I’m pleased to welcome Tania Chandler to Off the Beaten Track today. Tania is a Melbourne-based writer, writing teacher, and editor. Her books have been published in Australia and internationally; shortlisted for awards and selected for reading programs. Tania writes about time, trauma, memory and mental health. All That I Remember About Dean Cola is her third novel.
Over to you, Tania.
A TORTURED MIND
I wrote All That I Remember About Dean Cola — a novel that examines mental illness and trauma — while battling a major anxiety disorder. Reading back through my journals from the time, I’m not sure how I managed to achieve anything. I have decided to share with Authors for Mental Health part of my experience to let others suffering with anxiety know they are not alone, and to contribute another voice to the conversation hoping to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
At the time, I thought that being unwell was helping me to write, to get into the head of my protagonist, so I didn’t seek help until a few months after finishing Dean Cola. I found a new doctor who ordered blood tests, which showed that some of my brain chemicals were at levels you would expect to find in a patient with a tumour. He introduced me to neuroplasticity brain science, which is about rewiring the brain, and — most importantly — he prescribed a medication that worked for me. Those things were life changing. Life saving.
I have had anxiety all my life. I was first diagnosed with panic disorder and GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) about 20 years ago. Back then, I didn’t believe I had anxiety. I argued with doctors that it was a heart condition and insisted on having tests. Anxiety disorders are different for everybody living with them. For me it has been mostly heart palpitations, insomnia, stomach pain, and fear that I’m dying. ALL THE TIME. Sometimes also breathing difficulties, chest pain, muscle spasms, numbness, tingling, odd aches and pains, shaking, migraines, dissociation, dizziness, visual disturbances, irrational thinking, and a million other emotional and physical symptoms that constantly change, just to keep me guessing. As soon as you get used to one set of symptoms, your anxiety disorder will produce a whole range of new ones for you to deal with. And anxiety disorder is: Sitting on the couch in the middle of the night with chest pain and heart palpitations, breathing into your cupped hands, paddling your feet and doing all the other things your psychologist has told you to do. Phone by your side, ready to call triple 0. Heart attack or panic attack? The symptoms are terrifyingly similar. A false-alarm trip to hospital is not appealing, even less so if you have health anxiety as well. So, you wait and see if you die; if you don’t, then it’s just another panic attack. A psychologist once summed it all up for me so perfectly in just three words: A tortured mind.
Cruelly, becoming a published author — my lifelong dream — only made my anxiety disorder worse. Possibly, I think, because the things that come with putting your work (which is really yourself; it’s hard to separate the two) out there — exposure, judgement, reviews, social media, public speaking — are things I would have previously run a million miles to avoid. And the fear of failure and rejection gets worse too. There is far more (mostly self-imposed) pressure on writing a third book than on a first. I have read a lot of advice recently about not putting your writing (or any kind of work) before your health. I am weighing this up before I commit to writing another novel, while at the same time wondering if not writing is just as hard as writing.
Anxiety sucks — you can’t fight it and you can’t run away from it; it will always win, it will always catch you — but there are ways to cope and learn to live with it. Things (aside from medication) that have helped me include exercise and talking to others. Anxiety doesn’t care much for exercise and usually leaves me alone when I go for long walks or sessions at the gym. Talking to somebody you trust, your GP or a therapist, also brings relief, as do the forums on mental health organisation websites. Lifeline is another helpful service. Anxiety is a terrifying and lonely place to be. It’s hard, but reaching out to find you are not alone feels like letting go of the heaviest weight you’ve been carrying around forever.