17 Oct 2018

New Zealanders write about living with anxiety in the new book Headlands

From Afternoons, 3:07 pm on 17 October 2018
hands behind glass

Photo: Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Anxiety is more than stress, it can feel like a gut punch out of nowhere for no apparent reason. It is frightening, isolating and hard to understand if you don't suffer from it.

Thirty New Zealanders have written personal essays about the reality of living with anxiety for the new book Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, compiled by freelance journalist Naomi Arnold.

Listen to Charlotte Graham-McLay's review of Headlands here.

Naomi, who lives in Nelson, was on her bike when she got the idea for the book.

"I was biking down to the pub one afternoon and it just jumped into my head that I knew so many writers who I'd been talking with about anxiety… then I thought 'gosh I wonder what would happen if I emailed them and asked if they wanted to write about it?'. I just stopped and fired off this email on my phone and instantly got replies back. About five or six people said 'yes, I'd love to'."

Naomi Arnold

Naomi Arnold Photo: supplied

Naomi put the call out further and eventually heard from around 100 people – not all writers – who were interested in penning something for the book.

"I started to realise how many people are out there frantically paddling, like a duck below the surface, while keeping themselves completely smooth and natural appearing on the top."

The stories in Headlands are written by writers, entertainers, social workers, and health professionals.

Naomi says many of them moved her to tears.

"A lot of them feel like beautifully written diary entries. A lot of wry humour, laughing at yourself, and a lot of pain there, too."

Riki Gooch

Riki Gooch Photo: Supplied

Musician Riki Gooch writes of anxiety as your biggest fear brought to life, Naomi says.

"[Riki wrote that] the best way to understand what anxiety is to imagine your biggest fear – whatever that is – and then imagine putting it under the microscope. While you're looking at it through the microscope it jumps out of the lens straight on to your face and suffocates you so you can't breathe. And you can't pull it off."

Gooch also writes that being a musician gave him access to mental health treatment that many other Māori people don't get.

"If I'd just been living in South Dunedin struggling with this stuff, I'd probably be in prison or hospital or dead" he writes.

Eamonn Marra

Eamonn Marra Photo: The Wireless

Comedian Eamonn Marra writes about Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – his performance at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival in 2014.

"He basically got up on stage and read from a piece of paper, shaking. Really interesting and awkward for the audience, I imagine.

"For him, it was an achievement getting up on stage and shaking and sweating and doing that routine."

Naomi defines anxiety as "fear and panic to a point that interferes with your daily functioning and your daily life".

Her husband suffered from it to the point of becoming suicidal, then she developed it as well.

But they didn't know what it was, she says.

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"This book would have helped us realise that anxiety isn't really a character flaw, it's a condition, it's an illness."

Help for anxiety is often difficult to access in New Zealand, Naomi says.

"Personally, I think we need more psychotherapy – easier access to it. Medication is often the first step when you go to your GP, but that can have a whole range of problems. I think we also need more cultural knowledge of this. It's a Pakeha medical system and for a lot of people, that's just not going to suit. I think a more holistic view from GPs would help – talking about diet, family support, work, time off from work … every single thing in your life can either help or really hinder this illness."

Naomi Arnold runs the website featured.org.nz, which collects true, well-written stories by New Zealanders.