Surviving anxiety and panic disorder, sexual abuse and rape

Social Anxiety by Niicole Sarah_


Prahan, Victoria

Madison left home at 16, running from the death of her mother, sexual abuse and a disengaged father. She lives with anxiety and panic disorder, and has had two breakdowns. Now 31, Madison resides in Melbourne. She is a writer and shares her experiences under her pseudonym.


I have been in Melbourne for four years. I moved here after I recovered from my second breakdown. I chose Melbourne because my brother is here.

I have felt well since I moved, but I do look back. I kept everything I wrote, and I find it both refreshing and devastating to revisit my old mental state. My experiences have left me with an overwhelming desire to write. Prose is the medium I choose to illustrate my struggles and the strength it has taken to survive.

I don’t want to be painted as a victim. I want to let people know you can live through trauma, abuse, loss, instability, breakdowns and mental illness without ending up the stereotype: addicted to drugs or alcohol, or a nuisance to society.


My downfall started early

Growing up was a nightmare. I had no sense of self and no family foundation.

My father violently abused my mother. My memories start from around the age of 8. The abuse didn’t last for long, as my parents separated quickly. My mother took my younger brother and I. We moved around quite a bit, until she found a job.

She met a male, and we soon moved in with him. He sexually abused me until I was 11. My distaste for my mother was strong through those years, and I still blame her for exposing me to that abuse.

Because of him, I never wanted to be at home. I was always looking for an out, and I would use any excuse to stay away. I spent a lot of time at my neighbour’s Lynda’s house. She welcomed me into her family, and they are still a huge part of my life. I stayed in school and received great marks. I also used ballet and dance as an escape from what happened at home.

My mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She left my abuser as soon as she fell ill. His disappearance was great for me, but the good times did not last. My mother went through cancer treatment and a hysterectomy, but it didn’t help. She died when I was 12.

I never told my mother what had happened to me, and I still blame her for dying before I was ready to tell her what happened.

My brother and I moved to dad’s. My father has never been violent towards me, but I still didn’t want to be near him. I was mourning the loss of my mother, feeling confused about my sadness and my anger towards her, and I couldn’t forgive him for the way he had treated her. My feelings were complex and conflicting. I felt a lack of emotional support. Perhaps he did his best, but it wasn’t enough.


School, anxiety, panic and rape

I lived between Dad’s and Lynda’s for four years. I felt I should be with my family. But I preferred being with Lynda, where I had a solid friendship group and lived with her family, which had become my own. She is a beautiful woman. Time and again, she has welcomed me into her home during the worst periods of my life.

I was headstrong, and my father was disengaged. And I was already suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, although I didn’t know what to call them at the time. My chest would tighten, my heart quicken, my muscles tense. Anxiety and panic attacks always pass: that is the beauty of them. They are a temporary state of mind, and my coping mechanism was to ride them out and continue on. I didn’t speak about them. I asked a GP once, but she told me I was too pretty to have such feelings, and I didn’t bring them up again.

One day I was smoking in the school toilets and the cleaner accidently locked me in. My anxiety was shocking. I took the experience badly. When the door was unlocked, I went straight to the school counsellor. I knew something was wrong – I had all the physical and emotional signs of a major panic attack – but she dismissed it. I walked out and never went back. I don’t remember anything else, the next days are blurry.

But I did not go back to school, and I did not finish Year 10.

Instead, I threw myself into the workforce. I was desperate for my own space. I found an office traineeship and worked as a waitress. At 16, I moved into a share house.

I was vulnerable, and some people took advantage.

One night, a chef at the restaurant where I worked at raped me. I don’t know if I was drugged or not. I do remember drinking alcohol. I didn’t tell anyone. It would have been good for me to tell someone, to have the validation of the crime being recognised. But I didn’t know how to, or even that I could.

And so I quit the job at the restaurant. I tried to run away from my problems, tried to leave them behind. I hadn’t been taught the coping skills required to deal with living life in general, let alone to deal with domestic violence, the loss of my mother, sexual abuse and rape.

Running away from my problems became a pattern, and I believe it contributed to my anxiety and panic disorder. When you don’t deal with negative emotions and experiences, they don’t go away. They boil inside you.

I was searching, but I didn’t know what for. I was young, naïve and vulnerable. I had more panic attacks – twice my heart rate was so fast and my body shaking so badly that I went to hospital and was hooked up to heart machines. A doctor in the emergency room discharged me once my heart rate decreased, telling me that it may have been a blood clot. The nurse who had wheeled me in to get a lung scan was impatient, stating that patients with collapsed lungs could take deeper breaths than I was.

But anxiety is physical and mental. I was not treated accordingly, and I became less inclined to try to address my anxiety and panic.


A series of breakdowns

Anxiety is horrible, although I am used to it. But when it reaches a certain level and panic kicks in, it becomes unmanageable. It destroys the normal order of life.

There have always been periods when my anxiety became too much to handle. During those times my coping strategy – work – would fall apart.

During a panic attack, I shake, my heart is in my mouth and my breathing becomes rapid and shallow. My muscles tense – so tense they feel like rocks. It is as if my mind wants to escape from my body so much it literally tries to run away. And the world becomes overwhelming. I stop functioning.

It is all consuming, the most frightening thing in life.

Normal relationships stall. Life fragments.

I was 20 when I had my first breakdown. Lynda offered to help, and I lived with her for a year. I spent my days doing puzzles, desperately trying to calm my mind and teach it patience and concentration. A metaphor, I suppose, as I tried to put my mind back together.

For the first time, I also sought external help. I saw a counsellor, a psychologist, and attended group therapy. I spoke about everything – my mother, my father, the sexual abuse, the rape. It was a defining experience for me. My experiences were acknowledged, and somehow validated.

I recovered and moved into my own space. I also enrolled in an online degree. But I could feel my mental state falling apart again. It was too much to ask Lynda to look after me again. To make completing my degree possible, I decided to move back in with my father. Moving in with my father wasn’t a good idea. My mental state rapidly spun out of my control. I reverted to my previous approach and tried to run away. But I had a breakdown, a huge one. I stopped working. I ran out of money.

Lynda suggested I move back in with her. I drove a total of 24 hours to get to her, and by the time I got there I was barely functioning. I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. This second breakdown wasn’t just mental. My body broke down too. It physically got me to Lynda, but then could go no further for several years.

I was 25, and it took years to recover. Those years were the most defining years of my life. I learnt what it felt like to be a shell of a human, mentally and physically exhausted to what felt like the precipice of death.

After spending six months as an agoraphobic (unable to leave Lynda’s house) I pushed myself to see a GP and met an incredible doctor I finally felt safe with. But over the next six months, Lynda’s life changed and I became too much for her to manage. I went back to my father’s house.

My father lived on an isolated property – not a great location for someone with anxiety. I didn’t want to be there, but I had nowhere else to go. I was on the verge of losing my mind, and I had suicidal ideation. I wasn’t planning to kill myself, but I found the thought of death comforting. It meant there was always another option.

One day I had such a severe panic attack I called 000. They picked me up in a shitty old ambulance and took me to a shitty old hospital in the middle of nowhere. I needed help, but they didn’t take me seriously. They checked my wrists and asked if I swallowed anything. My wrists were fine and I hadn’t swallowed anything, so they sent me home.

It happened again. This time they sent a psychiatrist to see me. He told me I had extremely high levels of anxiety and PTSD, and gave me a prescription. I threw the prescription in the bin on the way out. I had researched medication and found the majority of people who tried anti-depressants to treat anxiety felt it didn’t work for them. And I have always been opposed to putting foreign things into my body, so the idea that they wouldn’t work deterred me from trying them.


Supporting myself

I decided I had to get better just so I could get out of there. I worked closely with my GP and started taking medication: Xanax. It was different to the previous prescription, and it actually reduced the anxiety levels. The only deterrent I came across was that it was addictive. I knew myself well and was confident that I didn’t have the addictive tendencies. The GP monitored me closely with regular visits, fantastic communication and controlled the amounts of Xanax I was prescribed. After a few months I felt a positive change in my anxiety levels. I slowly started coming off of the medication.

I wrote ferociously during this time, and focused on completing my literature degree. I spent my days away from the house in the park with paper and a pen. It took almost a year of an isolated, stress free life, as well as regular visits to my psychologist, to ease my anxiety and panic disorder.

I was ready to support myself, and I decided to move to Melbourne. I have lived a relatively anxiety free life since then. But I will never be entirely rid of the illness, it is too engrained. Anxiety and panic disorder has taken parts of my life away from me, it has stalled my progression in life, affected my career, my ability to travel, and stolen my sense of freedom. It does work as a protector though, telling me when to slow down and to question what is triggering anxiety in me.

Anxiety and panic disorder is a complex and serious illness. I wish my father, or even someone at school or a health professional, had encouraged me to speak more about it in the earlier years. I am certain early treatment would have saved me from years of turbulence. If you live with anxiety and panic seek support that works for you, don’t let it manifest.