I had my first panic attack at 22.
Except I didn’t know that was what it was called, or that it was symptomatic of the fact I was suffering with a mental illness.
Mental health was not on my radar.
I didn’t think of my brain as being healthy or unhealthy. I didn’t think about it having moving or corruptible parts. It just was. It existed and enabled me to get on with life.
When I did allow myself to think about these panic attacks (mostly I liked to pretend I had imagined the whole thing) I believed these aberrations were caused by my lack. It was because of something I was doing, or not doing. It was my fault.
I searched for the answer as to what was causing them in all sorts of places, but mainly in my faith. I saw my inability to stay strong and in control as evidence of sin, or (weirder and scarier still) as some sort of demonic attack or stronghold in my life (not that I really knew what this was).
I knew more and had heard more about these sorts of explanations than I had about the biology or chemistry of the brain.
I was unaware there was another explanation. I didn’t know anything medical or therapuetic could be done about the fact that (with increasing regularity) I suffered from these episodes.
I didn’t get any help with my mental health, with what was later diagnosed as anxiety and depression, until I was 30.
I didn’t know I was ill or that there was anything that could be done about it.
About six months before my 30th birthday I met with a wise lady to ask her advice about how to care for a friend who was grieving. Someone had tipped me off that this woman was trained in counselling and had experience with this type of situation. We talked of my friend briefly and then she looked me in the eye and ask kindly, “How are you doing?”.
Then she waited.
And I burst into tears.
She saw in me, something I could not articulate, something I had been desperately trying to hide.
In the past six weeks I have had conversations with three women I know well, capable women whom I admire. In each incident I asked them, “How are you doing?” and waited for an answer.
Without warning all three of them burst into tears.
They each immediately followed this up with apologies (I’m sorry you don’t want to hear this), excuses (I’ve just had a really hard day, I haven’t slept well) and denial (honestly, I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m alright really).
The thing is. I know these deflection tactics. I know what you do when you have believed lies that have been telling you you are not good enough, do not do enough, and are letting everyone down.
You pretend and you hide.
You hope no one comes along and asks the difficult question and waits for an answer.
(Although secretly maybe it is what you are really hoping for – to be heard, to be seen, to let it all go even if just for a moment).
You think it is easier to just keep on keeping on. To carry on with the to-do list, to keep trying harder and working more. You think it is easier to keep working towards impossible deadlines and unrealistic expectations.
Because failure is not an option you can deal with.
Because maybe you believe you already are a failure and all this activity is the only thing that might prove otherwise*.
If you find yourself in this privileged situation where someone lets their guard down with you, don’t panic.
I knew this wasn’t the moment to give these women chapter and verse about the truths I have learnt through therapy and through my own pain. This wasn’t the time to suggest anti-depressants, or mindfulness techniques.
And I knew this because I know I couldn’t have even begun to process these ideas over that coffee six months before my 30th birthday.
I know there is one thing that has to happen before anything else is possible: you have to know and accept you are ill.
So, I listened and hugged and handed tissues. I reassured and nodded and smiled and told them they were doing amazing. I wondered out loud whether these brilliant women might need a break, or what that could look like. I offered to help with something practical and I repeated my favourite three phrases; Let yourself off the hook, Take the easy option, and You don’t have to do it all. I told them, and hopefully made them feel, they were loved and accepted and appreciated. I spoke some truth and some hope into their despair.
I didn’t try to fix them. I didn’t tell them it would all be alright. I didn’t minimise their pain or change the subject. I didnt say I knew exactly how they felt and if they did what I did it would all work out okay.
I listened more and talked less.
I probably got a lot of it hideously wrong, but I am hoping they will forgive me and see my heart.
They now know I am here and willing to listen. They also know I have been to similar places and when they are ready I will be happy to talk more, or recommend an excellent therapist or book, or techniques I have discovered.
If someone who loves you asks you how you are and you notice you are crying, it might be worth paying attention to those tears. Tears are always trying to tell you something.
And if you have a friend who you think might not be coping. If you have got that feeling in your stomach that maybe things are not as good as your friend would have you believe, maybe ask how they are, and wait, and listen.