panic attack

Pre-Panic attack. Married and unhappy. This photo was taken when my friends Nancy and Rani and Scout came to visit. Pictured holding Hamish and Angus is on the bike to the right.


The ultimate panic attack

When I tell people that I understand anxiety and panic attacks they don’t necessarily believe me. But my story is fairly dramatic, and involves a razor, a pair of scissors and a bottle of conditioner. But before I get to that it’s important to understand how I got to this point.


How did get to this point?

I was married with two children living mostly alone with a husband who worked FIFO in the Coal Seam Gas Industry. I was alone with my children for three weeks out of every month and he would drive home from the bush and have to drive back within that remaining week. That left us with a couple of days together as a family. He was exhausted from having worked for 21 days straight. I was exhausted from having to be the sole carer of two small children. My parents lived a one hour drive away, and my sister inter-state.  There was no respite for me and we were living on a very tight financial situation in those days having just taken out a mortgage. I could not work because of our living arrangements (I had been a university lecturer). Being a “thinker” I tried to solve the problems of our marriage by thinking about solutions. But the more I thought, the more dead ends I came to. Our relationship had never been strong in communicating at times of difficulty and mostly lead to anger, which I internalised.

I began to feel very low, and hated when my husband returned home. I would feel anxious in the lead up to his return, and snap at the kids. My posture became worse and worse, as I could barely walk upright because of how I felt. On the weekend that he returned, I began to leave and stay at Chenrezig Buddhist Institute, in an attempt to understand my anger, and sadness and work through my own personal solution. I learnt meditation and mindfulness and thought if I could fix myself, I could save the situation. It took the following panic attack, and subsequent therapy to realise that I was never going to be able to fix the situation, and that it was killing my spirit.


Extract from my personal notes:

“The problems of my marriage have not been solved and my mental anguish has manifested again in the forms of welts on my scalp, which have been driving me nuts. I can’t stop scratching them. They feel a little sore, like when you have a large black head pimple on the tip of your nose; kind of like a subtle but intense pressure, which scratching can only alleviate. There seems to be no reason for their existence, and I can’t find anything to soothe them. I have tried anti dandruff shampoo and special soothing shampoo for irritated scalps.

In the middle of the night my head starts itching, enough to wake me. I know my husband has clippers in the bathroom and I stumbled out of bed to get them. If I get rid of the hair, I can bathe them and they will heal. The clippers pull at my hair and don’t seem to cut a thing. They must be blunt. I look at the shower and see my razor. Perhaps that could work. The razor connects with the top corner of my temple and I successfully take a small patch off. It looks stupid.

Idiot. Why didn’t I try somewhere less obvious? I realize that I can’t go back now. It would look funny and I will have to wear a hat until it grows again. So I do something, which makes no sense. I make it worse by grabbing a pair of scissors and start hacking at my hair. I just want to get it all off my head. Then when there are large chunks in my hands I get the razor again to get the rest off. I am feeling slightly queezy but the adrenalin has kicked in and is in charge. I need some kind of lubrication. Conditioner is the easily accessible solution. Minutes later it is all gone. There is hair everywhere and I laugh. I feel like the joker.

I clean up the mess, there is hair stuck to the bathroom floor and it clogs up the sink! I figure that given I had already had part of my hair shaved by a Nun that people would not think it strange. I take a selfie and go to post it on Facebook. Then the realization hits me. What have I done? I grab a beanie and run to the kids’ bedroom as one of them starts crying. He put his hand to my head. Oh my god. What will my children think? I am an idiot. I run to the bathroom. I cannot sleep.

At five am I phone my parents.

‘Mum, I am coming to Brisbane with the children’. ‘I think you need to send me to a psychiatric hospital as I have just shaved all my hair off.’

I load the kids in the car and drive the hour to Brisbane. Dad greets me with a hug and a look of bewilderment, the kind of look that sees right through to your sorrow. I ring my husband and demand that he come home. He is in the middle of setting up a trade fair, an eight-hour drive away.

Mum looks after the children and I go next door to Imelda’s house. Imelda is our GP. I tell her through my sobs about what I have done. She asks me to show her. Later she will tell my mother that my white bald head shocked her. It is as if I was a Leukaemia patient.

Imelda calls her relative who is a psychiatrist and has rooms in the New Farm Clinic. He asks her if I am suicidal and need to be admitted. Imelda thinks not. I am in her opinion just depressed, and he tells her to make me rest and come in with a referral in the morning.

I go to the bedroom of my childhood and sleep. The children are told that I am not there, that I am resting at Imelda’s house. I cry endlessly. There are not enough tissues to contain my sorrow. I’m not even sure why I’m crying. I just feel sad and ashamed.

The consultation:

It’s hard to explain your life, and everything that brings you to this moment in a short consultation. There are too many thoughts and I don’t know which to prioritise. My mind tries to filter the information that I want or think is necessary to provide the doctor and I feel that I am not able to express myself accurately to the doctor, and can’t convey the depth of my despair. I cannot describe the dynamic that is the marital relationship that I have been living in. I try, but words stick in my throat. The doctor concludes that I am not depressed or suicidal, just suffering from acute marital distress. I am almost more shocked at this diagnosis than I was at the fact that I shaved my hair off.

What does he mean not depressed? If I can feel as low as this, what the fuck does it mean to be depressed then? To what depths do you have to go before you are clinically diagnosed as being depressed? What state of darkness must exist in your mind?

What I fail to understand is that I am not “clinically depressed” and therefore I need no medication. I am ‘situationally’ depressed, which means that a particular set of events in my life is causing the depression, and that the practitioner can see that with direct measures to address this, my blues should be able to be treated naturally. It will take me four years to understand this important point.

The hair shave is attributed to being a logical extension of my previous hair shave in the Buddhist environment. Given my recent adventures it is interpreted as being normal and a reflective way to make a statement. It is a cry for help. The doctor says I am ‘too well adjusted’ to execute a suicide, because I clearly understand the implications of such an action and seem to have all logic and reason functioning properly. The doctor concludes that removing my hair was my ultimate act of self-harm. It is a cry to end the past and begin a new.