As well as our writer thought she knew Elisa Black, she really knew nothing. The Anxiety Book, Elisa’s first title, published last month, is an eye-opener for all. But especially parents.
I’ve known Elisa Black for the best part of a decade. As a journalist in the same Brisbane office, she was the one who made us laugh, the one who was best with words, the good-looking one with the wide smile and enviable hair. She has the quickest of quick wits and makes me snort-laugh with self-deprecating Facebook status updates and crude-funny private messages and emails.
So it was with a mixture of nervous excitement and trepidation that I took Elisa Black to bed with me for the first time last month. Kinda. You see, Elisa became a real-life author recently, with her real-life name on a real-life published book. And I couldn’t wait to throw myself into those pages by the light of my bedside lamp.
What I learned over the ensuing nights however, was nothing less than eye-opening – unbelievable at times. You see, funny, popular, clever, mum-of-two Elisa struggles with anxiety and has penned ‘The Anxiety Book’ to share her life experiences. I had no idea the depth of it. On the outside, Elisa, to me, is ‘normal’ – whatever that is. But she’s struggled with her demons since the age of 2.
The first thing I can remember, fogged around the edges and cast with the kind of malevolence only decades of fearful remembering can bring, is the drowning hole… an evil entirely capable of moving and feeding on my mum, my brother and me, and I must always watch my family and make sure and check-and-check-and-check so they don’t die. So I don’t die.
I had to read some of Elisa’s words twice – the story was so unbelievable. Her overwhelming internal struggles juxtaposed by her so ‘normal’ outward appearance. As a kid, she was terrified of sickness and hand washing became an obsession. Dirt, disease and contamination were “the bringers of nightmares”. She lists “water, vomit, poo, holidays, new food, the devil and jetties” as her early anxiety triggers.
“Disgust was the basis of most of my terrors and fear of death fed all of them,” Elisa recalls. She would invent elaborate rituals to ward off impending death – like mimicking the faces of the cast of Neighbours (who featured on a poster in her room) before she could go to bed, performing the water-drop-flicking ritual in the bath each night otherwise her family would die in a car crash, or collecting the hair from her pet chihuahua and storing it in a secret jewellery box to, again, ensure no one important to her would die. Incredible, right?
What The Anxiety Book will make readers aware of is just how many people suffer anxiety in silence. One in 10 Australians lives with an anxiety disorder – that’s millions of us. Millions. Once naïve on the subject, I have been floored by the number of people in my network who, since I’ve read The Anxiety Book and started talking about it, are also suffering serious anxiety. Some medicated, others just suffering. From business people who run amazing companies and seem to have the world at their feet to, probably, unexpectedly, my own youngest daughter.
My anxiety is that tightness in my chest, the wild scrabbling of whatever is masquerading as my heart. My anxiety is the constant worry, the fixating, the obsessing over things I cannot control: sickness, death, oblivion. My anxiety is my upset stomach, my inability to focus or sit still or do anything other than lie curled in a ball because the fear is so great I can’t even face standing up. My anxiety says I can’t do this, any of it.
Elisa says one of the biggest ‘worries’ in life right now is the health and safety of her two sons, aged 6 and 3, the eldest of whom is already showing signs of taking after his mother’s anxious personality.
“Sam is very much like me, highly-strung, sensitive, a perfectionist,” she explains. In her book, Elisa explains how Sam also fears death and thinks that a bubble flood will wash him away.
With vivid memories of her own anxiety-flavoured childhood and now bringing up an anxious child, Elisa says parents might first notice anxiety rearing its head in their children in a variety of ways.
“Depending on the age of the child it might manifest in different ways and about different things,” she says. “They might not want to take part in activities they used to enjoy or avoid trying something new, they might freak out when away from their parents, they may be perfectionists or constantly seek reassurance that everything is OK, among other things.
“The physical symptoms they can experience are similar to those felt by adults – shaking, difficult concentrating, feeling sick, rapid breathing, feeling dizzy and a whole range of other things. Kids can also experience frequent stomach aches and, if a doctor rules out other physical causes, they might be diagnosed with functional abdominal pain which is associated with anxiety disorders.”
So many of us are adept at hiding it. Friends are almost always surprised when they find out I battle it. We think we are protecting ourselves by hiding the darkness, but really we are not: secrecy gives anxiety power, makes us feel that it is shameful, shows us as weak or stupid.
Elisa says all kids suffer anxiety to some degree – whether it’s butterflies before an exam or an all-consuming fear of the seemingly ridiculous. But, if you have a child who is a serial worrier, it’s simply ineffectual to tell them to “Just stop worrying about it” – which is the common automatic parenting response.
“That minimises what the child is feeling and doesn’t give them any tools to deal with the real fear and anxiety they are feeling. Even if the thing they are anxious about is benign, it doesn’t mean the associated anxiety is any less real to them.”
Elisa says parents of anxious kids need to listen to them.
“Don’t just nod or tell them they are being silly or dismiss their fears by telling them they’ll be OK,” she says. “As ludicrous as it may seem to you to be terrified of werewolves to the point of crying every night at bedtime, to the child it is absolutely real.
“If you can give them tools to help them deal with anxiety and unpleasant feelings while they are kids it will help them for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t mean being indulgent or allowing kids to avoid the things they are scared of or anxious about. Rather it’s about helping them learn to be OK with feeling uncomfortable and helping them learn to question thoughts and feelings.”
So, is there a way for parents to insulate or protect their children from general worrying?
“Probably not, mostly because worry is a normal part, at one time or another, of most people’s lives – it’s part of the human condition. But there are ways to help kids that experience intense anxiety or worry so much that it impacts their lives.”
“There is a strong push now to help kids build resilience, which is really important, and to help them approach childhood anxiety like scientists or detectives – that is, to help them look for facts that challenge their fears. It’s also important to ensure they don’t avoid the thing that they are scared of as, while this lessens anxiety in the short term, it is a terrible long-term ‘solution’. Graduated exposure is a good way to help kids face their fears and is something a therapist can help with.”
Obviously anxiety is not the same for everyone: we all have our prone places, the soft spots easily penetrated and hurt will be different in someone else compared to me, Or maybe not. Maybe you recognise yourself in these tales, or your husband, or your child, or the person you have called your best friend since you were both five years old and found each other in the sandpit on the first day of school… There is strength to be found in shared stories, in knowing you are not the only one terrified of uncertainty, or illness, or ‘being found out’. Everyone has something different about them, even the ones without anxiety.
The Anxiety Book is published by Hachette Australia, $32.99. Visit www.agoraphobicsguide.com