Today is World Mental Health Day.
It’s all about ending the social stigma and starting a conversation. So in today’s episode, I’m getting personal. This was a really tough episode to record, but I wanted to share my mental health journey through depression and anxiety and how I cope (and sometimes don’t cope) today.
This one’s rough and raw and I’m sharing some pretty personal stuff. So thank you for tuning in and joining me in this conversation. If you struggle with a muddled mind, please know you are NOT alone. There are hundreds and millions of warriors all over the world who hear you, feel you and stand beside you. Including me.
This is my story.
I don’t know about you, but I was an anxious little kid. I was afraid of a lot of things – mostly embarrassing myself in front of people. There’s an old home video of me at a gymnastics performance – basically all the kids lining up to jump on a trampoline or walk and turn on a balance beam, in front of their proud parents. Not hard stuff, guys. But as my dad pans the camera across the room as gymnasts flip and flop and jump and roll, he stops on mum in the doorway, holding me as I cry.
I cried a lot. I still cry easily today. I’m highly sensitive. Now I see it as a strength. Growing up, not so much.
My anxiety came out in interesting ways when I was a kid. I’d get angry, flustered, frustrated.
I remember doing a group project with 2 girls in my class. We had to make a poster to show some event in Australian history. For weeks they made this beautiful poster with delicate sketches…and they wouldn’t let me contribute in any way. So the night before it was due, I asked if I could take the poster home and just make a few enhancements. That night when mum came upstairs to tell me dinner was ready, she looked in at me sitting on the floor and gasped. I had covered the poster in gold and orange glitter, drawn a gigantic sun over all the illustrations, and effectively ruined the poster. Oops.
I was then medicated with Ritalin for ADD – attention deficit disorder. Looking back, I definitely didn’t have ADD because I had incredible focus and drive. I was just highly anxious and didn’t understand my feelings or how to express them. That would come years later…only in the past few years actually.
At school, I was bullied a lot. Private girls schools can be a tough place for a sensitive, socially anxious kid. Friendship groups chopped and changed daily – so I often arrived to class not knowing who my allies were that day. I spent many lunches in the library alone. Competitive rowing and acting were the only outlets I felt free – and respected. At home, the two most important men in my life couldn’t meet my needs – I longed to belong, to feel like I was enough, to be celebrated for my strengths – but instead I felt ridiculed, rejected, unwanted. I’ve since made peace with those feelings and with my family, but I’ve carried those self-beliefs with me throughout my life. And it’s taken – and is still taking – a lot of work to unravel them. To tell myself: I AM ENOUGH. I am beautiful, smart, funny, helpful, VALUABLE.
Around 19, I was out partying a lot. I wasn’t out of control – I still managed to go to uni (I actually was the baby of my class, and finished year 12 just as I turned 17, so I actually got my undergraduate my degree before I was 20). But when you grow up in a small place like Perth on Australia’s west coast – the most isolated city in the world – chances are you will experiment with certain things in your youth. I didn’t like alcohol much – it always made me ill by giving me a migraine or just not agreeing with me. But drugs? They were different. I could pop a pill and dance all night with my friends at our fave nightspots, moving from room to room, floor to floor, feeling fabulous and free and happy in my skin. I didn’t actually feel like that, but the drugs gave me a high that was oh so seductive.
One wild night, my friend and I decided to go to a rave. My mouth was dry, so I asked a total stranger for a sip from her water bottle.
Not to sound dramatic, but that one sip was the start of a downward spiral into the deepest depression imaginable. One that would turn my world upside down.
Because unbeknownst to me, that stranger had glandular fever – what some people call mono or the kissing disease.
Within 6 months I’d lost half my weight, had recurring tonsillitis, had to quit my promising job in public relations, move back in with my parents, drop out of my post-graduate course, and was just exhausted. All. The. Time. If you’ve ever had glandular fever, you’ll know how debilitating it can be. Thing is, at the time, I didn’t know why I was so sick.
So one day I was in bed. Mum was away, and dad was looking after me. Suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – I got really worked up. Something – a darkness – had been slowly creeping its way into the corners of my mind. And then I realised I no longer wanted to live. I had to end my life, right then and there. I started hyperventilating as I thought about how I could do it, which brought on my very first panic attack. Like most people experiencing a panic attack for the first time, I was convinced I couldn’t breathe. But as I mentioned in episode #8: How to zap panic attacks, I was actually getting too much air.
But I did feel like something was very wrong and I was about to die. I remember dad running into the room as I struggled to breathe, and rushing me to hospital. As I lay in the hospital bed exhausted from the panic attack – which I still didn’t know was what had happened – and waited for answers, I questioned everything in my life. I felt like my soul had left my body. I was just an empty shell, and the world was beige.
Eventually I got the answers I needed (the doctors told me they thought I either had a devastating sexually transmitted infection OR leukaemia – not sure why they thought it was wise to tell me both those things) it transpired that my recurring tonsillitis wasn’t a diagnosis, but a symptom of glandular fever. And in the months that followed, I developed post-viral fatigue. Which is a fancy way of saying you’ll be clinically depressed the foreseeable future.
So while my body fought off the virus, I had to battle with my mind. I hated how I felt, I was too embarrassed to tell my parents that this was all because of taking a sip of water while I was high at a concert, and I didn’t have the drive to get better.
But, I did get better. Not by a miracle, but by taking baby steps each day.
First stop: therapy. Yes, mum whisked me off to a counsellor. And while we chatted about all my fears and sadness, a psychiatrist dished out anti-depressants. A few months I was feeling a bit better, and had the energy to start moving my body. I joined the local gym and pool, and quietly worked out on my own each day. Occasionally I’d sneak into a gym class, holding back tears as my body blew off steam and my mind questioned why I was bothering.
Each day, the world got a little brighter. The beige turned to glimpses of colour. I started seeing friends again, getting excited about getting back to work, and planning my future.
And because I am INCREDIBLY impatient, just shy of a year of being on antidepressants, I stopped. Now a little disclaimer: YOU SHOULD NOT DO WHAT I DID! It is really dangerous to stop taking medication of any kind – especially antidepressants. It should always be done under the guidance of your doctor. Often the reason you FEEL able to get off the meds is because they are working.
But I did go off them. I’ve always had a little voice inside that pipes up when I really need to listen. It once told me to run away from a bonfire party when I was 15 because I sensed I shouldn’t be there. And it’s guided me over the years since. So when it told me I was stable and strong enough, I listened. AGAIN: DO NOT DO THAT! But I did, and I made a plan to leave Perth and move to Sydney to start over – and become a public relations superstar!
But in Sydney, things got REALLY interesting. I was a young 20-year-old woman on a fairly good starting salary at the city’s biggest sports stadium. I got to greet David Beckham, hang out with football players in their dressing room (professionally, you guys!) and schmooze with the who’s who of Australian sports media. And I HATED it! I kept getting tonsillitis – after all, the glandular fever was still in my system, even though the fatigue had passed. And sport isn’t exactly my thing.
But anywho, at the same time I found a fun friendship group. We went out on weekends, partying non-stop, and basically burning the candle at both ends. Despite that and my tonsillitis, I was able to keep up my career – which morphed from PR to running my own organising service, decluttering people’s homes and businesses. And I met my first real boyfriend, who I stayed with for 5 years.
And underneath all of this was anxiety. I didn’t have a name for the feelings yet, but looking back it was abundantly clear. I panicked and catastrophised in social situations, I didn’t handle my emotions well, and I just felt SO uncomfortable in my skin. I screwed up friendships, my life felt out of control, and the city was spinning faster and faster and closing in on me. After breaking up with my boyfriend when we both realised we wanted different things (he wanted to be free, I wanted reassurance) – I moved to Manly Beach and got swept up in masking my emotions. By day, I would run along the sand, swim in the surf, write health articles, and sip lattes with my personal trainer friend. By night, I would date different people, drink and dance the night away – stumbling home with a kebab or McDonald’s meal deal.
Bit by bit, I lost my sense of self, my self worth and certainly any scraps of self-love I had. By that point, I’d been freelancing full-time as a writer – but any money I made went to paying my bills to live and run the business. So I was on this treadmill – personally and professionally – and getting NOWHERE.
So what was this all building up to?
Yes, I ran.
After seven years in Sydney, I sold my stuff, bought a one-way ticket to Bali for my cousin’s wedding, and left the rest up to the universe.
Now I realise venturing off into the unknown might seem odd for a person with anxiety. But 1) I didn’t know I was anxious – I just always felt revved up fighting my mind and 2) anxiety always gave me an instinct to run. It made me restless and gave me black-and-white thinking. When things get tough, set fire to your life and go! That was my mantra.
So I did. I went to Bali and ended up spending months there doing yoga, motorbiking around, and feeling lost. From there, I zigzagged the world: exploring South East Asia multiple times, spending 9 months in New Zealand, going to India and Nepal, Sri Lanka and the US. And as I freelanced from the road, I did crazy things like climb an 11,000 foot volcano at midnight with no guide (because I lost him) and no light (because the guide had it). I learnt scuba diving, venturing into caves 40m underwater and gliding with giant manta rays (side note: I had a panic attack deep underwater too). I hopped from hostel to hostel, meeting new faces every day and tagging along on unexpected trips. And every single step I took, my anxiety went with me.
I couldn’t outrun it. It was always there. In its gritty, unglamourous, frustrating way. And perhaps it was the fresh sea air or sheer exhausting from battling my mind for most of my life…I gave in.
I just let the anxiety in.
I stopped fighting. I stopped fleeing. I spent longer in each place. I got down and dirty with my mind. I let my emotions out, and started to express my needs better. I greeted my anxiety like a sibling: it had annoyed the heck out of me for so many years, but we were starting to reach an understanding. We were in each other’s lives and so we’d better just get along.
A big part of accepting my mind came from blogging. I started Worry Warrior to chart my journey with anxiety. In those early days, I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable being really vulnerable, so my first posts were probably really clinical and maybe not even particularly helpful for others! But it started me down this path. And as the conversation around mental health grows louder, as more people are bravely stepping up and speaking out, as we smash this stigma bit by bit, and rally together to support each other on our anxiety journeys, I feel inspired to keep sharing my story – and all the tools and techniques that have helped me, and continue to help me, make friends with my mind.
Because that’s the thing: I could easily tell you I’m cured. That I wake up every day 100% relaxed and in the flow of the universe. But it’s simply untrue. Instead, I wake up each day and make CHOICES to love my mind. To accept my anxiety. And to do what I need to do to be calmer and more in control of my mind. It’s work. But it is SO rewarding.
When I look back over the past few years, I can see how making friends with my mind has transformed my life. I’m now in an incredibly supportive relationship with my husband Dimitri – who has allowed me a safe space to explore my emotions but also own my choices and be aware of the impact my behaviours have on him and the world. I now honour my body with good food and healthy practices. And I start and end each day honouring my self.
The depression creeps in from time to time. I came off the birth control pill just over a year ago – after being on it half my life for my skin – and the rollercoaster of hormonal changes has revealed PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) which for me manifests as a fast, fleeting depression each month. We covered extreme PMS and PMDD in a previous episode if you’d like to check that out).
If I’m not being mindful in my body, I might start twisting and pulling out my hair around my hairline – which means I have all this curly baby hair that makes me nuts when I try to style it!
And if I let things get out of balance: if I work too hard, if I stop self-care, if I avoid going outside or working out or seeing friends or doing the things that bring me joy – the anxiety can take over. So it’s a delicate dance, a daily choice to stay balanced and in charge.
And that’s why I don’t believe anxiety is an illness. When we say we have mental illness, we wear it like a heavy winter coat. And it’s really hard to shake off those labels. So if you’re stuck in the pit at the moment – with whatever mental struggles you’re experiencing – I really encourage you to adopt a new-belief. One where you and your mind can come to a place of understanding, respect and love. One where you start to appreciate anxiety for the ways it helps you – whether that’s preparing properly for something in the future, or highlighting the things in your life that no longer serve you and need to change. Then reach out for support with a therapist or coach (you can have a free breakthrough session with me!), come join our private support group on Facebook, and grab my free download 18 daily rituals to start and end each day with a clearer, calmer mind.
Take charge, choose today to take steps to make friends with your mind, and I promise…you will.