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Headlands: 30 New Zealanders share what it's like to live with anxiety

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In a new collection of essays, Naomi Arnold shines a light on anxiety. She talks to Beck Eleven.

As with so many great schemes, invention is often not born of necessity but emerges instead during moments of quiet reflection.

Nelson-based journalist Naomi Arnold was cycling to the pub one evening when it struck her she knew many fellow writers who suffered from anxiety – not the little niggles and worries that afflict us all from time to time, but the very real, all-consuming and often debilitating disorder.

She parked her bike at The Free House pub, ordered a drink and composed a message on her phone to a dozen friends and acquaintances who’d indicated over the years that they suffered from anxiety.

“At 5.10pm, I fired off this totally informal email asking people if they would write about anxiety and saying I’d pitch a book of collected essays to a publisher,” she says. “And then everyone actually replied. I had people replying in capital letters saying, ‘YES, I AM IN.’

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“I still have the emails. Ashleigh Young replied at 5.11pm, then Anthony Byrt came back at 5.15pm, Jessica McAllen was at 5.19pm, Aimie Cronin replied at 5.21pm.” All are writers who ended up contributing their stories. “Everyone’s response was ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And I thought, ‘God, you guys are really keen to talk about anxiety. Good on you.’”

What came together in the year and a half that followed was Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety (Victoria University Press, $30), a collection of 30 personal accounts of living with anxiety, or working with people who suffer from it. (An essay by actor and writer Michelle Langstone is extracted here.) Some are courageous and uplifting; others are traumatic and simply heartbreaking.

In 2017, Ministry of Health figures showed one in five Kiwis had sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. What seems less clear is the nature of anxiety and how it manifests individually. “There’s mild, moderate and severe,” Arnold says. “Mild is when you can make some lifestyle changes, do yoga or mindfulness or download an app. But once you get to moderate or severe anxiety, you’ve become so ill you can’t just eat more vegetables and be fine. I don’t think people quite get the urgency of it, sometimes. It’s like hell.

“People can’t leave the house, they have to quit their jobs. There are so many different forms, from fear-based procrastination where people think, ‘As soon as I start this, I’m going to reveal myself as a fool’ so they just shut down... It runs from nervousness, to not managing your life very well, to hospitalisation.”

And Arnold would know. As editor of the book, she hasn’t contributed her own story, but both she and her husband went through years of what she describes as “crisis point” anxiety. After a series of tough personal traumas, her husband became suicidal and was unable to work full-time for several years. After Arnold’s employer refused to let her work from home to support him and manage her own burgeoning symptoms, she quit her job and went freelance.

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Headlands editor Naomi Arnold. “Reading through the essays made me realise how furiously everyone was paddling underwater just to keep going.”

She says the experience of having anxiety herself, and also living with someone going through it, showed her how damaging it can be and how difficult it can be to access treatment. “My husband went to his GP and told them what he was going through. He was suffering daily panic attacks. As he is also an actor, the doctor said if he could still get on stage, he wasn’t that bad and ‘just had an artistic personality’. It was a really dangerous response, but eventually we changed GPs and he is better now.”

For Arnold, hormonal cycles were a major contributor, “but with knowledge things are manageable now. When you are actively managing it, you have to wake up and do the same shit over and over again just to keep yourself on an even keel. Exercise. Decent food. Sleep. Every. Fucking. Day.”

She hopes people with anxiety read Headlands and find some aspect of their own experience reflected within – or perhaps recognise certain symptoms in others, such as “tantrums” or self-isolating behaviour, and are able to respond more kindly. “Sometimes the way anxious people act is not just attention-seeking,” she says. “It’s actually a really difficult illness to be a friend to sometimes.”

While some writers submitted their essays in a timely fashion, others needed a lot of support to get through their piece, and some pulled out at the last minute or simply disappeared from her email chain – such is the nature of anxiety. It was also easier to find writers who were white, female and aged between 30 and 40. “I think white women felt it easier because there are a lot of models for their neuroticism, if you think about TV’s Ally McBeal and Carrie from Sex And the City,” says Arnold. “They get to have these adorable quirks.

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“I do think it’s culturally more acceptable to have mental illness if you’ve got the privilege of being white and allowed to be visibly sick. I had lunch with a Māori woman and she said, ‘I can’t afford to break.’ I can’t speak for everyone, but some people in a minority just cannot afford to be as freely open about their mental illness.”

In one essay, Christchurch suicide prevention officer Zion Tauamiti writes about working with young people. Arnold says she was shocked at his insights on the extent to which sexual abuse is a trigger for anxiety. “People who are worried about the dark, worrying if they go to sleep they might wake up to find someone on top of them… Can you imagine sleeping being a dangerous place? Reading through the essays made me realise how furiously everyone was paddling underwater just to keep going.”

She tells readers of Headlands not to expect advice or solutions; this isn’t a self-help book in the traditional sense of the word. What the pages hold is a sort of community, a way for the anxious to feel they are not alone.

As Headlands hits the shelves, Arnold continues to manage her anxiety using lifestyle methods, while freelancing full-time. She is writing a book on astronomy, due out next year, and found the two projects complemented each other.

“Astronomy was a good topic to be doing while I was pulling together a book on anxiety,” she says. “The stars remind you of how little anything else matters in the long run. I’d just wander across to the park to look up at the stars and think to myself, ‘What’s Scorpius up to tonight?’”   

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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