A Moncton writer confronts her 'anxiety monster'

For a woman who juggled demands of family and career for years, seemingly effortlessly, no one could have guessed that a teeny taste of butter would be Cathy Donaldson's tipping point.

"I was making this sandwich, used a bit of butter, tasted it and all of a sudden, I couldn't breathe," Donaldson said.

The Moncton journalist and freelance writer describes that incident in her new book, Caging the Anxiety Monster. 

The year was 2009.

It was a busy time in Donaldson's life.

A full-time job and full-time demands on her as wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law.

Those demands were taking a toll.  

"I felt like the joy was zapped out of my life," she said in an interview on Information Morning Moncton this week. "I wasn't my happy, perky self."

She wasn't suicidal, "but I couldn't function, couldn't get out of bed anymore," she said. "It was very scary."

Still, it had been years since she had a panic attack.

So when that taste of butter took her breath away, she thought it was a physical reaction.

"I thought I was having a heart attack."  

First responders had a different diagnosis: a panic attack. 

The incident triggered daily attacks and more than one trip to the emergency room.

​Donaldson recalled a night of "horrible panic attacks and vomiting ... I was at my darkest."

Her husband and mother took her back to the hospital and after being seen by a psychiatrist, Donaldson was admitted to the psychiatric ward.

"It was a gift. I was there for two weeks. I was able to access the help that I needed, I was able to get my medications straightened out."

But it was a tough admission to make, she said.

"It was hard to tell friends, 'Yes, I'm calling you from the psych ward.' But I needed to be there, it was a safe place."

Her memoir takes readers through her stay at the hospital, and her journey afterward of learning to live with her anxiety monster.

Looked to others for help

Finding the right treatment helped.

So did reading. And she read everything she could get her hands on.

Helpful words came from a book called Feeling Good, by David Burns. A section about "emotional perfectionism" really hit home.

"I saw those perfectionist tendencies," Donaldson said. "And I guess I didn't like that anxiety made me feel out of control."

It was an eye-opener to keeping that anxiety monster at bay.

Burns talks about "daring to be average," Donaldson said. "And I thought, 'Gee, maybe I need to be more average. And it sounds funny but apparently, the research says that learning to be average and learning to be not so perfect can actually reduce your anxiety."

Donaldson initially wanted to write about her experiences for her daughters, to share with them tools she's used to "keep my mind in good shape."

Writing was painful

Friends and family urged her to share her story more widely. But she was reluctant.

"I guess I've always been a pretty positive person and I have managed to juggle a lot. Writing the book for me was hard because it was saying, you know, admitting, yes, I have mental health issues and I'm not Superwoman. And I think for some of us, that's a really hard thing to admit and I wondered if I was going to be seen as a weakling."

The writing brought back painful memories.

"Panic attacks ... just the thought of writing about them and the physical process of writing it down, I started getting little dribs and drabs of dark feelings coming back, so that wasn't necessarily an easy thing."

She found the courage she needed to get through those final chapters after she heard an interview with a well-known Canadian athlete, Clara Hughes, who has spoken openly and written about her own struggles with mental health.

"That was the kick I needed to finish it and get it out there and be part of the conversation," Donaldson said.

The cover of the book says it all.

It's a cartoon of a monster in a cage.

Outside the cage

The image appears again at the end of the book, this time with Donaldson standing outside the cage, hands on her hips, holding the key.

"I wanted the sense that I had him caged … and I wanted to have me outside showing, you know what? We can overcome, we can get over our anxiety monsters, we can figure out tools, figure out ways to get back on track and have resilience and build our mental health and treat mental health just as we would physical health." 

Donaldson said she's touched by the feedback she's getting from readers, "who said they could relate to my story and that it made them feel less alone."

"Don't give up," Donaldson advised. "Ask for help and keep asking until you find what works for you."