Yesterday, Senator Mary Jo Fisher resigned to focus on her mental health. If there’s one thing I can really get behind, it’s spending time focusing on mental health. If I could afford it, I would spend pretty much all my time focusing on my mental health.
In Fisher’s case, people may have thrown back their heads and laughed uproariously at the idea of a panic attack causing someone to shoplift. “Nice one Winona!” they cried. “You’re just in it for the danger! You just like to live on the edge!” But the fact is that this kind of mental health issue is not rational or easily understood or even systematic. Sometimes the brain does things, inexplicable things, unpredictable things.
Panic – especially the familiar sense of rising panic – is a feeling I struggle to even remotely do justice to with words.
Once you’ve felt your throat close over in the grip of panic, it is always there. Panic waits in the wings. Panic sits in the back seat. Panic is on the other end of the phone. Panic is in the next room.
The worst panic attack I ever had was while visiting my grandparents about 10 years ago. I was sleeping on their lounge room floor. At around 2am, I woke up, already panicking. (That’s a fun thing you might not know, by the way – sometimes panic attacks start when you’re not even conscious! Manage those, suckers!) I was frantic. I was so acutely panicked that I couldn’t see. I grabbed the cordless phone and ran outside, screaming, trying to force more air into my lungs, convinced I couldn’t breathe and was going to die. I called for an ambulance, in that I dialled Triple-0 and screamed into the phone until my dad found me in hysterics and gave the ambos the address. Then he found my valium and force fed it to me, dragged me back inside (still screaming) and made me Vegemite solider men. He stroked my hair until the valium kicked in and I stopped screaming. When the paramedics arrived, I apologised for wasting their time but “could you please check my vitals anyway because I’m pretty sure I was just about to die before?” They did, and I was physically fine, of course.
In total, I panicked furiously for a full hour. Do you know how much shoplifting you could do in an hour during which you were completely out of control? You could shoplift a fucking piano. The “fight or flight” reflex in a panic attack – and I am a “fleer” – is strong, like those mothers you see who lift cars off their children or outrun lions. If I start to feel myself consumed by panic, I will push a moving train off its tracks if it means I get to go to somewhere safe. If I’m holding a Mars Bar at the time, you better believe that sucker is coming with me, because I have literally no idea that it’s on my person. Later, when the world is “normal” again, I will come back and pay for it.
Sometimes I let myself feel bad about it. It doesn’t make sense to be consumed by fear of absolutely nothing. It doesn’t seem fair to be fine one moment and then gripped by terror the next. Sometimes I let myself feel angry about it. It’s fucked! This is bullshit! Sometimes I let myself find peace with it. I’m not panicked all the time. I have lots of techniques to keep it under control when it does happen.
It’s just that, for a lot of people, it seems “crazy”. Being out of control is “crazy”. Being depressed – not crazy, just sad. Being riddled with anxiety, paranoia, irrationality – crazy. And as long as it’s crazy, it will be approached like everything else that is crazy. With fear. With disbelief. Without compassion. Without understanding.
As long as society at large is given to believe that anxiety sufferers are “crazy”, the anxiety will tell us we are and around we go. I hope that Fisher’s openness – amongst the many other fantastic women who have spoken out about their own battles with anxiety this month – will be the start of a new kind of awareness and normalisation.