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Anxiety Gave Me Lemons

Matthew Roberts opens up about his mental health journey, and the highs and lows that have come along with it. Illustration by Hope McConnell.

I’d always thought of myself as pretty chill – your regular jeans and jandals, s’all good kind of guy – and I was proud of it. Nothing had ever really fazed me all too much, and up until last year (yes, apocalyptic 2016 did striketh us all), life was fairly breezy. Can you sense the impending however? Ominous, I know.

After a year of nought but lemons, this year brought with it welcome stability. Life once again started serving me lemonade – on tap. I have enjoyed my full-time job, my family is back to its healthy self after a few close calls, I’ve got a beautiful partner, and, well, things should be progressing rather swimmingly.

But they’re not. And it’s terrifying.

A few months ago, I started to suspect my unwelcome struggles might have something to do with The Big A – anxiety. A quick Google search revealed a checklist of symptoms that rang true, and so I decided to reach out for help. Well, I would have, in an ideal world, but it wasn’t that easy. Instead, I struggled for weeks, held back by indecision.

I felt like asking for help would mean letting go of my calm and collected self perception, a brave new world where I wasn’t in charge of my own emotions. I wondered if my anxiety was merely a paper cut that would heal without a bandage. Perhaps, on bad days, I was making a mountain out of a molehill? But I let those bad days stretch into bad weeks before deciding I couldn’t just let this one slide, and booked a session with a counsellor.

I’ve likened my anxiety experiences to wearing the burdensome horcrux of Slytherin’s locket – it weighs heavily when it hangs from your neck, acutely enhancing worries you could so easily shrug off were they faced on a better day. Fleeting thoughts become draining worst-case scenarios that send you tumbling down a slippery slope of adrenalin-induced heart hammers.

It's not just a mind game either. Anxiety’s claws are deep, and the physical reaction is much harder to ignore. My body goes into fight-or-flight mode; a racing heart and an empty stomach, like I’ve missed the bottom step. While I can often fight the negative thoughts using logic and positivity, the physical symptoms are more difficult to combat. A couple of hours of this and I might have run a mile, such is my exhaustion.

I described these symptoms in my session, albeit with less Harry Potter metaphors, and I must say it was nice to see my words met with a knowing expression. I feel selfish admitting it’s nice to know I don’t struggle alone, but it really is a comforting thought.

“I’ve likened my anxiety experiences to wearing the burdensome horcrux of Slytherin’s locket – it weighs heavily when it hangs from your neck, acutely enhancing worries you could so easily shrug off were they faced on a better day.”

Speaking to a counsellor for the first time was a big move, particularly for someone with a history of internalising every problem. And while I didn’t get my silver bullet solution, which I admittedly did hold out hope for, I walked out of there with a sense of pride for addressing my problems head on, and a new-found sense of confidence that I can continue to do so.

I’ve picked up a few solid tips for calming myself down when things get too much. Sometimes I close my eyes and listen intently to my environment to try and identify five different sounds. It’s a nice way of focusing a misbehaving mind onto a simple task, and puts you smack bang in the middle of the present.

Exercise is another big one for me. Working an office job (and being a lazy shit), means my weekdays can zip by without me breaking a non-anxiety-related sweat. I’ve come to realise endorphins are my friend, and when things get stressful, I force myself to get a bit sweaty.

But the biggest help for me is believing I am not my anxiety. Yes it can overwhelm me, and yes it can linger for days or weeks at a time, but it doesn’t define me. Remembering I’m a pretty fun guy who loves music, beaches at golden hour, morning surfs and hiking in the rain – that’s what brings me back.

Until all this happened, I felt blessed that I didn’t contribute to New Zealand’s mental health statistics, but I’ve quickly come to realise that rain clouds can appear on any horizon, no matter the forecast. I don’t believe you can fully prepare for it, but if you look outside and identify what you see, don’t be afraid to dress up warm and face it. Follow the routes with the most cover and take the friends who will remind you to jump in the puddles.

You will be okay.

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