After 15 years of agoraphobia and depression, Dana Sibera discovered the ‘two streams of consciousness’, and it reshaped her entire world.
Dana looks peaceful as she waits for me outside the library of her hometown in Bathurst. She’s staring at something – the birds, or maybe the trees – as I approach, rushing due to a mini-traffic jam I had not anticipated. Less than a decade ago our simple chat would not have happened, back when Dana’s agoraphobia, anxiety and depression caused her to retreat into herself for almost fifteen years. “The world gets so small,” she tells me. “Although, it did give me time for my art.”
In her current world, Dana works for a printing company in Orange and does some freelance art on the side. Dana’s own artistic style is hard to define. She does a bit of sketching and a lot of digital art; from simple bunny rabbits (usually these are of her own rabbit, Jett) to portraits of friends, dinosaurs and rock album covers. Also belonging in her art world is the 1969 Falcon Futura she’s lovingly restoring; now all in one piece and soon to be painted a blissed-out shade of purple, “with silver flecks like glitter”.
The colour in her life now is a stark contrast to the hazy days of 1995 to 2009, when Dana was trying almost every process conceivable to get well. “Every now and then I’d work myself up to go see the doctor and say, ‘this treatment’s not working’; whether it was anti-depressants or therapy of one type or another. If that didn’t work, I’d hide back inside myself for another year or two.”
Eventually, the doctor decided to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” by suggesting group therapy. A tall order for someone with agoraphobia, (we chuckle at the strangeness of it, at least in theory) but it was the one thing that started to help. Dana says that combined with the group therapy, a simple article she read online made a big impact.
“It was on a marketing site, of all places,” she explains. “It was all about applying psychology to CEOs. It said: ‘this is what mindfulness is’, and described the two streams of consciousness. One stream is the stories you tell yourself: where you were born, what happened yesterday, what will be happening tonight and when you’ll die. That’s the whole narrative story. And then there’s the other stream: I’m here and there’s cold air in my nostrils,” she says as she breathes deeply.
“For me, the narrative stories were the typical things that roll around inside most people’s heads, plus gender issues.” She continues: “Not just from other people telling me what I should want, and how far I should go in my transition. But also me telling myself what I should want.”
These days, Dana is a far happier person and considers the day she read that article as the day she was “reborn”, open to a new, larger world. “And the stories do come back, of course. I had stories in my head about this interview, I was anxious about it. I use gravity as my attachment to where I am, because it’s completely independent of everything. And breathing. Things that help me not to exist outside of where I am.”
Dana adds that she hopes one day schools will teach this sort of thing. “Not to completely cure depression – it’s not all about mindfulness. But just to self-regulate. They call it ‘emotional intelligence’, but giving it a name like that makes it sound like it’s something innate; as though some people have it and some people don’t. It’s more like ‘emotional skill’. It’s always something you can learn.”
A few days after our meet up in Bathurst I visit Dana at her workplace. A self-professed nerd, it’s a delight to see that Dana has turned the front door of the upstairs work area into a Doctor Who themed entrance. Her own space looks well-loved, with funny memes and an intentionally misspelled “genuis” sticker above her desk.
Dana shows me around the machines and talks passionately about what they all do. One has a label on it with instructions followed by a cheeky warning that jobs need to be stacked, or else:
DANA WILL RANT LOTS.
CUSTOMER WILL BE SAD.
YOU WILL BE SAD.
Dana poses obligingly for the shots, popping her head out of the Doctor Who door and chatting away to cover her nerves, poking fun at the situation and at herself, often acting as though she didn’t expect me to be there. “Oh hello!” she says. We have a blast, but once the photos are done, I am worried about the time and rush back to my car.
My inner narrative has begun: stories about my lateness, potential excuses, imaginary conversations that may never happen. I put the key in the ignition and stop for a moment, breathe fully and remember: It’s not emotional intelligence, but emotional skill.
And it’s always something you can learn.