A little anxiety is good for you

There are times when I can almost feel the cortisol surging through my blood, times when my blood pressure rises and I can hear the thrumming of my over excited heart.

I ask myself why, when already I know the answer.

Performance anxiety: the thought that next week I will speak on the radio on a topic that’s dear to me – mental illness and fiction – and the fantasy that the interviewer will ask a question and my voice will seize up mid sentence.

I tell myself it’s okay to be apprehensive, a little anxiety is good. It means you care. It means you’ll sharpen up your senses in readiness.

Have you noticed when people are bored in their presentations, these people have given up caring about the topic or the people to whom they present? They don’t feel any anxiety, only the dull emptiness of a long yawn.

No such yawns for me.

‘You need to take your anxiety seriously,’ my mentor said to me many years ago, and for the first time in my life I began to wonder, did I have a problem?

Up till then, those times when my heart raced, my blood ran thin and my breath grew short, made sense to me. There was always a reason to feel anxious. It was all about feeling scared.

Scared of what I might find when I opened the front door. What state my father might be in, sober or drunk, jolly or in a rage.

At school, I worried that my uniform would not stay clean enough, the safety pins that held up my hem might be visible, a torn sleeve obvious.


All these were signs of my not being satisfactory, but they made sense.

When my mentor told me to take my anxiety seriously, she planted a seed.

There was something wrong with me for being scared.

A reasonable person would not tremble at a sudden crash. A reasonable person would not be alarmed when the car speedometer rose to over one hundred kilometres. A reasonable person would not worry about what was over the next hill.

But I worried about these things, and still do.


‘You drive and I’ll navigate,’ my sister said last Saturday when we arrived at the car hire depot at Canberra airport.

I had wanted to drive. My navigational skills are appalling, besides I like to take charge of the wheel when I’m in the car, except when my husband drives. His driving I trust, more than my own.

Last week, my sister and I drove from Canberra through Queanbeyan on our way to the coast. In most places the road was narrow, two lanes only with several points where there was opportunity for speedier drivers to pass the slower ones.

It wasn’t an easy journey, winding roads that demanded complete concentration and all the time my heart racing as it is now, my hands clammy on the wheel and my sister beside me chatting away as though oblivious to my distress.

I complained to her about the drivers on my tail, the ones who wanted to get past but could not, given the double lines. They had to wait till we reached an overtaking section and I pitched myself into their heads: ‘Old woman driver, bad as a learner.’

The hire car we’d selected, a small white Mitsubishi, had no stamina. Getting up hills I needed to flatten the accelerator and often times the car sounded as though it might conk out before we reached the top.

Going down hills was just as bad. The steering wheel felt loose under my hands, as though it might take off in either direction. Many times, I imagined us running off the road or onto on-coming traffic.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn in Broulee in good time for lunch. My sister was starving but the nearest place we could find sold fish and chips and pizza. She settled for grilled fish, while I elected to have yet another hot chocolate, my stomach filled with acid from the journey.

Various family members who were also staying in the hotel arrived over the course of the afternoon in readiness for an evening barbeque at the home of distant relatives in Mossy Point.

My sister and I shared a room in the Holiday Inn.

We were up early on the Sunday ready to strike out to Broulee Island, keen to sort out the distance and time it might take to reach our destination, the reason for this trip in the first place. The scattering of my niece’s ashes.

I write this here now and an image of my niece flashes before my eyes. There are tears behind them.

It’s too soon to be writing this.


Are the connections evident to you?

Performance anxiety, speaking on the radio, your voice carried out across the airwaves can be as frightening as travelling along the Kings Highway over the mountains, up steep hills and down, through multiple hair pin bends.

To travel along an unfamiliar road, terrified you might lose control of what feels like a tin car on toy wheels, when you lack experience at both.

And death, my beloved niece’s death. A death that came too soon.


What it’s like to die

His oldest brother was the first to toss a handful of J’s ashes at the base of some tall eucalypts in the Toolangi state forest.   His sisters went next and then the in-laws, including me. Even the grandchildren had a go. We dug deep into the plastic canister where the chalk white and grey grit of J’s remains rested heavy and took a handful of him, then tossed it to the wind.

Some stuck to the bark of the mountain ash.

IMG_0692 (1)We transformed this scattering of J into a photo shoot of sorts, as people do these days, not out of disrespect but because it seemed a good way to keep his memory alive.

No one else would. His partners had long ago deserted him and he had no children. Not that any of us knew. The only ones loyal to J right up to the end were his sisters and brothers. But by the time this ritual of final release took place there was no sadness left.

J was the youngest and had wasted his life on a belief that he had the gene for alcoholism. It gave him the excuse to drink and smoke twenty-four hours a day and to replace the alcohol with morphine when the cancer that ripped into his jaw took away his tolerance for any other sustenance.

J had wanted to offer his body to science, but no one wanted it, given his flesh and bones had started their long descent into decay well before he died.

After a few halfhearted attempts at treatment, the doctors left it to the palliative carers to make J’s death endurable, and endure it he did.


Shortly before he died, Dennis Potter spoke on the radio about his life and anticipated death, again from cancer. He was reconciled to the idea, though it gave him a strange new hold on life, he told his interviewer. It made him aware of the importance and inevitability of time.

‘Life can only be defined in the present tense,’ he said. The ‘nowness’ of things is all we can rely upon. We can never be certain about the past. It changes with our memory and recall, and the future is unpredictable, as yet unformed, but not the present.

To illustrate, Potter described the blossoms that had just erupted on the cherry tree outside his door, as the ‘blossomiest’ of blossoms, so lush, so fluffy, so fragrant, so magnificent. Why had he not noticed them before?

Death, Potter said, puts us back in touch with the present in the same way as when we are children. The present is always with us as children in that moment-to-moment experience of being wholly absorbed inside an experience, whether it is one of terror – and there are many terrifying moments as a child – or of bliss.

‘If you see the present tense, boy, do you see it,’ Potter said. ‘And boy, can you celebrate it.’

During the interview Potter searched his pockets for a cigarette, half apologised to his interviewer and joked that he could do as he pleased now, as far as taking in poisons, but not everyone was happy.

He told the story of a time when he pulled out a cigarette somewhere in a café in America, and the look on the waiter’s face, as if to kill.

‘In America it’s easier to draw out a gun than a cigarette.’


It comes upon me in a flash that sensation from my childhood, unattached to specific memories just a flash, of light, of colour, of smell. A sensation that erupts when I remember the newness of things, the tiny flowers on the diosma bush outside my garden, pink baby’s breath, the smell of the Rockman’s doll I unwrapped on my eight Christmas, baby sized and pink in its nakedness, as if I had magically given birth to my own baby but experienced none of the pain, only the exultant joy of welcoming this new creature into life.

This sensation relates to newness, and now in my sixties, no longer new, I cannot expect too many of these, not in the way of childhood. But I look forward to their return when, like Dennis Potter, I anticipate moving into this new space called death.

As Phillip Adams quips, ‘I hope I’m awake when I die. I want to know what it’s like.’