Last week for Mental Health Awareness Week, on Facebook and Instagram, I posted daily about my battle with anxiety and panic attacks.
I have summarised these posts here. I hope they might bring comfort to you if you are struggling, and serve as a reminder that you are not alone.
Growing up I never really thought about my brain. It was just there, ticking over, doing what I needed it to.
As a straight-A student, education was not a problem and apart from a few (obligatory) crappy teenage years I was outgoing and popular.
I was brought up to know I was loved and safe and, in terms of Mazlo’s hierarchy of needs, my pyramid was secure.
Then in my early twenties I began to experience radio interference. Bursts of static. Confusion.
Fear. My brain stopped being the reliable machine it had always been.
Thoughts and emotions unexpectedly spilt.
It began slowly, sporadically, with long enough gaps in between these short-circuiting episodes for me to tell myself I had imagined it.
But deep down I knew I hadn’t.
The worst kind of ear worm drilled into the very centre of my brain. I heard whispered promises I would be ill, my family would be ill, I would be trapped, unable to escape, humiliated.
Moments of terror appeared out of the calm blue and overwhelmed.
To the best of my memory, this is the story of my first panic attack:
In my early 20s I took a job delivering workshops in universities around the play ‘Angels in America’ by Tony Kushner. By anyone’s reckoning a brilliant play with a fairly intense subject matter: fear, illness, despair, hope, death.
My role in these workshops was to take extracts from this play and use them as a basis for discussion. I was creating opportunities to talk about the play and the issues it raised, and to act as soft advertising for the production, encouraging participants to buy tickets. At a certain point in the workshop, students would be given these extracts and with a little direction, would get this section of the text ‘on it’s feet’.
Something to do with the youth of the students, their optimism and innocence, combined with the devastating subject matter was too powerful for me. Watching these tiny inept performances I felt myself spiralling, struggling to cope. As the students came in and out of character, their inexperience obvious, something got under my skin, their words became a part of me.
It is hard to explain.
There are still moments from these workshops that I can remember frame-by-frame. I still have a physical response to them. My gut lurches. I have to catch hold of my thoughts before they move, too fast, away from me.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks. I am in my car, a hand-me-down battered green Citroen, poorly executing a three-point-turn in my parent’s road, opposite their house.
All of a sudden, mid manoeuvre, I stop. My heart racing, blood rushing in my ears, stomach churning, as my mind wandered over to one of the scenes from the workshop a few weeks back.
It felt entirely outside of my control. The memory simply landed on me. I was desperately trying to wrestle my mind back to safer territory, the weather, the trees, the bloody car, but I couldn’t. It felt as though my mind was being pulled by powerful magnetic forces to watch this scene, over and over again.
Eventually I park the car and get out. My knees knocking, my breathing heavy. I struggle to stand, to lock the car. I lean against the roof and close my eyes, squeezing them tight, using all my energy to focus on something, anything, else.
In a few moments, the feeling subsides, and calm returns.
It was a long time before I learnt the correct term for these episodes: panic attacks.
At the time I didn’t want to dwell on it, or give it any more headspace than necessary. Distraction, moving on, placing my focus elsewhere, was the only thing I knew to do. I pretended it hadn’t happened, I told myself it was a one-off, an aberration.
I think you might also call it denial.
The fact that this might be a panic attack never occurred to me at the time. It was only years later looking back I realised this was what I had experienced.
So what did I think was happening?
– I thought maybe I was physically ill. Maybe I had a stomach bug, or some other digestion related illness.
– I thought it was a spiritual attack. For those of you reading this who don’t know me and weren’t brought up in an evangelical Christian community this requires an explanation. Basically I thought something spiritually was attacking me, maybe as a result of my bad behaviour or because I was weak/ hadn’t prayed enough/ wasn’t holy enough and therefore I left myself vulnerable. It is imperative for me to point out here there was a load of garbage and in no way reflects the truth I have discovered about faith and God. But this was what I thought at the time and it is important to write this in black and white here just incase anyone else out there is suffering and thinking if only they were a better Christian (in itself a nonsense idea) they could get control and be well.
For a long time these were the only two options I considered. They were the only possibilities available.
It was a scary place to be.
Later I learnt these panic attacks were not my fault. They were not a result of my bad behaviour and although they were an illness – not in the way I had thought they were.
I was 30 when I finally went to see someone to talk about the fact that I seemed to be falling apart. Eight years after my first panic attack.
Why did it take me so long?
I had no knowledge of mental illness (depression and anxiety) and so hadn’t recognised it. Also, it had been sporadic, although gradually increasing in intensity and regularity.
The summer after my third child was born panic was making a regular appearance and I was constantly having to fight past a tide of anxiety which paralysed me, made me not want to go out or make plans, left me too exhausted to have a conversation or read a book.
My concentration span was non-existent. All I wanted to do was watch something mindless on tv (I know a lot about America’s next Top Model circa 2009.)
It was my brilliant husband who encouraged (pushed?) me to go and see a therapist and my incredible therapist (to whom I am forever grateful) who diagnosed me with post-natal depression. Through therapy I began to accept that I was not well and needed help.
In those first few months post diagnosis I felt three things:
I thought people who suffered with mental illnesses were the super flaky weak ones, that it showed a lack of backbone to suffer with depression or anxiety. What did that mean about who I was? Was my faith not big enough? My resolve not strong enough? My hard work not good enough?’
How would I tell my friends? What if I couldn’t get better? What would people think? What was going to happen next?
Would I always be this way?
I wasn’t making it up! It was a real thing! I wasnt going crazy – well, I was, but not in the way I thought I was. If this was a real thing then maybe some help might be available. If someone else could diagnose what was happening in my head maybe I wouldnt be like this forever. I was not the only one. I was not alone.
The relief of being told you are not making it up and that other people also suffer is a beautiful thing.
The validation is immense.
This was the first step on the road to recovery.
The difficult truth is: no one can help you until you are willing to help yourself. You must be brave. You have to let someone in. Tell someone how you feel. Find someone you trust who you can confide in.
Go and see your GP.
If possible, find a therapist.
Don’t put it off or say you will do it tomorrow, next week, when life calms down a bit. It will never happen. Make an appointment now. Pick up the phone and call your GP.
Tell a friend and ask them to check in on you to see you have done it. Ask them to come with you if it makes you feel more confident (and will stop you backing out).
You are responsible for your own life and your mental health, and you need to take action regarding it.
I wish there was an easier way, but I promise you taking action will be worth it.
Don’t give up.
You are worth care and attention. You are worth investing in. Your health is important. You can do this.
After diagnosis I still found it hard to manage my levels of anxiety. Often I would wake anxious, the mega-dose of adrenalin activated before I had opened my eyes. Over the years I developed numerous strategies for dealing with morning anxiety. Here they are:
1. Get up. Don’t think that by staying completely still, lying in your bed you will be able to work down the rising panic. If it is possible, get out of bed. Confront the reality of how you are feeling. Move.
2. Loud music. A good dose of singing along to loud music can provide an excellent tonic. This is not about singing well, it is about asserting yourself, disturbing the routine, releasing some endorphins, maybe even making yourself laugh.
3. Talking endorphins, the obvious and most popular way to manage anxiety is to go for a run. I used to run (badly and slowly) but now I have found the gym suits me better. (I have old-lady knees). Whatever it is, work hard enough to get the blood moving, the heart pumping, the sweat flowing and the surplus adrenalin burnt off. Ten or fifteen minutes will do it. Heck, if you are as unfit as me, five minutes will do it. (And there is the added bonus of the smug feeling of knowing you started the day with exercise.)
4. But I have kids/ a job/ a comfy bed, I can’t possibly get out for a run first thing, what can I do? Here is a trick I learnt from my awesome therapist. If you are at home and can’t (or won’t) leave the house, burn off some nervous energy by running up and down the stairs. Five times. Seriously, don’t just think about it – do it. I have used this on numerous occasions, much to the surprise of my children. It totally works. As your heart gets pumping and you deal with your adrenaline, you will start to feel in control.
5. On which note: dance. Car dancing is good, but I find a kitchen disco a particularly effective way to activate my energy against terror. Children are useful here, but most people (if they are worth knowing) will sing into a wooden spoon or spatula if they are offered one. You want to go for something classic and uplifting: think 80’s disco, see also Rap.
6. Go outside. If you are a smug runner you will have already achieved this but, even if exercise is not your thing, much can be calmed by breathing fresh air and looking at the sky. There is something wonderfully grounding about being outdoors, experiencing the weather, hearing the birds, feeling the breeze on your face. (If possible, walk around the block)
7. Share. Tell someone. When panic is rising I know this is the last thing you want to do. Shame and guilt piggyback on your anxiety and lie to you. They say you will be rejected and no one will understand. Telling someone is a powerful way of staving off isolation and making sure you feel loved. Choose the right person. I have a friend who has agreed to be my ‘person’ in these moments. This connection is comfort in itself but often she will then text me back with something encouraging. This message is not to fix me or tell me what to do, but to remind me of the truth – that I am loved, that she is there. Essential in the moment when the floor is sliding out from beneath you and you feel all alone.
8. Don’t forget to breathe. Whatever you are doing, and even if you cannot put into action any of the above suggestions, even if you are reading this from the comfort of your bed hiding under your duvet unable to face the world: learn to regulate your breathing. Even with no practice it is possible in almost all situations to slow your breathing down. Try breathing in for seven beats and out for eleven (the 7/11 method). Or just slow down your breath. Try and fully empty your lungs and make sure you exhale longer than your inhale. As you slow down your body is sending your mind messages. These messages tell your brain you are okay, you are not under attack, you do not need to panic.
If you are feeling anxious today, you are not alone.
As I began the slow process of recovery I needed to figure out what had got me in this mess to begin with. Why had I become ill? Why did I find myself crippled by anxiety?
(And this is by no means the full story but an incomplete summary of many years of therapy, reading and thinking)
There were certain lies I had believed about what would make me a worthwhile person.
When I say ‘worthwhile’ I could also be saying ‘good’ or ’successful’ or ‘strong’. This was what I thought was expected of me.
1. I must have no needs. I must be positive always. I had every reason to be happy (a good home, husband, enough to eat, friends) therefore I needed to quash any emotions that did not reflect this truth. It was my responsibility to be a-okay. Anything else was self-pity and wallowing (which was surely one of the deadliest of sins).
2. I must always be thinking of others, helping others, available to volunteer whenever and wherever. Good people had a large capacity for service and put others needs before their own (see point 1). I had resources and my health and therefore not to help out those less fortunate, or those who asked was selfish (another of the deadliest sins).
These beliefs meant I ended up exhausted and unable to be honest about how I felt.
On top of these two lies, living in the world (as it is) meant I also felt the pressure to be:
clever, creative, beautiful, thin, hardworking, dedicated, patient, successful, a good steward of my resources, welcoming, good provided, comforter, strong … (I could go on).
The pressure of trying to be perfect in all these ways crushed me. It caused unbelievable strain. If I didn’t manage to live up to these ideals (all the time) I felt like a failure. So I would re-double my efforts and try harder believing it was my inconsistency and weakness that was letting me down.
This stress I put myself under started manifesting itself in panic attacks and soon unrelenting anxiety. I had to unlearn these ideas.
They were lies.
They had made me ill.
They had left me with no idea who I was or what I loved, I had lost myself.
I eventually learnt the lesson it took the longest time to learn:
I am enough.
As I am.
Before I do anything, even if I fail, and when I am having a bad day. I am enough.
If you are battling today, please know you are enough just as you are. You don’t have to do anything or be anyone to be enough. You always have been, just as you are.
And if your anxiety is overwhelming today, treat yourself with kindness, let yourself off the hook, if possible ask for help. You are doing great.
These past two years have been the most calm I have known in a really long time. The weeks and months and years I have put into relearning how to live have not been wasted. Through therapy and walking and conversation and letting go and quietening my life I have found a peace that was impossible for me for years before. I am not scared anxiety is waiting around every corner. I can make plans and (usually) keep them. I am present with my kids, I am working hard, I am reading a lot, I am happy.
But that is not the whole truth. I am human. I have bad days and inconsistencies. I forget to take my anti-depressant for a few days, or make myself too busy for a couple of weeks, or someone in my immediate family is suffering, and I can feel the sharp edge of anxiety approaching. Mental health is not something you discover and then it is yours forever more. It takes attention and commitment.Now, when the jittery feelings start I am not plunged into the abyss. I don’t automatically think I am going back to the darkest place. I have strategies and structures in place to enable me to remain with my head above water. And I know how to wait until the season, the hour or day or week, passes, with a good level of assurance I will feel well again.If you are making changes, if you are in the mix of re-making your life. If you are discovering how to live with peace, how to find calm and prioritise your mental health don’t be surprised by the set-backs. Because you will have them. You will have bad days that feel horrid and all-consuming, worse than you ever remember feeling. On these days tell yourself: this is a bad day, but I have had some good ones too, and I know how to help myself sit this bad day out. Tomorrow or the next day things will lighten, I will feel well again.Hold your nerve, remember you are human. We are not ever entirely one thing or another. Things are not completely bad or 100% good. You are inconsistent, this is okay. Sometimes life will throw you off balance easily and other days you will have such strength it will take you by surprise. It’s okay. You got this. Hold on to hope.
Big love X
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