At 13 I don't think I had ever heard of anxiety, and I certainly hadn't given it much thought.
I grew up in a loving family, what I think of as a typical Kiwi family in the 80's and 90's. Dad worked at the local pulp and paper mill, and mum was a stay at home mum, with a part time job a few hours a week so that she could be at home for us before and after school.
Then mum got a new job when I was about 10. Before long she was being promoted and her hours started to change, yet she still made sure we had everything we needed. She would race home from work, make us afternoon tea, catch up on how our day was, get dinner on and keep the house running while her hours started to increase. Sometimes mum would have to go back into work in the evening, and she started working on the weekends.
One thing that sticks in my mind is that no matter what, mum would make sure the house work was done (vacuuming, mopping and dusting), get our lunches sorted and get us out the door every single morning before she headed off to work. She was supermum, keeping the family going and achieving at work, but at her own expense.
It was when I was 13 that mum hit a wall and suffered from severe anxiety. She gave up her job and was off to the doctor for help. I don't think I really understood what was going on, and I definitely had no appreciation for what she had been experiencing until later in life when I started to experience anxiety.
I was 20, had completed two years at polytech and was a few weeks into classes at University, after deciding to continue my studies to a degree, when I had my first anxiety or panic attack. To this day I find it hard to describe the feeling, but I knew that something wasn't right. It almost felt like I was having an out of body experience and I couldn't calm my mind.
A few days later I was off to the family doctor, who had diagnosed mum 7 years earlier, to find out that what I was experiencing was anxiety and I started on medication.
I felt good on the meds, I had my life back and felt back in control, but I always had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I needed to come off the meds. After about 18 months I did exactly that, weaning myself off the medication gradually.
At the time while I was off meds I pretended that I was doing well, I was active, was out socialising, and had a great job and great friends. I probably looked like I had a great life, but I was surviving on Powerade every day, and taking a Kava supplement to help get through. Many mornings I would have to fight with my anxiety to get out of bed.
After a couple of years going on like this I decided that I wanted to run a 12km race. Now I am no athlete by any stretch of the imagination, and have certainly never been a runner. But I was trying to be healthy and had been walking for a while and started running, so thought a goal would be great.
The race itself went well, I had been training for months and felt ready to go. I knew I could do it after successfully running 10km multiple times, and running 8kms a couple of times a week for the last few months.
It was about 2 hours after the race that the trouble started. The anxiety hit me like a freight train, and came continuously in what I can only explain as waves (or mental contractions) for the next few hours.
I tried all of my usual coping techniques,cooking a meal, reading a book and going for a drive, to try and take my mind off the anxiety. None of it worked. In fact it got worse, and was so bad that I decided that I needed to drive myself to the hospital and get help. Funnily enough the exercise of driving around the hospital car park looking for a park distracted my mind and the anxiety started to ease. I knew in that moment that it really was in my head and headed home.
The next few weeks weren't great, and long story short I ended up back on medication which I wasn't happy about. My mind was telling me again that I shouldn't need to be on meds and was a failure for needing them.
I don't know where this stigma came from, as my mum had been on medication for quite a few years for her anxiety, and I wasn't brought up to believe that doctors or medication were bad. I often went to the doctor growing up, and in fact for a few years we had two doctors boarding with us!
I was back on meds, feeling like a failure and determined to get off them. One of the side effects I have when taking the meds is that I put on weight, so now I feel like a failure because I'm on the meds and my weight is going up and I feel uncomfortable in my body. My mind and my body were betraying me.
I was determined to get off the meds again, and once I had been on them for about 18 months (again) I spoke to my doctor about gradually coming off them. I have always been so careful about very slowly weaning myself off these sorts of meds, because I haven't wanted to jeopardize coming off the meds by doing it too fast.
I was able to take my last pill on the 30th April 2015, and was so excited that I was back to being medication free, and was going to lose the weight I had gained. And I did ok, yes there were some days that weren't so good, but I was doing ok, until 12 months after I came off the meds, when I started to experience some horrific anxiety attacks.
These were like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had been under quite a lot of stress, and a few months beforehand I had been to the doctor about chest pains and heart palpitations, which were put down to stress. I thought I had experienced some pretty intense anxiety attacks, but this was a whole other level. I couldn't deal with these myself, and if someone had offered me anything to make them go away I would have taken it.
It was back off to the doctor the next day, and after much resistance the meds were back, but different ones this time. I struggled at first to yet again come to terms with the fact that I was on medication, but it was something my mum said to me one day that made that stigma disappear. She said "your dad has to take a pill every day for his blood pressure because his body can't regulate it, and your body can't regulate hormones which cause you anxiety. Taking a pill each day to help with this doesn't mean you're a failure, and the most important thing is that you can live the life you deserve and want to live."
That was it for me, I decided that I wasn't going to fight medication anymore, and instead do what I needed for my mind, body and soul to make sure that I was happy and living the life that I wanted. I didn't want to be held back by my anxiety, or fear of it anymore, and if that meant being on medication then that's what I needed to do.
As I write this I have been on medication for just over 12 months, and have no plans in the immediate future to come off them. I am really good. I hardly ever wake up with anxiety, which is so nice, I am walking again, I am succeeding at work, and I have great friends I have a lot of fun with. I also try to listen to my body and take time to just chill out when I can. My days at work are busy, and so I will relax with a book on the weekend, have a nap and watch TV or a movie.
I have also incorporated different techniques into my life to make sure I am looking after myself and am not going to need 'the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff' again. I love yoga and find that this is a form of mindfulness for me. It lets me forget about the day, the thoughts come and go, and any tension leaves my body.
I get out for walks as often as I can. This could be a quick 10 minute break from work, or an hour walk at the end of the day with a friend, or listening to podcasts. I practice breathing exercises, as the breath and deep breathing is so important for anxiety. And I have a small dose of electrolytes every morning in my water. I don't know why, but electrolytes definitely help me with any anxiety.
I also have a Shakti accupressure mat which can help relieve anxiety, and it relieves the knot that I regularly have under my left shoulder blade.
It's been 12 years now since I first experienced anxiety, and I'm so happy that I am at a place where I can talk about it openly, share my experiences and this openness lets others feel like they can open up too. I hope that sharing more through Flourish will help remove the stigmas and allow others to open up too.