I’m 10 years old, trying to get to sleep in the bottom bunk, my sister snoring away up top. Eyes wide open, I roll onto my back and stare up at the metal bars pressed against the sagging mattress. I look at the screws that connect the frames of our two beds and imagine them loosening as my sister tosses and turns in the night. They fall out, landing in my foolishly open eyeball, distracting me as the stacked beds come apart.
The top bunk screeches against the wall as it comes crashing down, sandwiching me between the beds and mangling my legs in the process. My heart races as I contemplate this obvious eventuality. I don’t sleep that night.
I’m 16. My stomach churns at the thought of sitting my second set of school exams. Dad’s driving me to Day One: English. I’ve already nailed this subject—I don’t actually need to pass the exam to get into next year’s class. But my stomach still flops. I close my eyes, trying to calm myself down. All I see are the failed marks staring back at me in January’s results. My hands get sweaty, I start to shake. I tell myself to breathe, but focusing on my breathing just makes me quietly hyperventilate. Dad tells me I’m gonna be fine, but I don’t believe him. I sit the exam, thinking more about how no university will ever want me than the essay questions in front of me. I spend the summer intermittently scorning myself for freaking out, for not studying harder, for forgetting how to breathe. January comes—I passed and passed well. Relief briefly washes over me, then the knot in my stomach turns its attention to next year’s exams.
I’m 23. It’s four months after experiencing my third major earthquake—the ones that toss belongings around like confetti in a snow globe. I’m vegging out on the couch and staring blankly at the TV after another long, unproductive day at work. TV time goes from relaxing to terrifying when the Wellington wind shakes my apartment building, and my mind’s eye replays the day I walked home through sewage after the 2011 Christchurch quakes. An ad for car insurance momentarily refocuses my attention to the TV. But before I find out what kind of deal State can cut for an under-25 driver, I see the screen throwing itself into my head, like it would have if I’d been in this spot in the last quake. That night I have a panic attack in my sleep. For the third time this year, I decide it’s time to get help. This time I actually follow through.
It took me a long time to stop making excuses for my anxiety. Of course it’s normal to worry about things sometimes—public speaking, a job interview, a big move to a new city. A bit of anxiety can even help us deal with a stressful situation more effectively. But intense feelings of worry that keep coming back in spite of our current situation aren’t really helpful. Accepting that my worries and fears were getting out of control was a huge deal for me.
My anxiety comes to the fore when I think about the possibility, however miniscule, of something going wrong. My brain panics and plans ways to regain control over the (usually hypothetical) situation. Before I know it I’ve gone and bought supplies for three emergency kits complete with SAS survival guides or have carefully stacked my pillows at the end of the bed to maximise the chances of my ankles surviving a collapsing bunk. Or when it gets really bad, I’m slumped over my knees, crying about the possibility that everything in my life may somehow go horribly wrong.
I’ve always known I was anxious, but hearing a medical professional support this theory of mine at my first therapy session still came as quite a shock. Because I’ve lived like this for so long, it’s hard to accept that I could change the way I deal with life. Having someone tell me that there are ways to stop feeling like crap hit me harder than I thought it would.
Halfway through the session, my new label made it hard to pay attention as the doctor drew diagrams and ran through lists of strategies and tools that could help. Eventually I came back into the room, almost ready to accept this new identity. “Have you heard of mindfulness?” she said. I held back an eye-roll and bit my tongue.
When I first heard about mindfulness a couple of years ago, I didn’t give it the time of day. My first thought was that it sounds like some bullshit fad bound to come with a juice cleanse and a subscription to Goop. It also seemed like thinking about thinking and I already did plenty of that.
But my psychologist was slightly more convincing than my sarcastic brain. Mindfulness, she said, is about being aware of what’s going on in our head. We let ourselves feel what we feel, acknowledge that negative thoughts are gonna be hanging around sometimes, but we can be okay with that and carry on living in the moment. Mindfulness isn’t the be-all-and-end-all solution to my problems. But it is a way to acknowledge and move past the thoughts that trigger my anxiety, rather than letting them fester or just trying to ignore them.
She gave me homework—a self-help book called The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris. And although I was still a little sceptical, I got myself a copy on the way home before I lost my nerve. While I was trying to quash down feelings of embarrassment of being seen in the self-help section of Unity books, I suddenly realised how much the stigma around having anxiety had permeated my mindset. How silly it is to be embarrassed about trying to help oneself deal with life better and how dare I buy into that narrative. I left Unity feeling mad and motivated to change.
Riding my new epiphany all the way home, I dove into The Happiness Trap. Despite my enthusiasm, the first chapter was hard. The pages seemed to drip with cheese—the sheer volume of exclamation marks made me wonder what Harris was trying to hide. But I persevered, and eventually, between the cheesiness, Harris made some good points.
This book was pretty much describing my life. The negative thoughts that I try to shut out, the mixtape of self-deprecating insults I’ve come to believe is true, it was all there. I didn’t expect that finding out all my issues could be captured in a self-help book would be comforting, but having it laid out in front of me made it a lot easier to make a change.
I started small, employing a technique designed to make us more mindful that the negative, worrisome thought we’re having is just that—a thought. It’s not fact. There is nothing concrete about it. It’s just one of the many pieces of crap that float through our mind-sewers on a daily basis and it’s certainly not anything to be afraid of. To quell my mind’s more insidious narratives, I started labelling my thoughts. “I’m so fat” gradually became “I’m having that ‘I’m so fat’ thought.” Instead of “I’m a loser”, my brain now goes “oh, look, that “I’m a loser” thought is back again. Let’s watch it drift by and carry on with life.”
Finding some small successes spurred me on to try some mindfulness apps. I signed up to Headspace—perhaps the most popular app of its kind.
Just like with the book, it wasn’t easy to begin with. It took a few tries to convince myself that the app was even a good idea. Media has more often been a trigger of my anxieties than a solution, so just sitting down for that first session took a lot of willpower. But as I followed the instructions of the soothing British accent, I relaxed. I felt my belly rise and fall. I felt the knots in my neck, and I felt my butt tingle from sitting on the floor. And by the end of it, when the nice man tells me to open my eyes and come back to the real world, I am disappointed to leave, and very ready to stay right there in my pleasant little bubble of self-awareness.
I’m 24. It’s midnight and I’m sitting at my desk, finally done with my first piece for ‘The Lovepost.’ I scroll back to the top of the page, tired but happy that it’s done. I start editing, taking out the bits that don’t make sense, trying to make it flow better. My mind flashes forward to a couple of weeks from now, when my words will be on the web for all to see. “Huh,” I think to myself, “I’m having that ‘everyone is going to think I’m a loser for writing about my anxiety on the Internet’ thought again.” I take a deep breath, remind myself that my brain is just doing its thing, and keep scrolling through, no longer afraid of the hypothetical consequences.