Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety
From: Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, by Naomi Arnold
Recently, while travelling, I fell into conversation with an older man about this book, and we got talking about anxiety. ‘Oh, I had a very anxious period in my youth,’ he said, and told me of the time in his mid 20s when he’d started a new job. He worried every day that he was failing, drowning in the unfamiliar environment, afraid of making a mistake. ‘But I just wrote myself a list every day before I left work and made sure I ticked it off in the morning,’ he said. ‘It’s about setting priorities. That’s how you get over nerves.’
I have heard many versions of this story in the nearly two years since this book was first conceived, and I’ll say here what I said in response: Nope. That is not anxiety. If you haven’t experienced this illness it can be difficult to understand it, and thus it can be hard to have empathy for how it manifests. We say stuff like: Don’t worry, just breathe, chill out, have you tried yoga?
You might have felt tense and worried since you were a small child, or maybe your anxiety developed from trauma, cumulative stress, a change in relationships, brain chemistry, gut biota. But what people with anxiety share is a sense of fear, overwhelming to the point that it interferes in their daily lives and begins to drive every decision.
Clinical anxiety is chronic, crushing panic. Sometimes you can function fine with a faint residual fluttering and a few deep breaths. Other times, it grows until it takes over your mind, your gut, your heart, your breath, your limbs and everything in your life, until your entire being feels reduced to the nub of your earliest brain, the one that pumps adrenaline through your system, puts everything on red alert, shuts down all your body systems, and makes every cell scream: You are in danger. FIGHT. RUN.
Bringing this collection together was a delicate task. There’s still a stigma in talking about mental health. We—Holly Hunter, Ashleigh Young, Kirsten McDougall and I—approached writers who we knew had anxiety, writers we suspected had anxiety, people with anxiety who we suspected could write, and people with anxiety who didn’t necessarily want to write something but had an important story to tell.
In the end, we got yeses from around a hundred people. The next part was more difficult: prompting and encouraging those writers, like all editors do, without making life worse for them. People with anxiety sometimes say yes when they probably should have said no; they are often busy perfectionists, high achievers who put pressure on themselves. But deadlines and publishers can’t be put off forever. As we got to the final stages of the book, life—and anxiety—got in the way for many of them. I heard dozens of reasons for why writers felt unable to finish their contributions, or suddenly felt unsafe in revealing so much of themselves, or struggled with a new personal crisis. Some simply dropped off the face of the Earth. ‘Attempting to write about life with anxiety (and everything else) caused me massive anxiety and I had to step back from everything for a bit,’ was one response, echoed by many. I began to feel the quickening throbs of their hearts between the lines of their emails.
It became clear that many people are suffering intensely, and often without much understanding of what they’re going through. Some told me, ‘I’ve never really articulated this before,’ and ‘I don’t think I’m at the stage of my illness where I know how to talk about it,’ and, ‘This is new and I don’t know what it is yet.’
It also became clear that, despite the overall perception of mental illness in the public eye, the stigma is heavier for some than for others. In selecting the essays for this book, we naturally wanted to hear from as diverse a spread of voices as possible. After a year and a half of searching, phoning, emailing and a massive response to a Twitter call-out, Headlands still has some gaps in representation. As I made inquiries, I heard frequently that it’s easier and more acceptable for Pākehā not only to access care for mental illness, but to be diagnosed with it in the first place—and that’s before considering the type, appropriateness and quality of the available healthcare.
Although it’s hard for all, anxiety is more acceptable in some worlds. It’s still easier for some to talk about it, to be accepted by friends, family and workplaces, to have a public meltdown and to navigate our flawed mental-health system. White women, for example, can look to plenty of figures in popular media who model what used to be called neuroticism: Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw, Elaine Benes, Liz Lemon, manic pixie dream girls. There are white women columnists in major newspapers who regularly write about their mental-health struggles, including Australian Sarah Wilson (a different Sarah Wilson from the one included in this collection), who recently wrote a revealing memoir about the depths and textures of her anxiety that became a New York Times bestseller.
Without generalising, I think it’s important to point out that Māori, Pacific Island and Asian communities in New Zealand do not walk the same path with mental illness as Pākehā do, and that a lot of Pākehā, as well as our medical models of healing, don’t recognise that. Research shows that these groups are the most likely to experience mental illness, and also the most unlikely to find help for it. As one person I contacted put it, non-Pākehā are less likely to end up in a situation where they’ll see someone who’ll diagnose them. ‘Nobody I know except my Pākehā friends have seen a psychiatrist and are on meds,’ she said.
We need to understand how mental illness affects different communities in different ways, and how best to get different people the different kinds of help they need. Sometimes, no matter how many ads and programmes urge you to ‘reach out’, you might not even recognise that you have anxiety, let alone be able to ask for help. The ability of people to reach out successfully is also about the rest of the population reaching in: learning, listening, accepting and building accessible and appropriate pathways, whether that’s in the workplace, family, community or health systems.
The essays in this book display anxiety in all its forms: weird, funny, ridiculous, sobering, devastating. They examine anxiety in rich, illuminating detail, discussing how anxiety sits in society, along with treatment plans, methods of coping—and revelations of barely coping, when simply being in the world is too much.
Though we wanted Headlands to focus on being anxious and looking out, some of the pieces collected here discuss professionals looking in on anxiety. Physiotherapist Rosemary Mannering discusses how anxiety manifests in the body; Zion Tauamiti shares his experience as a suicide prevention officer working with anxious young people; and University of Canterbury clinical psychologists Meredith Blampied and Julia Rucklidge discuss their work with micronutrients as an alternative approach to traditional psychiatric medication.
But this isn’t a book of solutions—it is proudly one of problems. Some of those in our collection talk about what they’ve found useful, but all admit how much of a mess they feel sometimes, and how that’s affected their relationships with family and friends. People can lose their patience with those who have anxiety, or any mental illness. We might like to think we’re all supportive and helpful, but it takes a great deal of empathy and experience to stick with someone who’s exhibiting all the frustrating and confusing behaviour that comes with mental illness.
From an outsider’s perspective, what helps people with anxiety is letting them talk, giving them time, offering friendship and forgiveness, a place of safety, understanding and respect for their autonomy. That’s where this book comes in. Anxiety can be difficult and troubling for those outside it. Its sufferers can seem flaky, isolate themselves, have ‘inappropriately emotional’ reactions. They might not sleep; they might fear rejection and lash out. Their friends might drift away, confused by their behaviour. They’re both hamstrung by fear and chronically conscientious and sensitive. They might also be incredibly frustrated when any emotion or reaction they do have is dismissed because of their anxiety. Don’t ask an anxious person, ‘Have you tried yoga/veganism/meditation/interval training?’ They know. They have tried everything, and yet here they are.
If you have anxiety, the voices in this collection offer reassurance and validation. They know what it’s like to be unable to pull the keys from the car ignition and go to a party, as Hinemoana Baker experiences. To be a Māori woman and thus not permitted to fall apart, as Donna McLeod writes in a mesmerising piece, because you’re the one holding it all together. To dread your friends’ reactions to your panic attack, as Susan Strongman reveals in ‘Earnest PSA’. To find yourself inside a mental health secure unit, as Paula Harris describes in a bracing essay on the source of her anxiety. To suddenly discover, as Tusiata Avia has, that many of your health symptoms are related to anxiety, and to try to figure out what on earth to do now.
The voices here know what it’s like to struggle for breath, to curl up on the cool bathroom floor, to avoid going out. To not know how to relax, like others can. To sit in the office bathroom and try to do your breathing. To spend night after night listening to meditation apps, only to lose hours of darkness to a thrashing heart and awake at three in the morning gasping for breath. To stay awake until dawn—and then get up anyway, facing the world with sand in your eyes and a fist punching your gut.
The writers in this collection are not alone. In 2017, one in five New Zealanders sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder—the same percentage of the population that texts while driving, lies about the number of people they’ve had sex with, sees no problem with accessing social networks at the office, and are still working over 65. But the real figures will be even higher than that, and they’re growing. Ministry of Health figures for the same year reveal that nearly 20 percent of people were diagnosed with a mood and anxiety disorder, up from 12.7 percent in 2007. Thousands more will have stayed silent. This book is for you.