GO­ING UN­DER

In a new col­lec­tion of es­says, Naomi Arnold shines a light on anx­i­ety. She talks to Beck Eleven.

North & South - - Contents - BY BECK ELEVEN

In a new col­lec­tion of es­says, Naomi Arnold shines a light on anx­i­ety. She talks to Beck Eleven about her own ex­pe­ri­ence with the de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­or­der.

As with so many great schemes, in­ven­tion is of­ten not born of ne­ces­sity but emerges in­stead dur­ing mo­ments of quiet re­flec­tion. Nel­son-based jour­nal­ist Naomi Arnold was cy­cling to the pub one evening when it struck her she knew many fel­low writ­ers who suf­fered from anx­i­ety – not the lit­tle nig­gles and wor­ries that afflict us all from time to time, but the very real, all­con­sum­ing and of­ten de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­or­der.

She parked her bike at The Free House pub, or­dered a drink and com­posed a mes­sage on her phone to a dozen friends and ac­quain­tances who’d in­di­cated over the years that they suf­fered from anx­i­ety.

“At 5.10pm, I fired off this to­tally in­for­mal email ask­ing peo­ple if they would write about anx­i­ety and say­ing I’d pitch a book of col­lected es­says to a pub­lisher,” she says. “And then every­one ac­tu­ally replied. I had peo­ple re­ply­ing in cap­i­tal let­ters say­ing, ‘YES, I AM IN.’

“I still have the emails. Ash­leigh Young replied at 5.11pm, then An­thony Byrt came back at 5.15pm, Jes­sica Mcallen was at 5.19pm, Aimie Cronin replied at 5.21pm.” All are writ­ers who ended up con­tribut­ing their sto­ries. “Every­one’s re­sponse was ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And I thought, ‘God, you guys are re­ally keen to talk about anx­i­ety. Good on you.’”

What came to­gether in the year and a half that fol­lowed was Head­lands: New Sto­ries of Anx­i­ety (Vic­to­ria Univer­sity Press, $30), a col­lec­tion of 30 per­sonal ac­counts of liv­ing with anx­i­ety, or work­ing with peo­ple who suf­fer from it. (An es­say by ac­tor and writer Michelle Langstone is ex­tracted over­leaf.) Some are coura­geous and uplifting; oth­ers are trau­matic and sim­ply heart­break­ing.

In 2017, Min­istry of Health fig­ures showed one in five Ki­wis had sought help for a di­ag­nosed mood or anx­i­ety dis­or­der. What seems less clear is the na­ture of anx­i­ety and how it man­i­fests in­di­vid­u­ally. “There’s mild, mod­er­ate and se­vere,” Arnold says. “Mild is when you can make some life­style changes, do yoga or mind­ful­ness or down­load an app. But once you get to mod­er­ate or se­vere

anx­i­ety, you’ve be­come so ill you can’t just eat more veg­eta­bles and be fine. I don’t think peo­ple quite get the ur­gency of it, some­times. It’s like hell.

“Peo­ple can’t leave the house, they have to quit their jobs. There are so many dif­fer­ent forms, from fear-based pro­cras­ti­na­tion where peo­ple think, ‘As soon as I start this, I’m go­ing to re­veal my­self as a fool’ so they just shut down... It runs from ner­vous­ness, to not man­ag­ing your life very well, to hospi­tal­i­sa­tion.”

And Arnold would know. As ed­i­tor of the book, she hasn’t con­trib­uted her own story, but both she and her hus­band went through years of what she de­scribes as “cri­sis point” anx­i­ety. Af­ter a se­ries of tough per­sonal trau­mas, her hus­band be­came sui­ci­dal and was un­able to work full-time for sev­eral years. Af­ter Arnold’s em­ployer re­fused to let her work from home to sup­port him and man­age her own bur­geon­ing symp­toms, she quit her job and went free­lance.

She says the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing anx­i­ety her­self, and also liv­ing with some­one go­ing through it, showed her how dam­ag­ing it can be and how dif­fi­cult it can be to ac­cess treat­ment. “My hus­band went to his GP and told them what he was go­ing through. He was suf­fer­ing daily panic at­tacks. As he is also an ac­tor, the doc­tor said if he could still get on stage, he wasn’t that bad and ‘just had an artis­tic per­son­al­ity’. It was a re­ally dan­ger­ous re­sponse, but even­tu­ally we changed GPS and he is bet­ter now.”

For Arnold, hor­monal cy­cles were a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor, “but with knowl­edge things are man­age­able now. When you are ac­tively man­ag­ing it, you have to wake up and do the same shit over and over again just to keep your­self on an even keel. Ex­er­cise. De­cent food. Sleep. Ev­ery. Fuck­ing. Day.”

She hopes peo­ple with anx­i­ety read Head­lands and find some as­pect of their own ex­pe­ri­ence re­flected within – or per­haps recog­nise cer­tain symp­toms in oth­ers, such as “tantrums” or self-iso­lat­ing be­hav­iour, and are able to re­spond more kindly. “Some­times the way anx­ious peo­ple act is not just at­ten­tion-seek­ing,” she says. “It’s ac­tu­ally a re­ally dif­fi­cult ill­ness to be a friend to some­times.”

While some writ­ers sub­mit­ted their es­says in a timely fash­ion, oth­ers needed a lot of sup­port to get through their piece, and some pulled out at the last minute or sim­ply dis­ap­peared from her email chain – such is the na­ture of anx­i­ety. It was also eas­ier to find writ­ers who were white, fe­male and aged be­tween 30 and 40. “I think white women felt it eas­ier be­cause there are a lot of mod­els for their neu­roti­cism, if you think about TV’S Ally Mcbeal and Car­rie from Sex And the City,” says Arnold. “They get to have these adorable quirks.

“I do think it’s cul­tur­ally more ac­cept­able to have men­tal ill­ness if you’ve got the priv­i­lege of be­ing white and al­lowed to be vis­i­bly sick. I had lunch with a Māori woman and she said, ‘I can’t af­ford to break.’ I can’t speak for every­one, but some peo­ple in a mi­nor­ity just can­not af­ford to be as freely open about their men­tal ill­ness.”

In one es­say, Christchurch sui­cide pre­ven­tion of­fi­cer Zion Tauamiti writes about work­ing with young peo­ple. Arnold says she was shocked at his in­sights on the ex­tent to which sex­ual abuse is a trig­ger for anx­i­ety. “Peo­ple who are wor­ried about the dark, wor­ry­ing if they go to sleep they might wake up to find some­one on top of them… Can you imag­ine sleep­ing be­ing a dan­ger­ous place? Read­ing through the es­says made me re­alise how fu­ri­ously every­one was pad­dling un­der­wa­ter just to keep go­ing.”

She tells read­ers of Head­lands not to ex­pect ad­vice or so­lu­tions; this isn’t a self-help book in the tra­di­tional sense of the word. What the pages hold is a sort of com­mu­nity, a way for the anx­ious to feel they are not alone.

As Head­lands hits the shelves, Arnold con­tin­ues to man­age her anx­i­ety us­ing life­style meth­ods, while free­lanc­ing full­time. She is writ­ing a book on as­tron­omy, due out next year, and found the two projects com­ple­mented each other.

“As­tron­omy was a good topic to be do­ing while I was pulling to­gether a book on anx­i­ety,” she says. “The stars re­mind you of how lit­tle any­thing else mat­ters in the long run. I’d just wan­der across to the park to look up at the stars and think to my­self, ‘What’s Scor­pius up to tonight?’” +

“I think white women felt it eas­ier be­cause there are a lot of mod­els for their neu­roti­cism, if you think about TV’S Ally Mcbeal and Car­rie from Sex And the City. They get to have these adorable quirks.”

Be­low: Head­lands ed­i­tor Naomi Arnold. “Read­ing through the es­says made me re­alise how fu­ri­ously every­one was pad­dling un­der­wa­ter just to keep go­ing.”

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