I’ve been reflecting on how different my experience of the Christmas holiday period is these days compared with several years ago.
I used to slide into Christmas exhausted and a nervous wreck. It would take me at least ten days to get to a point where I wasn’t operating at a million miles an hour, and I’d spend the rest of the break getting anxious about returning to work. Not much of a holiday.
Thankfully these days I avoid operating at a million miles an hour at any time of the year because it’s inefficient for everyone involved – and I don’t get anxious about returning to work either.
That ‘balance’ we’re constantly seeking to understand (and often get tired of hearing about) is of course an individual thing. But when your lack of balance starts impacting your health, you might want to pay attention.
That was the case with me earlier in my life.
Just over fifteen years ago, I had what I hope was my last panic attack.
It was August 2003. I was living in Auckland, New Zealand, and I was studying journalism, having given up working as a solicitor the previous year after four (long) years.
I’ve always told others that I gave up law because I felt trapped in it. That’s true but what triggered my decision was a series of panic attacks in 2001 and 2002, when I was in my mid-20s.
Being a solicitor in New Zealand means being a barrister too – and therefore going to court. I’d struggle to sleep in the few days leading up to each court appearance. I’d rehearse each element in my mind – scanning for weaknesses in my preparation that might lead to any form of difficulty in the courtroom.
I’d feel sick in the minutes leading up to walking into the court. Sitting in front of the judge was intimidating and excruciating. Most of the time hearings were administrative in nature – asking for a delay, asking for an order around evidence. There might be several dozen lawyers in the courtroom for these mini hearings. You were never really sure when your case would be called and so you would sit there for up to a few hours watching other lawyers being put through their paces. There was a story of a young lawyer who had dared to show up wearing a blue shirt instead of a plain white one. It was a reminder of the precision that the court demanded. ‘Your shirt,’ the judge apparently said. ‘I can’t see you today. Maybe next week.’
After my turn was over, I would struggle to recall what the judge had actually ordered because once it started it all went so fast. I used to have to phone the registrar of the court afterwards to ask them what the judge had said.
The panic attacks that I dreaded so much involved me standing in the bathroom before heading to court, hands planted firmly on the walls, and breathing in and out for what seemed like minutes on end to prevent me from passing out – while willing myself to take the short walk up the hill to the court.
Similar types of anxiety sometimes presented themselves for certain client meetings, internal meetings, phone calls.
But the panic attack that hit me that early winter morning in 2003 in Auckland was unlike anything I had experienced before. It was also brought on by distorted and unchecked thinking and some basics that were out of whack.
I had set myself a target of being top in my one-year journalism qualification. I had aced the first semester. But in the second semester I had found myself in a class with a lecturer whose teaching style I struggled to follow. I had received a poor grade on a weekly assignment (it was around an A- which sounds good but wasn’t in line with my goal of coming first) and despite it only being very early in the second semester I felt I was falling behind. I was panicking.
How I could make up the ‘bad’ grade became a total obsession, which I ruminated over day and night.
I woke early that morning in a sweat, with gnawing anxiety and nausea. To avoid throwing up in my bedroom, I slowly made my way to the bathroom. At the entrance to the bathroom, the floor suddenly jolted upwards, followed by the walls collapsing. It was all in my mind but even thinking about it today is like being there again.
I crawled into the bathroom, shouting my housemate’s name. All the while the bathroom spun 360 degrees. I think I passed out. I don’t remember much after that except being exhausted and sleeping a lot.
It took me a few weeks to realise how much I had lost perspective and how ridiculous my thinking had been. And I was a bit pissed off that quitting law hadn’t cured me of the panic attacks. I went to see my doctor.
After some basic questioning my GP said it might be time to start doing things like making sure I got enough sleep, that my hours of study might benefit from some boundaries and that a healthy diet and some exercise should feature more in my daily routine. All of these things had been seriously out of whack – and had been for many years. I was at a point where accepting and acting on the doctor’s advice was essential. Adopting a different approach to how I managed my life and looked after myself wasn’t easy, but I’m pleased I did do that.
Fast forward 15 years, I wouldn’t say I’d quite give myself an A+ in making sure I get the right dose of work, sleep, diet and exercise (plus enjoyment) but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, progress is the goal – not perfection. And while I have skirted too close to the edge at times, I haven’t had another panic attack.
And of course managing a mental illness is about far more than sleep, diet, exercise and work hours.
It’s also about asking for help sooner rather than later when you feel things are getting too much. As my GP said, self-reliance and failing to ask for help when you need it can be a dangerous omission. I’ve learned that too, and keep learning that.
If you are struggling inside or outside work, then raise your hand to someone you trust.
Don’t just hope that whatever you’re battling will go away by itself.
Chances are it won’t.
By Coran Lill