If depression is a bitch, anxiety is that bitch’s not so little side kick. They’re best friends, spend a lot of time together and you don’t really get one without aspects of the other.
I suffered from anxiety on and off between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, so pretty much half my entire adolescence. It came in phases. I’d be fine for months (my normal seemingly outgoing and confident self) then anxious again, (retreating back into my shell of misery) for what felt like years but only really a few months, then back to myself again. –But even when I was okay, I was still fearful of the next time I would become anxious. – It felt like a dark shadow following me around, as if to say “you may be okay now, and for the next few months, but I’m not quite done with you YET, that wasn’t the last time”. I actually described it to one counsellor like I’d been “taken over” by someone that just wasn’t me. The thoughts, behaviours, everything about the person I was when I was anxious just WAS NOT ME. I was a different person, like an evil spirit had somehow embodied me. I felt cursed. – Which of course added to the feeling of crazy.
And I did indeed feel like I was going crazy. I often felt scared because I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I didn’t understand what was going on in my head, why I couldn’t stop thinking. I didn’t know at the time what anxiety even was, I’d never heard of the term. And because I’d never heard of anxiety, I was baffled by its many symptoms: Fear of leaving the house, constant feeling of unease, panic attacks, hypervigilance, muscle tension, churning stomach, negative thoughts, lack of concentration, inability to make decisions, constant feeling of thirst, and my personal favourite: insomnia.
The more exhausted I became from the lack of sleep, the more agonising going to school became. I just felt so low, all the time. I didn’t want to be around other people, I didn’t want my friends to see me in such a state. When people asked what was wrong, I’d tell them the truth that I wasn’t sleeping well. I’d get messages when I got home from well-meaning friends telling me to stop worrying and get some rest. They didn’t understand it didn’t quite work that way. If I could have turned the thoughts off and gone to sleep, I would have. I couldn’t stop worrying just like that in an instant, because it wasn’t a particular set of worries, it was a state of mind. Everything made me anxious. – Even deciding how to wear my hair or what lunch to bring.
School became seven hours of hell. I couldn’t keep up in lessons; I had zero concentration. This was one of the most frustrating things because I wanted more than anything to do well. My mind was filled with worries about the work, the upcoming exams and what other people were thinking of me. I’d somehow convinced myself that people must have thought I was crazy, a freak, just because I was a bit quieter than usual or I wasn’t contributing at all. I knew it was all in my head, but it didn’t feel that way. From the outside I probably looked a little glum but I tried every day not to, I tried to appear as if I felt normal. – I was usually such a positive person. – I didn’t want people to know how much I was struggling. I often wonder now why I cared so much what other people thought, but that’s what anxiety is, it makes you think things you wouldn’t normally and care too much about the unimportant.
I can’t pin point exactly what triggered each period of anxiety. When I was younger (thirteen/fourteen) it was a lot to do with not really knowing who my real friends were. I didn’t have a best friend at that point and I often felt misplaced. As I got older exam stress became a big factor. I couldn’t bear the thought of not doing well. I was a perfectionist. And the more pressure I put on myself, the more anxious I became, the less I could concentrate. One term I piled so much on my plate; I broke. The school play, a piano exam, the Spanish exchange, out of school drama productions, together with course work and mock exam preparation. – I was burnt out and instead of resting; I just worked myself up about the next exam and didn’t sleep, night after night after night.
Any one that’s ever suffered from insomnia will know how horrible it is. But when you’re anxious or depressed it becomes a vicious cycle. Bed time became something to fear because my bed became a place of torment. It was where I went over and over everything that had happened that day, everything I’d done or said wrong. “Oh I shouldn’t have said that..I should have done that better..Why did she look at me like that?” (An anxious person is a paranoid person). I’d worry about yesterday, tomorrow, next week. I’d worry about the effects of not sleeping. I’d torture myself with every possible outcome if I never recovered from my anxiety. Would I end up in a hospital? Would I have to take drugs? Would the lack of sleep make me go insane? I’d dread everyone else in the house going to bed because this meant I was really alone with my thoughts. And that was one of my biggest fears, being left alone with my thoughts. It’s true that when you’re anxious or depressed, you are your own worst enemy. I felt awful about the worry I was causing my parents, especially my mother as she’d already been through it with my Dad. I wanted more than anything to just snap out of it and get up the next morning feeling fine. I felt trapped in a prison of my own making. I’d put myself in, and only I could let myself out. I was absolutely petrified.
One of my therapists, Rosie, mentioned my Dad’s depression was the root cause of my anxiety. – Which at fifteen made me start to really hate my Dad. “HE WAS THE CAUSE?! He was the reason I was such a mess?” I couldn’t concentrate on my school work, I couldn’t get the top grades I’d worked so hard in previous years for, I couldn’t go out with my friends and enjoy myself and I put all this frustration on him. The words would ring in my head: “ROOT CAUSE”. I wished she’d never said such a thing. I looked at him and saw everything I was failing at, all the pain he’d put us through when I was growing up, everything that made me miserable. My anxiety turned into anger. It took years for me to really accept that mental illness was no one’s fault. No one was to blame. My anxiety had a host of triggers, his depression was one but it was not the sole cause. – My conscientious nature and perfectionism played a huge part in causing and maintaining it.
So what exactly do I hope to achieve by writing about my experience of mental illness? It may sound strange but I don’t want what I went through to be for nothing. I can’t just gloss over it and pretend it didn’t happen. Some good has to come of it. Yes I learnt a lot and I’ve gained a new level of understanding and compassion for others who suffer from mental illness. – But this can’t be all. All the insomnia, tears and panic attacks, surely something positive can come from all this crap. This crap is avoidable.
I hope that something I say resonates with someone. If my experiences, what I’ve learnt, can help someone somehow; it will help me feel that all the crap was a little bit worth it.
So here I am adding to the pile. – Those who have suffered from mental illness, written about it, and have somehow touched another with their words. The more it’s talked about, written about, read about, the more people will understand and the less people will feel ashamed to ask for help. – Because there really is nothing to be ashamed of. Mental illness can affect anyone, at any point in their lives. It’s not black and white, it ranges from the mild to the severe and many people don’t even know they’re suffering from it. I didn’t.
Anxiety can be defined by the as: “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”
I would describe it as: “F****** Shit, utterly f****** shit. You are not yourself, you are not anyone else, but you are not yourself.”
But it does get better, the bitch does go away, and the dark shadow does disappear, leaving you to be you. – A wiser, tougher, more resilient you.