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‘Anxiety sucks,’ says author Kirsten McDougall in her Headlands essay. Although this neatly sums up what it’s like to live with anxiety – and is echoed by other contributors – Kirsten and many others also write about hope and acceptance, gratitude and understanding. This excellent book makes it clear that many people with anxiety learn to live well.
Headlands is a powerful and comprehensive contribution to the New Zealand literature on mental health and wellbeing. Contributors write bravely and brilliantly about what it’s like to live with anxiety. Perhaps they are your friend or colleague, your parent or partner, your doctor, bus friend or the person you nod at on your morning dog-walk.
There may or may not be any outward sign that they experience anxiety. As the stories in Headlands show, there are many different ways that people learn to cope or cover it up.
Editor Naomi Arnold reveals that last year one in five New Zealanders sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. If you are one of the estimated thousands who have ‘stayed silent’, Headlands may encourage you to talk things over with someone who can help. Arnold has succeeded in her mission to draw together voices that offer ‘reassurance and validation’ to individuals and whānau affected by anxiety.
‘Bringing this collection together was a delicate task,’ Arnold explains, because ‘there’s still a stigma in talking about mental health.’ In total 31 contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds share their experiences. Most are living with anxiety themselves, although Headlands also includes chapters by a physiotherapist, a suicide prevention officer, and a couple of clinical psychologists who are exploring the use of micronutrients to alleviate anxiety.
Although the contributors use many of the same words to describe how anxiety feels – often referring to an overwhelming sense of panic, dread, or fear – there are lots of different ways that their anxiety is manifested. Some write about eating disorders, insomnia and nail-biting, others mention anger, self-harm, indecision and paralysis. Singer, songwriter and poet Hinemoana Baker has what she describes as ‘somatised anxiety’ where anxiety is expressed though physical symptoms that cause pain.
Donna McLeod (Taranaki born and now living in Motueka) offers her community’s voice in a strong and poignant poetic narrative describing the anxiety shared among wāhine Māori.
Some contributors can trace the probable cause of their anxiety, with several referring to childhood abuse. Others see a genetic link, recognising symptoms of anxiety across generations of relatives. Arnold observes that some people may not be aware that they have anxiety and consequently will not seek help. Yet a diagnosis is not the be-all and end-all. As Bonnie Etherington notes ‘…there are days when a diagnosis offers me room to understand myself and other days it does not’. Eamonn Marra explains that when he learned to use mindfulness to acknowledge anxious feelings as they surfaced rather than ignoring them, this was ‘the biggest step towards being able to manage [the anxiety]’.
Several contributors mention experiencing anxiety when they were children, although at the time they did not have the word to identify the feeling, nor yet the self-awareness to recognise what it was. Over time there may be a gradual realisation and awareness of what helps and what hinders. Holly Walker writes of an ongoing cycle of learning about what she calls her ‘limitations’: ‘It’s a strange thing, having to revise your ideas about yourself’.
What helps varies from person to person. Contributors have tried a range of methods – including self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Some have been admitted for psychiatric care. Others describe the benefits of meditation, yoga, running and other forms of exercise. For writer and actor Michelle Langstone, caring for sick and injured birds was central to her own journey towards wellbeing. Medication works well for some, although several contributors write about their reluctance to consider it.
I attended a panel discussion during Wellington’s recent LitCrawl event where four of the people who contributed to Headlands talked about their experiences. Editor Naomi Arnold chaired the sold-out session. Reiterating themes from the book several speakers mentioned the benefits of meditation and exercise, and one recommended having a conversation with a doctor about what’s right for you. ‘Medication’ said one panelist, ‘complements good life decisions’. Headlands makes it clear that there may be some trial and error involved to work out what will suit someone requiring support to manage their anxiety – and that what works best may change over time.
If the cover of this book was audible it would perhaps be a buzzing static or a low off-key bass hum. In particular, the cover art is a striking expression of Holly Walker’s ‘jangling world’ and its ‘cacophony of sound’.
If you are living with anxiety – or questioning whether you are – or if someone you know or care about has an anxiety-related disorder and you want to know how you might support and help them, Headlands offers ideas, insights and hope.
‘I wonder how many people live without anxiety? It can’t be that many!’ says musician Riki Gooch. Even if you are one of these people, this book is for you too. As Arnold reminds us, all New Zealanders – including whānau, communities, colleagues, and health workers – have a shared responsibility to learn, to listen and to accept, and to make it easier for people affected by anxiety to access appropriate help and support.
Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks
Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety
Edited by Naomi Arnold
Published by VUP