We need a better vocabulary to describe emotional emergencies


Jo Stanley

"Each of us should have a 3am-call-anytime-for-any trivial-reason-promise-not-to-whinge-or-judge register, with lots of ...

"Each of us should have a 3am-call-anytime-for-any trivial-reason-promise-not-to-whinge-or-judge register, with lots of different people on it," writes Jo Stanley. Photo: Stocksy

I woke up the other night having an anxiety attack.

I needed help, but I didn't call anyone, and I haven't stopped thinking about why.

To begin with, I wasn't exactly sure that's what it was. I'm used to anxiety by day. For me, it creeps in under the door, like water from a washing machine that's sprung a leak. And because it's slow and silent, my feet can be wet before I'm even aware of it, and then it rises like a tide around my ankles, and I find myself sitting, soggy and cold and sad, wondering how I'll ever dry out again.

Jo Stanley.

Jo Stanley. Photo: Mike Baker

I do, eventually. Because I have meditation and sunshine and exercise and cuddles and dog walks and laughing at stupid things and singing at the top of my voice until my daughter tells me I'm hurting her ears.


But this attack came at three in the morning, waking me suddenly.

I'm not a great sleeper, so it's not unusual for me to awaken because my daughter has coughed loudly, or the cat, infuriatingly, is scratching up our new carpet, or because my husband farted. But this time, there was nothing other than my own shortness of breath.

I lay awake in the dark with my heart pounding, adrenalin making me nauseous. I thought I was having a heart attack or brain aneurysm, which I know is common because I've Googled it. Or I wondered if I was in the presence of an evil spirit, which again might have been explained by my husband's bowels except he was interstate at the time.

Once I realised it was anxiety, I tossed around in bed looking for a position where the thunderous sound of my own pulse wouldn't terrify me. It took an hour for the anxiety to drain away, and then another hour to finally go back to sleep. When it was time to get up for the day, I felt like ET looks.

The stupidest thing about it all – and as I said, the thing I can't understand – is that I didn't call my husband, even though I know he lovingly could have made me feel a little better. He's tired, working very long hours, a long way from home. I'd love to say I was being considerate. Except I happily call day or night for him to talk me through getting Netflix working, so selfless I am not. More accurately, I think I was ashamed.

I've always maintained that each of us should have a 3am-call-anytime-for-any trivial-reason-promise-not-to-whinge-or-judge register, with lots of different people on it – your family, friends, the greengrocer (they keep unusual hours, so they're good candidates). But I fear we wouldn't use it, partly because the vulnerability required is just too raw, and partly because the words said out loud sound so silly. I woke up and I couldn't breathe and now there's a clicking in my throat when I swallow that's freaking me out.

We don't have a vocabulary that adequately expresses the tacit emotional emergency of a situation.

What we need is a code system that can say it all in one simple reference. Like when I was 15, working my first casual job in retail, we had a system of codes for the PA. With escalating urgency, Service 20 meant our register needed change, Service 80 meant a kid had wet himself, Service 100 meant shoplifter in ladies' fashions. None of us ever needed to know the details, we just knew to act, straight away.

Collectively, we should create our own code for the various personal crises we might face, because a quiet Service 100 texted across a dark city seems so much more manageable. And I vote we include a Service 90 – for suffocating in your husband's methane. 

I'm getting ...

reading glasses for the first time. Thank god the hipsters make them cool, otherwise mid-life crisis here I come!

I'm watching ...

Garfunkel and Oates. They're a very funny female musical comedy duo, and this is their eight-episode series from 2014.

I'm loving ...

Smiling Mind, a mindfulness app. I love seeing my seven-year-old learn meditation – her attention span is better than mine.

I'm doing ...

spin classes. A dark room, pounding tunes, being yelled at for 45 minutes and a very sore toosh. What's not to love?