Teuila Fuatai: Understanding anxiety and depression

OPINION:

It didn’t take long for the compliments to roll in.

“Oh, you’re looking really good.”

“Wow, you’ve lost a bit since I saw you last.”

Well-intentioned, the remarks definitely added to the confusion in my head at the time. Nearly four years ago now, I’d just come out of the worst depressive episode I’d had. Looking back, it’s always interesting which details stand out. There’s the weight-loss observations, the seemingly relentless sunny weather, and a briefly adopted belief that watching TV made me nauseous.

None of it made sense. But that period remains the most significant turning point in understanding my own health and brain.

Until then, I’d always thought I’d grappled with “worrying way too much, a bit of tiredness and some anxiety”. Turns out, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Unfortunately, it took reaching a very low point to understand there was a bit more to my behaviour than that.

For me, the catalyst came in one key question. I was at the doctors because my insides were in knots and I was exhausted. I sat there, teary eyed, saying I just needed some sleep so I could get back to normal.

“My chest is so tight. It’s so uncomfortable. It’s hard for me to sleep. Pretty sure it’s anxiety. I want something to fix it.”

She nodded calmly, checked a few more things then said: “Do you ever get low mood?”

I don’t remember how I answered, perhaps because I’d never heard those words before. Previous doctors’ visits regarding the same problems had always featured the question: “Do you get depressed?” My response, which in hindsight was pretty clueless, was always a clear “no”.

For me, depression or being depressed, was directly linked to self-harm or suicide, or thoughts around them. My lack of awareness around the wider spectrum of symptoms meant I’d never appreciated the complexity of it, or how depression could be affecting me.

It took two days of getting my head around the question, and reflecting on past bouts of exhaustion and difficulty before I was back in the doctors’ office clarifying my answer and asking for more information. Making that appointment was the last thing I managed to do before being completely out of action for the next two weeks.

It’s not easy thinking back to that time – particularly because it was just the start of what turned into a tough 12 months of interrogating my own headspace and behaviour. First up, were the physical symptoms. My depression is closely intertwined with anxiety. When I experience anxiety, it feels like someone is squeezing different parts of my insides. The first tell-tale sign is a tight chest. If it worsens, it spreads to other parts of my torso. When it’s at its most severe – as it was in 2018 – it feels like something has coiled around my stomach, chest and windpipe. That results in a loss of appetite, which over two-or-so weeks creates noticeable outward change. Loss of energy also occurs. Alongside prolonged sleeplessness, it makes for a pretty bleak status-quo. What broke that cycle for me was medication – short and long term – and that wonderfully simple question from the doctor.

Next, it was about understanding the causes of the physical symptoms. That would then mean I could control them, right? As I’ve found, it’s not exactly a linear relationship. Whereas the medication worked to ease the anxiety and sleeplessness in about a month, squaring my brain and how it operates was, and continues to be, an entirely separate ballgame. I count my blessings that in that critical period, those around me had the nous, resources and love to run at a problem that wasn’t their own. It meant after the GP, a plan was put in place, which at different stages also involved a psychiatrist and psychologist. Access to those services when I needed them have been invaluable.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt is how depression and anxiety works for me. I’ve even put my own spin on the concept of depression as “the black dog” to help. Unlike the common narrative, my metaphorical dog is always around. When things are going well, we co-exist without any problems. We go for walks and respect each other’s space. Importantly, I make sure it’s fed, washed, exercised and has everything it needs so it doesn’t interrupt what I’m doing. However, things sometimes fall by the wayside. I might forget to walk it or fill up its food. Too many of those occasions will result in a destructive dog, which wants to derail the peace. Further, the longer I leave it, the harder it is to rein in and address the chaos.

It’s the same with my moods. There’s a bunch of things I do to keep my anxiety at bay and depression at arm’s length. It’s not always easy, and requires more time and energy on some days than others. It also means being realistic about what I can achieve when things seem a bit lopsided. Essential to all of that was recognising what was wrong, and knowing that – with the right support – it is manageable.

Where to get help:

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633

• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)

• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757

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