A few weeks ago I was messaging back and forth with a friend who was having a bit of a rough time of it. She was talking about how much she worries about her business and gets in her own way. I completely empathised and then informed her that I was a platinum member of the self sabotage club and anxiety was centre stage in my life most of the time. My friend was shocked and told me that she never would have imagined that I was struggling with these things. I suspect most people assume that if you’re going to walk across a continent you’re going to need to have it together. Most people would be wrong.
My friend may just have been being nice but this isn’t the first time people have shown surprise when I share I have a mental illness. So I decided it was high time I talked more openly about my good friend Anxiety as she definitely came along for the Walk Sew Good adventure. She wasn’t really invited. Pretty awkward.
I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember and it has manifested itself in so many different ways throughout my life. She’s not a consistent friend is Anxiety. When I was 6 or 7 my shoulders were permanently around my ears. When I reached 10 and my parents weren’t home before I went to bed, I lay in bed awake waiting for them. If the phone rang before they got home I was convinced it was somebody calling to let me know they had died a terrible awful death.
(Travelling on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam, the first time on our trip and sightly panicking that Walk Sew Good would die before we’d even started walking.)
When I reached my teenage years and moved out of home at 14 to attend a performing arts school it took on a whole new life. I remember a ballet teacher pointing out that I had a great many nervous habits that I needed to work on. I scratched my back, flicked my nails, chewed my lip, held my breath, tensed my face, and everyone’s favourite, I coughed a great big seal like cough left over from a bout of whooping cough a few years previous. They used to call me Roof Seal (1800 367070 roof roof). Good times.
To many of my teachers’ great frustrations I would stand up the back to avoid attention and lessen the chances of anxiety. This is not a very useful technique if you want to be a dancer. As I learnt later when I went on to auditions, standing up the back hoping someone will notice you but also not notice you does not get you a job.
When I did get to auditions I always had to make a note of where the toilets were because I’d always need to go to the bathroom in a hurry. Anxiety was a bit of a monster at this stage and as soon as the audition started I would lose my head and it was over before it began.
I have developed coping mechanisms since then. I’ve learnt that if my mind is healthy I’m usually free from injuries. I’m definitely not saying that all injuries are a result of an unhealthy mind but for me there is definitely a link. If I take time out to breathe and do my own thing that seems to help. Exercise works really well to keep ole Anxiety at bay. But even with all these techniques in place there’s no guarantee that she won’t make a surprise visit.
After I mentioned to Gab that I had never been on an overnight hike before (I failed to fill her in on that when I asked her to join me on the walk across Asia, oops) she insisted that we do a practice hike at Wilson’s Prom.
(Anxiety levels were high that day. This was before we started a hike at Wilson’s Prom)
I hadn’t realised up until that point that Gab was superhuman and walked faster than basically all of the people in the world, and I really struggled to keep up. Instead of enjoying the natural gorgeousness that surrounded us, I was going around and around in my head thinking, “What have I done? I’ve given up a life that I love, a life that I’m bloody good at, to do this really hard thing that I’m discovering I’m pretty rubbish at. There’s every chance we could fail in a very big and public way.” And then suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Luckily Gab recognised I was having a panic attack and helped me through it but I realised that I needed to develop better strategies so that this didn’t happen again on the walk. I went and saw a psychologist until I got bored of talking about myself but she worked a few things through with me and I felt I had everything as under control as it could possibly be.
Funnily enough, when I’m travelling I seem to have less anxiety than when I’m home and have more responsibilities to attend to however, during the walk Anxiety still made regular visits. I tried to put her at ease as best I could using the techniques I had learnt. The copious amounts of exercise we were doing meant that it only really hit me when we were stopped for longer than a few days in some of the cities along the way to conduct interviews but she was always there nattering away in the background.
I think for me the point of writing this blog post is to demonstrate that you never know who is struggling and why. While we may have shared a lot of happy, fun photos on social media during our walk, there were many times where I let anxiety get the better of me. Don’t assume you’re the only one stumbling and everyone else has it together because they probably don’t. Anyone could be suffering from mental illness. So be kind to each other and be kind to yourself. You’re doing OK.