on!

A teacher fixes the PowerPoint presentation. I turn to face the children, who are waiting expectantly. People say to take elongated pauses, to take deep calming breaths and to shift your attention to the next point. I take a moment to remember why I am here. I look at Mandy and gather my strength to continue.

Remember to breathe. Calm the farm. I CAN DO THIS!

I decide to forget my talk and go with the flow. I take pauses between slides and pick a couple of important points that are interesting for a seven-year-old. I interact with the crowd by asking impromptu questions. I remember to smile and eventually I relax. The children are eager with their questions and that encourages me to soldier on. There are smiles and giggles. Seeing their excitement and interest makes me feel less anxious about my performance.

Enjoy this. Live in the moment. No one is judging you.

I see a child fervently waving his hand to get my attention, so I stop to let him ask a question.

“My dad’s a lawyer,” he states proudly.

Ugh, OK. Cool story dude.

“Wow, that’s… awesome,” I reply. Children really do say the most random shit.

I plow through my presentation and I’m relieved to feel relaxed and confident delivering my last slide. The bell goes and the children ready to go home. There is a small group that stay back to tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation. One of the boys brings me a page of his artwork as a gift for my efforts. A girl tells me that she thinks I look pretty in my dress. The teachers tell me I did a great job. I’m just glad it’s over.

As I leave hand in hand with my daughter, she glances up at me, eyes full of admiration and says, “You did a really good job Mum.” My heart swells with love for my child. Her words of praise make every minute of my discomfort and anxiety worthwhile. Plus, it really wasn’t that bad.

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