18 → Sydney, Australia → Blogger, Photographer → Anxiety & PTSD → Mindfulness, Communication, Exercise.
R: Hey Sal, tell us a bit about yourself… who are you?
S: I’m Sally although it’s customary to shorten names in Australia so I generally go by Sal and much prefer it! I’m a blogger, recreational photographer and a full-time over-analyser! I’m part of a small church community and I play cricket and touch football.
R: Where do you live?
S: I’ve lived in a leafy suburb in the south of Sydney for all my life so far. That being said, much of my family live in central New South Wales and the New England region. I’m definitely a country girl at heart and the bush is my second home!!
R: How old are you?
S: I’m 18 years old.
“I’m in a bit of a limbo stage at the moment. I have gone straight from being a stressed out full-time student with no disposable time to a stressed-out high school graduate with bucket loads of free time.”
R: What do you do?
S: I’m in a bit of a limbo stage at the moment. I have gone straight from being a stressed out full-time student with no disposable time to a stressed-out high school graduate with bucket loads of free time. I’m using this break between school and university to travel, look for a part-time job, catch up with friends and family and to cultivate some of my hobbies – photography, drawing and sport. I’m also hoping to be a little more present in the blogging world these days!
R: What did you do before?
S: A typical day was highly structured (and to be honest, something that I miss quite a lot). I’d wake up and head off to school- some days I had sports training early in the morning. Choir and band rehearsals were all at school. I’d come home in the afternoon and maybe go for a run or take the dog for a walk and then get stuck into my study. Much of it revolved around school but I loved the routine and sense of continuity.
— Ruby, the Labrador Retriever
R: What does home life look like- family/pets?
S: I live with my Mum, Dad, younger brother and 9-year-old hyperactive but adorable Labrador retriever Ruby. If the dog herself isn’t evidence enough, the house is 100% indicative of her presence. We’ve constantly got food tucked away in obscure places such as on top of the microwave or mix master and a generous layer of golden dog fur that carpets our floorboards despite endless attempts to Hoover it all up!!
“I’m always joking around with my friends and family (or laughing at my own jokes… should I have admitted that?)”
R: What makes you happy?
S: Having a good laugh! I’m always joking around with my friends and family (or laughing at my own jokes… should I have admitted that?)! If I feel comfortable doing so, my terrible dance moves bring joy to the table and of course, my dog is a constant source of happiness.
R: When did your Anxiety begin?
S: I’ve had anxiety (GAD) since early childhood. I suppose that to some extent it boils down to my personality type and a bit of ‘luck of the draw’ with genetics!
“Currently my anxiety is very severe and there have been many occasions where I have had to put my life on hold”
R: Has it got worse over time? Or better?
S: The severity of my anxiety comes in ebbs and flows. Sometimes there’s a lull in its intensity and everything is very manageable and other times it’s incredibly severe and overwhelming. Currently my anxiety is very severe and there have been many occasions where I have had to put my life on hold and use everything I’ve got to try and calm my anxious mind and body.
R: How did Anxiety affect you as a child?
S: I was incredibly timid – terrified of most adults, although I became quite clingy when I came to trust an adult. I had a lot of separation issues in preschool and early primary school. Everything was so big and it terrified me- I cried and panicked all the time… throwing up all over myself in class when I was 6 wasn’t exactly one of my proudest moments…
“Maybe my anxiety is the root of my creativity!! I’m constantly dreaming up the craziest hypothetical situations set 20 years into the future and worrying about the worst possible outcome of any event to come.”
R: How would you describe anxiety in you own words?
S: Maybe my anxiety is the root of my creativity!! I’m constantly dreaming up the craziest hypothetical situations set 20 years into the future and worrying about the worst possible outcome of any event to come. For me, anxiety also goes beyond the “what ifs”. I have plenty of specific fears to keep me on the edge of my seat and at this point I’m having panic attacks on an almost daily basis. Being suspended in ongoing fear and anticipation is very taxing on my mind and body.
R: How does Anxiety interfere with a normal day?
S: At this stage it’s a constant battle for me. Panic is always lurking around the corner. It makes it very difficult to focus in situations that require a great deal of concentration such as studying or driving. I need to take plenty of time to calm myself as much as I can. Mentally, anxiety interferes with just about anything I do. I’m always second-guessing myself, worrying about family members and creating thousands of to-do lists but they’re all miles long and superimposed on one another inside my mind so it’s almost impossible to comprehend what I actually need to do.
R: Do your friends or colleagues notice your Anxiety?
S: Oh definitely! I’ve told a few of my friends but the overthinking and panic attacks were also a bit of a giveaway. Many of them said that they suspected something long before I spoke up but were glad to know definitively when I broke my silence.
R: Does it affect your relationship with them?
S: It does, but thankfully only in a positive manner. The help and support that I have been offered has been absolutely phenomenal, especially those long late night rambles on the phone!
R: Have you found any positive aspects of Anxiety?
S: Yes, recently. In the past I was very ashamed of my anxiety and would do anything to sweep it under the rug. I couldn’t have anyone know about it. But after finally accepting my predicament for what it is and not judging myself for it, I’ve come to embrace it. I’ve found a passion for promoting better mental health, generating discussion and reaching out to support others with mental illness. I have also experienced incredible spiritual growth especially during times when my anxiety has been extreme.
R: Do you think your life would be different without Anxiety?
S: Yes! Less stress and more spontaneity!
“I have learnt so much, met so many people and found my voice and many of my passions through my experiences with anxiety.”
R: If you had the option to lose your Anxiety would you?
S: One day I would love to be free from the racing thoughts and constant tension in my body. But I have learnt so much, met so many people and found my voice and many of my passions through my experiences with anxiety. In that regard, I’m thankful and would not wish to erase all that. So no, I don’t think I would lose it.
R: Where are you in the healing process currently?
S: I’ve got a bit of a fly trapped in amber situation happening at the moment. Many of my thoughts and intense feelings associated with issues that correspond to the trauma are the same as they were at the time of the traumatic event. I’m currently working in therapy to reconsider the event from a more grown-up perspective rather than the child’s perspective that has stuck with me for so long. I have found compassion and forgiveness for the other person involved. But there is significant healing yet to take place as I am still battling with considerable hurt and grief.
R: When did it begin?
S: There were two specific traumatic events but the latter one fed off the first and had a more extreme physical and psychological impact at the time. I was aged 10.
“I know that these feelings that I had kept in the dark for so long needed to be released. So although it feels worse, I understand that it’s part of getting better.”
R: Has it got worse over time? Or better?
S: For much of the elapsed time, I was unaware that what I was experiencing was PTSD (and maybe the PTSD didn’t fully arise until a little while later); I thought it was all part of my pre-existing anxiety. Although I do remember finding it odd that some of my panic attacks were slightly different and triggered by something in the past. When I was around 12-13 I developed an eating disorder mindset and by 15 I was regularly using eating disordered behaviours, had lost a lot of weight and spiralled into Anorexia Nervosa, which was most severe at 17.
“When I was around 12-13 I developed an eating disorder mindset and by 15 I was regularly using eating disordered behaviours, had lost a lot of weight and spiralled into Anorexia Nervosa”
I came to the awareness not long ago that the origins of my eating disorder were strongly linked with the trauma and that it may have arisen as a coping mechanism. As for the PTSD itself, I find it hard to tell. Since the event, I have always been repulsed and fearful of anything that reminds me of what happened but I only managed to open up about it all with my psychologist for the first time this year. Immediately after bringing it up and finally getting a diagnostic answer to what had been going on in my mind, I felt a million times worse than I ever had in the years following the trauma. All the emotions that had been suppressed particularly by my eating disorder suddenly rose to the surface and exploded. But I know that these feelings that I had kept in the dark for so long needed to be released. So although it feels worse, I understand that it’s part of getting better.
R: How would you describe having PTSD in your own words?
S: It’s constantly being on edge, watching your back and feeling the underlying emotions (in my case, fear, embarrassment and disgust) to the ultimate extreme. I experience vivid nightmares and flashbacks to the trauma and wake up in a panic, drenched in sweat, uttering, “gross, yuck, disgusting, please stop, this is shocking!” as I throw all my blankets off the bed, unsure of what they are in the moment. I remember enough of my nightmares for them to continue as I fall asleep again. Out of fear of yet another nightmare, I often force myself to stay awake. There’s also a constant air of guilt that hangs above my head.
“The other day I was on the receiving end of a bit of Sydney peak-hour road rage. Under the pressure I made a rash decision, which almost involved a collision with an oncoming vehicle.”
R: How does PTSD affect your daily life?
S: It has made me a very reserved person and I have a few trust issues, especially with new people. The nightmares and flashbacks severely impede on my sleep patterns (or lack thereof).
The other day I was on the receiving end of a bit of Sydney peak-hour road rage. Under the pressure I made a rash decision, which almost involved a collision with an oncoming vehicle. Thankfully I didn’t hit it but I scraped past a guardrail and it made an awful noise, causing heads to turn from all places. All the feelings of fear, embarrassment and disgust were aroused and it triggered a terrible flashback to the original trauma and of course a huge panic attack. I suppose I try and avoid that combination of emotions at all costs but sometimes it results in me making on-the-spot decisions and not getting them right.
R: Do your friends or colleagues notice you have PTSD?
S: PTSD in my case is often seen as anxiety, especially as there is a lot of anxiety intertwined with it. I think it generally goes unnoticed that I have both conditions unless I explain it.
R: Does it affect your relationship with them?
S: Yes and no. When meeting new people for the first time, I am usually quite shy and fearful and it takes a while for me to warm up to them and trust them. But for those whom I have known forever and have come to trust, the relationship is hardly affected.
R: Do you think your life would be different without PTSD?
S: Certainly. Without PTSD I think I would be getting much better sleep at night and wouldn’t feel compelled to wear jeans and cardigans through the heat of summer!!
R: Why did you get started?
S: Hymns & Tea is my mental health blog. I originally started in mid-2015 while I was restoring weight and wasn’t allowed to exercise. Simply sitting in front of the telly or the radio after each meal was impossible, given the noise in my head and the extreme urge to go and compensate. I needed something to keep me busy. I also wanted to connect with like-minded (pardon the pun!!) individuals and provide insight into what it’s like to live with an eating disorder. Blogging was the perfect opportunity to do this! Now I’m also reaching out and exploring anxiety and PTSD on my blog, and how I’m dealing with it as a Christian.
“I also wanted to connect with like-minded (pardon the pun!!) individuals and provide insight into what it’s like to live with an eating disorder.”
R: Has it helped?
S: It has helped out of this world! It has helped me consolidate everything I’m working on in therapy and has enabled me to share constructive coping strategies with others and add a few to my own basket! Nobody should have to feel as though they’re alone in the fight and blogging creates a great sense of connectedness!!
R: Would you agree that writing is a cathartic process?
S: Absolutely! I have always turned to writing when I’m stewing on something. Most of this writing is purely pen-to-paper stuff and doesn’t get published on my blog but I do get immense relief and feel as though my bothersome thoughts and worries are bleeding out from my head and onto the paper through the ink. It’s incredible!
R: How does anxiety interfere with your writing?
S: When I’m extremely anxious, particularly at night and in the early hours of the morning I do a lot of journaling, which essentially involves me writing like there’s no tomorrow until I’ve transferred all my thoughts to the paper (I like to call this rubbish dumping). Rubbish dumping comes easily and naturally when my anxiety is running rampant but blogging is a lot harder. I like to include a degree of vulnerability and transparency in my writing but I think it also needs to be welcoming, insightful and reader-friendly and finding that balance takes a lot of energy when things aren’t going so well. Anxiety, when it’s most severe makes it virtually impossible to get anything posted on Hymns & Tea!
R: How do you manage to stay on top of it?
S: I keep a written list of ideas and topics that I’d like to discuss on my blog so that I’ve always got something to motivate me to get posting again, especially when I’m feeling deflated after a wave of panic attacks. I also like to mind-map ideas and start typing up draft posts that I can save and edit/publish later on when I’m in a better headspace.
R: Where can we see it?
S: My blog can be found here. I’ve been rather anxious lately and haven’t been posting much but I’m hoping to get back into it soon.
R: Have you received any feedback/response?
S: I’ve received lots of positive feedback from people who have connected with me for the first time through blogging, which has been truly amazing. Numerous people who I went to school with have also found my blog and the support and lovely responses that have come my way have been overwhelming (in a good way, of course)! I’ve never been overly fussed about how great of a following I get but when I started out, my hope and prayer was that I would be able to reach and help at least one person. So it makes me immensely happy that my message is actually reaching and helping others.
R: Have you been officially diagnosed by a health professional for Anxiety?
S: Yes. I have been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
“I was unable to show up to some of my classes and was missing entire days and assessment tasks due to my crippling anxiety.”
R: What made you see a doctor?
S: Given that my history of anxiety extends right back to my early childhood, I don’t know what initially made my parents decide to take me to a doctor. I have of course seen a doctor many times since then about my anxiety but I wasn’t committed to following through with the help if it involved therapy. There was, however a specific point where I had reached the end of my tether and realised that I needed help (and needed to stick with it regardless of how much I hated the idea of therapy at the time). I was very unwell with anorexia nervosa, hated life and was in the midst of an ongoing major nervous breakdown. I was having terrible problems at school- scared stiff of most of my teachers and I felt totally alienated from all my peers and feared them. I was unable to show up to some of my classes and was missing entire days and assessment tasks due to my crippling anxiety. Having my form teacher ring home one night and crying to her on the phone was utterly humiliating. It was all very intense and my parents and I agreed that it was time to go and see someone about it.
R: Did they prescribe medication?
S: Yes, very recently. Prior to that, I hadn’t been on any medication for anxiety at all.
R: Do you/did you take medication?
S: Yes. I’m hoping that I will start to see some relief soon and that I’ll be able to persevere with the medication for as long as need be.
— Drawing helps Sally ease the anxiety
R: Have you seen a therapist?
S: Yes. I was taken to a child psychologist for my anxiety as a young kid, aged about 3 or 4. I was referred to the school counsellor on various occasions during my schooling (although CBT instead of sport didn’t sit very well with me) and I saw a few different therapists throughout high school but none of these arrangements lasted very long as I struggled to establish connections. I’m currently seeing a psychologist regularly and it’s helping a lot.
R: How do you best manage your anxiety?- medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines or?
S: I was introduced to meditation early this year and have benefitted significantly from it. I use the mindfulness meditation app ‘Smiling Mind’. There is a range of short and extended guided meditations appropriate for all ages. I usually do about 20-30 minutes of meditation before bed, as my anxiety is generally worst at night. I find that meditating right before bed helps me clear my head a little. Additionally, writing, drawing, getting regular exercise and spending time with my dog help me manage my anxiety on a daily basis. I can’t say an awful lot about medication at this stage as it has only recently been prescribed, so I’m not noticing many changes yet. I’m hoping that over time it will be a helpful addition to my anxiety management toolkit.
R: Do you feel as if you’re in control now?
S: I do to some extent. From practising meditation I’ve learned that I don’t have to interact with unnecessary anxious thoughts nor do I have to let them evoke a reaction. That’s incredibly empowering. Yet there are still so many things that terrify me, my thoughts do overwhelm me and I frequently experience panic attacks and sleepless nights. Often it feels like I’m out of control but from all this I’ve definitely come to the realisation that feelings aren’t fact. I’m doing everything I can. I may not feel as though I’m in control but I know that I’m on the right track and working towards better mental health!
R: What was your way out of it?
S: To be completely honest, I’ve still got a long way to go. I struggle immensely with the thoughts and the constant urge to engage in unhealthy behaviours. However I have been able to restore weight and reduce the impact that the thoughts have on my overall mood. There’s no magic cure or shortcut in recovery. I have been praying all the time and working very hard in therapy to even get to where I am now. Getting better involves taking a leap of faith and agreeing to give up the behaviours that reinforce the eating disorder voice, which keeps you in bondage to its untruths. Some of the things this involved for me included, giving up weighing myself cold turkey and just about getting rid of my entire wardrobe from when I was very ill.
R: How are you coping today?
S: Clinically speaking, I now better fit the diagnostic category of EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) than anorexia. In terms of what’s going on in my head, I’m recovering from anorexia. These days, I still experience the same thoughts, urges and feelings that I did 18 months ago when I was at my lowest weight. The difference now is that I feel a strong sense of hope. I feel as though I’m able to be completely transparent about my eating disorder, I’m prepared to put in the hard work against the mindset and I’m genuinely thankful that I was spared from losing the battle when I was critically ill. I hold onto this hope and use it as a powerful motivator to keep on keeping on, even on my worst days!!
R: If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about these conditions, what would you say?
S: Don’t be ashamed. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness. You don’t need to be calm or happy and bubbly 100% of the time, it’s perfectly ok to not be ok and to admit that to someone. It takes guts to admit that you’re afraid!
“It takes guts to admit that you’re afraid!”
R: What would you do differently?
S: I’d flipping commit to therapy!! I wouldn’t let my self-consciousness and unnecessary feelings of shame get in the way of seeking help.
R: How do you educate yourself on management and resources? Do you read specific blogs, magazines or news articles?
S: I follow mental health blogs on WordPress and Instagram and have gained much insight and developed strong connections with other bloggers. I’ve also looked at Anxiety Australia’s site for information on GAD and PTSD and the Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders. I think that educating myself on these conditions gives me a more objective understanding of what’s going on, which helps me to discern whether I’m responding to a given situation in a disordered manner. As a Christian I’ve noticed that although mental health discussion in the Church has come in leaps and bounds, there still appears to be a stigma around medication for mental illnesses. I found this article very helpful on that front. If you’re considering medication or if it has been brought up as an option, it doesn’t need to be some deep, dark secret or anything to be ashamed of.
“If you’re considering medication or if it has been brought up as an option, it doesn’t need to be some deep, dark secret or anything to be ashamed of.”
R: Have you read any great books about anxiety or anorexia?
S: A couple of years ago I found a fantastic book about eating disorders- ‘A Girl Called Tim’ by June Alexander. It’s an amazing and incredibly eye-opening memoir and I’m currently reading it for a second time.
R: Or seen any movies?
S: I’m not sure that these fall into the category of ‘movies’ as such BUT… I’d like to give a huge shout out to the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) for the ‘Mental As’ program in October. I absolutely loved watching all the documentaries and comedies about mental health. I quite liked watching ‘Man Up’, a three-part series, put together by Sydney radio host Gus Worland about men’s mental health and rethinking the so-called man rules. That doesn’t specifically address anxiety, eating disorders or PTSD but I just thought I’d throw that in there! I really enjoyed watching ‘Felicity’s Mental Mission’ by Australian comedian Felicity Ward. This was largely focused on generating mental health discussion and I was so inspired by her generosity in sharing her own battle with anxiety and providing such raw and honest insight into what life with anxiety looks like behind the scenes! I could relate completely and it was so assuring to know that I’m not alone in my struggle with anxiety.
R: Can you recommend any therapists / doctors / specialists / coaches / mentors / clinics / foundations?
S: The Black Dog Institute, Beyondblue, Anxiety Australia and the Butterfly Foundation are all great mental health foundations based in Australia. They offer fantastic resources and support services. I don’t think I can recommend a specific therapist as we are all so different and connect with different people. I recommend seeing your GP who can refer you to someone who should be appropriate for you. Please don’t give up on therapy altogether if you don’t connect with your therapist. It’s ok to go and find someone else! I’ve seen a few different people and didn’t connect at all. However my current psychologist is great. We connect really well and I feel as though she gets me, knows my anxiety and genuinely wants to help me get better. This might not be the same person for you but that’s ok! Just keep looking until you find someone who you gel with!!
R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?
S: Everything’s pretty exciting (but also ever so slightly… terrifying!) at the moment. It’s coming close to the end of the year so everything’s a bit hectic! I’ve got an overseas trip coming up with my family and I can’t wait!! It’s definitely all happening and I really hope that I’ll be able to handle the changes!!
“Since I’ve had anxiety for so long, I think it’s a bit of a given that I’m always going to be one of those ‘highly strung’ people.”
R: What next for your anxiety?
S: Since I’ve had anxiety for so long, I think it’s a bit of a given that I’m always going to be one of those ‘highly strung’ people. It’s possible that my basal anxiety levels will always run higher than average but I’m optimistic that things will improve from where they are now and that I will be able to wind down. I’m expecting to see more lulls than peaks in severity in the future and I’m excited for that!
R: And PTSD?
S: I’m confident that healing will continue to take place. I trust that I will learn to avoid judging myself for what happened and hopefully the flashbacks, nightmares, imagery and intense unpleasant feelings will be fewer and further between. I hope that one day the trust issues will no longer be a problem.
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Sal
Cover Photo and other images supplied by Sally and from Sal’s Instagram