I didn’t realise I had anxiety until I was about 45. Sometimes you don’t realise you are different from everyone else, but on another level, there is a deep knowing that you are; and you don’t want to be. I grew up wanting to be the same as everyone, aspiring to invisibility because that’s where I could hide.
It wasn’t until I stopped drinking alcohol, that I was able to see what lay beneath. Beneath the self-medicating, suppressing my emotions, outside of the drinking culture, where I had my support system, my tribe. I came out from under the table, so to speak, where I had been hiding. When I stopped drinking, all the old insecurities came up, which I thought I had long buried.
Anxiety appeared. There were a lot of “What ifs”. What if people didn’t like me when I didn’t drink? What if I was never invited to a party again? What if I was invited to the races? What if I had to go to a wedding? What if I wasn’t accepted? What if I didn’t know how to behave? What if I can’t dance? What if I have to have sex sober? What if I turn into AA preaching evangelist? Turns out, I was the same person I had always been, only with less vomiting. Turns out, I was funny, entertaining, interested in people and a good listener. Turns out, I can still tell a story as well as the next man, or woman, only this time, holding lemonade not vodka.
I found it awfully uncomfortable being vulnerable, standing alone on the hill of sobriety, with all my friends drinking and playing in the valley. Because, in Australia, drinking goes hand in hand with social gatherings. How will I find a new tribe, a new group of friends? After the dust settled, it seemed I didn’t have to. I noticed that the people who understood me, stayed. Friends suggested coffee meet ups and dinners and movies or shopping so I didn’t have to feel left out. I’ve been to concerts, film festivals, weddings, birthdays and hen’s nights. Sober. People who needed me to drink fell away and I began to notice what was left, the people who didn’t care about me not drinking. They had always been there, they either didn’t drink, or didn’t drink so much, they were the quiet ones, the thoughtful and interesting ones, the ones who listen.
Now that I’m not drinking, I don’t have any time for the type of conversations I used to be involved in, the bar talk of who has the biggest or best story, the way people listen when they drink, just waiting for you to stop talking so they can tell their better story. There is no engagement, no connection. Just swapping tales. Bar banter. I used to think I drank to connect, now I see it for what it was for me, a way to disconnect, from myself.
In the past, alcohol was my bravado; alcohol allowed me to walk into a room full of people with confidence, alcohol let me have deep conversations with friends and strangers waiting to use the bathroom. Alcohol was my secret weapon, a way to meet people and instantly share a bond. Alcohol gave me an excuse, “God I was so pissed,” “You know, I can’t remember dancing on the table,” “I forget what happened at the end of the night, or how I got home,” “ I think I was speaking Spanish” – soooooo drunk. “Whose phone number is this in my phone and who took all my money and cigarettes?” Alcohol was my pass out. My proxy, my stress buster, my mojo, my soundtrack, my mood shifter, my fall guy, my go to, my friend. I didn’t realise, that I could be all these things myself, without it.
A counsellor I was seeing during this phase, asked how I felt. I said “I’m fine, it’s not like I’m an alcoholic or anything.” She laughed at me. She stood up to draw on a white board and I knew I was now part of a complex cycle, or at least in some kind of a Venn diagram. She drew some arrows on the board into a circle demonstrating the cycle of addiction and said “Well, addicts always deny they are addicts.” She then looked at me, the way counsellors do when they call you on your own bullshit and you haven’t quite got there yet.
She suggested I try 30 days of not drinking. It helped me to journal this. I will publish this eventually, once I make it G rated.
So, I’m an addict now, I think, well that makes sense, I do obsess over things, I do think I have an addictive personality, but it’s not like I was downing a bottle of gin just to get myself out of bed each day. I had never had the DTs, I had gone without alcohol before, when I was pregnant, so 30 days shouldn’t be too hard. My body could use the break; it’s been about 30 years.
I went to see my acupuncturist as self care was my new buzzword. More like self-repair. He hugged me and we both agreed it had been a while. My daughters came into the session but were quickly occupied with colouring in on the floor.
“So what’s been going on?” he asked.
“My legs have started feeling hot at night. “ He looked at me and asked how old I was; before I could answer the children yelled out “She’s 45!” So there it is. Middle age. “It sounds like menopause, but you are too young.” He hummed and haahed and took my pulse. “It could be liver. Does it happen with alcohol as well as without?” I looked at him confused, and realised I didn’t know. I’ve never, not drank. He decided to treat my hormones, because after all, I was middle aged.
Unbeknown to both of us, my body had started going into early menopause due to a few major stressors in my life.
How I cope with my anxiety
I’ve come to realise that my anxiety can sometimes be helpful. I am the one you want to go away with for a weekend – because I will bring everything. I have the spare soap, mosquito repellent, glad wrap, paper towels and matches. I have eight pairs of shoes and four pairs of swimmers, four cardigans and a rolled up raincoat, because you never know. I have the Vegemite, the breakfast cereals, spare coffee, because those sachets really only last a day, sugar for the same reason, toilet paper, garbage bags, dishwashing liquid and three phone chargers. I have the full array of different types of sunscreen, spray, factor 50, wet kids and tinted for the face. I have board games and cards, two or three novels and a travel clock. Up until a few years ago, I also packed a pocket knife. I had to check myself this week packing for Sydney, I started going into the “What ifs?” before realising I was heading to Sydney, not Siberia, and they sell things there.
I have had helpful advice and suggestions for my anxiety like: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Well obviously death, so I have to plan my funeral and the readings and the songs and who is coming and who isn’t and if I want to buried or cremated, and who I leave my clothes to; there is no money. If I am cremated is it ok to get my children to take my ashes to a remote world heritage island off the west coast of Ireland? Does one have to declare ashes at customs? Is it still considered animal product, if it is dead? Or is it mineral? So what’s the worst thing that can happen? Possible confiscation of human body matter on an international flight, imprisonment of my children for people smuggling, albeit dead people, then the ensuing law suit to regain custody of me, the dead parent and petitioning by a human rights organisation to allow my children to scatter my ashes on the heritage listed island. Oh – I’ve thought about it. I’ve kind of over thought that one. It does not make me any calmer.
Here are some things I do which help me cope when anxiety visits. I do some of these things daily, some only sometimes. I made the acronym STOP IT. Which is better than what is the worst that can happen? because that is way too long, and in periods of high anxiety, six things are easier to remember than 26. Yes I did count them. Counting is an anxiety thing as well. It’s about maintaining control. I think that could be another chapter.
So here are the six steps or *STOP IT*:
S – Shame it. Name and shame it. I call the voice in my head a name and tell her to go away with quite a short sharp word which rhymes with truck. For example, “F off Margaret” if that was your mother’s name or whoever the voice sounds like. Mine often sounds like Angela, and says things like “You should be wearing a skivvy or at least a spencer.” So I tell that voice to F off.
T – Tap on it – Using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or tapping, I go somewhere quiet, usually a bathroom (for all its ambiance) and I tap on the 10 or so acupuncture points on my body saying things like “Even though, I have to speak to the pay office about my holiday calculations which seem odd , I still deeply and completely love and accept myself.” You can find out more about EFT on YouTube.
O – Occupy yourself. Wash your hands, go to the loo, have a drink. Make a cuppa. This is something I have often instinctively done but now it has been proven that it breaks the neural loop of obsessive thinking and calms the body down.
P- Phone a friend, or if you can’t do this, imagine this friend speaking to you, telling you everything is ok, you are fine and even though it feels like it, you won’t die.
I – Immediately breathe – big deep breaths into your belly, so the belly rises. In through the nose, and out through the mouth. At least four or five breaths are needed to calm down your nervous system.
T – Turn the thought around. So if the thought is: “I am hopeless” make it “I am hopeful” or ” I am full of hope” or “ I am not hopeless” . Sometimes the brain tells us negative or unhelpful thoughts which we can choose to believe, or not. Choose not. Or call the thought out for what it is, Byron Katie asks, “Is it true?” most of the time, we completely generalise, or make thoughts up.
* Just by the way, yelling at someone to STOP IT, STOP IT, when they are in the middle of pacing and worrying or an anxiety or panic attack is really, really unhelpful. Also telling them to calm the F down has never been any use and may provoke violence. Offer support, hugs, say things like” I am here for you” or “breathe, “or “would you like a cup of tea?” are all good.
Please comment or share if you find this useful, I’m thinking of writing a short handbag book on anxiety with some tips and tricks for survival. There are many other things I have tried which work well, including yoga and meditation. I’m beginning to become interested in the role anxiety plays in our lives and if we can ever capture this sneaky little beast, to stroke and calm it, or if it will always dwell under the surface, popping up in times of stress. I know it exists to protect us from harm, but sometimes it is useful to grab it, tell it to STOP it and F off.
Rachel Wilkinson is a Holistic Counsellor, Massage and Reiki Therapist operating from Step into Health in Mansfield, Brisbane. She never thought she was anxious until she stopped drinking. Now she feels so good and has come so far, it is difficult to imagine going back. She helps children, teenagers, and adults deal with anxiety, including ways to harness calmness with EFT or tapping, The Work of Byron Katie, and guided meditation. You can read more blogs on her website here https://www.rachelwilkinson.com.au/blog/