If you had asked me in 2009 if was I afraid of anything, I probably would have said ‘failure’ (not surprising for a anthropology PhD student in the early stages of fieldwork). But there was probably very little else I would have nominated, apart from coming across a hungry great white in her natural habitat – but what the fuck can you do if that happens?
In truth, I was scared shitless of living and terrified of dying.
What I feared most was fear itself, cliched as that sounds. I was terrified of sitting in an anthropology seminar, of sweating uncontrollably and trembling while my heart did its best to explode in my chest for no reason at all. I was terrified of not having my quota to drink each night because I couldn’t face the terror of being alone with my own thoughts. So, for as long as I can remember, I drank with the end goal of oblivion (or sleep, whichever came first).
For most of my PhD, quota was a longneck of full strength beer and a bottle of wine if I had surfed or exercised. By the time I had submitted it was double the amount of grog plus four diazepam per day. But hey, I was living in Canberra again by then – what more can you expect from a marine creature disconnected from its natural habitat and its source of salty psychic strength?
Around the time that I had six chapters in the can and two more to write, my anxiety decided to Level Up! like a big fuck off animated gorilla. For no apparent reason at the time other than that it was Tuesday.
It came on like a Sydney train – one moment you’re standing there hungover on the platform and the next, there’s white spots in your vision and a roaring gale in your ears as the thrumming bass rumbles through your chest. Eyes are gritty, mouth dry. Swallowing becomes difficult. You feel an irrepressible urge to be somewhere else but you’re getting on the train and there’s no choice in the matter and then…
The pressure. The air is closing in. There is no way out.
You’re on the train and you can’t get off.
Isn’t this how heart attacks start? A fat, unfit middle aged bloke calls in sick to work then is found cold by his worried missus with the dog looking miserable in the corner that night?
Seconds stretch to minutes become hours became years. A decade of fearful thoughts passed between heartbeats. No grog in the house to escape it with (or was there some in the garage?)
I rang my partner – my connection to sanity – surely she would know what to do. The ambos arrived ten minutes later. This was one of the positives of renting a duplex across the road from the hospital helipad.
I used to say there was a special place in hell reserved for fools who waste the time and resources of emergency services personnel, but apparently a severe panic attack looks very much like a heart attack and I did exactly the right thing on my wife’s advice. Still, with a gutful of benzos it was hard to be too sheepish at discharge.
But instead of smashing some bananas and getting fit Kong style, I saw my General Practitioner and walked out with a benzodiazepine addiction to party with my alcoholism.
Benzos are not great for writing, but when your daily writing is down to 500 good words (referenced, formatted etc) its ok to take the foot off the gas. Or so I told myself through heavily lidded eyes. In hindsight this was a very bad idea, but at the time, gripped with fear, medication seemed like a good idea.
Much later I realised that the fear came from the grog, rather than the grog treating the fear as I had become accustomed to since the age of 18.
Alcohol is very good at treating fear until it stops working. I came to learn in the rooms of AA that this stepping off point – when the grog stops working – tips many alkies into their final death spiral. I now know that I was not alone in experiencing this fear induced paralysis, but it sure as hell felt that way at the time.
AA has lots of folksy witticisms and groan inducing wordplays that I absolutely love because they stick in your mind when you most need them. One of these is a rhetorical question about fear: you know what fear stands for? Fuck Everything and Run? Or, Face Everything and Recover?