As it’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, I thought I’d write a bit about my experience of anxiety and panic attacks. I know that when I was in the height of my panic disorder it was a great comfort to me to talk to people who knew what I was going though. It’s a pretty unique ordeal and for fellow sufferers: I feel your pain. Or more specifically, your fear.
If you have never been in receipt in the delight that is a panic / anxiety attack, let me attempt to describe what it feels like to the uninitiated:
Imagine you’re just going about your day. You’re doing something fairly innocuous like sitting on the bus or doing the washing up. You’re not thinking about anything in particular, nothing sad or happy or anything. And every so faintly…. you feel a difference. A little miniscule change in your perception. You start to feel, apropos of NOTHING… like something is not quite right, like something’s a bit sinister. Now you’re starting to feel cold, creeping dread trickling up your arms and into your chest and stomach. You start to feel sick and your mouth goes dry. You’re starting to feel very, very scared but you don’t know why. If it was a static level of fear, one that stabilised, then perhaps you could cope but it’s not. No way. Not a chance. Your fear levels are rising at a rate of knots and ain’t nothing gonna slow that train down. And you know this. It’s only going to get worse. That’s the clincher. As soon as you feel the tiny bit of “odd” that you felt only moments ago, you knew you were on a downwards spiral to panic hell. You’re only going to get more and more scared until you feel like you are going to pass out, have a heart attack and / or die. Within minutes you’ve started to hyperventilate, you’re dizzy, disoriented, you could be experiencing real chest pains from the restriction of oxygen to your lungs, you’re disassociated from your surroundings and totally locked into your own head where your mind is in free fall.
I’ve stated here that you KNOW it’s only going to get worse but of course not everyone’s anxiety DOES develop into a full-blown attack (fear of heart attack/collapse etc.) …. But really, the fear 0f that happening is still the same. The creeping, cold, sick feeling of dread when you’re feeling anxious means that at any point you FEEL like it’s going to escalate into the freefall madness. Which means you feel permanently locked into state of fear, like you’re crossing a wobbly tight rope which could flip you into panic oblivion at any second.
It’s the worst feeling in the world. And I’ve experienced a LOT of feelings. I’m not being dramatic (unusally) when I say, it feels like you’re in hell. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. To spend every waking hour feeling sick, loose-bowelled, shaky, light headed and in permanent fear. Of nothing. It also makes you feel like an idiot.
Because the problem with society’s acceptance of mental illness is that not everyone gets it. Not everyone understands that it’s not something you can just pull yourself out of. In much the same way as when the black cloak of depression lands on you, almost nothing can lift it. So there will always be some people, and I’ve met a few, who really DON’T GET IT and that will make you feel like shit. IGNORE them. Ignore them safe in the knowledge that what you’re suffering sucks to hell and just by surviving and getting through the day, when you feel like that, is awesome. Because there were a lot of times I felt suicidal because of it. This is my main reason for writing, you need to know you are not alone.
Anxiety has been with me my whole life. That was something I didn’t actually realise… I don’t “feel” like an anxious person…. I don’t see myself as one of those Jane Austen style lily-livered ladies who swoon at the drop of a hat! I am a loud, arguably obnoxious, confident woman! So, until a random therapist I saw in Australia pointed it out… I’d NEVER have thought I was. Of all the counselling I’d previously had, no one thought to mention that it was something I was always going to have (because I’d always had it) and was part of my personality. All she did was ask me what my first experience of feeling panicky was. Well that was easy…. I pinpointed a time in Infants school when I was new, watching a play; then another time in Junior school being stuck in an assembly line and suddenly there were a whole list of incidents from my life were I had reacted (irrationally) with anxiety. Not obvious times when you’ve hurt yourself or lost your parent in the supermarket. But odd incidents which perhaps didn’t necessarily warrant the fear they generated in you at that time.
So it WAS true. The blunt Aussie doc was right. I WAS AN ANXIOUS PERSON. WAAAT!
That thought was terrifying to me. I could NEVER escape it. That’s the pinnacle of fear for most anxiety sufferers… you will be like this FOREVER.
Buuuut. That’s not *strictly* true. You see, at the moment, I very, very rarely get anxiety. In fact, since a small bout when my 3-yr. old was new-born, I haven’t had a prolonged period of anxiety for nearly 7 years. I know I am not free of it long term but right now, I am good. It IS possible to live without it blighting your everyday life. And when you’re right in the thick of it, you really need to hear it. You’re going to be ok. You really are.