5 years ago I sat trembling in the back room of a City Hall that my theatre group had hired out for a party. My stomach in knots; chest heavy; panting like my lungs were giving up on me. My head exploding with thoughts: ‘Why me?’
This is one example of countless times where I was overtaken with anxiety. Social encounters often made me feel physically sick with nerves: what people were thinking of me, whether I was safe in the environment I was in etc. Big social events sent me into the worst of frenzys.
Describing what anxiety feels like is always a tricky task as it’s so deeply internal. For me, it would often feel like that intense G-force sensation you get in your stomach when on daring rollercoasters; only it wasn’t a thrilling burst of adrenaline, it was my worst, most unbearable nightmare.
During an episode, I wouldn’t be able to think or carry out any simple act or gesture. My tongue was completely tied by the knot in my stomach – I’d even fear my breathing at some points as the intensity of what I was feeling could send me throwing up at any point.
I was stuck; trapped. I could know nothing but the crippling despair that had blanketed itself around me; suffocating me.
I never understood it. That’s the thing with this invisible illness, it knows no rationality.
In the moment, it feels like it’s going to consume you one final time. You think it’s never going to end; like it’s sucking you into a black hole of horror and panic, where you’re unable to escape. Soon enough, it feels like it’s come to define you.
Escaping triggering situations was all I could focus on. You can imagine that the moment I’d shut my home door and was back alone in my comfortable place, I’d feel the best sense of relief. Far from it. Sure, the distressing physical symptoms would slowly mellow, but only half the battle had been fought. Curling up in my duvet, I’d sigh a breath and under it, whisper: ‘failed… again.‘
Disappointment. Embarrassment. Self-loathing. Tears come flooding and soak the pillow. I wouldn’t even notice the pain starting to inhabit my head from all the stress and crying; I was too consumed with mental despair. Failed. Failed. Failed.
The following days, even weeks, would be succumbed to a dark world. Whatever confidence or positivity I had tirelessly worked to build would be smashed into a million pieces. I felt like a million pieces: just scattered over the floor. And I was too exhausted to try and piece them back together: ‘What’s the point? I tried and I failed. I tried countless times to overcome this before, and what? That’s it, failed.‘
It was all one long, horrendous line of attempts crushed with a hammer of ‘failure‘. Get up, try again, become consumed with anxiety. Get up, try again, become consumed with anxiety. Over and over again.
Every dreaded time at social events that someone would walk into the bathroom I had isolated myself in, asking ‘what’s wrong?’, I could only ever give my classic excuse: ‘I must have eaten something bad’. Because making up an upset stomach seemed a much more acceptable reason than simply admitting ‘I’m experiencing a panic attack’.
It seems simple when put into words. But when we are trembling, terrified of something that may seem so irrational to everyone else, we never see it so simply. Instead, it seems like we’re losing control, that we’re beyond any understanding. Beyond help. Because it doesn’t just ‘go’ like a bad headache would with a good night’s sleep; like an upset stomach would with a few days’ rest.
It just seems to get worse. Day after day; event after event. Our thoughts and fears stronger each time. I had never felt more alone in my life.
When in reality, I was among 6 million people in the UK suffering the same illness.
So why do we try and hide it?
Maybe because we live in a society where we are taught to wrap up our emotions and be ‘strong’. We are taught that there will always be someone less fortunate than us. Whatever we suffer, there’s always someone who seems to suffer more. We cannot compare in a world where judgement and rationalisation decides what is important, and what is merely ‘weak’.
So many of us trudge through our discomforts. Pretend like we’re not drowning in our own heads. Wear a smile, appear calm. While inside we’re exhausted from the battle we are secretly fighting.
We wait. Maybe something will come along. Maybe time will make it better.
But time doesn’t make it better. Waiting and praying for that eureka moment when you suddenly discover the door leading from dark into light is just wishful thinking. A mere fantasy that we desperately pine away for: as our only hope. What we do have is a journey of learning and discovering personal methods that will help us to cope.
If you can. Don’t dismiss it as some everyday physical illness as I did. The more you bury it, the more isolated you’ll probably feel. Like it doesn’t matter. It does. Anxiety and mental illness is not a weakness, nor is it irrational. While trying to vocalise something that seems indescribable is incredibly frustrating, it’s far better to confide and have a network of support from trusted friends and family. It’s not anyone else’s job to cure you, but it certainly isn’t your battle to fight alone either. Often enough, you’ll end up opening a vital discussion on mental health where you’ll discover so many others surrounding you suffer their own battles. Surely it’s better to go into them together?
Try and push yourself.
This one is incredibly hard. As social events would often trigger panic attacks for me, naturally I’d avoid them. Sounds logical enough, right? Dodging things that will cause you distress and harm. But it’s often your worst nightmare. I always found there was this voice inside me accepting defeat for chickening out of things; a critical, hateful voice. In time, that voice could end up defining things on a deeper level for you, and it may spiral into a darker ditch that is harder to crawl out of the longer you spend huddled in there.
Whatever it is that causes distress and discomfort, try and endure it for small periods, or in steps. For example, if there was a social event going on all evening, I would try and face it for 30 minutes, then maybe an hour. Take certain people along with me that understood me better and could provide comfort. No matter how silly you might think these steps may seem to others, you’re actually being incredibly progressive.
If you crumble; if you have a bad experience during it, and this is important – you have NOT failed. If you take nothing away from this, please remember that one thing. Facing something incredibly difficult is achieving, not failing – it’s not dependent on how well you cope.
Do your best to practise positive thinking.
Far easier said than done, goodness do I know! There’s nothing more frustrating than someone regurgitating those ‘be positive‘ speeches when you’re locked away in a dark nightmare. But annoyingly enough, the point does still stand. Try and reprogram the perspective you view your mental health with – it’s not defeat, but a fighting spirit. Negativity is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you already determine something is unfixable or doomed, then unfortunately it is, because you’ve given up. You can’t help something if you’ve already thrown the spanner in the works.
It’s never a walk in the park. Sometimes it feels so frustratingly unfair. There’s days where you just want to admit defeat and give in. But be patient. Be persistent. Be kind to yourself. Think of a time/event in your past that you once thought you could never overcome, but did. There’s no reason why it can’t be the same for anxiety, or any mental illness.