I wanted to sit down and vocalise my anxiety 'attacks' for people – partly to inform and educate, but partly in the desperate hope that by writing about how it feels, I might be able to exorcise the feelings enough to get me through the rest of the day.
The feelings that accompany anxiety can be extremely useful – all those chemicals released are solely for the purpose of helping us to stand and fight, or run away. You've all heard of 'fight or flight', so I'm not going to linger upon the definitions. Instead I'll link to this great article about talking through anxiety with children. It's also great for adults.
What I want to talk about is my own personal anxiety. Increasingly frequently now, I see people I know on social media referring to their 'panic attacks' and as much as I understand and empathise, their experiences seem far removed from my own. My bouts of anxiety aren't short and brutal… I don't suddenly think I'm going to die (at least, not from the attack itself), and rarely hyperventilate. I don't feel faint. The stereotypical 'panic attack' is just not something I often get. What I get is the slow, creeping, constant, mind-numbing, freezing weight of a thousand worlds.
I find it almost impossible to describe, but I will try. Imagine something is coming up that you’re dreading… right? Imagine pushing that event back and back in your calendar, day by day, so you never get past it, and the dread is always there. It's like that. Imagine wearing a heavy chain around your neck, and someone adds an extra link to it every day. It's like that. Imagine that Sunday feeling you used to get when you were in school… knowing that the weekend is over, that you probably wasted most of it, that it's five long days until you can breathe again… but that is every day. It's like that.
I can deal with being afraid of things, because at some point the moment of fear will pass me by, or I'll get over it. But I am afraid of my own life, and there's no getting past that. I have to live it every day.
My life has become one long Sunday evening, and it hurts so much that I can barely sit with it for a moment. I do everything I can to distract myself from it, and if I turn totally off, I can be fine, but the minute I acknowledge to myself that I am enjoying a distraction, I am reminded of the anxiety I am trying to avoid, and it comes rushing back like a flood. I don't fly into a wild fit of panic. I just sob and sob, crushed under a certain knowledge that it will never end. That this is what it will be like today, tomorrow, and the day after. And then I am at the point where suddenly, my anxiety and fear over specifics is replaced by anxiety and fear that these feelings will never go away and I'll always feel like this.
I have dealt with this since I was a child, and when it suddenly stopped happening, I thought I had finally recovered from whatever illness I had that caused it. Now I realise that I had just found myself under a specific set of circumstances which made it possible to put my anxiety away. But that achievement was specific to that time in my life, and it's gone now. I have spent the majority of my time on this planet being anxiety's bitch, and it seems that time is back, and here to stay.
And all I want to do is run. But I know that unless I find a set of ideal circumstances again, running will not solve the problem.
They say that the sense of smell is the most effective at triggering memory. I do agree, at least to a point. I find that the really vivid memories that come back to me after experiencing a certain scent, are almost always good ones. Bad memories, I have come to realise, are for me triggered by a kind of full-body emotional flashback. There are just some emotions that, when they hit you, permeate your whole body, brain and soul and suddenly you are back, somewhere that you have no desire to be.
It's been happening a lot recently, this kind of bottom falling out of stomach feeling, accompanied by nuances of helplessness, loneliness and desperation. The time and place it takes me back to, is about six years ago, when I moved to Kent. I was suffering quite badly with depression and I had really come to hate my home town, so I moved to be closer to my brother. He had received some rather fine mental health care in the area, and I was hoping to take advantage of it. Without getting into too many specifics, I can honestly say that my years in that place were the worst of my adult life. Getting the help I needed was a rather gruelling process and even though I did end up getting exactly that, it took a long time.
During that time my life took on a very unique flavour. My depression became much worse before it got better and I developed a crushing fear of being alone. My brother was a saint during this time, coming to my flat to take me to the shops, or to therapy, planning meals we could cook, putting aside time for us to go for coffee and to buy our favourite sticky buns. Without him I honestly think I wouldn’t have made it. When he wasn’t around my days would be pretty much the same… wake up late, lie awake for an hour or two not wanting to get up, surf the Internet, stare blankly, make myself go for a walk, zone out in front of the TV, use Facebook to try and convince people to come and keep me company, fail, buy alcohol, drink until I passed out or vomited and passed out.
Don't get me wrong, I would do really amazingly constructive things, like completing an enormous jigsaw puzzle, or throwing myself into a cross-stitch pattern, or minutely planning my meals for the week. The thing is, I didn't do those things because I got enjoyment from them. I did them because it meant that I could spend an hour not thinking about anything. There was a certain terrifying robot-like quality to everything I did. It was like I felt I had to be doing something, just in case I stopped to think too much, at which point I would break for good.
This became an ongoing theme to my days – the constant fear of losing it. I wasn’t a proud person by then. I'd lost all that a long time before. However, I was cripplingly terrified of breaking down in a public place, because I knew that it would be such a relief to finally crumple to the floor in Sainsbury's, throw some stuff around, curl into a foetal ball and let them take me away… and there would have been no coming back from that. I still had enough of me left to not be far gone enough to think that spending the rest of my life in an institution was better than battling in the real world. I still think that the number of times I actually cried in public, or at all, is far lower than anyone might think. The heaviness of my heart through those years, gave rise to the fear that if I started I wouldn't stop.
I would actually set aside time to cry, and it would be by sitting down with a sad movie, or a pull-at-your-heartstrings TV show. I'd turn out the lights, pour some booze and really go for it with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was a kind of release and usually the only kind I let myself have.
If I'm not painting an accurate or compelling emotional picture, it's because I can't. At least, not for you. Right now I'm so triggered by my own words that I want to run screaming away from my keyboard, but continue I must… because there's a reason I needed to describe that. Right at the start of this, I mentioned that I had recently been experiencing vivid flashbacks to that time. It's come on slowly and sneakily and now that it has hit full force, I can say it has taken me utterly by surprise. Since that awful time in my life, I got the help I needed, moved in with my partner, slowly got my life together, found a job where I was valued, and generally started loving my life. Two months ago, I even came off my antidepressants. I've come a long way, so I guess there's a longer distance to fall.
Today was the worst day. I woke up, and just about held it together. I came downstairs, and just about held it together. I had breakfast and did some admin for an event I run, and just about held it together. I went for a walk with my partner, and just about held it together. That last one was the worst. It's a beautiful day, and there were conkers on the ground, and we noodled around a really nice cemetery, and everything should have been wonderful. Instead, I spent the entire time trying not to cry and being terrified I would cry, and focusing on that point where we would have to turn around and come home and I would have to deal with shit again. I began planning this blog post in my head and I knew then I had to write it.
I am scared, but not of how I feel. I am too experienced in my own mental health to have this just slide out of control. I know to talk about it, to seek help, to take care of myself. What I'm scared of is the fact that I have a choice: to relapse or not to relapse. I could, hypothetically, just let myself break. Hand myself over to the NHS again, jack in my job, never get out of my pyjamas, say "fuck you" to every responsibility I have, let it all go. At the lowest points in my life I have often thought that it must be great to be dead. No responsibilities, no concerns, no wrestling with your demons. Of course, being who I am, I always come out on the side of "but then I'm not alive, and there are good things in life". The next best thing is to just give up though… but that might actually be worse than being dead, because you have to live through the nightmare that your life becomes.
Right now, I'm sure friends of mine reading this are mentally screaming "GET THEE TO THERAPY, IDIOT". I can confidently say that therapy will not help. I have been there, done that, got the t-shirt. I know my root. I know the warning signs. I know how to talk myself down. I know how to talk myself up. Therapy, and the whole obsessive nature of it, and how I'd just end up pretending like I was the tortured protagonist in my own private movie again, is not going to help me. Indulging that side of me is not going to help. If anything, it might even turn me even further towards relapse, when I realise that letting other people take responsibility for your brain is easier than doing it yourself.