By James Noonan, currently Melbourne-based writer
59th Street Station, Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York
It was like a sucker punch, hard and fast. One minute I was sitting there calmly on the subway train hurtling beneath Manhattan, the next like I was fighting for my life. I felt like I’d been dumped in icy water, my skin tingling, my lungs reeling for air. In those dizzying moments that seemed to stretch endlessly, I became convinced I was going to die.
As the train came to its next stop, I leapt up and jumped out, even though my friend and I were nowhere near our destination. I may have mumbled something at her, I wasn’t sure. I was focused on only one thing: getting to street level. Racing up the stairs, I felt I had only seconds to reach the surface, to safety. My senses were dulling; the world around me grew vague and fuzzy.
When I finally made it out onto the sidewalk, I doubled over and heaved in lungfuls of air. My heart was still pounding and that cold pressing dread had yet to lift. I tried to imagine that I was on a beach, the warm ocean breeze washing over me—somewhere far removed from the garish lights of Times Square, the ceaseless bleat of traffic. The streets seemed to be closing in on me and I needed to escape—but from what exactly I didn’t know.
My friend was suddenly beside me, asking what on earth was happening. I kept saying, with a growing anger, that I had no idea. I knew it wasn’t simply a bout of queasiness or a migraine. I thought for a moment it could be a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism (I have a history of blood clots), but in a matter of seconds my mind had jumped to a hundred other fatal conclusions—poison, accidental drug intake—all of which somehow seemed feasible.
I walked around Midtown that night for hours, unable to be indoors or to take the subway any further. My friend and I ended up getting a taxi back to my apartment, the windows fully down and my head between my legs the whole time. I just didn’t think I’d ever stop feeling this way. I’d forgotten what it was like not to feel this way.
I returned home shortly after that frightening episode, having grown increasingly unhappy in New York. Things weren’t much better here though—I couldn’t find work, I had no money or place to live (other than with my parents), and I felt terribly alone. I felt, in all senses of the word, a failure. And I slid into a major depression. I completely withdrew into myself and stopped going out to see friends, frequently making up excuses as to why I couldn’t hang out. I’d lie in bed all day, just staring up at the ceiling, not wanting to face the world.
New York’s Central Park Wollman ice rink, backgrounded by mid-town
I knew this lifestyle—or lack thereof— was bad for me, but I didn’t have the motivation to do anything about it. In a weird way, I felt almost comforted by the absence of activity and excitement in my life. I frequently found myself wishing to sleep, or ‘turn off’ for a month—maybe more. Depression was my warm bed in the dark. It was my morphine, coursing relentlessly through me, numbing my senses. And I was entirely under its command.
It was this other strange phenomenon, these frequent overwhelming feelings of acute and disabling fear, that really shook me. I’d been robbed of my sense of self, of all my confidence. I was no longer in control. There came a period when I couldn’t even leave the house for fear of public judgement, of attracting unwanted stares. I was assailed constantly by a voice which questioned everything I did and thought. Why are they looking at me like that? Was it something I said? Whenever I heard laughter, I assumed—however irrationally—that I was the focus of such amusement. There was a stain on me, my fly was unzipped, or countless other humiliating scenarios…
It was only after I cancelled a job interview on account of not being able to enter the office building that I sought help. My family were worried about me—they could sense something was wrong, however well I’d tried to hide it. So I booked in to see my GP, who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. He explained to me that what I’d been experiencing were panic attacks. He prescribed me some meds for my depression and referred me to a psychologist for treatment of my anxiety. I found it initially nonsensical. I didn’t consider myself a stressful person; I went with the flow. I didn’t let things get to me. Why, then, was I suddenly struggling under the weight of everything?
In the six months following my diagnosis, I had regular therapy sessions, and read up on a lot of material, particularly online—some of which I found incredibly helpful, e.g. Beyond Blue and Man Therapy. I felt less alone knowing how common anxiety is among men and women. In many ways I learned how to be myself again, step by baby step. I focused all my energies on getting better, not on trying to live up to the perceived expectations of others. I learned to challenge my negative thinking, assuring myself that I was in control of my life, despite what that sinister voice kept trying to tell me.
Anxiety is often grouped with depression, but while many people suffer from both (as I did) and the treatments that work best for one may very well combat the other, they aren’t, I would argue, two sides of the same coin. Anxiety is still heavily misunderstood, and is often used interchangeably with stress. But whereas stress is a rational response to daily pressures, one that carries certain benefits relating to performance and decision-making, anxiety is a mental disorder, and does not usually have a readily identifiable root cause.
It’s also very difficult to open up about—especially with those that haven’t ‘been there’. Comparatively, depression—its causes, its effects—is quite a prevalent topic in today’s world. If one hasn’t personally experienced it, they usually know somebody who has—whether it’s a close friend of theirs, their favourite film star or musician, or a character on a popular T.V. drama. But anxiety is an affliction that still isn’t widely talked about, in its own right, even though it can be just as debilitating to one’s health (it certainly was for me). I remember I’d say to my friends whenever I was feeling anxious that I was just crook. On one occasion when it led to my being physically sick on the pavement outside a café, I said that I was simply nursing a chronic hangover from the night before. And we all laughed it off.
Eventually, however, I was able to be honest with those close to me. And I’m so glad of that, and often wish I’d done so sooner. Trying to bottle up such an intense internal struggle is poisonous to one’s health, and sadly does often end in tragic circumstances. For me, battling my anxiety remains an uphill battle. There are no quick fixes—contrary to enduring belief, one cannot simply ‘snap out of it’, much like with depression. Mostly I’m grateful for the people in my life who have supported me, even when I’d practically given up on myself. For it has been they who have reminded me when I’ve needed it most that there is a light at the end of even the longest and blackest of tunnels.
Brooklyn Bridge, from the East River Bikeway, below Franklin D Roosevelt Drive, Manhattan