A mother's heartfelt plea: don't ignore anxiety

Mother of four Cathie, opens up about her daughter’s terrifying experience with anxiety and depression, and the important role her family played in her journey to recovery. As told to Christie Cooper. 

I watched my daughter Pip turn from this really gorgeous vivacious secondary school student with lots of friends, into a jabbering mess who wouldn’t leave the house. At the time I thought it was depression. It didn’t even cross my mind that she might be suffering from anxiety as well.  

As a mother, I worried she was going to attempt to take her own life. She never did, but as a nurse I understood what depression could do to people. She was spending days in bed at a time and I could see she was in this really difficult place.  

Looking back now at what she’s overcome, I just think she’s amazing. She’s this incredibly strong woman who has come through such a major life challenge. It might seem minor in the scheme of things, but it really wasn’t. 

There were two key moments which made me realise something was really wrong with my daughter.  

The first was when Pip and her sister Jane stopped living together, and Jane took the phone number. This was back in the day before mobiles, so land lines were the primary way of contacting people. It was a fairly big statement from Jane that their relationship had broken down. In fact, Pip hadn’t been paying any of the flat costs for weeks. Jane had no idea that her sister had been missing her classes and her part time work. We only found out later that she had been getting up in the mornings, pretending to get ready for the day, only to return to bed as soon as her sister left the house. 

The other major red flag was when I called her one night to see how she was going, and her flatmate picked up. She said, “Haven’t you heard from her? She’s gone to the hospital because she thinks she’s having a heart attack.” Hearing that almost gave me a heart attack. When I finally got hold of her, she told me they had done all sorts of tests, but then they asked her to breathe into a paper bag and that’s what made her start to feel better. As soon as I heard that – I clicked. I knew she was describing an anxiety attack.
Once we recognised what was happening, it made it so much easier to be able to support her. 

Sometimes we’d get a call saying that Pip was stuck somewhere and couldn’t get to our house, because the thought of catching a crowded train would set off an anxiety attack. We’d find a way to pick her up, or accept that it was just going to be too tough for her to visit that day. It was a huge change for someone who had done these things confidently growing up. 

Later, if she wanted to go anywhere on a plane, she’d need someone to fly with her. We’d try to find someone in the family who could coincide their trips so she wasn’t flying alone and having to deal with the anxiety that came with it.
mother and daughter being tender
In hindsight, there were signs from very early on that Pip worried a lot. I remember when she was about six and we were living in New Zealand, she was preparing to go from standard one to standard two. The equivalent in Australia is grade one and grade two. I can remember her being extremely upset during the summer and in the end she just had this complete melt down. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “I don’t know how to do standard two maths! I don’t know how to do standard two anything!” 

I just feel so lucky that as a parent that I was able to work out what was going on. It was just a fluke that I called Pip the day she went to the emergency clinic, otherwise I might never have found out. It was also another lucky coincidence that I found out about the phone line dispute, and worked out that it was a sign of something bigger. 
And then, just as all that was happening, I stumbled across a newspaper article about a clinic just opening in our area which specialised in helping people who were experiencing anxiety and depression. I knew then that was exactly what Pip needed. It was like the gods were smiling at me, and prodding me along, helping to lead me where I needed to go to help my daughter. 
The clinic helped her enormously. They taught her what was happening, helped her understand her anxiety and depression, and taught her how to regain control of her mind and her thoughts. 
Pip’s boyfriend during that time also seemed to play an enormously supportive role and I will always be grateful for that.
It’s amazing watching her now because I’m seeing this daughter of mine go from someone who once couldn’t actually get on a train, to someone who can now travel by herself, and is planning a solo trip overseas. That’s huge. It’s been such an incredibly slow process but she’s now really enjoying life, surrounded by friends and thriving at work.
My advice to other parents is: don’t pretend it’s not happening. There are very real and very serious consequences to depression and anxiety, your children can take their own lives at the snap of a finger. And then it’s too late. If you haven’t experienced anxiety it can be hard to understand how terrifying it can be for the person suffering it, and just how significantly it can impact someone. 
Family know each other better than anyone, so If there’s something about your child or sibling which is making you concerned, no matter how old they are, address it in whatever way is appropriate. One way or another, you just can’t ignore what’s happening.

You may also like our article 'Anxiety and alcoholics - how the two can merge into one.' If you'd like to learn more about anxiety or mental health, click here for additional Blue Room resources.

There are a range of services available for anyone who needs to reach out to someone. For young people between 12 and 24 years old headspace offers confidential online counselling, phone assistance, or you can walk into one of their centres. For adults, MindSpot and beyondblue also offer free telephone and online support services. If you need to speak to someone urgently you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 
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