So it seems to be a theme that I spend ages writing something and editing it only to scrap it and write something entirely different. I tried writing about when I first started suffering with anxiety but the ins and outs of that proved to be a bit too emosh and I couldn’t face it. Then I wrote a really long and quite detailed description of what anxiety is, the symptoms, possible causes and treatments. That one was a bit boring. Anyway, I feel like I need to get the basics out of the way so here they are. This is what’s ‘wrong’ with me, and what it feels like… Hopefully it’ll be a bit of an insight into what it’s like living with anxiety.
I have something called Generalised Anxiety Disorder, GAD for short. As the name suggests it basically means you are generally anxious, about nothing in particular. It’s normal to feel anxious about certain things; exams, performances, job interviews etc. and once that thing is over the anxiety tends to disappear. With me, the anxiety never went away. There wasn’t one particular thing, I think it was a combination of lots of small things over a long period of time that peaked when a family of rats started using my house as a short cut. Obviously this was pretty traumatising, we would wake up in the middle of the night and hear them moving around; one night I heard one loudly climbing the stairs up to our room, like something out of a rodent horror story. It was as if one day my brain decided it had had enough and short circuited, and the anxiety just stuck. Even once we left the rat house I couldn’t seem to leave the anxiety behind, it just lingered; actually it just got worse. That was winter 2011 and it’s been fun and games with anxiety ever since.
So I’m anxious all the time, but it’s more than just being ‘a worrier’. If I’m nervous about something, then I will stress about that thing for a long time before, gradually getting more and more anxious as it approaches; talking myself in and out of it over and over again – all of this on top of my usual constant high levels of anxiety. Once it’s over I don’t get the relief that ‘normal’ people would. Obviously I am relieved it’s over but the anxious feelings don’t go away, they just sort of stick around. This causes me to worry, so I basically worry about worrying. I worry about the anxious feelings and they just get stronger. It became more than anxiety; it became dread, a complete fear at the thought of spending every day so terrified. So, I have anxiety, and it’s generalised because I don’t need a specific thing to cause the anxiety, and I worry about the fact that I’m worried all the time; this makes it a disorder.
When I first got anxiety I felt like the world was spinning. You know that horrid feeling you get when you’re drunk and everything spins?! Even lying in bed at night everything was spinning and all I could think was “what the HELL is going on?!” I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. My mum said that every step I took looked like I was about to walk off a cliff. I was scared of life. Imagine being scared of everything – of going to the pub, of buying milk, of being left alone, of speaking to your neighbour, of visiting your friends, of leaving the house. I was scared of existing, and that’s not pleasant.
My anxiety has taken up permanent residence in my head and runs parallel to whatever else is going on in there. For example, when I’m at work my brain is thinking about the work that I’m doing like sending emails or something, but it’s also going “oh my god, what if something happens now? I’m okay, but no, actually, I’m not feeling okay, I feel ill. Yep, I definitely feel ill, maybe I need some food? Maybe I’ll just drop down dead? What if I don’t finish this work on time and get in trouble? Not that there’s much I can do about that because I can’t concentrate…” and so on. I have become very good at functioning with a multi-tasking brain. It makes things difficult because you have to separate the two lots of thoughts; the ‘normal’ things that ‘normal’ people think e.g. “what’s for tea, I need to send those emails before I leave, let’s walk the dog”, and the weird, anxiety based things that I think e.g. “I think I might be about to die, I can’t breathe properly, I bet I look really weird and everyone’s staring at me and they all know I’m anxious” etc. It makes planning and knowing as much as possible about how something is going to go very important; I think this is because I feel so out of control of my brain that I want to be in control of as much else as possible. I can’t just think oh yer let’s go out for a meal, that’ll be nice! Instead it’s all “what restaurant, what’s the food like, what if it takes ages for the food to arrive, what if something happens, what if I faint / choke / die, what if I make a fool of myself, what if I can’t escape, I’ll have a panic attack, I’ll faint, I’ll DIE, I can’t go” and blaaablaablaaaa on and on. It’s the ‘what if’ illness. I WISH I didn’t have all these thoughts and I could just go out for a meal (or do pretty much anything on a whim) like a ‘normal’ person. I mean I still do go out for meals, it’s just it’s not always that pleasant an experience and sometimes I can’t bring myself to go at all. Anxiety makes you question everything, especially yourself! You question how you feel – this dizziness, is it real or is it a trick my anxiety is playing on me? You question other people – do they really care or do they just feel sorry for me? Are they judging me? You question everything you do – will this really be fun, will I have a good time or will I feel like crap all day, in which case why go at all? It’s all consuming. You become very insular as you’re always focused on yourself, the uncontrollable thoughts and how bloody weird you feel. I hate this because it essentially makes you selfish, and I’m not a selfish person, I hate things focused on me! I especially hate me being focused on me.
Sometimes I wonder what used to go on in the space in my brain that anxiety now occupies. My theory is that it was where daydreams existed. When you are in the clutches of anxiety you have no space for daydreaming because every bit of you is focused on the anxiousness and the feelings it causes and the racing thoughts. I think I used to be cleverer and funnier and definitely more loving and caring, and generally a better person before my anxiety took hold, because I had more brain space for all of those things. This makes me really sad.
I absolutely LIVE for the moments that I’m so engrossed in something that I forget my anxiety and it actually shuts up. If it’s something engaging enough then my mind will go quiet and I’ll actually just enjoy myself. It’s like it has to be interesting enough that all of my brain stops multi-tasking and pays full attention. I remember one of the first times it happened; me and my boyfriend had got a bit obsessed with Kirstie Allsopp’s ‘Home Made Homes’ and we were making homemade Christmas candles and decorating the jars with tissue paper (a completely cool thing for two 22 / 21 year olds to be doing of an evening…). I was with my favourite person in the world, doing something arts and crafty, which I love, and we were busy laughing at the fact that we were making things that a toddler would be proud of, whilst actually really enjoying making them, and I realised that for a few minutes I had completely forgotten about the anxiety. It’s like it had evaporated and my head felt emptier and quieter. Granted that the second I noticed its absence it came back like “HIYA IM BAAAAAAACK DID YOU MISS ME?!” but that was one of the first times it had left me in weeks, and it helped convinced me that I hadn’t completely lost it (FYI, our friends thought that we’d both lost it because we’d spent our evening making homemade Christmas decorations, but I was well proud of my tissue paper robin candle jar so there). These moments ‘sans anxiety’ happen more and more frequently as you get the hang of noticing anxiety’s tricks and symptoms and are able to turn your attention back to the world around you. As you learn to manage your anxiety it’s completely possible to live a (cliché alert) happy and ‘normal’ life.
Anxiety is both psychologically and physically exhausting. Because my mind is racing all the time I get confused, forgetful, irritable, and sometimes completely downright fucking horrible to the people closest to me. I get REALLY FRUSTRATED. But it’s not just the brain stuff that’s the problem. The stress of being stressed makes me physically ill. I get really tired, run down, I’ve lost a lot of weight in the past; when it first started I was too nervous to eat and ended up looking like a bloody skeleton. I get chest pains, heart palpitations, blurry vision, I feel dizzy and light-headed, things look strange; like I’m looking at the world through a dream or as if I’m in a bubble. Sometimes I have to touch things just to make sure they’re, you know, real. Sometimes the world lurches and I have to grab something in case I… fall off. That what anxiety makes you think, that you will FALL OFF THE WORLD. I am aware of how silly that sounds, and I’m always aware that it’s anxiety making me think these things; that’s what makes it so frustrating, you know that but you can’t stop it. I get stomach aches, headaches, pins and needles, even eczema caused by stress (attractive). I often think I can’t breathe properly, or that I am about to choke. I get paranoid that I’m going to have an allergic reaction to things; every time I eat nuts I think I’m going to have suddenly developed a deadly allergy. I have a difficult relationship with Nutella at the moment. I recently convinced myself that I was going to catch Ebola from a tin of tuna that had come from Ghana (I know, there’s so much wrong with that sentence). It’s like, well fun being me…
If I’m going through a particularly crap time with anxiety then I get this really enjoyable thing where, when I wake up in the morning, I have like a mini panic attack at the thought of facing the day and I get so full of dread that I get into a cold sweat and my mind goes off on a little whirlwind “what if you’re like this forever, what if your future is like this and you feel this awful forever, so basically you have no future, so you might as well just die in this bed right now because anxiety has eaten your future and doomed your life”. And then I get up and make a cup of tea and I’m fine. Fun times.
Recently, over the past 5 months or so, I’ve started getting panic attacks – because apparently one serious anxiety disorder just isn’t enough… I’ve only had a few full blown panic attacks in my life before this and they’re something I’m really struggling with. Unlike the generalised anxiety which is usually less intense and I’ve learnt to cope with, panic attacks are so abrupt and forceful. They can feel like someone has just walloped you over the head with a rounders bat (so British). I feel faint, weak, dizzy, things sound muffled or really loud, I can’t listen to or understand people if they talk to me, I am focused 100% on myself and how horrible I feel. Sometimes my heart races, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes I feel sick, sometimes my legs turn to jelly and I can hardly walk, sometimes I shake. You feel like a rabbit caught in headlights as your body goes full force into fight or flight mode and as I’m not about to fight anyone (never say never, hasn’t happened yet) I feel an intense urge to RUN, ESCAPE, GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE, because that’s what my brain and body think I should be doing. I am usually 100% convinced that I’m about to pass out, possibly even just die. You can’t rationalise things, you can’t reason with yourself. That’s what I’m working on; being able to convince myself that I’m not going to pass out, die or anything else. That it will pass and I’ll feel fine soon, that it’s all Adrenalin. I have to show my body that there’s no threat and ‘thanks for trying to protect me from the seemingly very perilous supermarket but it’s all okay, we’re all good, you can calm the fuck down now please’. The way to prove that there’s no real threat is to not act on all the signals it’s giving you; so you have to stay put and show that you’re not actually in danger. Easier said than done has never been a truer phrase! Usually, apart from going quiet, people can’t even tell I’m having a panic attack so it’s not as obvious as I think, but they feel horrible, like seriously horrible and you want to avoid them at all costs!
It has turned in to a panic disorder because I’m so scared of having a panic attack that I think about them all the time. I mean I already had generalised anxiety so it was unlikely that I’d be able to just brush them off! That’s the grip of anxiety, you hold on to it all, especially the shit stuff. It’s making my life quite difficult at the moment. I don’t really want to go in to too much detail because I haven’t quite come to terms with it all yet, but the wheels are in motion to get things under control so ‘positive mental attitude’ and all that. I sort of feel like it’s trying to drown me at the moment, and I’m paddling like a little crazy person, literally, to stay afloat. I’ve actually had Sum 41’s In Too Deep stuck in my head recently “Cause I’m in too deep and I’m trying to keep, up above in my head, instead of going under” and all that, though sometimes I think this might be more appropriate… My plan is not to be drowned by panic attacks, I’m just a little hazy on the details of that plan.
So that’s me, I literally worry about everything, all the time. Actually, that’s a lie. I used to worry about everything all the time, sometimes I still do, but through a combination of tried and tested and weird and wonderful things like talking therapy, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), hypnotherapy CD’s, applied relaxation, writing my worries down (ran out of paper for that), a very short stint of yoga, mindfulness, drinking camomile tea, sitting in silent dark rooms when it all gets a bit much, medication, walking the dog etc. I have learnt how to manage my thoughts; how to stop them racing uncontrollably and suffocating me. I have very recently started taking the sedative diazepam for the panic attacks, and (just as my very lovely Dr said would happen) I hardly ever take them as having them with me, just in case, is enough to reassure me. The worst thing about my panic attacks is the way they make me feel like I’m about to faint. When the Dr reassured me that this was normal and was just adrenalin doing its thing, it made it 10x less scary and the diazepam can also stop this feeling, so I know I can stop it if I really need to. It can be difficult to stay optimistic when anxiety is being shitty because it makes everything such an effort. Imagine something that you really don’t like doing, something you’d avoid if you could and would always put off doing. Now imagine that being pretty much every single thing in your life. It’s demoralising to say the least!
It’s mostly about getting my confidence back now and facing everything that scares me which, as you can tell, is quite a lot of things. You have to fight to get better, and you have to make the effort, but you also have to accept the anxiety as a part of yourself. You can’t run from it and you can’t hide from it, because it IS you. Accepting that yes, it’s absolutely shit, and no, it’s not going to disappear overnight is one of the most important things to do – then you can get on with dealing with it. This little video demonstrates that perfectly. I have missed out on a lot because of my anxiety, and it has cost me a lot too (not like, money, but opportunities, jobs, and people, and actually also money because sometimes I can’t work) but it’s also made me a stronger person. When you have to pluck up large amounts of courage just to go and buy milk, you realise that actually, you’re quite brave. The smallest of things can be so difficult, but that means that every victory matters, even the tiniest ones. (And I wouldn’t achieve half of them without the patience, compassion and help from my family and friends, so cheers for that guys!) Also, as I’ve discovered from 4 years of living with this, you’re never alone and there are so many people going through the same thing. That’s good because you’re not alone, and bad because I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy! We’ll get there in the end.
Anyway, yer, so that’s a bit about anxiety and how it affects me. Any questions or what not then feel free to ask, and feel free to share. Laura x