Written by Lucy Nichol

Health

It REALLY couldn’t happen to a nicer… globetrotter

In this series, Lucy Nichol proves you never know who mental ill health will come after next by celebrating the diverse qualities and eccentricities of her lovable friends and acquaintances. This week, she’s in awe of one of her ‘squad’.

Rosie on the beach
Rosie Willan has dived with great white sharks. Rosie Willan has anxiety.

She didn’t accidentally fall in the sea by the way. She chose to be trapped in a cage underwater in close proximity to a living breathing death machine (sorry shark fans – I grew up watching Jaws). You can bet Lemony Snicket’s anxious Aunt Josephine wouldn’t do that – she’s terrified of leeches, never mind sharks.

Kind of funny that Rosie isn’t fazed by sharks. Sometimes she’s terrified of her own body. And that’s much smaller and less frightening than a shark’s. But sometimes it does strange things. It can make her heart beat too fast and make her short of breath. For Rosie, that’s far more frightening.

“For about a 12-month period, I experienced panic attacks daily,” she explains. “The first time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack. I was freaking out and wanted my mum to call an ambulance. Luckily, she knew what it was straight away.”

Rosie’s mum didn’t call an ambulance. She knew it was an anxiety attack. Certainly no life or death experience (not like diving with sharks), but it certainly feels like that. Unfortunately, it felt like that over and over again for Rosie.

She never really got over the first experience; she was consumed by the fear of it happening again. So it became a vicious circle.

With anxiety, the brain triggers the physical symptoms, then the physical symptoms and fear trigger behaviours. For Rosie, this meant missing heaps of university time – she couldn’t even get on the bus, never mind sit through a lecture. Then came more avoidance: supermarkets (I know about that one – I’ve legged it out of a supermarket queue before, thanks to anxiety and not because I was scared of making an impulse buy).

I remember Rosie finishing university and graduating with a first, because that’s where I met her. She joined our uni comms team as a young journalism student, along with her now bestest mate and travel buddy, Charlotte. We have a little squad (as I believe the youth call it these days) and we’re quite the motley crew.

With a broad age range and an even broader taste in music (I can’t abide the Spice Girls in quite the way the boys do), we’re all fabulous and all a little fucked up at times. Remember my mate Paul the hipster – he’s in there too.

“I can honestly say travelling has helped a lot. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone a lot more than you would in ‘normal’ life.”

Me, Paul, Rosie, Charlotte, Tom, Chris, James, Anna, Ruth and Peter. We’ve enjoyed politically incorrect Halloween nights (revealing NO details); debated whether we fancied the Peaky Blinders or Suits cast the most; and turned Blue Nun into champagne with the help of a soda stream.

But now we’re all missing Rosie and Charlotte, our globetrotting, super confident, independent duo.

Rosie says: “When I first set off on this trip, I wasn’t sure that I was strong enough, and thought I might be home after a couple of weeks.” (Sadly for us, it’s nearly 12 months on and we’re still without our girls).

“It had always been my dream to travel, but I just didn’t feel like it was a possibility for someone like me anymore,” she continues. “Flying had always been a huge issue for me, I guess because it combines all of the things that would trigger my anxiety – enclosed spaces, a public place, the feeling of being trapped.

“Then I had a couple of glasses a wine one night with my best friend, and booked a flight, so I couldn’t back out.

“Ten months and 12 flights later, and I can honestly say travelling has helped a lot. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone a lot more than you would in ‘normal’ life. Whether that’s the day to day things – like navigating a new city or checking in at an airport – or the once in a lifetime things like diving with great white sharks. I still can’t believe I did that.”

I think we call this ‘exposure therapy’. I’ve read about this in Claire Eastham’s book. For me, it might be about managing to do a boob check without having a meltdown for fear of finding cancer, or about speaking live on the telly. For Rosie, it’s globetrotting. And now, she’s realised that even if things don’t go to plan, she is far more capable at handling life’s events than she thought she was.

Rosie was initially offered antidepressants from her GP. She declined. Being a bookworm with a first class honours journalistic mind (bigging up my mates wherever I can), she decided to do her own research and looked into alternative options.

She started opening up more to friends and family, realised she wasn’t alone (which made her feel heaps better) and acquired lots of techniques to help her manage her symptoms herself.

“Thankfully, things aren’t nearly as bad as they were,” she says. “I haven’t had a full blown panic attack in more than two years now.

“It was a long process to get to this point and I think anxiety is something that will always be a part of my life, but learning to accept that was half the battle for me.

“I forced myself to sit down and make a list of all the ‘good’ things that come from having anxiety which sounds very counterintuitive when it comes to something that feels so terrible. But surprisingly, there are a lot of positives: it’s made me a much more empathetic person, I know how to take care of my mental health now, and it made me appreciate the little things more, and really stop to notice when things are going well.”

Rosie – a highly independent, intelligent and massively outgoing personality – has anxiety. You might catch her taking down the Tories live on Question Time, diving with sharks or tearing up the dance floor to Gina G.

Here’s to another big fat sting in the tail for mental health stigma.

Get to know more of Lucy’s friends and acquaintances here.
And check out her blog on all things mental health here.

@lucy_nichol78

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Written by Lucy Nichol

Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.