‘This inner voice had held me captive’

Growing up, I can recall overthinking in primary school a lot. Overthinking to the point where I would end up actually physically sick.

Throughout those early years, I can recall only attending one social disco event, as every single time it would roll around my head would fill with the voice of ‘What if?’.

This would lead to rapid thoughts that would turn into a bunch of fear and over-excitement. What if this happens, or that happens? Then, before I knew it, I would get physically sick for 24 hours, much like a 24-hour virus.

I remember this happening quite a bit when I visited my dad, who I didn’t live with, in the school holidays. Although I’d be excited, I’d also start to become filled with the ‘What if?’ voice of “What if it doesn’t go well?”, which would make me feel so anxious I’d literally get sick.

It’s thought that when you’re anxious the brain releases chemical neurotransmitters, which puts the body on high alert. Some of the neurotransmitters enter the digestive tract, which can cause nausea.

Anxiety can also cause kids to feel tired, get headaches and even rashes – not that I knew any of this at the time.

In high school, my anxiety followed me. Although it wasn’t to the point of feeling physically ill any longer, the anxiety still affected my body.

Playing representative sport, there were game days I just couldn’t perform to my fullest potential. Negative thoughts would override my body and I would be so caught up in the ‘What if?’ that I just couldn’t flow in the now.

I carried these thoughts and feelings well into my late 20s before I officially recognised what was actually going on.

I, Mitch Tambo, have anxiety.

I started to really acknowledge the ‘What if?’ voice, which, for me, was really a voice of fear. Once I was able to hear it clearly, I was flabbergasted this voice had controlled me in so many ways over the years.

I realised it had held me captive for most of my life as I was always second-guessing myself, not trusting my ability or my potential. 

At times I desperately needed affirmations regarding my right to succeed. I constantly felt judged and looked down upon. It was like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, and yet where it was really coming from all along was that little, or rather big, voice in my head that kept pounding out, ‘What if?’.

Trying to quieten down this intrusive voice proved frustrating. I would go through periods of feeling empowered at putting certain strategies in place to start moving forward, however it would inevitably come roaring back.

In 2020 I was invited to take part in Eurovision: Australia Decides for the chance to represent our nation on a world stage. What I wasn’t ready for was all the adoring love that was about to come my way on social media and, let’s be honest, all of the hate as well.

Although I sort of knew what to expect in the online forums, I just didn’t have the appropriate tools to navigate it at the time. In the weeks leading up to my Eurovision campaign, the hate took centre stage.

Mr ‘What if?’ came screaming once more. I had people target me personally around my appearance, identity, my deceased father, along with looking for my close family members’ addresses and many other comments – I’m sure you can imagine what was said.

This immediately filled me with the overpowering, consuming, sickening, familiar old feeling of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep or eat properly. I lost the belief I had just discovered in my musical ability. I started to question if I was really fulfilling my purpose. What if I was no good at it?

I had moments where I told my wife Lele and my manager that I couldn’t do the performances and I was happy to pull out. I lost all confidence and just wanted to go back on Country and be out under the open sky, where I felt like I could breathe and be left alone.

The anxiety was so intense at that time that it dredged up what I now understand to be trans-generational trauma. I recall being 20 minutes out from taking centre stage and having this intense reflection about my ancestors and the hate they endured, which led to this deep pain that arose from the depths of my spirit.

I looked at my wife and just said, “Lele, I’m really sorry but I just have to cry.” Lele held me while I sobbed. I then sucked it up, put on a smile and delivered the best performance I could. No-one else watching would have had a clue as to what I was going through.

With the support of Lele and my team, I now am able to acknowledge key triggers and situations that affect my anxiety.

Rather than run from my thoughts, I have been able to slowly implement strategies to get through them and start to take control back. For anyone battling anxiety, don’t be hard on yourself, don’t forget to breathe and remember that with the right people around you, you will get through it.

You just never really know what someone is going through. Everyone goes through something and if my story can help just one person open up and not feel alone in their internal fight, I feel like it was all worth it. My “What if?” voice may never go away, but at least it no longer rules my life.

My name is Mitch Tambo. I’m a proud Gamilaraay man, a husband, father, performer, academic and I have anxiety. And guess what? That’s okay.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact any of the below

Support Act Wellbeing Helpline 1800 959 500 – a free, 24/7 telephone counselling service for anyone in the music or arts industry (option 3 for First Nations Support Line)
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Headspace on 1800 650 890 for confidential support.

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