Two years ago I experienced the worst bout of anxiety in my life. It started with my (not unreasonably) becoming upset at what I later learnt were massive, allergic reactions to flea bites which appeared all over my body. Thanks to an unfortunate combination of humid weather that Summer, and Frontline’s failure to work in an area overpopulated by cats, not only was I in physical pain but I was also hurting mentally.
Much like my body, my mind itched and burned. I felt like there was always something irritating me; prickling just under the surface. As I scratched my brain trying to figure out what was causing these hideous hives, I tied myself in knots with worry. It wasn’t long before this grew into a series of regular panic attacks. I recognised them from their occasional appearance during my university years, only this time the anxiety was on a whole, new, nasty level. Not only did I feel sh*t, but I then developed obsessive tendencies which made my anxiety all the worse.
OCD for me was an incessant need to check and re-check, assure and reassure, and then start again because I couldn’t trust my own judgement.
It was unlike anything I’d been through before. I was permanently tired, it was so mentally draining.
As is often the case with mental illness, mornings especially became nightmarish. Waking up already dreading the day, the first words to run through my head -before I’d even really opened my eyes – were “oh God…” At the time I couldn’t imagine not feeling that way at the start of the day. Frequently C would have to coax me to the car, me frantic, late getting out of the front door.
Simultaneously crying and trying desperately to keep my mascara from running (“waterproof”, my arse!), I’d drag myself out of his car and into the office. It hurts my heart to say it now, but C would sometimes have to literally push me out of the car door so he could get to his work. I know for a fact he felt terrible about it. It was a hellish time for us both. For me, worse still than how I felt was knowing the effect I was having on the man I love, and yet feeling utterly hopeless about being able to stop it.
Once in the office I wasn’t much better. At least, not until the day got going and I was able to imitate some semblance of normalcy. For the best part of a year I couldn’t speak first thing for at least a half hour. It took time to choke out even simple words like “hello”. “How are you?” would send me into meltdown. Some days I cried for an hour before I opened an email.
I mistakenly believed that I had to push myself to keep going in. No matter how much it hurt – both myself and those around me – I felt pressured to keep showing up. Like many people who are mentally unwell, I was afraid of what other people might think were I to “give in” and take time out. Buying into the rumours, I was terrified that being signed off for “mental health reasons” would somehow blacklist me as a hopeless case. I had a sinking feeling that, if I were to stay home from work, I might never go back.
It took a long time for me to recover from this particular episode. From the bites alone, my skin took a few months to start to heal. The house took us at least a month of exhausting, repetitive, after-work cleaning routines to get it back to normal. My mind took months to feel something like my own again. I was prescribed anti-anxiety tablets to be taken three times a day for several months to restore my “fight or flight” response back to something resembling a regular reaction to stress.
Unfortunately, it’s only in retrospect that I can see just how unwell I had been. In my last round of therapy with a rather special NHS therapist I finally understood what happened. I’ve since been able to articulate to C what I felt at the time; he regretfully says he should have seen it coming – especially as he’d through similar experiences with a previous partner.
However it isn’t so easy – mental illness is cruel that way. From the outside you seem to be alright much of the time, and yet you’re incapable of decision-making. I’d be processing millions of pounds worth of payments at work, and would break down over whether to have cheese with my beans on toast.
What I hope he now knows – and indeed anyone else going through something similar – is that it’s almost impossible to see a mental breakdown coming until it’s well and truly here. It’s an incremental process whereby those closest to us are also often unable to see it happening. Still, it’s important to remind him – and others – of the role they played in my becoming better. Testing their patience and kindness often, I look back and feel lucky, knowing so many lovely people genuinely care for me.
Even so, I wish I’d had the wherewithal to be able to see that I needed help sooner. Specifically, I needed someone to help me to allow myself the time, space, and patience to recover. I dug my heels in and insisted I kept going “as normal”, despite being anything but. Well-meaning colleagues tried to persuade me to take time out, but I couldn’t hear it. Sadly, in my anxious state of mind I wasn’t able to differentiate between a suggestion and a recommendation. I felt blinkered to anything other than what was most obvious.
It took longer than necessary for me to recover, but I did recover and I’m here telling you this tale in the hopes I can help someone else become better, too.
To give this story it’s sort-of happy ending, I’d like to share some of the lessons anxiety had to teach. Despite the darkness around this particular life phase, there are still several positive take-aways I’d like to share. Thankfully, there always are.
Regular readers of this blog may have been a bit thrown by the tone of this piece. If so, I hope this will bring you back on board. As you know, my becoming better sees me looking for gratitudes in just about every area of life. As such, I’ve come up with the following:
The best of things I learnt from the worst of times
#1 Never give up. If you look around you’ll see that us humans are capable of awesome achievements. Whilst mental illness undoubtedly sucks a**, it’s possible to come out of this period of time. Not only this, but it’s true that our struggles shape who we become and the influence we go on to have in the world. Had I not had such a sh*tty time with anxiety, I’d not be writing this blog, which brings such happiness and joy to my life today.
#2 Trust in the inherent goodness of people. Given half a chance, most will do their best to be kind and supportive. You just have to give them a chance, forgiving the stupid mistakes we all make as we fumble through the mental health minefield. My mind told me that people were only being nice to me because they felt they “had” to do so. Yet my mind wasn’t well, and so why was I listening to it?! Instead, I could have taken others by their word, accepted their help, and felt grateful, rather than guilty.
#3 If you can’t make a decision, then don’t. Ask for help. Like I said, when you’re mentally unwell – however that may look for you – it’s only rational to place your trust in those whom you believe to be more emotionally stable than yourself just now. The pressure to choose often threw me off, proving the last straw in a day filled with last straws. If you’ve got people you love and trust around you, then let them love you and trust them to help you choose what’s in your best interests for now.
#4 Act. I implore anyone in the kind of mindset I was in to take action and do something – anything – other than stand still, and to do it as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter how small the action to begin with – small is good; it’s a great start. Just don’t let it go on without trying to change the situation, and if you can’t see how, then ask for help. It’s everywhere if you’re looking for it – so look!
#6 Take your health seriously. No matter how much you love your job, your family, your home, it’s no good if you’re falling apart. Before you can truly live, you need to make sure you’re at your mentally most fit, and doing that might mean taking time out from regular living. Whether it’s a visit to the doctor, regular therapy, a holiday, or being signed off sick for a while, it’s worth considering all available options and leaning on whatever help you can get to decide what’s best.
#7 Also, consider how much you’re willing to tell your employer about what’s going on for you. Despite having my manager present during times I was falling apart, I’ve never formally gone “on the record” with my own mental illness. I feel embarrassed admitting to it, but I’m still nervous as to what the implications may be. However I’ve known people who’ve sworn by it as having helped them to get back into work after some tough times.
#8 Finally, a practical tip: Always go for the prescription flea treatment and buy from the vets. Seriously. It’s worth the extra money and effort it takes to go pick it up every few months. We spent weeks – months! – spraying the house with Indorex and vacuuming like crazy people (literally) to get rid. Whilst it did the trick in the end, it was exhausting. Add this to the pain of being bitten, fear of sleep, and shame at being covered in ugly blisters, coming home from work to clean the house top-to-bottom over and again was truly testing.
So that was my most terrible Summer. Pretty sh*t, if I say so myself. What’s most sad to me is that C and I spent that time together, and yet apart, lost in our own minds. Changing the past isn’t an option, and in truth, I don’t actually regret it having happened this way. What I learnt that anxious Summer ultimately played an important role in my becoming better. In time, I hope I can use my experiences to help others live happier, healthier, and emotionally wealthier lives, too. Or at the very least to remember not to scrimp on their pets’ flea treatments.