It’s been a while hasn’t it? Sorry about that, but there have been changes afoot…
My last post was written in a fit of negativity and frustration, annoyed at myself for how my anxiety was making me behave. I poured this frustration out in a tumult of words, and it changed something. I’ve been told that getting your thoughts and feelings out on paper (or laptop screen…) can be really beneficial, helping to make sense of them and subsequently deal with them. I’ve never written this blog with that intention, it was always more about being open and honest, doing my bit to help end the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. But venting seems to have flipped a switch. The one that overrides the bit of my brain that tells me i’m being rubbish and makes me feel a bit self-pitying. The one that tells me that if I want to get better, the best way to do it is to help myself get there and do what makes me happy. That it’s ok to be selfish sometimes.
Now, i’m not saying that i’m totally cured, never again to be plagued by pesky panic attacks or followed by the black dog. I feel like it’s always there, lurking at the back of my mind like Voldemort under Professor Quirrell’s turban, occasionally giving me a little prod, saying “Yoohoo, i’m still here..” I’m expecting these reminders for quite some time to come, though as they say, forewarned is forearmed, so this fact no longer fills me with terror as it did not so long ago.
So, I made changes. Left my job and gave myself a reason for getting out of the house, one that I was (and still am) super-giddy about. I’d been moping around the house on sick leave for too long. I NEEDED a reason to get dressed, have a shower, leave the house and actually talk to people.
The cumulative power of these changes is astounding. Just the act of getting showered and dressed made me feel a little better. My sister told me I looked nice. Another positive tick. I was out of the house all day without a panic attack- more happy points. All this made it easier to do the same the next day, and the next and so on. Looking back, it seems such a simple thing. Why didn’t I do it earlier?! I could have actually enjoyed the summer instead of hiding from it. But such is the iron grip of anxiety, that acting positively to alleviate your symptoms feels completely beyond your reach.
I’m still taking it one day at a time, popping an anti-anxiety pill when I feel a bit edgy, and last week I finally started my NHS funded cognitive behavioural therapy to go alongside the bereavement counselling i’ve been having for the past few weeks.
Here’s the thing about anxiety and depression. What isn’t written in the pamphlets, what the doctors and counsellors don’t tell you. But, what for me, affects me the most. Today anyway. (I’m also very aware that everyone’s experience of anxiety is different) It’s that suffering from anxiety makes you flaky. At least that how it feels you’re being. Here’s how it goes... You have a pretty good day. Feel like you’re almost human. So you make plans. Going to a friend’s birthday event, going on a day trip, Even just going on a walk with friends that you haven’t seen enough of lately. Then, you start to feel anxious about it. “Will I be ok? I hope I don’t have a panic attack while I’m out. Do they think I’m mental?” This specific anxiety just adds to the underlying general anxiety that’s there all the time anyway, and reaches a crescendo of panic that sets you back to not leaving the house at all, cancelling plans at the last-minute. See? Flaky.
The thing is, what your brain doesn’t tell you, is that the sneaky grey matter living in your skull is making it all up. Including the physical manifestations of anxiety. But, convincing yourself of this is about as easy as juggling 5 fire torches while balancing on a ball that’s sitting on top of a galloping elephant. For example: I have come to a decision about my job. I’m quitting. Got myself a place at a local university studying English and Journalism. I’m waaaaay excited about this. It all happened pretty quickly, and, as I’m far older that the typical fresher (I’m 32), my entry was assessed on an essay that they asked me to write. Which they liked! But. I had a lot to do this week to sort stuff out. I planned to have a busy day Friday. Hand my notice in at work (I’m still signed off sick), go to the job centre to see what help i could get from the department for work and pensions, apply for my student finance, then go into uni to complete my registration. Only my brain and body had other ideas. I woke with stomach cramps and a highly unpleasant trip to the bathroom (TMI, sorry). By Saturday afternoon I was feeling a bit better, better enough to arrange to join in on a countryside walk the following day anyway. Sunday morning: Yep, you guessed it, the thought of being out and about returned my stomach to a state of washing machine style somersaults. Walk: cancelled. Friends: let down. Weekend: scuppered. Me: feeling guilty/ a bit pathetic/ more anxiety.
The point is, I know It’s an illness, and just because i can’t see my anxiety doesn’t make it any less real. Which makes my ‘flakiness’ a symptom, like a runny nose with a cold, or a rash with an allergic reaction. It’s a response to my illness. My brain just doesn’t want me to know that.
This morning, i came across this. It helped. Have a look…
So… I’d finally accepted that I needed some help to conquer my anxiety, and resolved to actually take the anti anxiety tablets that I’d been prescribed, and had been sat in my handbag, ignored, since. I’d been invited to the cinema my a close friend that I’d not seen in far too long. Perfect opportunity! For the last 6 weeks or so, the thought of leaving the house had caused me real problems. This was going to be a challenge, but one that I was determined to at least try and tackle. An hour before setting off, I took a tablet. I arrived at the cinema in a taxi (well, I didn’t want to push my luck by dealing with a bus ride too!) aaaand… I survived the evening! No panic attack, and even managed to smile. This was a huuuuuge confidence boost. Massive. Ginormous. The next day was my telephone assessment with the mental health services provided by the good old NHS. I had filled in the questionnaire, scoring the maximum for almost all the questions on how my anxiety was affecting my day-to-day life. At the end of the conversation, the counsellor (rather sheepishly I thought) informed me that the waiting list for talking therapies was at least 8 weeks. Overall, despite my good day at the cinema, I was feeling desperate. How was I going to cope until then?! I felt so let down by this. Angry even, at funding cuts to mental health services, the politicians who had allowed it, and at myself for not even being aware of these massive restrictions to services until I was in need of them myself. (I could have a long rant here, but I figure that many readers will be more than aware of the issues surrounding mental health treatment in the UK, and probably are worse off than me in terms of treatment time, so I won’t rant. Much)
This phone call had plunged me into a spiral of self pity. I was in the house by myself (a rare occurence) and really powerfully felt that I wanted to be around people today. My brain seemed to realise that it had to help itself, if the NHS couldn’t, and I braved a short train ride to go see my brother. He had friends round that I was close to too, and I’d always found his boyfriend very easy to talk to too. Suddenly, I was spilling out my feelings at a hundred words a second to people that I knew wouldn’t judge me, and I felt BETTER. so, so much better. Someone was eating a pizza, and I wanted some. This was a development, I knew. I hadn’t had an actual appetite for weeks! This was a further boost to my confidence, and the next few weeks only got better. All of a sudden, I was eating better, sleeping better, living better. There were a few wobbly days, but nothing like the last couple of months. The anti anxiety tablets, coupled with my rediscovered ability to leave the house, had given me a new lease of life.
Now that my brain was working semi-normally, I started to have thoughts about what to do with my life. Return to work? Volunteer? Study? Lots of options….
I was officially, professionally diagnosed as anxious. This was both a relief and a cause for more anxiety – now on top of everything else, I was anxious about what was going to happen to me, whether I was ever going to get better, what people were saying about me… endless thoughts racing through my exhausted brain faster than Usain Bolt. August passed by in a blur of one long mid level anxiety attack. Yes, you’re right dear reader, I did have my anti anxiety tablets. But no, I wasn’t taking them. I can’t explain why… most likely I was still in denial. If you have any better theories, please chip in, because I’m stumped!
Scattered amongst the mid level anxiety were sporadic days where it spiked. Looking back, there was a pattern but at the time they were unpredictable, and hit me like a ton of bricks. I now know that they were more likely to hit if I was out somewhere unfamiliar or on my own, or if I was planning on being out and about. This made socialising very difficult, so as a response I stayed in and didn’t make any plans. So much for summer! I went to my best friends birthday night out, and stayed less than 20 minutes as while in the taxi there (I couldn’t face the ten minute train journey), I was hit by the biggest anxiety attack yet. Feeling sick, dry mouth, hot and shivery at the same time, physically shaking, all topped off with a paralysing inability to even speak. Even moving felt like a Herculean task. Even though these are all classic anxiety symptoms, I didn’t recognise that’s what was happening. At my sisters birthday meal, same story. I had to sell my hotly anticipated festival tickets as just the thought of it brought on all the above. The situation wasn’t helped in the slightest by my crippling guilt at letting people down. Just even more anxiety piled on top of the anxiety that was already, and constantly, there.
Things had got even worse. I was pretty much house bound, wasn’t showering, my room was a tip, I wasn’t responding to calls or texts, staying awake until almost dawn, and most worryingly, not really eating a great deal. I’m a girl that likes her food. I mean really likes her food. I’m also one of those super annoying people that can eat what I want and never worry about calories. Great genes. (My whole family are skinny minnies) The upshot of these great genes is that I don’t have an awful lot of weight to lose. But, I just wasn’t hungry. And when I did eat, I felt sick. Even water was too much some days. I nibbled on biscuits and peanut butter sandwiches, and sipped from an ever present water bottle. The worst day consisted of an orange ice lolly and half a cheese spread sandwich. And I didn’t even manage that until 7pm. I spent the day too weak to lift my head from the cushion, and burst into tears when mum brought back an ice cream instead of an ice lolly from the shop. She promptly called my sister, who rushed round to be greeted by more tears and hyperventilation. She somehow talked me down from my resolute belief that I was going to be hospitalised, and sat patiently while I ate my ice lolly one tiny morsel at a time. I realised that my not eating (because of lack of appetite) was making me feel worse. Over the next few days, my appetite slowly got a little better. The whole leaving the house deal was still a problem though. A walk to a nearby retail park with my sister ended with me thinking I was having a heart attack.
After returning from a disastrous trip to Barcelona, where I was rendered incapable of anything but sitting in my hotel room nibbling rice cakes, I was firmly in denial about what was making me feel so utterly rubbish. I was still feeling tired, sporadically nauseous and antsy, but just about managed to get through each working day. Until a week later… My back was really itchy. And I mean REALLLLLLY. I couldn’t concentrate for it. A trip to the docs confirmed shingles, and five days off work as I’m in direct contact with the general public. Brilliant! I thought. That explains the meh-ness! A few tablets and I’ll be right as rain! NOPE. The day before I was due back at work, I popped round to see my sister, who lives very close by. Before I knew it, I was sobbing big fat snotty unbidden tears all over my sister’s shoulder. I felt TERRIBLE. No energy, no appetite, achy and nauseous. Even though I’m pretty sure I was incoherent, my wonderful sister knew what to do. She took charge, almost intervention style! By this point, I was refusing to move off the sofa or speak to anyone. She liased with my GP on the phone, collected a two week sick note from the docs, took it into my work and came with me to a face to face appointment with doc the next day. All, I might add, with her three children to look after! At the doctors, I again broke down in tears. It was gently suggested that anxiety and depression were to blame. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t argue, and totally relieved that someone had taken charge of me.
I took away a prescription for anti anxiety tablets, and suddenly it occured to me just how un-normally I’d been behaving. I’d gradually isolated myself from all conversation and activities, would barely leave the house, and hadn’t showered for days. I’m usually a very active, outdoorsy person so this was very much out of character for me. Why hadn’t I noticed??! I was scared. Scared that I was having a full on nervous breakdown, scared of what my friends and family would think, scared of losing my job…
I knew that the next few weeks would be tough. But I couldn’t feel much worse..could I?
A week after my stress diagnosis, I was going on holiday. For the first time in ages. I was super looking forward to it, especially as I was taking my Mum, who’d never been abroad on holiday. It was going to be really special. Posh hotel, private transfer from the airport, plenty of spending money, sunshine and, as it was my birthday while we were away, cocktails! My brain, however, had other ideas. The week leading up to departure, I was still plagued by stomach problems, locked in a cycle of feeling sick whenever I ate, and worse when I didn’t. This was probably not helped by (and don’t tell the nurse practitioner!) me not taking the anti acid type tablets. I became convinced that they would make me feel worse, and as someone with an extreme vomit phobia, feeling worse was not a happy thought.
These same symptoms showed their ugly face a few times without the trigger of food or being hungry. Whenever I left the house to go somewhere unfamiliar. A little baffling, as I still thought the diagnosis of stress was, frankly, a load of hooey. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I had a vague thought that it was way more serious than that. A stomach ulcer, Barrats Oesophogus (which my Dad had suffered from) or even cancer. My need for decent sunshine kept me going though, and I managed to get to Barcelona without incident. Once there though, things really kicked in. I was unable to eat anything other than nibbles of rice cakes and sips of isotonic drinks, and everytime I left the hotel room I thought I was going to faint. Barcelona remained unexplored by this usually intrepid traveller and her Mum.
So here begins a tale of something that many many people will be oh so familiar with… Unexplained aches and pains, enough excess stomach acid to dissolve the Titanic, sleepless nights and dozy days… and these are just SOME of the physical symptoms, let alone the mental ones. Chances are, if you visit your GP with one or more of the above, they’ll have you on anti depressants before you can blink.
It started with a visit to my friendly nurse practitioner with what I thought was a tummy bug- nausea, belly ache, generally feeling a bit meh. “STRESS!” she exclaimed (looking more than a little smug if you ask me) “YOU’RE STRESSED!” I didnt feel stressed, particularly. Sure, I’d had a lot going on in the last few months, but I was more settled now, and frankly, who hasn’t got stuff going on?! I left the appointment with a prescription for anti sickness tablets and anti-acid type tablets, with a recommendation to come back in a week to see how I’d got on.
So far, I’ve been off work for 7 weeks and counting, and am contemplating some major changes to my life… Further post will reveal the bits between the dicky tummy and now, and what happens next…!