I awoke in the middle of a fish bowl. Well, it wasn’t really a fish bowl, but it checked all the same boxes: I was on display, people were staring, I felt alone, afloat. In reality, I was lying on the cold, polished floor of Toronto’s busiest department store. Along with the designer fragrances, expensive cosmetics, and products marketed to improve our flaws and makes us feel better about ourselves, I was the unexpected Saturday morning floor show.
I didn’t feel better about myself. I felt mortified. My mother and sister, along with the stunned makeup consultant, hovered overhead, concern crinkling across their foreheads. Just moments before, I was sitting pretty in a director’s chair mid-makeup consultation. What went wrong? How did I get here—sprawled out by everyone’s feet? Blame my old foe: panic attacks.
Fainting was new to me. Up to that point in my life—my mid-twenties—I had never fainted before, and thankfully, I haven’t fainted since. But the mental fog of impending doom, the sensation of my throat closing in, struggling for breaths, the sweats, pounding heartbeat, pins and needles in my hands, and wave upon wave of stomach cramps are as familiar to me as the silver bracelet I wear on my left wrist. Like that piece of jewelry, they’ve been with me since I was a child. They’ve grown up with me, travelled the world with me, and while they’ve taken a sabbatical from my life now and then, they’ve never completely left me.
When I decided to write my debut novel, London Belongs to Me, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to gift Alex Sinclair, my female protagonist, with anxiety and panic to see how she fared. I had walked the walk for many years, so why not put it to good use? Write what you know, right? And anxiety is made for drama. The constant fear hanging overhead, the unknown waiting to swoop down and torture your main character—perfect.
So, I wrote panic attacks into my story and took Alex’s discomfort even further when I wrote the London Belongs to Me sequel, London, Can You Wait?, which was published this fall. In my second book, her anxiety steps up to a whole new embarrassing level.
With Alex, I hoped that sharing her experiences with anxiety and panic would perhaps help people understand mine. I hid my truth for years and years, only telling as many people as I could count on one hand. But eventually I got tired—tired of hiding, tired of pretending, tired of lying. Writing my novels gifted me the opportunity to spin some of my own trials and tribulations with anxiety into Alex’s tale. My greatest hope?
Her journey with mental illness would help inform and enlighten people who weren’t familiar with these disorders, and if I was lucky, it would show fellow sufferers that they weren’t alone. And in many ways my books have done their job. I have heard from many people with anxiety, telling me they could relate to Alex and felt inspired by her journey and its ups and downs, triumphs and embarrassments. But I also heard Alex was being branded weak, a pushover, even spineless.
You see, it was my own fear of being labelled weird, weak—mental—that held me back for years from telling friends, family, and co-workers—even my doctor—that yes, I’m an anxiety sufferer. This is why I have a particular hate-on when I hear people labelling fictional characters with anxiety weak.
When you have anxiety, your strength ebbs and flows. Some days when things are going well and you’ve been panic- and anxiety-free, you can tackle the world. Life is great! You feel normal, unbeatable. But then there are the other days when your palms start to perspire, breaths become fast and shallow, and the room begins to swing. Sometimes you don’t know why you feel unsettled, or why your body is rebelling in such a violent manner.
Making decisions at work or in your personal life like participating in an office presentation, or having a serious discussion with a friend or partner—decisions that might be easy for someone without anxiety—are nearly impossible. You just want to hide, hold on, and hope that you don’t die. The narrowing throat, the fear that wraps itself around you so tight you can’t budge—that’s real. It’s not weakness. If anything, anxiety sufferers have to be stronger and braver than most people not only to get through an attack, but to get through their day. And I bet most of them (like me), don’t let on to a soul that anything is wrong.
So, let’s go back to that fainting spell in the middle of makeup heaven. In a sense, that belly flop was my first public declaration, my confession about my little secret. There was no hiding from it, not anymore. At the time, I was embarrassed beyond belief, wishing the floor would swallow up my prone body in one quick gulp. But now years later, I’m fine with it. I own it. And by exhibiting Alex’s anxiety and panic attacks in my books, I’m making my second public declaration on a much larger scale.
Since that cringe-worthy day on the floor, I’ve brushed myself off, carried on. Because we have to, we have to keep on going, and you see, that’s what panic attack and anxiety sufferers are really good at—carrying on. Maybe we falter with the ‘Keep Calm’ part of that British inspirational poster, but we have perfected the ‘Carry On’ bit.
I’ve decided—thanks in huge part to my books—that I won’t let anxiety, panic, or a fainting spell in a very public place push me back into that box—the silent, humiliated and shameful place that I didn’t ask to occupy and I always wanted to escape. I am strong, I’m brave, and I have proved that I’m not weak or spineless or mental. I proved it just like so many of my fellow anxiety sufferers have done time and time again. We rock. We’re braver than you think. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But it still took me many more years of attacks, and the writing of Alex’s story to go public and seek professional help this year for my own life-long anxiety. You see, by giving Alex a voice, I found mine.
Not everyone is as lucky as me, though. In an age when we’re trying to encourage people with mental health challenges to feel comfortable in their own skin and seek help, comments like ‘weak’, and ‘pushover’ don’t help the cause.
The good news is, anxiety sufferers like myself are resilient. We’re fighters. And as time marches on, more of our stories of strength, of bravery are being shared and celebrated, as they should be. I hope London Belongs to Me and London, Can You Wait? help continue this important conversation and maybe inspire others to share their voice, too.
Jacquelyn Middleton is an award-winning freelance writer with articles published by several of the most popular magazines, newspapers, and websites in North America including Canadian Living, Best Health, National Geographic Travel, the Toronto Star, Reader’s Digest, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, and Flare. She previously worked in television broadcasting, and lives in Toronto. When she’s not writing, you can find her hanging out in London, waiting in a comic con line with her husband, or chasing after her bossy Schipperke. Her debut novel London Belongs To Me was released in 2016 and her second novel London, Can You Wait? was released October 26, 2017.
About LONDON, CAN YOU WAIT?
Alex loves Mark. Mark loves Alex. But is love enough?