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  • Nikky Lee

Anxiety and magic: the story behind THE RARKYN'S FAMILIAR

Black and white image of a face but blurred as if they've moved while the photo is being taken.

Anxiety and PTSD has a part to play in The Rarkyn’s Familiar as protagonist Lyss battles to stay in control of her own demons. Anxiety, in particular, is something quite close to me. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had periodic bouts of sleepless nights, panic attacks and lingering worries that gnaw on the edge of my mind for months at a time.

It started with a small, seemingly insignificant incident at work towards the end of 2010. I was working part-time in a retail point of sales (AKA as a checkout chick). It was nearing the end of my shift and I was midway through serving a customer when I experienced a moment’s lightheadedness and vertigo. Perhaps I hadn’t eaten or drunk enough that day, maybe I had an asymptomatic cold. I don’t know. What I do know is my vision dimmed and I had to grab the counter to keep myself standing. I remember asking a colleague to finish serving the customer. And that was it. Within two minutes, it was over.

That was weird, I thought. I hope it doesn’t happen again. I finished my shift and didn’t think any more of it.

Or so I thought.

Unfortunately, some part of my brain latched onto that “I hope it doesn’t happen again”. I started worrying. Was something wrong with me? People didn’t almost faint for no reason, did they? Perhaps it was serious? Perhaps I had a brain tumour—I’m not exaggerating when I say this, my mind jumped straight to the worst-case scenario. As much as I tried to rationalise it away, my grey matter wouldn’t let go.

A bout of genuine overnight vertigo a couple of weeks later sealed the deal. I remember lying awake at 3 am terrified to close my eyes. My head would spin; my heart raced. I was convinced something was really, horribly wrong. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. After that, anxiety weaselled in and took up prime real estate in my brain.

My worry fixated around driving. The idea that I might have a dizzy spell or blackout behind the wheel terrified the socks off me. Which only resulted in a panic attack while driving. It started with a thought as simple as is it getting a little difficult to breathe? to holy shit, am I having heart palpitations?! A heart attack?! (I was born with a mild heart murmur, so this didn’t seem so far fetched).

I shook off the first one. But then it happened again while I lay awake at night fretting.

I went to the doctors, they ran an ECG. All normal. That should have been the end of it, right?

Yeah no.

More hyperventilating, more pin-holing vision and adrenalin setting my heart racing and turning my palms cold and sweaty.

I ended up Googling the symptoms. Something along the lines of: “shortness of breath, heart palpitations, ECG clean” and discovered what panic attacks were.

Logically, knowing should have helped, but it didn’t. The worry just shifted. I wasn’t dying of a brain tumour or heart attack, but having a panic attack while driving was a reality. Hyperventilating myself into a blackout felt like a real possibility. I’d have panic attacks about having panic attacks. It was a vicious circle.

Slowly, I found ways to manage it. I’d exercise myself ragged so I’d sleep (though sometimes that didn’t always work). When I felt the icy stab of panic creep in when driving, I’d turn on a song I knew the lyrics to, turn up the volume to mask my horribly off-key singing and let loose. I’d hyperfocus on various things; the texture of the steering wheel in my hands or counting the second between me and the car in front passing an object on the side of the road.

Slowly, I got it under control. Mostly. I went from having panic attacks several times a week to going weeks in between bouts, then months. That took time to learn. I had to learn to recognise it for what it was—just another panic attack, you’re fine—and be confident enough in my ability to work through it.

Around this time I happened to get talking with a flatmate about anxiety. Until then, I hadn’t known she’d had similar experiences. But she said something that has stuck with me ever since:

“I tell it, ‘I see you’.”

She wagged her finger as she said it, giving a stern warning to the invisible foe. “I see you, I know you’re there. I see what you’re trying to do.”

Those words—especially “I see you”—profoundly resonated with me. In a way, it was something that I’d already been working towards. I knew I had anxiety, but my entire focus had been on managing it; to make it go away. It was something new and strange and scary; it was invading my identity. Until those words, I hadn’t really accepted that my anxiety was part of me, as much as my heel-bunions and crooked eyebrows. A flaw it may be, but it is me and I had to learn to live with it. It was a subtle mental shift that’s hard to put into words.

Which is probably why it ended up in the book as I’ve tried to find words to express that shift. I wanted Lyss to have an “I see you” moment with her magic and the monster inside her. A moment of acceptance that this is who she is now.

Today, panic attacks are a rare thing for me. I haven’t had a major one in several years (touch wood) and I’m quick to recognise one for what it is when it comes along. I’ve learned to self-talk. To look it in the eye and say “And what do you think you’re doing?”. I’m not sure if this is the proper way of managing it, or if there is such a thing as a proper way as I never thought to seek help when it was particularly bad (if only I knew what I know now!).

To reiterate, I haven’t beaten anxiety. And my experience of it is mild. But even mild has left its mark. Covid-19 has shown me that it can still snatch the reins from time to time—and in ways, I don’t expect. The first few weeks of our first lockdown I was constantly exhausted, despite sleeping more. I was restless; like a spring wound too tight. I had stress headaches, then stress headaches about getting stress headaches (yes, really).

More recently, I've discovered how chronic stress can creep up on you, trigger anxiety and make a nasty concoction of headaches and digestive issues. What really stung about this last instance was I believed I had this part of myself under control, until it wasn’t.

Anxiety can be a monster. It can take me time to peel its grip off the steering wheel and stick it back into the passenger seat. But in whatever the case, I believe it’s better the monster I know than the one I don’t.


The Rarkyn's Familiar releases on 19 April 2022! Order your copy here.

The Rarkyn's Familiar banner - available from 19 April 2022.

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