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John's story

This page uploaded 31 July 2009
By John

I am probably not the sort of person you would imagine as suffering anxiety attacks. I'm friendly and easygoing by nature, enjoy good company and have a wide social circle. I have a successful career that involves lots of public speaking and meeting strangers - things that many people find anxiety-inducing. I have an adventurous streak, that's seen me through a lifetime of outdoor sport such as golf, tennis, skiing and bushwalking. I've even hiked to Mount Everest and back.  
Yet, for twenty years of my adult life, since my late teens, I've suffered regular, crippling anxiety attacks that, as I grew older, grew worse. Constantly fearing the next attack, I developed all sorts of strategies for not doing things that reduced my sense of control. I might have been able to hike to Mt Everest, but in other ways my life became more and more a nightmare of control as spontaneity deserted me altogether. I learned to avoid situations I thought would be anxiety producing, or steered clear of any situation that I associated with a past attack. I learnt to avoid anything that might upset my metabolism and spark an attack - stimulants such as coffee and tea were out - and, foremost amongst all my retinue of avoidance strategies, kept my condition secret as much as I could.  
Like many people who suffer anxiety disorder, at the peak of my attacks I've quite literally felt I was going mad. Anxiety, as I've experienced it, means being afraid of the very moment you inhabit, lost amidst a sea of confusing and frightening thoughts, so debilitated by pure fear that it seems as if there will be no way you can ever function properly again. That there seems no possible rational explanation for how you feel, and no way of conveying it to others, of course, only makes things worse. It was these feelings of strangeness - of being unable to explain how I felt, and of feeling stupid for being 'frightened of nothing' - as well as my fears of being diagnosed as insane, that meant I did not seek help for twenty years.  
Being trapped in that escalating cycle of fear felt, quite literally, like having my head down hell's toilet.  
For me the breakthrough came when the actor Gary McDonald had his very public breakdown. A few months later, after he had recovered, an article about his condition appeared in the Good Weekend magazine. Reading it, bells began to ring. Amidst the case stories mentioned in the article, I began to recognise myself. I noted down the numbers at the end of the article and sat on them for a while, building up courage to 'do something'.  
My attacks had always been periodic - once every few months or so. Through my twenties I plotted them to more or less a 4-5 week cycle. I got to the point where each attack put me out of action only for a day or two. Being at work helped - it structured my time - and I learned to cover up by 'not feeling well', or 'not wanting to go out', at crucial times. But in my thirties, as my career became more stressful, the attacks worsened. It became harder to cover up. I had married, and after one particularly bad attack that had ended in me vomiting from one end of the house to another (nausea and vomiting were often a side-effect of my attacks), as my wife and I lay in bed afterwards, I confessed all. It was time, she eventually convinced me, to make the call.  
The number at the bottom of the article lead me to PADA, the Panic and Anxiety Disorders Association. It had seemed enough, till then, just to know that there were other suffers, but now I had to make an appointment and 'do something'. In the car on the way to the appointment I had one of my worst ever attacks. What if I really was mad? What if it turned out my condition was incurable? My attacks had got to the point where I was sometimes having several a week, almost without respite. It was increasingly difficult to leave the house.  
Therapy has proved a revelation for me. Not that it provided a 'quick fix', but because all the hard work has resulted in one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. On the one hand I've developed an understanding of my condition that has itself been liberating. On the other I've learned a range of techniques to minimise and counter my attacks. As I've reached new levels of understanding, one by one all the restrictions and controls I'd been imposing on myself have fallen away. I really do feel as though I have been given my life back.  
That's not to say it's been 100 per cent plain sailing. I still have the odd setback, and the odd attack. But very irregularly. Paradoxically, opening myself up for the possibility of the odd attack has been liberating. I've learned to accept my condition, and that attacks aren't the end of the world. Those occasional gusts of anxiety I do feel now are far more manageable than the old force-ten-gale. Perversely, I've even become grateful for aspects of my condition. I know I'm a more compassionate person, more patient with other peoples foibles, and more generous, than I might have been if I hadn't seen the dark side of life - even if I no longer carry that burden around myself. It's like having been on a long journey, not unlike that trip to Everest and back.  

Kerstin McKay
PADA - Panic and Anxiety Disorders Association
PO Box 186 Burwood 3125
Rear, 1423 Toorak Road Burwood 3125
Phone: (03) 9889 6760  

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