I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder when I was 12 years old. I would wake up every night crying, shaking and gasping for air, until I became so exhausted that I’d fall back to sleep in the early hours. I was prescribed a low dose of Amitriptyline and referred for expensive therapy sessions, with a woman who made me draw smiley faces on bits of paper then throw them in the bin. Needless to say, I didn’t find it that helpful.
Anxiety is not just a mental illness, there are so many physical symptoms that go along with it; heart palpitations, chest pain, muscle pain, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, nausea, dizziness, a dry mouth and that tell-tale lump in your throat. I’ve had to run out of gym sessions, hair appointments, job interviews, meetings, even dates before now, as I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to faint / have a heart attack / spontaneously combust, right that second.
For several years my anxiety remained dormant, rearing its head once again early last year as a new diagnosis: Panic Disorder. With no specific trigger, it’s difficult to control; it can often come on for absolutely no reason. Sometimes, I will think about how I haven’t suffered from it for a few days, immediately bringing it on myself.
When I’m not suffering from an attack, I frequently experience derealisation; a constant feeling of detachment from myself and my surroundings. When walking down the street, everything feels surreal, dream-like and visually distorted; a strange unreality. One day last summer, my housemate and best friend of ten years saw me on the bus on the way home, she came over to say hello, but I didn’t recognise her.
With my body still flying the anxiety flag, I visited my doctor to increase my medication dosage. I was to take a 10mg tablet, on top of the 20mg’s I already had. I don’t believe medication is always the answer, but I was willing to try anything to crack this.
I went into my usual pharmacy and the man behind the counter noticed that I was coming in for a lower dosage, to which he shouted, “Oh my goodness! Congratulations, you’ve recovered!” “Who’s the boss?!” He asked, whilst pointing at me in front of everybody in there. “Me?” I muttered unconvincingly, as the other customers started nodding and clapping.
I couldn’t believe the sheer ridiculousness of the situation I was in. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had actually gone up. I decided I could never go back there, he would be so disappointed! I felt like a recovered heroin addict with a secret stash at home. It shouldn’t be funny, but I couldn’t help but laugh.
As my doctor had warned me, anxiety disorders can worsen for a brief period when starting a new course of medication or increasing the dosage. And it did. As soon as I got through my front door each night, I would jump into bed with tears streaming down my face out of frustration; my throat would tighten and my heart would beat out of my chest – I had good people around me, but I had never felt so lonely. I felt like things would never change.
On the weekends, I wanted to be productive so badly, but I just couldn’t muster the strength. I would drink to try and relax myself, but it only made it worse for me on the days that I didn’t. After one hangover too many, I decided that I needed a lifestyle change. I started to go to the gym more and made myself weekly meal plans. I also started to force myself out of the house on weekends, despite my lack of interest; to a gallery, to a museum, to the gym, out for lunch, or I’d book myself a massage – anything to lift my spirits.
Eight months later, I am feeling much more in control of my life, but it’s still something that I have to live with every day, unbeknown to many around me. I’ve learnt breathing techniques, how to distract myself when I feel an attack coming on, and most importantly, I’ve learnt not to push myself too hard, because I am doing the best I can.
Piece of advice: remember to be kind to others. Just because somebody doesn’t show it on the outside, it doesn’t mean they’re not fighting a battle on the inside.
If you suffer from anxiety or depression, surround yourself with good people, be gentle with yourself and seek professional support. Everybody has their bad days, but you’re not alone in this and things can get better with time. With the stigma still surrounding mental health, many people suffer in silence – but together we can break it.
Over 60 million people in the EU suffer from anxiety disorders, with women and young proving to be the most affected. There are several charities spearheading research into anxiety and depression, offering free, confidential advice and support. Professional help is also available on the NHS via your registered doctor’s surgery.
No More Panic has a helpline on 0844 967 4848(10am-10pm every day) and a youth helpline (specifically for 13-20-year-olds, 4-6pm Mon-Fri) on 01753 840393.