It was 3am and I couldn’t sleep again. I knew I had to be up in a few hours for a lecture at 9am and I couldn’t miss another lecture this week. The silly little voice in my head started counting down the minutes until I had to roll out of bed, waddle to the door, banana in mouth and trudge into town. My heart fluttered faster with each passing minute. Frustrated, I buried my head in the pillow. If only I could sleep tonight. I’ll go to the gym, I’ll have a calming bath tomorrow, I’ll read a book before bed, I’ll change. I’ll…change.
This has been going on for six months. I cancelled several job interviews, citing anything from the death of my fake dog, to transport difficulties and sudden emergency dentist appointments. They were all lies. Lies because I couldn’t tell anyone the truth. They’d think I was mad – well, I am, aren’t I? They would spread the word, make sure no one ever employed me. Deep down, I knew it was wrong. I knew that the only person I was really disappointing was myself. Their sympathies would come in and I would feel more and more guilty with each passing email of condolence. I feel like every decision I am making is the wrong one. That every question my mind is asking is a trick because there isn’t a right answer to be found anyway.
Angry at both myself and the world, I turned over again and caught a glimpse of the yellow hue of the alarm clock – 3:20am. Less than five hours now. Swallowing hard, I rubbed my sore eyes and tried to shake off the growing, impending swell of panic blossoming in my chest. It grew larger, ballooning into an enormous pulsing part of myself. It growled and then it roared, filling up and blocking my airways.
Tonight I had my first panic attack.
I think anxiety is quite hard to understand and describe until you’ve encountered it – that intense and paralysing fear like nothing else I’ve ever felt. It doesn’t always manifest itself in panic attacks, sometimes it can darken your thoughts and cloud your judgement until you behave in ways and say things that make you doubt who you are. You look in the mirror and you no longer recognise the person staring, blankly, back at you.
I didn’t have the most stable sort of upbringing, but there was a lot of humour in our house, and somehow I always felt like I had control over the bad feelings then, somehow I believed that everything would eventually be okay. Anxiety isn’t like that; it doesn’t care what you tell yourself, and it doesn’t let you be in control of anything. Even the tiniest tasks like paying the water bill, or deciding whether to meet that new friend, can become mountains. It leaves you craving that control over your life again, but the more you scramble to climb out of the hole, the more the walls crumble. You wake up and you’re in a deeper, darker hole and the surface seems even further away.
A while ago I started reading Cognitive Behavioural for Dummies and it began to make me see the world differently. It didn’t and hasn’t changed my life by any means. Look at tonight – I am back in that period of loneliness and darkness again. But in my calmer and more carefree moments, I can feel the warmth of the day. I’m beginning to realise that the way I feel about anxiety isn’t my fault and that I am not the only one. In realising these things, I am starting to gain more power again…slowly.
As a society, it’s alarming that we still don’t give mental health services the momentum they deserve. Even if it is believed that mental health is an issue, it is broadly believed that it must say something about the individual – that we’re choosing to be anxious instead of just getting on with everyday life like every other person. I hope you never have to suffer from anxiety, but if you do, I know that your experience will be different from mine. You should know however, there are people here for you, who want to help and who will help you to start feeling like yourself again.
For those who are struggling with anxiety, I’d like to say thank you. I know you’re tired…exhausted even. I know you feel like you don’t have the energy to fight anymore, but we’re the strongest people and by continuing to speak about it, we’re creating a world where no one feels afraid or ashamed to talk about anxiety, or indeed mental health. We’re creating a world of difference, of strength and of courage, so thank you.
It’s 3.40am. Sigh…I hope this day never begins.