If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen that Felix and I made a spontaneous decision over breakfast late on Friday to drive down to a town called Same, pronounced sah-may, for the Eid long weekend.
You may also have seen a suite of smug holiday photos as we lazed by the pool, drank sunset beers on the black-sand south coast beach, and picnicked roadside by winding mountain trails, homemade hummus and fresh tomatoes and a toilet squat beneath the trees.
South coast skies, mmmmh
What you didn’t see was the panic attack I had during an attempted driving lesson on the hot Saturday afternoon.
For someone who suffers from anxiety, I have this bizarre, dispassionate instinct to switch off when someone else talks about theirs – perhaps an ingrained idea that they can just get over it; that it’s something they’re choosing to feel. Which of course, isn’t true, and this counter-intuitive and cruel instinct is something I never want to surface.
But I can understand it if you read these words and look at my Instagram; at my life, and think come on, do you really have something to worry about?
Am I just making excuses? Am I being self-indulgent? Everyone gets nervous. Some people have real problems.
I’ve talked at length on this blog about anxiety, perfectionism, self-criticism and discomfort, and how my life in Timor-Leste exacerbates my natural tendencies to fret, to attempt control and to self-criticise.
I struggle with balance when I write about my anxiety.
I want to be open and honest about this real, medical condition I share with up to one-third of other Australian women, and do any small thing I can to normalise and de-stigmatise it. But I also want deeply to acknowledge that many, many people have far greater and more complex struggles with mental health than I do, and that my privilege affords me an experience of anxiety that I suspect is relatively uncommon.
People believe me.
Felix and I, a few weeks back, watching his sister sing at a Brazilian gig
Because I’m young and white and soft and thin it makes sense to people that I’m a nervous social wreck; a tender sapling battered by the breeze. Because I’m educated and English-speaking my perfectionism sits well and fits in. Because I have the words to describe my experiences and friends and a family who support me I’m rarely alone to burrow deeper into my own neuroses.
Because I’m an Australian citizen with a stable job and a Medicare card I get access to free counselling sessions and have an income that covers the gap where the government falls short.
I can cry and elicit sympathy, not terror or fear or threats. I can appear weak without people taking advantage of me. I can be angry and upset without strangers calling me hysterical.
And, critically, I’m allowed to use words like anxiety and panic to describe my experiences. I read a line once that was like, “White girls get to have anxiety and depression. Black girls get called crazy.”
How do I recognise my privilege and honour the experiences of others without belittling my own?
South coast, looking out towards Australia
But I do have a good life. I have a beautiful life. I post smug smiling selfies and palm tree pictures on Instagram because that is what my life is. It’s a carefully curated, saturation-nudged-up highlights reel of real life, of course, but what I share online is fragments of a very real, very good life, full of love and hope and meaning. And I don’t want to try and pretend that it’s bad – that does no one any favours.
But like a backpack full of rocks I carry my patchy mental health with me on every beach trip; to every tiny town; through every late-night conversation with Felix before we fall asleep together. I struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, self-criticism and deep, melancholy introspection. Lately, as I’ve piled more and more work on myself, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, panicked, despairing and periodically very down (I’m reluctant to use the word depressed there because I don’t know if I am, and I’m deeply averse to the flippant and insulting use of diagnoses as adjectives: oh my god I’m so bipolar, I can’t choose which dress to wear today. But I lately have had patches of feeling low and stagnant).
Some of that came to a head on Saturday, as I crunched our car through loops in a flat field out of Same, practising my gear changes with the new-to-me manual car. The initial thrill of a seamless gear switch wore quickly off as I abruptly stalled the car, forgot the handbrake, fell out of gear, stalled again, snapped at Felix for putting on the handbrake again without telling me, screeched into first and burst into hot fat embarrassed tears as the car lurched back onto the road.
It’s not fun to fuck up.
Felix and I, making shapes in the clouds and drinking afternoon wine in Maubisse. What does it say that my favourite photo of us doesn’t contain him and barely contains me?
After I calmed down I explained to Felix that this reaction isn’t my choice; it’s anxiety response caused by misfiring brain chemicals convinced we’re doomed to die. By overloading on work and keeping my body in a near-constant state of stress I’m pushing myself to the limit, stretched and dry and flaking and brittle, any resilience scraped out bare like the very bottom of a jar of peanut butter and me thus ready to crack at the tiniest shock.
It’s not fun to freak out.
I know I need to change this. I know I’ve taken on too much and I’m pushing myself too hard. Despite Felix’s unending kindness and eternal patience I feel guilty for the pressure I’m putting on him (he as both punching bag and anchor). And it send my stomach into knots to imagine my poor Mum reading this, two flights and a continent away, wanting to fix things for her little girl (who turns twenty-seven this year and who should probably be able to take care of herself by now).
And I don’t want this for myself. I’ve taken on a lot of work because I find all the things I’m doing exciting and energising and a good fun challenge. But I have no desire to be busy and I don’t care for achieving more. I want three days off per week to go to yoga class and read books and make tamarind jam and resin earrings and I don’t want to be stripping my hangnails hunched over a computer in wan flickering night while the rest of the household sleeps and my friends go down the pub for a beer.
An afternoon beach party with those friends and those beers.
But I do want to keep talking about it. Even when it hurts. My privilege means I am listened to; I am heard. My experience is valued. I can only hope that makes some tiny contribution to encouraging the empathy, compassion, patience and grace required to support all people with mental health problems, however visible; however real.