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Gen Y – the anxiety generation

There are periods in life that are unavoidable, expected and yet still manage to knock you off your feet when they come your way. For many students, it’s that moment when the stress seems so overwhelming you begin to find those brash university pamphlets on mental health a fairly accurate description of your current state of mind.

For me, it hit last year. After a hectic three years of studying, working, moving cities and writing my thesis, I began to unravel. I ticked all the boxes. Chest pains, heart palpitations and endless crying became daily fixtures in the increasingly emotional rollercoaster that was my anxiety-ridden life. So, on orders from my mother, I went to the doctor. When checking my heart, she heard an additional sound and immediately sent me off for an echocardiogram, noting with a weary irony that it was likely the murmur was due to me being stressed about seeing her about my stress.

The self-perpetuating circularity of my condition highlighted in that brief exchange seemed only to deepen my guilt for my current situation. The maxim of self-interestedness proclaimed by Jeremy Bentham and taken up by cynics and hard-nosed atheists is proven false (or at least shallow) by mental illness. When the self collapses into warfare, body against mind (and common sense), the notion that humans will instinctively seek their own happiness and welfare, above all else and in all situations, is flipped. Instead, you damage yourself, testing boundaries, giving into despair and often taking a grim pleasure and sense of achievement in teasing off scabs from old scars, watching the different shape the patchy healing takes this time round with the dispassionate gaze of a wearied clinician.

* * *

‘Which university are you going to?’.

The cardiologist attempted the banal conversation only to be found in those situations of sustained but casual interaction like hairdressing salons and exercise groups. The oddity of this type of conversation is in the disparity between the informality and anonymity of the relationship and the intimacy of the activity at hand. Strangers stroke our heads and necks or see us sweating profusely in grey track pants with holes or shorts with unshaven legs and we accept it as a necessary concession if we want to take part in activities our immediate circle of close friends and family cannot provide.

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound used to detect irregularities of the heart. Along with the usual accoutrement of tape, electronic nodes, metal rod and gel – the clinician’s arsenal inseparable from that of the sadomasochist’s – is the machine where a shadowy picture of the heart appears. Perhaps most disturbing is the audio element that allows you to hear the flow of blood through the heart, an epic whooshing sound seemingly too erratic to denote its monotonous activity.

The whole process is surprisingly intimate (for a woman at least). On entering the room, the sonographer leaves, you strip off your upper half and are given a replacement shirt to remain unbuttoned. The difficulty of maneuvering your way onto the hospital bed while clenching the shirt closed inevitably means that you give him a preview of what is to come, making the prior gesture to modesty while disrobing unnecessary. Most strange is the positioning of your bodies. While you recline on your side, he sits on a chair facing you next to the bed. With your back to him (the shirt superfluous by now), his arm slips over your body to run the phallic rod across your chest. He pokes and prods, surveying the heart from every angle, a primitive explorer peeking a torch through your ribs.

‘University of Queensland,’ I answered. ‘Graduate entry.’
‘Good. I’m a UQ boy myself.’
‘I actually got into the Melbourne University Juris Doctor program but I couldn’t face moving for the fourth time in three years,’ I clarified, for some reason needing to defend my choice to a person who most likely wasn’t up to date with the latest QC and Times university rankings (as I was).
‘That’s understandable. What was your undergrad in?’
‘English Literature.’
‘Well, that’s going to get you a lot of work,’ came the expected reply.

Rather than launching a fierce defence of the Humanities and their place in modern society, I did what would have been unthinkable several years ago. I laughed. Twenty failed job applications post-graduation had given me the right to drop the superior air anyone in the Humanities must don as protection from the daily attacks to their legitimacy in a world ruled by money, machines and the 24 hour news cycle.

‘Exactly, hence why I’m going back to get a trade.’
The sonographer rolled me onto my other side.
‘Well, at least you’re now a gifted conversationalist.’
‘The thing is, I’m sure that I’ll enjoy the course, it’s just that I’m not enjoying the thought of being surrounded by arrogant, private school educated 18 year old boys.’
He laughed. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be able to charm them without any worries,’ he said, prodding my breast as if to convince me of the fact, before closing my shirt.
‘Nothing to worry about. Just a flow murmur due to the amount of blood being pumped through your heart. They’re very common in young people as your hearts can be overly vigorous.’

Vigorous? What I was feeling was the result of excess amounts of ‘vigor’? That strange quality usually attributed to spry old men in Victorian novels? Is it even possible to have an excess of good health and strength? The insidiousness of my mental anxieties being masked as youthful energy almost made me laugh. And yet, the feverish energy of my high-achieving generation must come from somewhere.

Various mental health surveys rank 16-24 year old Australians as having one of the highest rates of mental illness and psychological distress (around 20%), with women reporting higher levels of psychological distress than men. It would be interesting to know whether this 20% is the same group running start up companies, working three jobs to afford Sydney rental rates or doing their PhDs. I suspect a large portion overlaps.

If the level of ‘achievement’ our generation often expects to attain so early in life comes hand-in-hand with extreme anxiety, then, given the year I just had, I think it’s time we rework our notion of success.

By Rebekah Oldfield

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