Last year, a lot of the work I did centred around mental health and diabetes. It’s funny how things happen – we had always planned for it to be the focus for our National Diabetes Week campaign at Diabetes Australia (disclosure: I work there), and then COVID-19 happened, and it seemed all the more important to make sure that we were flagging just how much people with diabetes’ mental health was being impacted by the pandemic. Spoiler alert – the answer was, and still is, a lot.

Last year also happened to be the year that my own anxiety went from being something I’d dealt with mostly in the past to something that became very much in the present and a bigger issue for me than living with diabetes. I had a few panic attacks that terrified me and had the domino effect of adding to my anxiety as I’d wait for the next one to strike. But it wasn’t just those acute moments that made me feel anxious. It was a low-grade hum that became the soundtrack to every waking moment, sometimes exploding into a roar.

Of course, COVID-19 contributed to it all, because how could it not? But I also knew that these feelings of disquiet and unease had started well before the pandemic was firmly on my radar, before our first lockdown, and before Melbourne’s second lockdown – the longest and strictest is the world. 

Trying to keep it all in check was tough but at the time I thought that the fact that there was just so much going on with work was a good thing. I simply couldn’t examine too closely what was going on with my mental health because work was just so, so intense, and anyway, of course I was feeling fretful and anxious because who wasn’t?! Hindsight, of course, suggests that it probably would have been better to stop for a moment and address that hum rather than try to explain it away or drown it out with more and more noise that actually only made it worse. 

And so, I started putting words to what I was feeling because that was a first step to acknowledging that I needed to do something. And that I needed help. I started to check in on my anxiety levels each morning. Or when something significant, (or even not all that significant) happened, I’d stop and ask myself how anxious I felt. Starting to be able to name how I was feeling, and rate it, meant I could do something about it. 

I had occasional telehealth appointments with a psychologist, to work through and to help develop strategies for coping. And to spend time working out where this anxiety had stemmed from. This is something that has always been important for me to do. When I have had periods of extreme anxiety before, there has been no coming out of it without being able to pinpoint where, when and how it started. 

Sometimes that’s not all that easy to do, other times it’s glaringly obvious. When diabetes has been acknowledged as the cause of my increased anxiety, it’s never enough to just say ‘diabetes’ – it’s usually something more nuanced and specific. And so down the rabbit hole I go as I try to pinpoint exactly what I need to work through to start feel better. 

But this time, it was clear. It wasn’t having diabetes; it was being in diabetes. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it makes sense to anyone who has ever worked in a diabetes-related job, or spent a lot of time in the diabetes community. It was the latter that was making me very, very anxious. I’d already been aware that I was experiencing diabetes advocacy burnout, but anxiety is different to burnout. It was more than just the sense of feeling overwhelmed and nervous every time I raised my head above the parapet (which is a lot because of my job and advocacy work). So, I had a head start on what needed attention even before speaking with the psychologist, but we did work at narrowing down just what the triggers were for me that increased my anxiety levels, how to avoid them and how to cope if I couldn’t.  

I learnt to ‘catch the fall’. That’s why checking in became important to me. When I could start to verbalise how I was feeling, and isolate when anxiety levels were increasing, I could do something. Breathing exercises, grabbing a book – any book – from the bookshelf and focusing on a page of words, going for a walk around the old laneways of our old neighbourhood. These all acted as circuit breakers, allowing me to catch the fall before I started to feel really, really anxious. And managed to catch most panic attacks. In fact, the rare times I actually did have something resembling a panic attack was a trigger that hit me in the face without warning. It happens – those triggers pop up despite best efforts to avoid them.

I’ve just returned to work from almost five weeks of holidays. It had been twelve months since I’d taken any time off, and (again: hindsight) I should have been smarter and taken a break when my anxiety was really starting to affect my day-to-day existence. Because right now, of course I feel like I can breathe freely and as though my head is clear. The dread I’d wake up with – a pressing down feeling that came at me from every angle – slowly lifted. It wasn’t just work that I took the break from. I removed myself from social media completely. Actually, that’s a lie. I doom scrolled my way through Twitter for about two weeks following what was going on in the US, but I had every single diabetes term, hashtag and phrase muted.  

I am still anxious. I still do my regular check ins to see just how anxious I am feeling about different situations (the one I did yesterday morning where I asked myself I how I was feeling about actually going into my office for the first time in almost a year resulted in tears, so I rated that as ‘quite anxious’, but I was easily about to understand where that was coming from! COVID-19 is still here, even in Melbourne.)

Unsurprisingly for me, the most anxious I felt (rating: really, really, really anxious right now and can I please crawl under a blanket on the sofa with a doggo at my feet) was when I checked in after spending an hour on Twitter after unmuting the word diabetes. I muted it again, because baby steps and still steps. 

And so, this rambling, messy post exploring just how I’ve been feeling in my head has no answers or solutions or ideas. Except I know that 2020 was tough. And I know that I am not alone in having felt that way. I also know that in the scheme of things, despite anxiety, despite COVID-19 and despite…well…everything, I’m mostly okay. And I’m starting 2021 in a place of some clarity and freshness, which I hope means that if that anxiety hum starts to get louder again, I’ll be able to hear that happen. And catch the fall before it’s too late.