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Leah Panapa's anxiety battle

The bubbly presenter was feeling deflated after a series of heartbreaks

By Fleur Guthrie
Two years after her husband suddenly collapsed in their lounge from a heart attack, broadcaster Leah Panapa found herself sitting in the same place in the middle of the night believing she was experiencing the same thing.
But able to get her pounding heart under control and not wanting to worry anyone, she slipped back into bed with the unnerving thought, "What the heck is wrong with me?"
Over the following days, however, the symptoms intensified until one Sunday evening, while watching television, Leah turned to husband Mike Nesbitt – who had long recovered from his heart surgery – and told him he was going to have to take her to the hospital's emergency department.
'I was living in my head, which can lead you down some really dark avenues'
"Of course, I like to be dramatic so, clutching my chest, I said, 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' to which he calmly replied, 'No babe, you're not.'
"I convinced him I felt really terrible, though, so he agreed to take me," recalls the Magic Talk announcer.
After spending 12 hours in A&E doing "every test known to man", all the results came back fine, with the doctor convinced that her problems were psychosomatic.
After decades of being upbeat and easy-going, seemingly able to manage stress, Leah realised she just had her first encounter with anxiety.
She had seen friends and family members struggle with their mental health, but never herself and it caught her unaware.
"I just didn't recognise what a panic attack looked or felt like, or that traumatic life events can trigger them," explains Leah.
Leah nursed husband Mike through his heart attack.
"Mine had started coming on at the end of 2017, when my contract wasn't renewed at The Sound radio station. I'd been with the company [MediaWorks] 17 years and after losing my job, people said, 'Don't worry, you'll be snapped up!' Yet no one came a knockin'.
"A few months earlier, a colleague that I sat next to every day and was only 43, had died of a heart attack and my mother Diane was also really ill battling lung cancer."There was a lot going on. I thought I was dealing with it, but I've since realised I was living in my head, which can lead you down some really dark avenues. So I had to find ways to get out of my head."
With the help of her GP, Leah started learning breathing techniques and started regular exercise, acknowledging she needed to prioritise her physical health as much as her mental wellbeing.
"I thought, 'Guurrl, now you gotta start lookin' after your body!'" she says, light-heartedly slipping into an American accent.
"So I joined back at the gym – okay, that was the last thing I did! – and I have also lost 15kg after signing up with Jenny Craig. The mind and body don't work without the other."
On her wedding day with her late mum Diane;
Leah was also able to find freelance work as a newsreader, while grieving the passing of her beloved mum.
After years of working on music stations – including Radio Hauraki and The Rock for a decade apiece – her goal was to get into talkback. So, when any announcers at Radio Live called in sick, she put her hand up to fill in.
Her confidence was further boosted when she was offered a contract to do Friday night talkback. But before she had a chance to start, news came that Radio Live was being shut down.
Without so much of a hint of the anxiety that had crippled her in the past, Leah's response was to start laughing.
"It showed me I could cope better with stress now," she says. "I think once you've had panic attacks and anxiety, you're always going to be susceptible or have it in some form.
"So every day I consciously try to focus on my breathing. Mike has also been an incredible rock and we talk about everything, and I love getting into nature to walk our two beautiful dogs."
Leah in the flesh; with her Magic Talk co-host Danny.
Fortunately, when new station, Magic Talk, was announced in 2019, Leah scored a full-time gig doing the 7pm-11pm shift.
"I loved it. It was just such a different thing from music radio and so valuable to establish listeners before I was teamed up with Danny Watson on the midday to 4pm show."
Vivacious and warm, Leah's quick wit and self-deprecating humour is winning her fans around the country. She's even more likeable off-air, where her ability to find hilarity in life's dark moments and flair for theatrics shine.
Growing up in Hastings, she remembers often riding her horse after school with one hand holding a transistor radio to her ear so not to miss her favourite show. Life was good, until her parents' marriage broke up when Leah was 10 years old.
Puppy love! With her fur babies Kaiser (left) and Kasha.
"When Dad left, we hit hard times, as many split families do," she tells. "Mum sold a lot of personal items to get by and we had to give up some things we had enjoyed in the past, including my horse riding. It was traumatic.
"Mum mentioned to me and my two sisters as adults, "I wish I could have given you more." But we all said to her that she did her best. It sounds corny, but I wouldn't be where I am today if we hadn't been in that situation."
Leah couldn't afford to go to broadcasting school and her mum told her, "If you want something bad enough, you will find a way to get it."
"So, at 16, in my school lunch break, I went to my local radio station, dressed in my school uniform – what a sight I must have been sitting at reception! – asking to speak to someone about my broadcasting dream," she shares. "The programme director took pity on me and offered me a part-time job after school, where I would go through the phone book to ring people and ask a myriad of questions about what stations they listen to.
"I'll also never forget his words about working in radio… 'It's going to be hard because you're a woman and you're Ma¯ori.' He was being brutally honest and after three decades in the business, I can say, yes, things have changed, but he was on the money."
When others at the station went home, Leah asked the night announcer, Kev Stanton, if she could sit in with him to watch and learn, before ferociously biking home in the dark on her Raleigh 20 bicycle.
"Kev changed my life," she admits. "He'd show me how to cue up records and the news, and work the faders. Three months later, it was Christmas break and I got a call asking if I wanted to fill in on a show! It was in the weekend and in the wee hours of the morning, but it was a show!
"I was 17 years old and I brought my older sister with me because I was so nervous. After that, I quit school to work there full-time.
"The funny thing was, a school teacher used to always send me outside for talking and told me I needed to learn to shut up. I saw her in the street the following year and it gave me great joy to tell her, 'I get paid to talk now!'"
Leah muses it's been an amazing but tumultuous career in radio, one where longevity on the airwaves isn't taken for granted. Her personal life has been more anchored, though.
She met her "wonderful Welsh-now-Kiwi-chap" 19 years ago while having dinner with a friend in Takapuna, on Auckland's North Shore.
"He was with a bunch of mates at the bar. I saw his amazing blue eyes and thought, 'Cute!'" she smiles. "I walked past them to go to the toilet and they all stopped talking. His friend stopped me and said, 'Excuse me, have you met my mate Mike? He's lost 11 jobs because of you.' I started laughing and said, 'What?' He goes, 'Yeah, all he does is stay home and watch you on the TV.'
"Back then, I was regularly appearing on the Glad Wrap TV ads," she explains. "Mike, who had turned bright red by now, declared 'No, that's not true!' And I said, much to my friend's dismay, 'Well, would you like to come and join me for a drink?'
"We hit it off and he asked me out the next night. It was, indeed, 'Better living everyone!'"

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