My Secret Fight Against Anxiety by Chrisopher Pepper

Guest Post: My Secret Fight Against Anxiety
By Christopher Pepper

In April 2014 I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is one of the most common health conditions in Australia. For men, anxiety is even more common than depression – 1 in 5 men will experience anxiety at some point (source: Beyondblue)

For those who know me this might shock you as I seem to be a person who always likes a laugh, a good time and making a fool of myself.  That in itself is entirely true and one of the traits that makes me the person I am today.

But there was a side of me that not many people knew existed except my close family and friends.  The mood swings, the feeling of nothing is going well for me even though I have a amazing wife and two kids I adore.  I would distance myself from my friends and instead of going out or away with the boys I would prefer to be at home on the couch.  It was extremely hard not having as much social interaction after I finished playing Aussie Rules at the end of the 2012 season.

Ask me why at the time and I couldn’t tell you my reasoning behind it.  All I know is that I felt pretty average and flat about things.

Around the same time, AFL footballer Mitch Clark retired from the game due to a mental illness (in his case depression) after two years of constant foot injuries and the weight of not being able to fulfil the massive contract with the Demons on his shoulders.  The people in the media and society either praised Clarke for his courage to give the game up due to his illness or told him to suck it up as he was on a big wage and playing AFL couldn’t be that hard on him.  It was the first time a professional footballer in the AFL had to give up the game due to an illness that couldn’t be seen like glandular fever or a physical injury such as a broken leg.  People were divided and I was one of them.

On the weekend after the announcement, former Victorian Premier and now Chairman of Beyondblue, Jeff Kennett, spoke to SEN1116 and praised Clarke for raising the awareness of mental illness within the footballing community with his announcement.  As Kennett was rolling through a number of the signs and symptoms of mental illness I was starting to relate to a number of the stages he was describing including;

  • withdrawing from close family and friends
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • irritable
  • frustrated
  • lacking in confidence
  • unhappy
  • indecisive
  • disappointed
  • feeling tired all the time

It was this moment I headed over to the Beyondblue website to see the full list and how closely it matched to my feelings and emotions.  For a long time I knew something wasn’t right with how I reacted to situations: up one minute and loving life, the next I would rather be on the couch with the blinds closed watching TV by myself.   For too long it was affecting my relationships with my wife, family and friends and I had to see if if Beyondblue could help by just listening to me and hopefully give me some guidance.

I made the choice right then to check my ego at the door and Beyondblue a call.

Not going into the specifics but picking up the phone and making the call felt like a huge weight was being lifted off my shoulders.  It was the first (yet a small one) step in getting the part of my life that was holding me back and addressing the possible causes head-on.  With Beyondblue’s help they reassured me that what I was feeling and going through was and illness exactly like having a sore throat or common cold; you go to your GP and tell them your symptoms and they will prescribe you with some medication make you feel better.

My GP was amazing.  He explained how mental illnesses can occur in people when their brain doesn’t produce sufficient levels of serotonin, a chemical which regulates moods in the human body.  He then prescribed me a trial of some medication I needed to take daily to see if there was a change in my emotion and in turn my interactions with people.  The medication has made such a difference I still take one a day to keep myself in check.  Will I ever need to get off them? Maybe, but if everything at home and work is so much better being on the medication that being off it why would I?

It has been almost a year since I was first diagnosed and it has been a continual healing process.  Over time I have let relationships slip with mates I played footy with for over 20 years and slowly I am trying to rekindle them (guys if you are reading this and you know who you are then I hope this provides some clarity why I have been distant).  There will be some close friends and family who are finding out about this for the first time and I hope you understand why I have kept this quiet. What I do know is when people find out they have been uber-supportive and want to help out any way they can.

Having avenues of support is vital when dealing with anxiety and I am very luck to have a network of family and friends who have been there whenever I was having one of my moments.  Finally, thanks to my amazing wife Narelle for her support throughout our 19 years together, especially during the last 12 months.  You are my best friend and soul-mate.

I am not looking for sympathy.  I just want to raise the awareness that there are people you know that may be hiding their mental illness from you and eventually they will let you know about it.  If they are like me they will probably just want someone to talk to like I did.


Christopher Pepper
About the Author: Christopher Pepper

You know what? Living the life of  two wonderful kids and an incredible wife in Melbourne, Australia has its ups and downs and most of the time it isn’t because of them. My daughter Maya and son Noah light up my life but being a father has its challenges. Whether it is putting them to bed, feeding them or even taking them to the shops can be either a walk in the park or World War 3. You can be like Leonardo and be ‘on top of the world’ one minute and then feelings like you are in The Abyss the next.

I have decided to share my experiences with the world for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it gives me a chance to brag or vent depending on the situation to you all about being a dad. Secondly, it might help any potential, new or existing dads know that there is someone who is going through what they are and that they are not alone. Thirdly, I reckon I have a few things on my mind that a few of you out there is thinking but have never had the outlet to say so. Now you do.

Think of it as the Top Gear of Dads! If I have something positive to say about an experience, product or process I will praise it to high heaven. On the other hand, if it has left a negative impact on me you will know as well. I am going to be as genuine and honest as I can be because if I’m not it won’t help you and then you won’t come back to read more.

I’m Christopher Pepper and you can find me at ‘The Pep Talk’!  I encourage you to add your two cents by commenting on any of the posts, sharing the site with others, and most importantly getting involved!

You can contact Christopher via his website and follow him on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest.

 

3 Comments

Betty

great article what meds are you on i have tried too many they sides effects are awful still trying to find one or combo

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Elizabeth Conrad

I think this is a great article and I thank you for sharing your story! xx

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Peter Ayre

Well done Christopher, I took the hard road and thankfully came out all right after a few years, but I don’t recommend it. Talk to your doctor, you wouldn’t try to fix a broken leg yourself…

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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