Lately, my Facebook and Instagram feeds have been crammed with video snippets, images and links to various articles on mental health. I’ve also been having discussions with others on their stories and even read blog posts on the same topic. I’ve felt their pain but marvelled at their strength and bravery to share their experience. I figured, seeing I know a bit about it myself, I’d throw my two pennies in as well, to keep the chat going.
Truthfully, I’ve been in two minds as to whether or not to write a blog post on anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Now that I’m putting pen to paper (today is 20/4/17), so to speak, I’m not even sure that I’ll ever publish this. Yet, here I am…still typing. Therefore if you see it, I’ve plucked up enough courage to share.
My intent is not to get overly personal or deep and go into every intimate detail of my “story”. This is something that I have well under control, so you don’t need to worry. Trust me, I do enough of that for all of us! It’s just not a topic I really like to discuss, simply because so many don’t get it and I always have that fear that they’ll treat or think of me differently. I imagine people will have one of three reactions…
- Sympathy- “Oh you poor thing, I’ll tip toe around you from now on” type responses.
- Fear- as though they could catch it or become afraid to talk to me.
- Or they’ll slap a label on me, “You’re now the weird one.”
There’s such a lack of understanding surrounding depression, anxiety, stress- that whole umbrella. It makes me so angry to hear people use phrases like “I’m so depressed”, “I nearly had a panic attack”, “I have anxiety”, when they’ve never experienced any of these things, nor do they understand what those terms actually mean. They use these words so flippantly and without any consideration for people who actually suffer from the aforementioned. And yes, suffer is the correct term.
This isn’t a textbook type thing. It’s very personal. It’s unique to each sufferer. It doesn’t always come about because of a tough time or a traumatic experience, it certainly didn’t for me.
It’s very real and it can be very scary. It’s manageable but it is always there, lurking at the back of the mind. Most of the time, you’d never know because I, like so many others, are skilled at deception. It doesn’t consume my every waking minute or anything, I’m not inauthentic in my day to day interactions but if you ask me how I am and I’m having an off day, I will lie and tell you I’m fine. It’s not that I want to lie. It’s just easier.
I’ve always been an over-thinker and a worrier. It started to become a problem, though, when I was 20 and at uni. Yes, it was a particularly stressful year, academically speaking, but no more stressful for me than anyone else. Expectations from tutors, assignments and deadlines were the same for me as everyone else. The difference was my way of coping and my reaction to the pressure. Something had changed in my brain, a switch had been flipped and everything suddenly seemed a great big deal. My overly sensitive nature became a hundred times worse and the smallest of things caused a major reaction.
For a while, I just put it down to stress. During exam time at Lurgan College, stress caused tears and mini melt downs. I figured this was history repeating itself. That was until the tears and the worry didn’t subside, as they usually did, and all the pick me ups that normally lightened my mood, did nothing. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I didn’t see the point and I’ve never been one to talk things through. I’m a bottler, well and truly.
Then I experienced my first panic attack. If you say ‘Oh I think I had one of those once’ you didn’t. Trust me, you’d know. Without a shadow of a doubt. I remember my first one clearly. It petrified me. I didn’t know what it was, at first. I was breathless. I felt like I was drowning. My heart felt like it was struggling to get out of my chest. I was dizzy. Sitting, standing or lying down- it made no difference. I thought, this was it. I concluded I must be dying. That may seem irrational, but all rationality goes out the window. This made the panic attack longer, and more intense. Getting my breathing under control felt nigh on impossible. Minutes felt like hours. It was exhausting. This was just one of what became a regular part of my life, for a protractive period.
I started having panic attacks in my sleep and waking up completely incapable of catching a breath. I would have to bang on the wall to get Mum, Dad or my brother to come and help me, scaring them half to death in the process. Waking up in the dark and feeling like you’re choking is terrifying and troubling in equal measure. You don’t know what has brought it on so you feel you just need someone to sit with you.
By this stage, I knew I had to tell someone but I don’t express myself so well face to face. I’ll make light or little of it. So I did what I do now, I wrote it down. I left a note for Mum and Dad. I can’t remember exactly the words I used but I tried to explain that I felt something wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure what else to do and I was petrified of putting it out into the world. Of course, it had to happen, but I felt as though, maybe, once I shared my thoughts I’d regret it or even feel as though I was making a mountain out of a mole hill.
What followed was much of the same, except now the doctor knew and was chucking their opinions at me. No harm to them, but unless they’ve experienced it (and I say ‘it’ because I don’t know what else to call ‘it’) they only know what they’ve read or been taught. Their solution was medication. Anti-depressants, sleeping tablets, tablets to take when I felt a panic attack coming on, tablets to calm me down if a panic attack was particularly aggressive, tablets to reduce the shakes I’d developed in my hands…I felt I could have run a chemist. My life was soon controlled by medication.
I spent weeks with a counsellor, who was perfectly lovely, but most of what I said to her were untruths or partial truths, so she didn’t ask more questions. I didn’t care that her job was to listen and to help. It turned out she was a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. I didn’t like that she was trying to ‘recondition’ me. Parallel to that, I knew I needed her to. You see depression, or whatever, puts obstacles in the way at every turn. It brings out the negative in the most positive of aids.
This therapist gave me coping mechanisms, distraction techniques and tools to deal with my “condition” in my own way. I despised being placed under a microscope and having all her attention on me.
Somewhere in the middle of all this was that uncomfortable hour that I spent with some form of holistic therapist that I mentioned here. This doll looked at my iris and, like some sort of scene with a gypsy palm reader, proceeded to lay all my problems bare, in scarily accurate detail. I didn’t utter a single syllable for the whole appointment. I was not bringing another ‘helper” in on my grey world, throwing their two cents in on how to “fix’ me. Looking back, I imagine I was quite rude but again, my cocktail of medicines had completely stripped me of any ability to feel guilt for my actions. She concocted further tonics and potions for me to chug. I don’t even remember taking them. I may well have been thran and refused.
Even with all of this help I never could say that I felt any better for it. Not once did I feel like my old self and whilst stress no longer affected me in such a dramatic way, I didn’t feel that the future was overly bright. You see, depression takes over your whole body but it’s firmest grip is on the mind. It alters every thought, controls every action, takes joy from the happy occasions and casts a darker shadow on the sad. It is relentless. It doesn’t care that it has taken all pleasure from your life. Nothing satisfies it. I had so many people trying to lift me out of this pit and I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
These feelings, thoughts and appointments continued for around a year. I was well tended by my family, by Russell, (dear love him, who had to endure many a tear filled panic attack) the doctor and the counsellor. During this time I came to hate something even more than my counselling sessions though…my antidepressants. Being forced to examine every last thought helped me realize that I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Sadness or happiness. Depression or joy. It was all the same emotion because the meds had robbed my mind and my heart of any capability to distinguish between the two extremes.
On occasion, when I was sitting in the doctor’s office, saying the speech that I felt I’d recited a hundred times before, I expressed my intent to remove the anti-depressants from my daily menu. I was told no. I didn’t like that. So, against their wishes, I gradually weaned myself off them. By this stage I felt that feeling something, even stress or worry, was better than feeling nothing at all. Somewhere, in the fog of my brain, I felt I could cope, or at least manage better than I was able to before. Something told me it was time to lose the crutch and rely on myself to sort things out, not tablets. I felt I’d come far enough in my journey to make that decision for myself and that my support network would be there for every step.
Gradually, the emotions came back. All of them. Some were welcomed. Some hit me like a tonne of bricks and consequently filled me with panic. Yet, somehow, with support from the people who knew my story and who knew me best, my coping skills improved and I started to feel somewhat human again.
Now, almost 9 years later, I’ve discovered something. I am a hell of a lot stronger than I thought. There have been times, many times, that, logically speaking, I probably should have slipped back into that rut. Actual problems and stresses that should have tipped me over the edge. I admit, there have been times that that box, which is usually kept locked with all of those gloomy adjectives inside, was opened momentarily. I’ve thought…
“I can’t take any more of this.”
“I’m not strong enough to cope.”
“It’s all coming back. It’s happening again.”
…and the likes.
I still have panic attacks to this day, I still stress and worry more than you thought humanly possible and, in all sincerity, I’ve expected, in the 9 years post, to slip. I’ve had down days, off weeks and grey months. Lately, with all that has gone on, I have surprised myself, even on a daily basis, that I’m still able to tread water. I think I know why.. I have something now that’s stronger than the “depression” that lives at the back of my brain…the desire to NEVER GO BACK.
Anxiety, panic attacks and depression will always have potential in my life. Whilst I hope and pray that they can all be kept at bay, I’m also realistic enough to realise that that won’t always be the case. It never leaves you, not completely. Right now, the rest of my brain is in control and shouts louder. Long may that continue.
This blog entry could not be more different to my usual ramblings. I know that. All the same and for me anyway, it’s the most important one I think I’ll ever jot down.
If you are like me you need to know that things do get better. They do. You need to know that there are people that love you, that need you, who look up to you, who would be lost without your friendship, whose lives are that wee bit richer for having you in it. We are all important to someone. Those people need you. We are allowed to be down and have spells of despair but we can’t let that be our story. We can’t let that define who we are or rule our future. We are far too important for that.
For me, as with so many others, the hardest part is letting others in and opening ourselves up to possible judgement. I’m sorry to say that there are some people who I “let in” that didn’t deserve to be, on reflection. They weren’t supportive, they dismissed my concerns and basically told me off for allowing myself time alone to recover. I don’t need those people and neither do you.
I needed someone else to be my crutch. This is a term I use frequently. Someone to hold me up and let me move forward. I was so fortunate to have that in Russell and in my family. Find those people for yourselves. Email me if you have to, because I will understand.
Some tips and tricks I found useful, when I let them…
- Distraction- find a new hobby and throw yourself whole heartedly into it. Be it baking, art, crafting, reading, fitness, yoga…find a new love and allow yourself time to have a break from your thoughts.
- Walks with music or an audiobook. Fresh air, pretty landscapes and something positive piping through headphones is bliss.
- Journal before bed. Write it all down, close the book and let that be an end to those concerns, until you open it again and are ready to deal with them.
- Set simple goals. Not life goals necessarily. Tasks. By the end of this month I will have had fewer panic attacks. By the end of this week I will have told my friend how I’m really feeling. These sort of seemingly simple chores give you something else to focus on and a goal to work towards.
- When having a panic attack or you feel one coming on, find an action to divert your attention. If you ever see me touching each finger tip to my thumb in fast, repetitive succession, that’s what I’m doing. Let someone else that you trust know what this wee “tell” is too.
- Talk to someone and if you can’t verbalise…write it down and allow them to read it.
- Every once in a while allow yourself time to indulge in another world. Whether that’s through a book (Harry Potter for me) or a movie (Pink Panther movies with Steve Martin or Father of the Bride are my go tos) permit yourself to forget, just for a time. Your brain and your body need a break.
- Have a routine and stick to it. That includes when you get up, have meals, complete tasks and go to bed. When other things feel out of your control, this is one thing you can stick to.
- Try hard not to withdraw from day to day life. In other words, don’t take to your bed. It will do no good.
- When a panic attack is at its worst, repeat over and over in your head “I’m going to be ok.” It is scary and it seems like it won’t end but despite what your brain may be making you think, it won’t hurt you.
You’re NEVER alone and it WILL get better.