(Image from a fantastic article from Buzzfeed here)
I’m scared to publish this because it’s on my blog that I’ve not updated in months. I’ve not wanted to, I’ve had no passion for it and that’s because it was going well. If I stop writing for it then it was my choice and not because it started to go really badly. That sound familiar?
When I start to achieve something, when I start to do things right and everything seems to be going ok, a creeping sensation runs up the back of my neck and I freeze. I start to feel sick and shaky. My eyes get really wide, my breathing speeds up, my chest and throat tighten and my flight or fight response goes into overdrive. A woozy faint feeling washes over me and I break down. It can’t all be ok. There has to be something bad happening to me, or something wrong, or something coming.
It’s only after about a year of trying different types of therapy, medication, reading books and articles and breathing along with apps that I’ve managed to say ‘No no, not just now. Go away’ and push the feeling back down.
Anxiety presents itself differently for different people. I’ve always been a worrier. I used to throw up before family holidays when I was wee. My nickname was ‘sell-by-date’ because I wouldn’t eat anything that I thought might be bad and don’t even ask me to set foot in a dentist’s office. That level of anxiety lived with me throughout my life and I didn’t really let it get me. It came and went at appropriate times; it helped me through essay deadlines and kept me safe when I questioned possible nut-traces (I’m allergic, super unhelpful in not adding to my worries).
This time last year, that anxiety swooped in and knocked me off my feet. I had had a pretty bad year and a serious family illness was the icing on the big anxious cake. I walked home from having dinner with my Mum one night, suddenly knowing that she wasn’t ok and we had a big journey ahead of us. With so many questions that I hadn’t asked, I let it all pile up. It was suddenly living in this strange fog. I was grazing the top of life and never really putting my feet down. Does that make sense? I wanted to avoid thinking too deeply so I put all my focus into the physical aspects of my life. I became hyper-sensitive to changes in my body, assuming every time I ate something that I was allergic and my throat was closing. I haven’t eaten a chocolate bar in months and I’m terrified every time I eat in a restaurant. I couldn’t walk any sort of distance without feeling like I was going to faint or fall over. I had no confidence that my body was doing its job. I wanted to keep my mind off the serious issue at hand and I channelled all that energy in the worst ways. In the first few months I was single and spent the majority of my time looking for a distraction (Don’t sleep with your neighbour folks, it will remain awkward until your lease is up…and I still live there.) I was scared to drink too much in case it became my coping mechanism and worryingly to this day I still feel better after a gin but I’m definitely not reliant on it. I even still struggle to walk through the shopping centre without feeling dizzy, faint and panicky. Sadly I’ve not saved any money on clothes, I’ve just become an online shopper…
My body started to take on the stress I was projecting on it and I ended up with crippling stomach pains on a daily basis. I would have to sit with my head on my desk at work because I felt faint and sometimes I simply couldn’t get out of my bed. Work had to send me to Occupational Health because I had so many sick days and they referred me to see a therapist. It was the best thing that could have happened. Once a week I left work early and went to see Carole in Dunblane. We’d sit in her cosy little room with the fire on and she’d just talk to me. She was straightforward, honest with me and I learned more about myself in that room than I have in my whole 27 years. I sometimes felt like a fraud, and still kind of do, that I was receiving support for being worried. Worrying isn’t life threatening! But it was in a different way. I could have lost my job if I kept going off sick, it was affecting my relationships and my physical health. It was a lot more serious than I thought and looking back I was in a very deep, dark hole that was only getting worse. It’s not easy to get a therapist on the NHS, certainly I’m still on the waiting list for Stirling and for a while I paid for private care. I received EMDR and this helped massively for processing some worries I had about my wee Nanny Helen. She collapsed just before midnight on my birthday on Hogmanay giving us all the biggest fright we’ve ever had. She’s ok now, she’s a wee toughie, but I was so shocked when my therapist listened to my backstory and told me I had severe anxiety and PTSD. I actually laughed and said I wasn’t some soldier back from war. He didn’t laugh, in fact he quite sternly told me that I had it so badly that it explained away most of my physical symptoms immediately. This diagnosis was incredibly helpful. He told me in no uncertain terms that when I felt like I was going to faint, I was not going to faint. I.would.not.faint. It was the stress and anxiety causing it and nothing physical. To this day when I’ve made it into New Look and I feel a bit ‘uh oh’, I think really hard on the fact that it’s all in my head and my body is doing a grand job keeping me up.
My friends were so understanding but I think they were shocked. Lauren has anxiety?! Lauren?! The one who’s the most daft, up for any kind of social activity, does so much, works so hard? No way. Yes way, I’m a bit broken but I’m incredibly good at hiding it. I read an article today that described having high functioning anxiety. It doesn’t describe exactly how I felt (or sometimes still feel) but a few points really hit home. Give it a read here.
I’ve been incredibly lucky and I want to drive that home. I never want to sound ‘hard done by’ because I’m not at all. My friends and family have been so incredibly supportive and without that I’d still be finding excuses for not leaving the house. I wouldn’t have made it for a long weekend in Amsterdam (granted I had a panic attack in the Anne Frank House…), I wouldn’t have made it to my sister’s wedding in Ibiza and I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this after a day at work promoting World Mental Health Day. It took me a while to let my boyfriend in on it because I’d been guilty of relying on my ex to do things for me instead of facing my fears. I didn’t want to repeat that, but I’m really proud to say I haven’t. In fact, I’ve spent more time in the pub and out with him than I have in the house recently. It’s fun to be proud of yourself for socialising.
I do worry (shock) about how ‘fashionable’ anxiety seems to be at the moment. Teenagers seeing people like Zoella opening up about her anxiety makes them want to say they have it to, isn’t that scary?! I feel like I wouldn’t have written this post without sharing all the professional help and diagnosis I received. And that’s because I’m incredibly cynical about people saying they have anxiety when they don’t really, so I’d expect everyone else to be. I feel I have my little note from my Mum that says I can miss PE and actually that isn’t so I can justify how I feel – instead it shows that I’ve taken steps to get better and I’m bloody proud of that.
You’ve maybe read this because you want the answer to getting over anxiety or stress or whatever demon is sitting on your shoulders making you feel like crap. Here you go – try everything. I’ve got books called ‘Fuck Anxiety’. I’ve had countless apps that teach you how to breathe through a panic attack. I’ve spoken to my doctor (don’t accept the first answer) and I’ve been open with my friends and boyfriend about having an off day. There’s not one simple fix and that sucks, but just like alternating ibuprofen/paracetamol when you’ve got a banging headache, mixing a few different methods really helps. I struggled with mindfulness because I’m a total cynic but it works for some people. Sometimes I bake cakes or clean the bathroom as a distraction – it makes you look and feel like you really have your shit together. Read articles that show you that people are having the same struggle, you’re not alone. I had days where I sobbed in the shower for an hour solid and felt like I just didn’t have anything to give to anyone and now I’m writing this hoping that someone reads it when they’re at that point and finds help. I’m not 100% and I’m not sure I ever will be, but this week after some great news I found myself waking up feeling good about my life. My Mum is fine, Nanny Helen is fine, I’m fine. I’ve got a cracking flat and flatmate, great pals, one hell of a keeper of a man and I’m proud every day of what I do at work. I’ve been learning to drive, something I didn’t think I could ever do, and I’m good at it! It’s all these little milestones and days of feeling good that help keep me going.
There are a lot of things in this article that I’ve never said out loud or written down before and I was worried about how it would be received. I don’t want my family to read it and feel like it’s their fault that I’ve had these feelings. It’s bloody not. I’ve told you, my therapist has told you, the doctor has told you – so stop right there with those thoughts. I’ve written it on World Mental Health Day because I was so inspired by the students in our campaign who opened up to the entire student body about their issues and gave helpful tips. They let me put their faces on posters and plaster them all over social media. That’s bloody brave and I’m totally humbled by it. Opening up to your friends and family about your issues is the most important thing you can do to help yourself. So do it, some people might be a weirdo about it but that’s fine, you’re the biggest ‘weirdo’ and you’re the one making a start on dealing with it.