The first time I remember experiencing anxiety (or at least when it really started to take hold) was when I was thirteen years old, at school. We were in a middle of a PE lesson, and I began to feel as if I was genuinely about to die. I struggled to see, my vision became blurry, my legs turned to jelly and all I wanted to do was disappear- I felt so ill , the hot summers day didn’t help, and in hindsight neither did being outside playing tennis. I felt sick. I wanted to lie down, before I fell over. It was horrible. It was also my first anxiety attack. When the teachers back was turned, I managed to escape and make my way, still holding onto my tennis racket, back to school. Here I turned off the lights, and lay down in the darkened room of the girls changing room, still wearing my red PE t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. I must not have been there very long, although it felt like forever- as I assessed and catastrophized every worry in my head, my biggest being not looking like a ‘freak’ as I left the school later, would I even be able to physically get up? What would happen when the other girls got back here from the lesson? Can I hide in the toilets? What if I’m dying and the school changing rooms would be the last thing I ever see? I checked my pulse, thankfully I was still alive. Maybe I’m not going to die, but I am going blind. That must be why I feel so dizzy.
At this point it hadn’t crossed my mind that what I was feeling was anxiety, and that it was all completely ‘normal.’ Maybe not normal in the sense that everything was okay, because it certainly wasn’t okay and if I’m honest felt bloody awful. But in the sense that anxiety is something that millions of us feel and experience everyday, and that I was just joining this community whose minds are more complicated than meets the eye. I didn’t know this yet, or that 1 in 4 of us will feel like this at some stage in our life, so there will, most likely in that very PE class, be people just like me. We just didn’t talk about it, and as teenage girls were more concerned about being ‘liked’ and ‘popular’ than recognising our mental health. I of course was neither, so opening up about any mental health difficulties would have made me even more of an outcast. Being known as the clumsy, hippy, vegetarian was quite enough- I didn’t want to be seen as the crazy girl as well. Shortly after those periods of rumination, my teacher must have been alerted to the fact that I was missing, as the school nurse appeared in the changing rooms looking for me. By this point I had calmed down considerably, but still felt incredibly spaced out and in no way ready to engage in conversation with anyone. Despite this, she made me gather up my belongings, and go with her still dressed in my school PE kit down the corridor to the nurses room. Whilst I was here, I burst into tears- it finally all became too much. I remember her giving me a glass of water and a leaflet about bullying- It baffles me why she thought this was necessary, I had been bullied most of my life, it wasn’t new and sadly over time had become part of the norm- a leaflet telling me about anxiety disorders and that I wasn’t really a freak- would have probably been more useful.
Since that moment, my life has been consumed by worry, fear, anxiety and depression. I’d worry that every time we went out in the car that we’d have a fatal car crash- or worse that mum just wouldn’t come home from work one day. When not long ago, my family were in a real-life car accident, without me in it- I understandably was in bits. I worried like most girls my age that I would get fat- but unlike most people to combat this fear I became vegan and cut more out of my diet than is healthy for a growing teenager to do, subsequently making myself ill and almost requiring hospital treatment if I didn’t put a stop to my veganism when I did. Every headache- I had a brain tumour, and every time my breathing sounded ‘funny’ it was definitely a heart attack. I panicked whenever I heard a slight argument at home and to this day still worry about my friends at levels that aren’t healthy. I once watched a documentary about someone who had glaucoma and for months was convinced that it was happening to me too and that I was going blind. These irrational thoughts, seemed perfectly rational to me, but they were also terrifying. I’m just pleased I was a teenager over a decade ago, and not now- current news stories would have surely sent a teenage girls anxiety that didn’t have any strategies into overdrive. The biggest news story during the height of my anxiety was the Iraq war, I remember sitting down in the middle of a road on an anti war protest being terrified of world war three breaking out, sometimes it would probably have been better for my mental health if I wasn’t so politically aware. It would probably be best for most of us if we didn’t know that the news exists some days coming to think of it. After experiencing a couple of anxiety attacks in a local shopping centre, I avoided going there for two years, I would rather stay at home in my room where I felt safe- much like most teenagers, except I was hiding in my room because I felt anxious, not because I was a stroppy teenage girl (although I was that too.) I started to wear baggy clothes so that I could hide away- the less attention that was on me the better, I concluded. Anything that interests most girls completely bypassed me, and my attempt at maintaining friendships let alone relationships hit an all time low, it takes a lot of empathy and understanding to get to know me I have since worked out and for people to see past the girl who is ‘hard work.’ I felt trapped with my thoughts, the only interests that stayed with me were music and campaigning about absolutely everything, animal rights, anti-nestle, global warming, anti war- you name it, I was there (in my baggy jumper.)
More recently I have become terrified of being unable to swallow and choking on my food, this probably stems from my TMJD- a very real physical condition related to my jaw. As a result I only feel comfortable eating in front of people I trust and have cut out so much from my diet, that I have decided I can’t swallow- despite numerous trips to the doctor, all concluding that there definitely isn’t anything physical going on and that it is in fact all in my mind. In a similar way I have worried about going completely deaf because of water getting into my ears when I’m swimming, so for months I removed swimming from my life- despite it being the one form of exercise that was actually really positive for my mental health. I’m also unable to go anywhere without a bottle of water, almost as if I’m convinced other people’s houses and pubs don’t have running water, but I am just scared that without my bottle of water to calm me down- my anxiety will appear more angrier than ever. Although seeing all of the above written down, does make me wince at how absurd it all seems- it’s the truth, and very few of us talk about exactly what anxiety means and looks like. In some ways I’m lucky to have grown up when I did- pre social media, anxiety ‘listicles’ and when almost everyone talks about being anxious as though it is some kind of craze, being a bit worried or nervous is very different to dealing with an anxiety disorder, in the same way that having a clean house is very different to suffering from OCD. In some ways, today mental health is glorified by the media as being ‘cool’, but I can tell you that it is anything but cool.
As I grew up, after the days of that first anxiety attack in the changing rooms, I gradually began to feel more and more low. I can’t really describe it, other than being sad all of the time. My self esteem didn’t really exist and I started to self harm, because I was angry with myself for feeling this way. There was no explanation, and I would often feel anxious for no reason at all. Sometimes there was a reason though, travelling for one- being unable to escape during an anxiety attack became (and still is) my worst fear, mental health can work in strange ways. Despite not saying much, my teenage self was very good at responding to how I felt and I used writing to express this. I’d come home and spend hours writing in a note book before bed, documenting my day, my worries and things that I longed to tell people, but felt too weird to even begin to verbalise. When I was sixteen I relied heavily on a text service for young people, this for me was a step up from writing it down- as I was starting to, for the first time in my life talk about my mental health. It was through this text service, and the youth workers behind the computer screen that encouraged me go to the doctor and access counselling for the first time. Walking into the doctors surgery to admit to everything that I had been writing down, was a big thing to do for a seventeen year old- A levels, university applications and mental health all in the same year isn’t a great place to be.
Now as an adult, my anxiety has moved on, but it is still very much there. I’ve experienced more heartache, difficulties and bereavement too, but I am finally able to talk about it, and although I still feel somewhat of a burden every time I do mention something that is getting me down- I’m not sure any of my friends don’t know about my anxiety. This is a good thing, because it’s so important to talk about our mental health. I’ve lost count of the amount of therapy I’ve had over the years, the times when I have mentioned anxiety and people have ran a mile (making me reluctant to disclose for months) and the days when getting out of the house seems as challenging as climbing a mountain. Through sharing my story about mental health (and Dyspraxia) I have met some of the most kind, caring and wonderful people who really do understand and have been there, or are there- just as I was as a thirteen year old girl scared of falling over during a PE lesson. Talking about it really does help to make you realise that you are not alone, in ways that are often difficult to describe- unless you have been there yourself. Empathy means everything.
And I hope you are able to talk about it too.