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White Man Behind A Desk, having a panic attack

Friday 13th October 2017

White Man Behind A Desk's Robbie Nicol used his own experience with anxiety to create Billie, a character in The Candle Wasters' queer rom-com musical webseries Happy Playland. He shares his story with The Wireless for Mental Health Awareness week. 

When I had my first panic attack, I had no idea what was going on. I can’t even remember which one was my first, to be honest. 

It was a period of my life where everything had sunk under a thick layer of cloud, and occasionally there was a burst of lightning. My first panic attack was one of those bursts.

Maybe it’s electric eels in a swamp? 

I was living in Edinburgh with an Irishman, who I think might be the worst person I’ve ever met. My good friend Evan came to visit me from London while we were all still moving in. While I was out, and Evan was trying to have his breakfast, the Irishman made him carry every piece of his furniture up the concrete stairs to our flat on the third floor.

Laugh-crying over a pint of Tennent's that evening, Evan said, “That is probably the worst person I’ve ever met.” I went on to live with him for another six months.

I started having nightmares in which he burst into my room with a deformed head. One evening I could feel him lumbering around the apartment, and I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I didn’t want to stay there. I watched a mouse come in from under my door and hang out in the corner of my room - it would have hidden behind the furniture if it could, but there wasn’t much to hide behind.

My whole body convulsed. It was sort of tingly, and - even though this whole section of my life is unconnected to reality - this part was especially unconnected.

I didn’t know if I was being overdramatic or dying, and that’s the sort of thing it’s nice to know.

My second, or possibly first, panic attack happened in the University of Auckland library. I was told at a protest that Stuart McCutcheon, our Vice-Chancellor, had done his Phd on how long it took lambs to die in horrible conditions. It sounded like the sort of thing a protestor would make up, so I just smiled and nodded and turned back to my friends.

But the image of lambs being frozen alive stuck in my head, so I looked it up and found, “A study of some factors affecting the resistance of newborn lambs to cold-stress with particular reference to starvation and exposure mortality,” by Stuart Norman McCutcheon.

I wasn’t coping. There were too many students around me rushing to finish their assignments, so I went to a bathroom stall and sobbed. Again, my body went all tingly. I can see everything at that moment so clearly, but it still feels separate - another moment that isn’t connected to the string of life that I’ve had from then to now. If you were filming this panic attack, you’d definitely want a soft-focus glare on Albert Park through the window.

Those were my first two panic attacks. I was lucky. Eventually a counsellor told me that I should go to a support group for people with anxiety, which I didn’t fully understand because I loved parties and therefore it was impossible for me to be anxious.

I was wrong. Aand, because I had my mum to advocate for me, I got help. I got the right medication and the right therapy. Along with the rest of The Candle Wasters, I got funding from New Zealand On Air and YouTube to share my experience through a character named Billie, whom I love.

I got lucky. There isn’t enough funding for mental health in New Zealand, and there isn’t enough funding for the arts, but I’m an example of what can happen when someone is given a chance. If we increased funding, more people would be saved from their mental illness, and more people would know what’s going on when they experience something new, because they would have seen it before - in a TV show or a film.

We’re still young creators and our webseries isn’t the best thing in the world, but hopefully some kid watches it, and they see the episode where Billie gets all tingly. And they’ll know what’s going on when, through the clouds, the lightning strikes. Or they touch an eel - whichever metaphor you like best.

I just hope there’s enough funding for that kid to get help, too.



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Robbie is a member of the feminist film collective 'The Candle Wasters', and host of the political satire webseries 'White Man Behind A Desk'. The Sunday Star Times called him the "Kiwi John Oliver," and he hopes John Oliver isn’t offended.
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