Saturday, 1 June 2013


I recently broke my winning streak of not having been to the doctor for 25 years. I know going that long without seeing a doctor is nothing to be proud of (but I was). If I remember correctly, the last visit was for an ingrown toenail. This most recent visit was for something much more nebulous and difficult to define... anxiety.

The image I have of myself is of a rascally Jimmy Buffett-type - laying back in my hammock strumming my six string somewhere on a secluded desert island. There is probably a parrot somewhere nearby. The only concern I envisage myself having is how to get out of the hammock so I can mix my next Margarita.

It is a difficult thing to accept that this image is not accurate - perhaps it has become something to strive for.

I suppose this charade first began to crumble when I became a father. Over the past forty years I'm glad that I managed to fend for myself to some degree, but looking after somebody else and the constant vigilance required, as well as attempting to be something or a role model can be quite taxing.

You could say it made me slightly anxious.

Still, my wife Edwina is a stoic and reliable person and sensible often to an annoying degree. She is also a health-nut. I took comfort in this, as it made me realise that my daughter Clementine would always have somebody healthy around and it left me in a position to be a little more liberal with how I treated my body.

Several weeks ago Edwina was diagnosed with a condition that required a hospital stay, surgery and a long recovery process. For the short term at least, Edwina would no longer be the epitome of good health.

This made me anxious.

The period from diagnosis to deciding on a course of action, surgery and a brief hospital stay all happened within the course of about a week.

This was a lot to process in a short period of time... and it made me anxious.

I suppose one of the hardest things to deal with was how Clementine would react to her mother being sick. She is only four years old, but surely she would be aware of what was going on? Keeping up a brave face for her as well as dealing with the logistics of Edwina's recovery would be difficult. 

I think at this point my brain reacted in the same way as the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey did. The reason HAL went haywire was because he received two conflicting sets of instructions and had to keep the real reason for the mission secret from the crew, which in my case was Clementine. Thankfully I don't consider the crew expendable. I honestly needed to sit down, take a stress pill and think things over - but I didn't know it at the time.

Things came to a head about two days before Edwina was to go into hospital. I was sitting on the couch. As it was the day before pay day, there was nothing in the house to drink. Up until this point I think I had been self-medicating with alcohol in an attempt to relax, but this night I was completely sober.

I was feeling a bit agitated. Edwina's mother was coming down on Saturday to help look after Edwina which was a relief, but it also made me very aware of the fact that all my family lived 2500 kilometres away and I would be looking after Clementine for a couple of days by myself while also having to check on Edwina's progress.

Sometime around six pm something in my brain just snapped. I was distracting myself by playing the guitar as I often do, as well as watching the TV. I couldn't think of anything to play on the guitar and the TV suddenly sounded quite distant. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. It was almost audible and very rapid. My mind was in a feedback loop of negative thoughts. I felt a fear that was akin to being pulled out of the audience at the circus, forced to do a triple summersault on the trapeze before realising there was no net and no-one there to catch you. I was hoping none of this was apparent to Edwina, who was standing only a few feet away making dinner.

I came to the unprecedented decision to go and see a doctor. How would I get out of the house without being detected? How had I managed to make Edwina's problem suddenly something about me? What a selfish asshole I was!

Now I was really anxious.

Like some sort of late 19th century English gentry, I delicately explained to Edwina that I was feeling 'poorly' and was going to the doctor. She has never seen me go to the doctor in all the years she's known me, so she knew something was up. I knew I couldn't drive myself so I rang my brother-in-law Jeremy to drive me to the nearest doctor. He also sounded concerned but rushed straight over, god bless him!

As it was about 7pm at this stage, no normal GP clinic was open and we had to go to the 24 hour clinic a few blocks away. It was the sorriest looking bunch of people I had seen in a long time and didn't help my general mood, even though Jeremy was doing his best to keep me calm. We both looked gobsmacked at a mother ignoring her two children fighting a few feet away. The older child pushed the younger child over. The younger child started crying. The mother picked up the child that had been pushed, almost wrenched her arm out of her socket and gave her a smack... That's justice for ya!

Eventually I was ushered into a room with a weary-looking doctor who seemed to be praying for retirement and was sick of dealing with irrational mothers who punish children for being victimised. He listened patiently to my story and then prescribed me something I hadn't heard of. I probably wasn't in there for more than ten minutes.

It wasn't until I got to the pharmacist that I found out what he prescribed was an anti-depressant. I wasn't depressed, I thought (well, not any more than usual). What I needed was something to stop my heart jumping out of my chest and my head exploding. Hadn't I explained this to the doctor?

Sure enough, after taking the medication I managed to get some sleep but woke up still in an agitated state. Sure this time it was only a 7 instead of a 10, but is that really a great result? This time I was shaking and probably rocking back and forth a bit, while trying to distract my mind with some 24 hour news-cycle television. Random acts of senseless violence and an increasingly ridiculous and depressing election campaign did little to soothe my mind. I considered going for a walk, but I thought that was a step too far. The thought made me realise how those random strangers you see walking the streets at these hours must feel. I wasn't ready to become one of them. 

The thing that really eased my mind was ringing in sick for work. The beauty of working in an office that is open 24 hours is you can do this sort of thing at 3 am and then just sleep the rest of the day away. As it happens, the giddy thrill of a day off can ease even the most intense anxiety. It's such a shame that the reason was genuine and I hadn't just had too many beers with my mates.

The next day I went to what looked like a more 'respectable' clinic and luckily encountered a younger, less jaded and more sympathetic doctor who prescribed me Valium. I'm no scientician, but I know this is the sort of thing I needed, especially at this point after not having eaten for a day and only having two hours' sleep.

I took the medication as required, was able to handle dropping Edwina at hospital, looking after Clementine and generally getting on with things. It felt good to be normal again and Edwina's surgery went perfectly. It must be noted that my sister Karen was a bit of a hero as well. When she heard I was freaking-out she flew down the next day and stayed with me and Clementine while Edwina was in hospital. The weird thing is we actually had a good time for those couple of days! Karen got to do some shopping, Clementine and I 'camped out' in the living room and we went for a trip to St Kilda. 

Edwina came home and as far as I was concerned I was back to normal. My brain wanted to celebrate. It told my body that what I needed to do was drink 18 beers and 12 cups of coffee, which my body was gladly obliged to do. The old Jimmy Buffett personality was re-establishing itself.

Also, with Edwina back at home, we were delighted to be able to go to the movies together while Clementine was at Kindergarten. It was like we were dating again! It just so-happened that the new Star Trek film was starting. I was overjoyed.

We sat in the dark with our 3D glasses, ice cream cones and a giant coca-cola which, as usual, I drank most-of before the movie even started. As I sat watching the dramatic opening sequence of the film, I could feel dread building up inside of me and my heart beginning to race.

"Of for fuck's sake!" I said to myself. "I've been waiting three years for this film! Now get out of the stupid volcano, Spock and make with some witty dialogue!"

The weird part about anxiety is it seems to have almost nothing to do with your rational mind and luckily this time I was able to beat it into submission and enjoy the rest of the film. 

The old anxiety did rear its ugly head on one more occasion, though. I went to Brisbane for a bit of relaxation and had a panic attack on the flight. It seemed to revolve around the fact that I wouldn't be able to get to my pills between the safety instructions and cruising altitude. Again, this makes no logical sense, but when we got to cruising altitude I felt slightly better.

One of the reasons I went to Brisbane was for my father's book Launch. Mum and dad thankfully picked me up from the airport when I wasn't expecting them to and we went back home to get ready. About two hours before the launch 'The Fear' struck again. Was I subconsciously trying to sabotage family members' major life events?

I grudgingly told my parents what was up and they booked me in at the local GP where I got my prescription refilled and insisted on a blood test to make sure there was no physical cause for my anxiety. Luckily, we were all able to make dad's book launch and I took a certain delight in watching him sweat-it-out on stage instead of me.

When I returned home I got the results of the blood test. Everything was normal and I was glad to discover that technically I'm not even an alcoholic. The doctor took great delight in noting that one of the things I was tested for was syphillis. I also found this hilarious, but was also secretly disappointed that I obviously don't elude a 'ladies man' machismo akin to the likes of Errol Flynn.

So I'm not taking any medication at the moment for the condition and hope to keep it that way. My strategy is to just try and cut down on coffee and don't drink as much. Maybe I'll even curtail my planned visit to the cinema to watch the reportedly brutal and vomit-inducing remake of Evil Dead.

Looking back, I find the whole thing puzzling. The incident makes me embarrassed. It feels like such a white middle-class problem, especially when I consider I'm not living in a stressful environment, there are no military drone planes flying overhead everyday and my physical health is probably better than most people my age.

Maybe that's the problem -  I live in such a stress-free environment that when something truly stressful comes along I can't cope and the walls of Xanadu come crashing down. I think I might hire someone to poke me with a stick at random times during the day to keep me in a state of constant vigilance and a low level of anxiety; then when something truly stressful happens I'll be ready for it.

The best scenario would be for nothing stressful to happen to me for the rest of my life, but this seems unlikely. I have taken a few lessons away from the experience and have certainly become a little humbled. The best thing to keep in mind is that you can talk yourself out of these states and I am especially grateful to have understanding people around.

It feels good to be normal again - well at least what I consider normal. I think I'm ready to go back to my hammock now and strum my guitar for a while. Maybe I'll skip the Margarita...

Ok, maybe just one!

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