As early as Year 8, Georgie Dent remembers her mum buying her little books about worrying.
"I was always stressed," the 37-year-old recalls.
"I thought absolutely everybody was terrified about everything all the time."
Georgie was fortunate; she had a loving family, she was a bright girl and she became adept at "pretending I was a young person with young person's problems".
What her young self wasn't to know was this untreated anxiety was to cripple Georgie to the point she would end up in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 24.
It was a slow unravelling.
Her mental health issues were clouded by a "terrible tummy" that manifested itself when she was about 18.
She'd lost weight, "genuinely" barely digested any food and was in a lot of pain.
Her mum took her to a GP, a gastroenterologist and gynecologist.
After a year, Georgie was diagnosed with endometriosis.
At 19, she started to get "horrific cramps" - "it felt like knitting needles in my stomach".
She had three barbaric surgeries in six weeks.
And after all that, still the "horrendous tummy pain".
A colonoscopy revealed Crohn's disease.
So within three months, Georgie was told she had two diseases she'd never heard of.
But she was also at university in Queensland industriously studying law.
She committed herself "to do what I was told" to manage her physical ailments; she completed courses, she faithfully took the immuno-suppressant medication and soldiered on.
"I wasn't a healthy person," she admits.
But she was determined and she triumphed in her studies, landing a plum job at a Sydney law firm.
It was a highly competitive environment and her underlying health conditions and undiagnosed anxiety created "the perfect storm".
"That was when I really started to fall apart," Georgie admits.
Looking back, she says the relatively autonomous nature of her university schedule provided places to "hide" when she wasn't well.
A full-time job in a prestigious law firm was another story.
Within 18 months, Georgie had three to four hospital admissions "in horrendous pain" for her Crohn's disease.
Still, she "pretended" she was well.
That was until the day she collapsed in front of a colleague at work and was sent home in a taxi.
"It felt like there'd been an earthquake - I felt sea-sick," Georgie says.
Still, she assumed the vertigo would improve and she continued to try and work.
But the debilitating dizziness didn't go away and she didn't get better.
Georgie again consulted doctors (she even had an MRI) and an ENT suggested computer screens could be the culprit; she just needed a week off work to unwind.
"I treated relaxing like a mission," she says, with a wry laugh.
It was about that time Georgie had her first panic attack.
From there it was a relatively short slide to moving back in with her parents and barely moving off the couch.
She was broken ... badly.
Georgie's mum took carer's leave and they began the "medical merry-go-round" of doctor appointments and tests.
"I tried every diet known to man," Georgie recalls.
"I went to everyone, from acupuncturists to neuro-surgeons.
"As every day went by I became more panicked, wondering how can I get better?"
One day Georgie's "darling mum" approached her daughter and gently asked her, "Do you think you might have anxiety?"
Despite the fact she ticked every box on the Beyond Blue checklist her mother had printed off, Georgie was outraged by the suggestion.
It was to be an "old-school" general physician in his 70s who would piece together the puzzle.
"He read through every test and he said with such empathy, 'Georgie I'm so sorry for what you are going through'," she recalls.
"He said, 'In my 50 years' experience, and with all these symptoms, the explanation is always stress; I think you need to see a psychiatrist'."
It was "a light-bulb moment" for Georgie.
All of a sudden here was someone looking at the whole picture "not just one section of my intestinal tract".
Still, she'd hit "rock bottom" and it was going to take more than a monthly visit to a psychiatrist to get better.
The 24-year-old was admitted to a private psychiatric hospital at Currumbin, Queensland - a cold, concrete jungle on the outside with "amazing care" on the inside.
"I knew that's where I needed to be," she says.
Georgie was in "rehab", as she calls it, for three weeks.
She had started medication for her anxiety and within a week felt the difference.
I needed to drown in care and rehab was the pool.Georgie Dent
With an expert team of medical staff around her, Georgie slowly started to get better.
She saw a psychiatrist every day, she walked, she ate, and she learnt to breathe again, literally.
"I needed to drown in care and rehab was the pool," she states simply.
"I felt I was in a safety net; I felt protected because the services and supports were all around me."
In an edited extract from her book, Breaking Badly, printed in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2019, Georgie writes of her "nervous breakdown":
In an edited extract from her book, Breaking Badly, printed in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2019, Georgie describes her breakdown:
The phrase 'nervous breakdown' is not used in medicine any more ... It's an umbrella term that describes a period of intense mental distress where physical and emotional stress becomes intolerable, impairing the sufferer's ability to function effectively.
This description matched my experience sufficiently well - perilously well, in truth - for me to say, unequivocally, that I suffered a breakdown.
I didn't fall apart because I had a nasty autoimmune condition, or because I worked around the clock in a big law firm, or because I was a natural-born worrier. I didn't fall apart because I developed anxiety. I fell apart and suffered a breakdown because I did not cut myself a break.
Ever. About anything. Not about my health, not about my work, and certainly not about my mind ...
Without her stay in hospital, Georgie insists she would not have become well.
"After rehab, it felt like the whole world opened back up to me," she says.
"I wasn't ever suicidal - I just wanted to sleep until 'it' was all over."
Georgie finally realised she had been her own worst enemy.
Pretending to be fine.
"I had this competitive job and even though there had been no pressure from my family, friends or boyfriend (now husband) Nick, I was a perfectionist; I did it even though I hated it!"
As she began to regain her physical and mental health, Georgie's expectations of herself altered.
She returned to Sydney and first got a "small job" at David Jones, she went swimming and walking.
Three months on, Georgie noticed her tummy problems dissipating, her pain disappeared and she was eating what she wanted.
"The drugs I was taking helped calm down my nervous system and gave my body a chance to recover," she explains.
Georgie gained (a welcome) six kilograms in a month.
"After I got sick my life became a lot easier," she admits.
Georgie will always be someone who lives with anxiety; she still takes the same medications at the same doses, explaining "they work for me".
In many ways, hitting rock bottom allowed Georgie to go back and get the foundations right.
She knew she would never work in a commercial law firm again and when she stumbled across the opportunity to work in the media, she quickly found her feet - and her calling - as a journalist.
She was able to piece her life back together in a way that allowed her to safeguard her body and mind.
She's been able to juggle the demands of children (three daughters, 11, 8 and 5), with her now well-established career as a journalist, author, commentator and "unashamedly" passionate advocate for women.
"I now take my mental health very seriously; it makes me more robust and resilient," she says.
Shine a light
- Georgie Dent will join Kerry O'Brien and Linda Burney as guest speakers at the 2021 Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice on June 21 at Albury's QEII Square. The event will also be live-streamed via Facebook from 5.45pm. For details go to www.survivorsofsuicide.org.au