Earlier this year I decided to start a course of cognitive and behavioural therapy (CBT), partly due to to my waning shreds of sanity but also partly because I became rather close to a wonderful girl suffering from PTSD who indirectly encouraged me to pursue treatment options. I began making my way to an isolated suburban street every other week, struggling through breathing exercises both within and outside of my therapy sessions (one can quite frequently observe me throughout my morning commute closing my eyes and breathing to a steady count these days), mapping out my little "personality tree" with a marker on craft paper to pinpoint fundamental flaws in my rationale, and crying. Lots and lots of crying.
I like to think of therapy rather like having a rotting prawn holed up somewhere in your living room – you've always been able to vaguely smell it but at the same time, you've sort of adapted to this way of life and that lingering stench doesn't bother you quite so much. Really the only way of adequately fixing the issue is tearing up the carpet to find that rotten seafood and while the task itself is disgusting and smelly and arduous, at least you'll ultimately address the root of the issue.
I am currently tearing up my carpet, so to speak, and it is a long and stinking process.
In the past I've referred to my mental health issues throughout my articles but none of those passing reminders felt as though they had any intimate connection to the truth. They were simply fleeting references to make readers aware that I was somehow qualified to discuss the nature of mental illness but between my avoidant sense of humour and a hesitation to thoroughly discuss my personal history, these reminders were always somehow meaningless. It never felt brave, or significant, or conversational, it always felt as though I was simply exploiting tools of discussion.
The truth is, I've lived with anxiety for as long as I can possibly remember. Most of my earliest memories are tainted by this appalling, crippling fear that I've carried with me for my entire life. I remember my heart failing every time a plane flew overheard on the course to Sydney airport and that despite the fact we lived under a flight route for 19 years, this dread never quite went away. I remember fear of alien invasion, home intruders, closing elevator doors, ghosts, the death of loved ones, and the grim possibility of an asteroid hurtling towards earth, coming to inevitably destroy us all.
More destructive perhaps, were the social paranoias I grew up with and my persistent mistrust of most people, lest something dreadful happen like being laughed at a bit. I became so scared that I would fantasise constantly about some hideous, violent apocalypse that would strike our world one way or another just to legitimise my fear. My poor parents must have been so profoundly at a loss of what to do with this tiny terrified brown child scuttling from room to room.
People tend to use the personification of long-term depression as a black dog, constantly trotting around one's ankles and casting a shadow on life. It's strange that we don't have the same concept for anxiety but I expect if we did, it would have to be something along the lines of a boa constrictor, wrapped around the chest as though you're a vintage cartoon character stuck in a hose reel; the snake's suffocation will strike unexpectedly but always cause your heart to stammer and breathing to fail you.
It is incredibly difficult to sleep when anxiety is in full swing, in fact, it's incredibly difficult to do most normal things that are required of human adults. My short-term memory is also absolutely shot as a result of long-term stress – a lot of moments slip through the cracks and disappear like smoke before I've had even a moment to sit with them and consolidate, including such data as: names, faces, things I've said, things anybody else has said, things I've done, beliefs I held approximately four minutes ago, and reasons I have arrived in my bedroom holding a pen. For everybody who I have ever met and then promptly forgotten in the seconds following, please forgive me. My best friend has always been rather in awe of me because I do not hold grudges and that makes me appear very forgiving – I'm not entirely sure she realises that I just fail to remember what people have done to me to justify long-term anger.
One of the trickiest parts of addressing such a long-term issue as anxiety – as is the case with most mental disorders I'd imagine – is the idea that suddenly you're forced to distinguish between fractions of your personality that are clinically definable and others that simply belong to your personality with a restless permanence. The question of determining what you are and what you've learned is next to impossible but in the case of mental illness, it's a necessary task, and quite often I find myself laying awake in the dark these days mulling over fundamental belief systems and fears, wondering what I can help and who the indefinite lodgers really are. I am quite certain that I will always be neurotic, unpredictable in my moods, a textbook introvert or a categorical extrovert depending on the circumstances but never somewhere in between, and prone to stress and rapid overstimulation that others seem to brush off with ease.
Despite the alleviation of worry to some rather significant parts of my life (namely, sleep), bidding farewell to chronic anxiety and pounding stress still seems frightening to me, largely because so much of my life and career is built upon that foundation of flighty, erratic and fierce stress to the point that I'm not sure really who I would find myself to be without it. In fact, my writing is inextricably related to the vitriol and panic that courses through my fingertips when I feel perturbed by a given argument or issue – it's an unquestionably cathartic practice. I notice much the same process in other (dare I say it?) 'creatives' who seem to profit professionally from their neuroticism and anxieties quite as much as I do but nonetheless appear to be cracking at the edges in precisely the same manner. I often envision that people like this will eventually become so stiff with fear and social paranoias that they'll simply fall forward one day like an old statue and crumble into a pile of dust for the wind to pick up.
Anxiety is pernicious, insidious, and an understandably confusing concept for those who have never experienced its grasp. I'm glad that I've decided to take the leap and become proactive about addressing my mental health (hey, it only took me 23 years) but admittedly there is still a long, arduous road ahead for me in trying to quell that overwhelming fear. From my own experience, I can understand exactly why people would feel a hesitation to address anxiety – partly because it's difficult to acknowledge it as a clinical issue but also perhaps because being afraid feels so intrinsically underdeveloped and weak, like a child that runs to their parents in the middle of the night rigid with terror because there might be a monster under the bed, or something equally irrational (when staying at my parent's creepy house it's actually still not uncommon for me to hurry down the passage to their bedroom in the middle of the night, flick on a switch and whisper "Sweet Jesus did anybody else hear that?!").
Therapy is hard and annoying and emotionally taxing but for the sake of my health, my memory and my general sense of self, it's a path that I'll happily trek. Maybe eventually that horrendous rotting seafood will be removed from my living room and maybe (hopefully) the ends will justify the means. Oh hey, if it also allows me the ability to construct less farfetched and ridiculous analogies, that would also be great.