I had my first panic attack at Port Arthur. I’d spent the afternoon looking around the infamous prison, seeing the chapel where the prisoners were screened off from each other, the holding cells where the white convicts used to piss through the floorboards onto the aboriginal prisoners below. I went into the solitary confinement cell and as the door clanged shut behind me I experienced the same darkness and silence that had sent countless poor souls mad.
Looking back, perhaps it’s not surprising that my first panic attack decided to make its entrance in such a place. After all, I’ve always been sensitive to my surroundings. It probably didn’t help that I was physically exhausted from a five day hike I’d just completed, and emotionally wobbly from some recent upsetting experiences I’d had. But perhaps the most crucial factor was the long history of mental illness in my family, going back generations. Studies show that genetics play significant role in a person’s susceptibility to anxiety and depression.
Whatever the reason, as I sat in the ruins of the grounds of Port Arthur, the world as I knew it changed forever. Suddenly, the walls of the ruins seemed to expand outwards. A feeling of the most unbelievable dread, originating in the pit of my stomach, poured over my whole body. You know those scenes in The Matrix where everything slows down and the sounds go kind of funny? It was just like that, only not nearly as cool (Keanu Reeves was nowhere to be seen) and way, way scarier (because this was my life, not a movie).
People generally have one of two reactions when they start having panic attacks: either they think they’re dying, or they think they’re going crazy. I was the second one. To world champion standards. By the time a psychologist finally explained, politely and kindly, that I was experiencing a very common form of mental illness called an anxiety disorder, I was convinced that I was irretrievably and certifiably insane.
For the next eight years of my life I tried many methods to deal with my panic attacks, with varying levels of success. Yoga helped, and meditation was useful as I got better. Going for long walks and bike rides was great, as were catchups with kind friends over cups of tea. Maybe the best thing I did was practice a piece of advice I read in a book. The advice said, when anxiety hits, to challenge the anxiety. As in, say to the anxiety: ‘Go on, do your worst! Come on, is that all you’ve got? Hit me with it! You’re not even trying! (my words, not the books’). Believe it or not, this worked. When I dared to confront the dark, shapeless spectre that was my anxiety and panic, paraxodically it started to fade away.
I lost many years of my life to my anxiety disorder, and countless opportunities passed me by because I was so tied up with fighting what seemed at the time to be an unwinnable battle. But I also gained a lot as well. I learned what it is to suffer greatly (believe it or not, this is one of the greatest gifts life can offer). I learned what it means to hold on to faith and hope amidst blackest, darkest despair. I learned that the most precious things in life are not the money you make or the stuff you have but the little moments of beauty and peace that happen to all of us every day if we can just open our eyes to them.
It’s many years since I had a panic attack. I live my life now without that constant, sickening feeling of dread and fear that used to accompany me all through my days and follow me into my dreams at night. When you don’t have peace of mind for so long you come to realise it’s the most valuable thing you can possess. It’s taken me a long, long time, but I think I have it now.