The first step of getting better is admitting you have a problem and so here goes: I have anxiety. Not your general nervousness about interviews or social occasions, but a general anxiety disorder. My body thinks I am in danger randomly and reacts as such, it’s evolution, it’s primitive, it’s…deeply irritating. You see, there’s nothing scary about buying potatoes or getting the train, but my body wants to run, my pulse quickens, I sweat and feel like I will either be sick or faint. Quite basically, the adrenaline cup overfloweth and dumps adrenaline in my blood at random, causing these episodes.
Mental health issues are still taboo: we are told not to talk about them for fear of being seen as ‘crazy’ or people thinking we are fragile or unreliable. There’s a way to go to beat the taboo, and I found admitting that I suffered from anxiety very hard out of fear of how others react and because I didn’t want to admit that I was not infallible. Realistically- I know I should have sought help years ago, before it got so bad.
I came back from Amsterdam on 19th November. I stood in Schipol Airport waiting to board the plane and I felt like I was going to faint. My heart got fast and I got teary. In retrospect I know that this was my first ever panic attack but at the time I felt severely unwell and like I was stopping breathing or my heart was packing in. This was put down to being overtired and having not really got over the hand foot and mouth virus I had very severely just two weeks earlier.
The next day I went to work and felt like I couldn’t breathe on the train and I kept looking for exits, convinced I was very poorly and wouldn’t survive the journey. I went to work and started having chest pains. ‘Just exhaustion’ is what I told myself… I’d got back to Gatwick late and gone to work the next day. I took the following day off work because I had been sick and the chest pains got worse, and unable to get an appointment with my GP, I called NHS 111 to check I was not having what I worst feared- a heart attack. After asking me a list of questions that lasted forever, and seeking information from a real doctor, the 111 call handler told me that my symptoms didn’t sound cardiac, and that she thought it was anxiety. I was obviously still breathing because I could talk to her clearly.
The pains and ‘can’t breathe’ feelings continued constantly for another week and I wasn’t eating or sleeping, so I got a GP appointment. The GP said that she thought it was anxiety after a very brief prod of my abdomen and listening to my chest and heart. She said that anxiety causes acid reflux and prescribed me some tablets for that and referred me to therapy. A week later I still felt exactly the same, constantly feeling like I was going to fall severely ill. My dad took me to hospital where I spent 45 minutes with a marvellous doctor who did many tests- I was healthy. Blood pressure a bit on the high side, but unlikely to drop dead. This is when I had to come to terms with there not being a physical problem but one in my head. I think in many ways I would have preferred a physical problem. That seems more fixable than realising that your very essence and the thing at the core of who you are and what you stand for, your brain, is broken.
I found this hard. How could my head be broken? Although I’ve been exposed to friends and family members with mental health problems (my family has a history of alcoholics- hence I am wary about touching alcohol) it was something that happened to ‘them’ and not me. I was the resilient one. I could give out great advice and crack on with life when things were going drastically wrong for me. I should have realised I was not as strong as I thought I was two years previously, but too stubborn, it took running myself into the ground to come to terms with my own fragility and vulnerability. I’m from a family that is dysfunctional in many ways but wonderful in many others, we don’t do emotion.
I suspect some people are just born a little bit broken. My earliest memory is my grandfather dying and me being taken out of my reception class to the head teacher’s office by a lady with kind eyes. I thought I was in trouble because that’s where naughty children went and was inconsolable but they were nice and let me draw in the corner of the room until my mother could collect me. Other early memories include becoming obsessed with drinking water to ‘flush out’ my body and sadly remarking to my mother from my car seat at no older than five that I had fat thighs. When I was eleven I tried to cut my wrists on the gate post at home and wrote a suicide note, and I occasionally self harmed and starved myself in my teens. This doesn’t mean to say my childhood was bad because it wasn’t. I can just see how I could and did go on to develop an anxiety disorder.
I’ve recently started therapy and things are beginning to make sense: the physical feelings I get are real, but they’re my body reacting to a threat that isn’t there. The chest pains are acid reflux or pain from my muscles always being tense. I’m always on high alert ready to run or fight. My reluctance to go to parties and get drunk like other 25 year olds is because I don’t like a lack of control, in any aspect of my life and irrational fears about becoming an alcoholic like there have been several in my family. I have trust issues and need reassurance. It’s very weird to think that suddenly you can go from being superhuman strong to quietly vulnerable… But that is just the way it is.
I’m not one for sharing deeply personal things, but the taboo needs to end. I’m not crazy or a risk to anyone or myself; I just needed to take care of myself and didn’t and crashed. It can happen to anyone and nobody should feel alone or unsupported.
I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings, and hope it is a good year for me. I’ve learnt it’s ok to be not ok, and it’s fine to say no to things.
Anyone affected by these issues please feel free to contact me, or check out Mind.