My Anxious Life

Guest writer Simon Orchard, 29 year old athlete and blogger, has represented Australia in the Kookaburra’s men’s field hockey team at the Olympic, Commonwealth and World Cup levels. In support of Mental Health Week, he shares his own story as a sportsman with anxiety. His blog together with his original post may be found here.

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Image supplied.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, this is the story of My Anxious Life. It is a bit confronting and was extremely hard to write. But it’s basically just a candid story about my encounters with mental illness over the past 7-8 years. Strangely enough, it runs in conjunction with my Australian Hockey career. A relationship I’m sure isn’t coincidental. But that’s a tale for another time…

My name is Simon Orchard. I’m an Australian Kookaburra, journalism and PR student, loving son and big brother; and I’m a mental illness sufferer.

I’m hesitant to label myself with a disorder of any kind 1) Because I feel like my issue ranks on the lower side of the spectrum when discussing mental health; and 2) Because I am wary of overstating the issue. But if I had to name what it is I suffer from, I’d say it’s a fairly mild form of anxiety. Now many people experience feelings of worry or sadness at varying stages of their lives, but this is something that affects me on an almost daily basis. Some may have even seen this in my actions or characteristics from time to time, without perhaps knowing what’s causing it; or realising the full effect it’s having on me. Hopefully what follows will give everyone a better understanding.

Essentially, anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.  There are many varying symptoms and it can present itself in a whole range of forms.

I’ve borrowed this next bit from the Beyond Blue website as it sums up exactly how I feel when anxiety hits – “Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where a person feels under pressure, it usually passes once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed. Anxiety occurs when these anxious feelings don’t subside. Anxiety hits when the feelings are ongoing and continue to exist without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard for a person to cope with daily life. It has varying degrees of seriousness and these feelings cannot be easily controlled.”

And that’s the major concern for me. The feelings are hard to control. Everyone thinks about all kinds of things throughout their daily lives. I just give undue credence to an abundance of ideas that deserve no place in my mind; and I guess what makes it harder is that I have the extra pressure of being a semi-professional sportsman as well.

I guess there are a few reasons why I have decided to post this blog, which has been sitting on my desktop dormant for quite a while now.

Firstly, it’s Mental Health Week here in Western Australia and I have been inspired by the amount of people coming forward and sharing their heartfelt stories with the world. I acknowledge that a lot of people are doing it tougher than me, but mental illness takes many shapes and forms, so hopefully my story will be taken for what it’s worth. A minor speed bump on the way to a happier life.

Secondly, there has been a lot of focus on Lance Franklin and his mental health battle of late. I feel empathy for him. The mental burden of being an athlete is tougher than many think. Every time Franklin steps onto the field he is judged by hundreds of thousands of arm chair warriors, many of whom couldn’t jump over their dining room table, let alone take a contested mark at AFL level. I have no doubt this critiquing extends to the training track, the meeting room and many other aspects of his daily life. What percentage of the population has this kind of spotlight shone on them every time they head off to work? Everything he does off the field attracts media scrutiny as well. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself in a position like that; maybe he’s just had enough? He needs to be taken care of before football is even mentioned again.

Lastly, I’m just hoping something I say will resonate with someone out there who is feeling the same way as me. I want to try and help break down the stigma surrounding mental health and hope that this blog post will just make someone else suffering think, “I’m not the only one, phew”.

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I can actually pinpoint the moment this stuff all started manifesting itself. And it began with health anxiety in 2007. I had just been given a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport and moved to Perth as a 20-year-old. I left everything and everyone I knew back on the east coast. And looking back, that’s probably part of the reason I struggled so much in the early years. Upon arriving and starting to train every day with the squad, I remember coming off one session with a pain in my chest. I checked with the physio and he said everything seemed fine. I kept training, but it was still there. So I went off to see our team doctor. He said it seemed fine, but prescribed me anti-inflammatory pills which I began taking. Nothing changed. Then I started to sit out training due to the ‘pain’. We had a scan done. Nothing. We got more scans. Nothing again. This carried on for about three months. And then suddenly one day, it just disappeared as if it never existed; funny that. Looking back, I think that was the start of my health anxiety.

Over the next year I was a bloody mess – literally. I remember biting into a sandwich one day and seeing blood on the bread. My gums were bleeding. At first I thought nothing of it, but whilst brushing my teeth the next day, the same thing happened. So I hit Google up. I searched ‘Bleeding gums’ and BANG, Leukemia popped up (several causes down mind you). So I started searching for symptoms of that. Easy bleeding – Yeah derr. Fever – I am a bit sweaty. Fatigue – yawn hmm now that you mention it. Swollen Lymph Nodes – Probably. I didn’t even actually know what they were originally, but once I found them, I reckon I pressed them until they become sore and swollen. So for the next few weeks I seriously thought I had leukemia. It wasn’t until I asked for a blood test that things returned to normal. The test results were fine, what do you know, no leukemia. Lots of people still laugh about it, including me. But it worried me a lot.

Fast forward a few years and the same thing happened to me in Holland when I was living and playing over there. I remember a little lump popping up on my neck. I panicked. I remember trying to puncture it with a pin with the help of Matt Butturini, thinking it may have just been something superficial. But it didn’t work. I started Googling again. Was it a swollen lymph node? It was in the right spot to be one? Shit, cancer. I remember being at training the next day and picking up balls between drills when I stopped and thought to myself ‘Fuck, how can I play hockey with cancer? This might be it for me’ Ridiculous. It worried the hell out of me for nearly a whole week, consumed me, it was all I thought about. Until I saw a local doctor who took one look at it and said ‘It’s just a fatty deposit, it’ll go away on it’s own, don’t worry.” Fuck. I felt pretty stupid, but so relieved. But if only I actually listened to those last two words “don’t worry”. Things might be a bit different now.

Stuff like that still happens, just less often now. I remember asking Matty Swann to check my lymph nodes in my armpit once in the gym last year as I thought they were swollen. He laughed and said no, fair enough too. But then he checked his and because he could feel them, I think he panicked for a second as well. It was obviously nothing serious for both of us. Well nothing physical anyway, it gave me another mental beat down though that’s for sure. And I have a lot of guilt about these self-diagnoses as well. I often think how selfish I am to make this stuff up when there are thousands of people out there who actually have these diseases. Anyway.

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It’s a stupid thing, health anxiety. Basically whenever I start feeling a bit unwell, my first thought is that it could be something very serious, like cancer. I often laugh with guys about how many times I’ve diagnosed myself with life threatening diseases, but the worry and stress that comes with this false diagnosis is pretty crippling. I’ve spent entire weeks planning my life for diseases that could kill me, soon finding out off our team doctors that all I have is a sore throat or a cold…or anxiety. And being a sportsman, my immune system is constantly under pressure. We train so hard that it only takes a few bad nights of sleep or a few too many beers one afternoon and we start getting sniffly or fatigued.

In some positive news, the health anxiety has taken a back seat these last few years. Unfortunately this just means other things have consumed my mind. More important things and things that mean a whole lot more to me at my age. Everything from my hockey, relationships and university to simple things like what I order for dinner or what volume number the TV is on. It feels like nothing is really off-limits with anxiety.

And this is what has led to one of the hardest periods of my life. About two months ago I told the Kookaburras playing group that I needed to take some time off to deal with some issues. It was without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I bounced into hockey one Friday morning with great optimism and a feeling that once I’d told everyone what was happening, I’d be right. I think I got five seconds into my speech and lost it. Luckily for me, our coach Poss Reid jumped in and saved me. I spent the next few minutes crying and staring at the floor. I couldn’t even look at anyone. I got back into it though, even tried a few jokes to lighten the mood, they went down like lead balloons, as usual. I don’t even really remember what I said. I just remember our physio Ellen yelling something out like “We love you Orch” towards the end…and that was the start of my recovery process.

I can guarantee some of my hockey related anxiety issues have been hidden from the guys around the Kookaburras program pretty well, but maybe not from all. I’ve developed some minor ways of dealing with the anxiousness that many would see from time to time. For example, I cough a lot. Unprovoked, unnecessary coughing that I believe I use to continue breathing. It sounds stupid but I often feel restricted in my chest and think that this small cough enables me to breathe properly again. I’d do this up to 100 times a day, it’s pretty annoying. I can’t sit still either. I bounce my legs or wiggle my toes. This doesn’t really affect others, but people have mentioned it to me before. It’s worse when I’m stuck on a place for hours during our trips overseas. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to explode, my body is so restless and jumpy. This probably carries over to my inability to focus on one given thing for long periods of time. During a flight, some guys will sit and watch movies from start to finish. Not me. I will watch half a movie, listen to music for 20 minutes, do some Sudoku puzzles, get up and move around, watch another quarter of the movie, fall asleep, write a blog, read the newspaper, watch the rest of my movie, play a game on my phone; all the while bouncing my legs and coughing. I really struggle to stay on task. It’s bloody mentally exhausting and the same thing happens at home.

Over the years I’ve got in a few scuffles with guys at training or disagreed with people in meetings. I guess at the time of confrontation I can come across as uncaring, insincere or just as an arsehole. I assure you the persona displayed at the time is totally different to the one behind closed doors. I’ve spent so much time worrying about incidents as small as disagreeing about something with someone in a team meeting, to big things like almost coming to blows with Jamie Dwyer at a training session in 2012. I still worry about these incidents today. I can remember nearly every small disagreement /push and shove/spray I’ve handed out. I guess one answer to this issue is to control myself more on the field. But I am a physical, aggressive and uncompromising player. It’s part of the reason I’ve managed to have such a successful career to date. The other answer is to find peace in who I am and what I stand for on the field. That’s proving difficult as well as many of these characteristics don’t extend to my off-field behaviour. I just really care. To the point that I constantly beat myself up time and time again for altercations I’ve had around hockey.

Another example is mealtime as a group on tour. Sometimes when a player sits down at a table with me, but doesn’t sit in the seat next to me, I feel as if I’ve done something wrong. I know they probably haven’t even thought about the exact seat they sit in, but I have. This doesn’t mean I want guys to jump in next to me all the time (I do crave the attention though). It’s more about me learning to understand exactly what’s happening and then being able to master the ability to put things like this in their rightful place. I need to learn learn how to deal with being on my own every now and then. This example is ridiculous, even to me. And I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a real concern for me.

taking part in the anti-domestic violence campaign Red My Lips. Photograph by Kira Carlin.
Simon taking part in the anti-domestic violence campaign Red My Lips. Photograph by Kira Carlin.

I guess the next two examples are probably the worst for me. If I can’t get in contact with a few certain people in my life for whatever reason, I start to panic. Not all the time, but sometimes. If I call someone and they don’t answer, I think that they are either hurt, in trouble, or maybe even worse. This can lead to a severely overwhelming sense of anxiety and worry. One that can’t be fixed until I see their name pop up on my phone again. So I’m not a stalker who calls 32 times over a space of 10 minutes (slight over exaggeration here), I just want to make sure you’re OK. I am getting better at this though and it’s just about rationalising each situation. It’s about asking myself what are the chances that they have been kidnapped in broad daylight by a raving, murderous lunatic? Low.

Another example, which popped up during World League, was one that worried me more than most. For whatever reason I remember looking out the hotel window at our balcony/ladder one day and thinking “What would happen if I jumped off that?” Now to anyone reading this, I can guarantee you it wasn’t a suicidal thing. I didn’t ever want to jump. 100%. But the fact the thought entered my head, the head of a noted anxiety sufferer, set me into a real tailspin. I haven’t thought about it since and am comfortable talking about it now. But it scared the shit out of me. I spoke with our team psych Catherine at length, and thankfully she was fantastic in her ability to calm me down and reconfirm that everything was OK. But this happened in the middle of the biggest event of the year, the World League event in Belgium. Pretty daunting.

I guess I just let things get to me. I over react to varying situations and am pretty emotional. I’m sensitive and take things personally. I’m a worrier and a “what-if” thinker. I worry excessively, about all kinds of things. The hard part is I also really like having fun, don’t like missing out on things, love communicating and engaging with people, being adventurous and having a good time. It’s a real yin and yang kind of thing. And it wears me out.

Sometimes I find it difficult to sleep and often feel tired and fatigued as the anxiety creeps into my dreams as well. Of a recent sleep study done on several of the Kookaburras by our sports physiologist during the World League event, my total sleep hours per night were just above 8, not too bad really. But only 6 of those were deemed efficient sleep hours, mostly because I toss and turn constantly. The rest of the guys tested averaged around 7.5 hours of efficient sleep a night. Maybe twice a week I wake up in a panic. I’ve woken up to roommates asking if I was OK? I’ve ended up on top of dining room tables trying to escape creatures in my bed. I’ve been up swinging pillows at imaginary intruders. Swinging hard as well; smashing lights and knocking photos over. It’s pretty scary.

I have irrational fears and often display signs of perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Probably part of the reason I am always playing with my hair, walking around cracks in the road or incessantly washing my hands. My body also produces a lot of weird feelings. Strange or out of the ordinary feelings that so far, has always proven to not be life threatening. For me, the common ones are tingling hands, night sweats, a tight chest or blurred vision. I guess to most people, these things are just a passing curiosity. To me, they are always causes for concern. Am I sick? Is it life threatening? Is it cancer? These are usually the first three questions that pop into my mind. The fear can become overwhelming. Just the thought of the symptoms can produce the symptoms themselves!

It feels like sometimes there is no real escape from it. And I guess the hardest part for me is the effect it’s having on the rest of my life. I’m pretty open and honest about a lot of things in my life, but I have struggled to have this conversation with many people. Partly because I ignored it, partly because I don’t want to burden others with my problems and partly because when I’m with people and actively keeping busy or enjoying myself, I feel pretty good.

You always hear stories about people who suffer from mental illness being the ones you wouldn’t assume battled with it, or wouldn’t think twice about it. This is no badge of honour, but I think I’m one of those. Without a doubt some of the guys have probably picked up on things over the years and they would make sense now. But they were probably largely unaware of the damage it was causing behind closed doors.

Image provided by Author.
Image supplied.

They say 1 in 4 people suffer from anxiety and don’t know about it. That’s a hell of a lot of people. And the thing that disappoints me most is that there is still a stigma attached to mental health somehow. I want to help raise awareness and encourage mental health sufferers to seek out assistance and support. I want them to realise that we aren’t alone. But I also want them to acknowledge that the path to sound mental health often begins with self-leadership. Recognising it for what it is and putting things in place to work on it everyday. Instead of hiding it away, confront it head on. There are times in life where things might become a bit too much and a line suddenly appears. What happens next is up to you; do you cross it and deal with it? Or stay on the other side of the line and slowly disintegrate. And at times you might not be able to stop the waves coming in, but you can sure as hell learn how to surf!

If you are struggling with any form of mental illness and feel like you need a hand, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Or you can visit the great sites below:

Black Dog Institute

Beyond Blue

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