The first time it happened I didn’t know what it was.

On a hot January day in 2013, I was about to meet the publisher of my debut novel at a café when I started to feel intensely odd. Thinking maybe I was ill I hurried to the bathroom, but I wasn’t sick. Rushing outside I felt stifled, like I couldn’t get enough air, but I was breathing fine. I felt … wrong. Catastrophically wrong.

I learned it was a panic attack. When it started to happen again and again – at my book launch, before a library talk, on a plane – knowing what it was only compounded the fear. I became panicked because I was having a panic attack, making me more terrified.

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Unless you’ve had one it is almost impossible to describe what a panic attack feels like. Sure, there’s the pounding heart, shaking limbs, dry mouth. But what can’t be described – and is far more overwhelming – are the non-physical sensations. An over-riding feeling of dread and doom. A terror that is as pure and all-consuming as if it is the only thing that exists.

Panic began to happen more often – even in places that had once felt safe to me: friend’s houses, the supermarket, my lounge room.

It was as though I no longer knew how to be human. How to be. I would climb my hands up and down my thighs, as if to climb out of myself. Tears rolled down my face and I wondered, is this what it feels like to die?

Eventually, fear eroded my ability to be in public. A constant mid-level anxiety cloaked my daily life. I cancelled plans, appointments, activities. I broke, and spent months on my couch unable to watch anything except Meerkat Manor. Social media, no. The news? Forget it.

We don’t call it nervous breakdown anymore, the psychologist said. I was on the edge of her couch, hands climbing thighs, weeping and barely hearing her. It’s anxiety, now, she said. Just anxiety.

Just anxiety? Just?!

Valium made me sleepy but didn’t stop the non-physical terror. One anti-depressant made me more anxious; one did nothing; another made me so sick and despairing it was worse than being anxious. I tried supplements, vitamins, herbs, crystals, reiki, hypnosis, cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar.

In late 2019, when I had finished writing my fourth novel, The Other Side of Beautiful, I decided to take up running. I had always thought myself un-athletic, and although I walked every day just to get a little way out of the house, I was tired of feeling weak in my body, afraid of its frailties and fears.

I started running only 30 seconds at a time. Gradually I increased to a few minutes; after a while, a few kilometres. At first I could not run far from my house because my heart pounding in exertion felt exactly like panic.

But I kept running. I ran and ran and I began to feel stronger.

I wrote and wrote and I began to feel stronger.

I began to understand that in breaking, I could find something stronger.

This world isn’t easy when your shield shatters. When my character in The Other Side of Beautiful, a woman who hasn’t left her house for two years, watches that house burn down, Mercy Blain has no choice but to be flung into the world.

She tries to recreate the walls of her house with a tiny campervan, but unwittingly she finds herself on a road trip up the centre of Australia.

Because it’s in the unexpected difficulties that I realised the gems are. The jewels at the bottom of the well: the ability to assert what really matters to you. Learning that saying No can free you up for the most full-hearted Yes. Discovering that the deepest friendships are those who stay with you, regardless of how little you can bring of yourself. (Those friendships also bring whisky.)

Here’s one thing I’ve learned: like I wanted, like my character Mercy wants, you can discover the ability to be still, even while running. You can be here now and notice this beautiful, plentiful world and breathe very, very deep.

And hear your own strong heart beating its song: I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock published by HQ Fiction is available here.

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