4. How panic attacks, anxiety & ‘sucking it up’ led Whitney to find balance – Transcription

In this episode, I chat to Whitney about her childhood as the eldest daughter, the pressure she felt to achieve in high school and her experience with panic attacks and anxiety at work. Whitney shares how she slowly overcame these expectations and quit her job in search of balance in her life.

Today I’ve got someone special joining me, our first official guest on the show. Welcome to Whitney.

Hi, thank you for having me. It’s great to have you here.

Now, we went to high school together, and since graduating over ten years ago, we hadn’t reconnected until now.

What’s your background and what language or languages do you speak? Yes, my background is Chinese-Vietnamese, and I can hardly speak either, so English is the main language we speak at home. I can speak a little bit of Teo Chew and Cantonese. Teo Chew is like a smaller dialect of Chinese. I can hold a very simple conversation, but that’s it. Well, once my mum started getting better at English and started working, it wasn’t really a language we spoke at home anymore. She says it’s terrible, but she’s actually very good.

So you’re Vietnamese and Chinese as well? I’m also Vietnamese and Chinese, but more on the Vietnamese side. It’s interesting how that kind of came about, and I’m not specialist in the history of the countries and all that, but there are a lot of people who have one parent from either or parents or born in Vietnam and moved to China, or vice versa.

Yes. So my mum is completely Chinese, and they immigrated to Cambodia during the war and everything. From my understanding, my dad’s side is Vietnamese, but they do have Chinese roots and a lot of my aunties and uncles and even my dad could speak Chinese. To a certain degree, I would say I’m more Chinese than I am Vietnamese. I think. Who knows?

Raymond did the 23 And Me. I got it for him, and it wasn’t a shock at all. It was like 99.9% Southeast Asian. That’s the thing. And I think with a lot of those tests, they are very Eurocentric, so there’s not a lot of nuances that can be found for East Asian, Southeast Asian side. So I’ve always wanted to do one of those tests, but felt that they’re not quite there for people like us to spend that money just yet. Yeah, it’s been a cool thing, but I think they might have better data now. Surely, by now, right?

So now we’ve talked about your background. Let’s go into your life a bit more. So tell our listeners, and I guess I’m curious as well about some of those pivotal moments in your life and the cultural pressures that you faced.

So I think growing up, it’s always been about respecting your elders. And I’ve had parents who’ve been through the war, and the biggest thing that I remember growing up was studying hard. Studying hard, doing well at school, that was something that they didn’t have the opportunity to be able to do.

Coming here, not being able to speak the language, that is obviously a barrier in itself. And being born here, you don’t have that problem. So that was a big thing growing up and academics, getting to uni, getting a good job, that was big across the whole family. Not just like me, aunties, uncles, cousins, that was like the same thing we had growing up. So, yeah, I would say that was like the main cultural expectations that we had, I would say. Going to school and university, making sure you got the best grades, you’re in the top class or whatever, and tutoring on top of that. I don’t know if you did that, but I definitely did.

Yeah. I probably didn’t do it as much or as far as many years as a lot of people do in our school. Just giving you a bit of context. I know from our other episodes I’ve mentioned that we went to school in a mainly Asian predominant community, and so academics was a huge focus. And tutoring, like, a lot of people went tutoring.

Yeah. Sports wasn’t a big thing. Like, I think it was very rare. I remember, like, a handful of people at our school whose parents focus on the sporting side. It was always, like, academics, like, being good at maths, English, science, whatever.

We started at the top class. How did you respond to that? How do your parents feel about that? Well, it was an achievement. It was like something to be proud of, and I was proud of myself and being able to do that, and I think I didn’t know any better as well. So it was just like, this is what I’m focused on doing, this is my goal, I’m going to try and achieve it. And that was it. So I don’t think the pressure of all of that really changed all my mindset around that change. Probably not until I was at uni, I would say, because I had a bit more free rein by then, and it’s like, Oh, you’ve already gone to uni, so that’s the hard part done, you know what I mean? And there’s not as much scrutiny because a lot of it is self learning.

During those early high school years, it was just like, Oh, my gosh, I got into this top class. This is fantastic. Yes. I don’t know if my parents knew about that, but I was definitely part of that. Yeah, it was like an achievement.

I’m just wondering, with your brother, you’re the eldest, right? Yes. So with him, did he face those same pressures for studies. Yeah, I would say so. I couldn’t personally comment on his thoughts on all of that and having a sister who was achieving, because I’m sure he might have had personal feelings about it or whatever, but there was definitely a bit of that on him as well. For sure.

These are things that we don’t normally talk about. No, it’s kind of like, we all know about it, it’s there, but it’s the norm, we don’t need to talk about it. Exactly. It’s just a mutual understanding. I mean, it’s something I do want to talk to him about because I try to be conscious of the fact that I didn’t want him to feel like any lesser because he had strengths and weaknesses and I have my own strengths and weaknesses and there were things he was good at that I wasn’t vice versa. So I hope I did a good job of that, being conscious and not making him personally feel some kind of way, but who knows?

So you mentioned about in uni and that you released some of those pressures that you put on yourself. How did that come about? What kind of pressure did you feel and how did you let go of them? Yeah, I think it was just burnout, because if you remember, I did my year twelve English HSC in year 11th, so we did a year early, so I already was prepping in year ten. Oh, wait, no, ten and year eleven, and then did the rest of my… I always looked at that class, I was like, Wow, you guys are like… honestly, it wasn’t that big of a deal if you think about it, because it was just doing it earlier. Looking back at it now, I understand why, but being away from it for so many years, it wasn’t really that big of a deal. Like, all you did was do one subject a year earlier, we were still learning the same things, but at the same time, as a person who wasn’t part of that, I was like, Oh, these people are mentally ready now to do it. Like, finish that course that people normally do at, like 17 years old.

Yeah. No, that’s fair. I think it was definitely burnt out. Like, I had focused so much time and energy on making sure that I did well in that one subject because there was no excuse not to, like that was the only one you’re preparing for versus like five other subjects as well. And then having gone through the HSC in a sense, like gotten a taste of it and then having to do that again full on in year twelve was just a lot and I was very much overstudy by the time you had come around. And also the realisation that there are a lot of other people who are way smarter than you are, when for the longest you felt like you were the top of your grade in your school and that’s a very small and insular world. And then going outside and realised, okay, yes, I am smart, but there are a lot of people who are way smarter than me. And it felt like what was I competing against now? You know what I mean? We weren’t competing for number one, number two, number three.

And I think I was very over studying at that point. And this phrase that went around was P’s get degrees. Which is true, like you don’t have to have a HD or an addiction to get your degree. As long as you’re doing relatively okay, you will have a degree at the end of the day. Not that I completely slacked off, but I think that same drive or motivation definitely wasn’t there when I went to university.

So you said overstudying twice, but the first time were you over studying? Like you didn’t want to study anymore or did you mean you were studying a lot? Yeah, I think I was just sick of studying a lot and having that pressure. And once that pressure was gone, because again, that ranking system wasn’t really there, and my mum was pretty much very relaxed by that point. You’ve gotten to uni, you’re doing fine. That’s the whole point. Right? All your schooling to get into uni. Once you’re in there, it’s like, yeah, do whatever you want. So I think it was just being graded and judged. Maybe that’s not the right word, but critiqued in that sense, I was very much over it and yeah, that drive, that same intrinsic feeling that you had when you were younger to get that wasn’t the same anymore. So yeah, I would say that’s why I was overstudying at that point.

Yeah, I can imagine it’s hard for you because for English that is not your strongest suit because you didn’t grow up speaking purely English. Yeah, because I remember when I was in year, I think I did advanced English in year eleven and then in year twelve, I dropped down to standard and the reason for that was because I was kind of questioning because English is not my strong suit. But also I asked my teachers and they were saying that yeah, if you compare yourself to people outside the school whose first language is English, it’s going to bring your marks down. Yeah. And so ever since then I was kind of like, yeah, English is not that easy for me. I can speak it, I can read, I can write, but my vocabulary, my ability to analyse things wasn’t as strong as other people.

Yeah, that’s fair. It was funny though, I was good at maths when I was younger, like early high school years and not as great in English and then it shifted in my senior years, like all of a sudden, like math, I was struggling to understand and it took me a lot longer than other people to wrap my head around it. Like I had to do a formula or whatever, like several times over to understand and then English became a lot easier for me because it wasn’t very black and white and I could argue, I could analyse, whatever and it was a funny shift in my brain. It hasn’t gone back ever since. My brain is not mathematically wired, but yeah, I thought it was really interesting that change. Who knows what happened.

Did your parents ever praise one over the other or all of them are important? All of it was important. I think the only thing that wasn’t really important would have been sports. And then eventually science, when it was very clear that that was not where I was inclined or where my interest lied, that eventually fell off as well.

Did you go tutoring for all your subjects? So I started in primary school years. It was like math and English and that was consistent up until the end and yeah, I had tutoring for English, I had tutoring for math in my year, twelve HSC, because I did music as well, so I played the piano. I went back to my old music tutor to help as well. So not every subject, but for them it was like math and English was like the main one and then music because I already had somebody that I had taught me for many years when I was younger.

Yeah, I know a lot of Asian people would play musical instruments. Was There an expectation for you to play or be musically inclined in some way? Yeah, it was more like that in the early days. I remember going to Chinese school, I remember yes, those days in Cabramatta or somewhere and then doing music and I think it was clear that I wasn’t enjoying doing both. And I have a very vague memory of my kindergarten teacher talking to me about which I preferred and I said I preferred music and that was the thing that I kept going until early high school. But when you’re preparing for exams and all of that stuff, there’s a lot of hours dedicated to that. So that eventually dropped off. I tried to pick it up again, but it was too hard to balance. But I always enjoyed music to a certain degree. I can still play not very well, but I can still read music. But it was my mum’s attempt to inject some music into family and maybe our kids would be musically fine. It’s a good way to entertain guests, isn’t it? It’s true. Do they ever, like, make us play for maybe might have happened maybe when you were younger. Now we just sit and chat. Exactly. Yeah.

So I think our backgrounds in schooling are quite similar in the way we had grown up and then the expectations placed on us. How did that translate into work? Yeah, I think it was very much the same in terms of wanting to achieve, wanting to do well, wanting to be the best. So let our listeners know what industry you went into. So I work in human resources and I’ve been in many different industries. It’s just kind of happened that way. So I started off in digital media advertising, went to retail, did some time in transport technology, professional services, and now I’m doing something completely different in government HR.

But, yeah, I remember being upset if I had made a mistake. And my financial director in the early days was like, it is okay to make a mistake, you’re such a high achiever. Like, it’s fine. And I didn’t really take on what he said at the time or really understand it. He’s like, I can tell you are very much like a high achiever at school. And not that he said in these ways, but what he was saying was, it has bled over into your working life and your expectations. And it wasn’t like, I massively screwed up and cost the business lots of money. It was never like that. But it felt like that? Yes. It felt like the end of the world and I had disappointed everybody and myself and what would people think? And I would be so upset. And he was like, It is fine. It is not the end of the world, it is okay. And I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and I was like, No, I’m not like that. Like, what are you on about? And now that I’ve had time and I’ve done some inward looking into myself, it’s terrible English. But anyway, I can understand where he was coming from now and can see that a lot better. It’s always looking back because you don’t see everything clearly until you’re like, wait, all these things happened for a reason.

And you’re so personally invested that you can’t step away and have a clearer head space about it. And when you’re in the moment, you don’t see it because you’re emotionally invested too. Absolutely, yeah. Everything someone’s saying could be the most reasonable thing, most rational thing. You’re like, no. So was that one of the biggest moments that when looking back, you’re like, Oh, okay.

I think it was one of the many little moments that led up to that. So another thing that had happened in another job was I was sick on and off for a couple of months. It was like different things, and I needed antibiotics off and on for six months, and that has longer term implications on my health now.

There was that, I would say, the biggest catalyst for me that kind of forced me to sit down and be with myself and figure out what was happening was when I had panic attacks last year. Yeah, it was definitely last year. Where I was heading to work on the train. We live out in the western suburbs so you live on a train half your life if you try to get anywhere. And I had moved out of home, so my commute was much shorter. I didn’t have to wake up this early, which is great. And I remember being on a train and having heart palpitations. I was getting very warm and it was like winter. A lot of people want to train. So I was thinking, Oh, I’m just feeling very stuffy. I could feel my hands get tingly and numb and I remember looking at the floor thinking, I’m going to pass out, I’m going to hit this stone cold, just like, gone. And I am not inclined to fainting or anything.

And I thought, Okay, look, I’m really close to work. I’m just going to wait about two, three more stops. Like, it’s fine. And I remember just feeling this massive sense of joy. I can’t do this. When I got off, and it was only until I physically left the station that I started to feel better. And that happens another two more times. Covid happened after, so there was no need to go back into the office. But that was when I really like, I was like, something’s not right for me to feel this way on a train, which I have spent, like I said, half my life on. I need to do something about it.

So how do you handle that in that moment? Because, like, being on a train, you can’t get off unless you’re at the stop and there are people all around you. Yeah, no, I was very lucky because I was at Redfern Station and the door was open and we were kind of just sitting there and it was a gradual build up of like three, four, five stops. And when the door had opened, I’m like, Okay, like, maybe I’ll just stay. And I was like, No, I have to get out. Like, something is not right. I have to get out. And I remember sitting on the platform and I felt like I had ran a marathon, like I was very out of breath and walked up the stairs, even though I was out of breath. I still could physically walk up two flights of stairs. And it was only until I was outside that my heart rate started to slow down, ease a little bit. It was the only thing I knew in that moment to do was just like, to get out of here because I’m feeling some type of way. And that happened. That was the same two more times. Second time I was going to see a friend, so I kind of just sucked it up, which is a terrible thing to do. And then the third time, I was going to work, and I managed to get to work, but I felt like I was going to throw up by the time I got to the office. So it’s just like I don’t feel good at all.

Let’s go back. The idea of sucking it up, get over it. I know, because I feel like sometimes when you’re going through something hard, especially when you don’t know it’s like a big problem. Like it’s just something small at the moment. And you’re like, Okay, yeah, just deal with it, get on with it. It’s just this little thing. We have the tendency to kind of push ourselves to make it to work, to just do this little thing, just go into work, and then we spend a few hours, that it’s. Okay. And then we don’t realise that it’s part of the bigger problem until it happens a few times. Yeah. If I look back at it, like, besides it getting scary with my friend, I shouldn’t have kept going into the city. I should have gone and off. I should have gotten out and gone home. I eventually did go home that day, but I did some work first before going home, which again, I wasn’t in the mental space or had the capacity to do that, but I felt that I had to do that. And again, not that anyone said that. My boss was when I told her I needed to go home and what had happened, she was very empathetic and understanding, but I felt that I had to do that, that there was an expectation someone was saying it, and that someone was something in my brain. It wasn’t somebody externally.

So when was it after that? When you started to do something about it? I want to say probably a couple of weeks after the third one because I was in denial for a little while. And I had spoken to a friend who had been to therapy for different reasons, and he was like, you should definitely go. I know somebody who’s really good. What was important for me was someone who had come from a background very similar to us and could understand the pressures and what it’s like growing up and everything. And I knew I didn’t want to take drugs or medicine. I was like, that is Plan Z, because it wasn’t impacting any other areas of my life except being on a train. So I was like, Surely there are other solutions before getting there. So, yeah, I went to see a psychologist, and I’d been to, like, counselling sessions before, EAP, and I think they’re great for surface things and being able to talk to somebody, but something a bit more deeper than not.

And when I was looking to say I was a bit annoyed when he had said this, but I understand where it was coming from, he was like, Oh, you’ve been to different counsellors and everything. You’re doing the same thing and nothing’s improving. I’m like, well, that’s all I knew. That’s the only service I knew that was available. I didn’t think anything was that bad to pursue someone who was more of a professional. And the EAP services were very much like, oh, well, she’s happy, she’s better now. She’s not crying, she’s free to go. And that’s, like, the limit of what they can do. So I was a bit annoyed when he had said that, but I get where he was coming from. Like, you were doing the same thing and nothing is changing. But I didn’t realise that I had anxiety, because that turned out to be an issue.

I didn’t realise I had anxiety, and that the way I was thinking was not generally typical for most people, and that it was even a problem that I had to deal with. So, yeah, that was kind of like the first realisation of what was happening, because what he said is, you have high functioning anxiety, so it manifests itself in a way where you’re, like, high achieving, you’re very motivated. Like, you get up and go about your day and do things while some people, it’s so crippling that they can’t get out of bed. That was never a problem I had. Or not a choice. Or an option, should I say? Yeah. So that was the start of doing a lot of work to sort myself out. I’m so glad that you have done something about it and it’s helping you now. Oh, yeah. The person I was a year and a half ago is definitely not the same person I am today. That’s what we do as humans. We grow and evolve.

But that sounds like you’re in a much better place now. Tell us what you’re doing now. Yes. At the time when we had reconnected, I had actually quit my job, which is something I would never have done in a million years. But I was just getting to the point where I was like, I don’t have to put up with this or suck it up. So I had quit and still have my side business of dried flowers called Maison Flower Bar, which is really amazing. And I love it because I get to channel that creative side of me, which I didn’t ever really know I had or had never had the opportunity to explore. I did some shifts at a florist for a friend, ran some workshops and everything. I have since obtained another full time job, but I am definitely in a better space in terms of this place now, have much better work life balance. And I’ve got this side business that I really enjoy doing and there’s no pressure, I guess, from me or anyone for it to be wildly successful, whatever. Like, it is what I want it to be at the end of the day. And I think that’s really nice. It is. And you have beautiful flowers.

And going back to the idea of quitting work, because that is a huge step considering your background and being similar to me, that you build up this life where everything led to work, where you want to have a good career, good pay, good salary and everything, and for you to just throw it out. Yeah. You made it seem so easy. But what led to that? What kind of things did you have to do to overcome to leave?

So it’s definitely something that my psychologist had planted the seed around end of last year because he could see how upset I was at work and how much I was crying and how emotional I was about it. And that’s not okay and that’s not normal. And he had encouraged me at the times and I was like, No, I can’t. It’s the end of the year. You know, no one’s hiring right now cause like, I work in HR, so I know I said no one’s hiring right now. I’m going to be unemployed for God knows how long, until February, when jobs potentially pick up again. Christmas and everything. I was living out of home. I was like, I can’t afford that. I can’t afford this. I honestly couldn’t if I really wanted to. But I was just like, no.

Because of fear, right? Fear of not having a job. Yeah. And it was like and also I felt like everybody would be disappointed with me if I hadn’t done that. That’s the expectation from other people again. Yes, I know. And it got to a point where I had to come back from the new year, felt a lot more refreshed. It was great. But I realised nothing was really changing. And the only thing I could do to change it was to make a choice. And I had actually had a small panic attack at home. And like I said, it had never, ever happened anywhere else except for a train. For it to happen at home in a space where it’s supposed to be safe. And all of that was not okay. And I didn’t realise it at the time until I spoke to my cousin and she had mentioned it. And she just casually was like, why don’t you quit? And you’re like, No, I can’t. I didn’t actually. I was like, that is a really good point. And I thought this was a decision I made over the weekend, by the way. So the incident happened Friday and Saturday. Sunday I come to the decision and I thought about it. I said, yeah, I’ve gone from job to job to job to job, never being able to get a break in between because one, I never thought to ask, two, didn’t want to ask in case they said no or fear of rejection or whatever. And three, felt like I had to do right by my employer by staying up until the very end. And if I think about it, there were some places when I finished up, they didn’t need me that last week. I was just sitting there doing nothing and I thought, you know what? Like, fuck it, and told my family most people were on board. My mum freaked out for a little bit, understandable.

But come Monday when I told my boss, I felt very certain in the decision the next day after that, I did freak out a little bit. I was like, oh, my goodness, what did I do? I just quit my job. I have nothing lined up. Like, I have no interviews lined up or anything. I have no plan. I’m going to pursue floristry for a bit, which is going to pay me peanuts for a while. What am I thinking? But after that kind of freak out, I had no regrets in making that decision. I really didn’t. And it was nice to just do nothing for once and just sit down, wake up whenever I felt like it, do whatever when I felt like it. It was great. I don’t know if I’ve had ever experienced this in a long time or ever.

You went straight from school into uni and the work, right? Yeah, pretty much. There was no break. I didn’t take a gap year, couldn’t really afford to travel during uni days. Only did that when I started working. And it was nice to make a decision for me, for my mental health at the end of the day. And yeah, I don’t regret it at all. Just quit your next job, it’s fine. Yeah, like, I’ve only been here for a little while. Bye.

So that’s a nice place to ask the final question. How will you continue to live with intention and connection? Yeah, I think really thinking about what my needs are at the end of the day and what is important to me and keeping that at the top of my mind because I think for the longest, you know, I was doing things to meet expectations, please people, to do what I thought was right, and that obviously served me well in different parts of my life, but there’s not so much. And I’ve got into a space now where I’m getting a bit more comfortable with saying no or pushing back at people in my personal relationships, in my working relationships and not feeling so guilty about it. Obviously, it’s early days, a bit of that guilt will still linger, but I always think back, like, what are my needs? And is this serving me at the end of the day? And if it isn’t, I don’t have to suck it up, I don’t have to put up with it. I have a choice to remove myself from that situation and go somewhere else. Be somewhere else. Those are great questions to help guide you.

So where can listeners find you? So you can find me at @maisonflowerbar on Instagram. My website is very much the same www.maisonflowerbar.com. I will leave those links in the shownotes. Thank you. You see all my creations on there and everything, but yeah, that’ll be the main place to find me.

Remember, you’re a human BEING, not a human DOING.

Chat to you in the next episode!
Van Anh

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