In this blog series I will be exploring my experience of having a mental health condition. I will be talking about how my illness began, how it felt to go through a breakdown, the steps I took to get myself well enough to lead a 'normal' life and the techniques I used to manage it on a daily basis.
The Breakdown, The Beginning, The End of the World
Remember when everyone thought the world was going to end in 2012? It was all over the media, everyone panicking that the Mayan calendar didn't go past 2012 and scared that everything would cease to be. Of course, January 1st rolled around and it was all still here. I remember thinking that I expected the world to survive, but didn't expect my entire world to come crashing down that year.
To those that know me, it's not secret that I have anxiety and panic attacks. I've suffered anxiety in one form or another since I was a little girl. My first experience of it was developing emetophobia (fear of vomiting) aged 9 after a stomach virus, which led to an eating disorder during which I hardly ate anything for fear of being sick and became obsessive about being near people who had been ill. I remember everything was about avoiding being sick; not stepping on paving stone cracks, answering the phone within a certain amount of rings, never wearing the clothes or eating the food that I had on the day I caught the bug. I developed a set of behaviours to keep me safe that I still routinely do now, aged 31. Even though I know they don't actually keep me safe, part of anxiety is not being able to be rational and logical when the anxious thoughts kick in.
I've been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and kept putting it off. Even though I've written online about my anxiety before (I wrote this blog for Time to Change), there was something comforting about the relative anonymity of it. I'm pretty open about my anxiety both in my personal life and at work, and despite my beliefs on breaking the stigma and it being something we should discuss as routinely as colds and flu... there's been something holding me back. After much pondering, I realised that I am someone who has had a lot of therapy and worked very hard on managing this condition; I'm someone who got themselves from being unable to leave the house during a breakdown to holding down an intense full time job and flying half way across the world, so if I can offer any kind of help or solace to people going through this then it's my responsibility to do just that.
I started getting panic attacks when I was at university, and for the longest time I had no idea what was happening to me. All I knew was sometimes I'd come over hot, nauseated, unable to breathe and shaky, and I would HAVE to get out of wherever I was. I would feel like I was trapped in a bubble for days on end, unable to concentrate or connect to anyone. I wasn't very good at going away from home but I would do it from time to time. I spent 18 months playing and singing in a band that enjoyed a small amount of indie success in 2007-8, and I managed to spend a year on tour driving around the country playing gigs and doing press to promote our record. I had to deal with anxiety the whole time, but I did it. I would go through phases of not really having it much, and then patches where it would be bad and I would feel like I was in the bubble again. I tried antidepressants on and off but the side effects were always too severe for me to cope with, so my life continued to be a cycle of peaks and troughs.
I also have a long term stomach condition that's hugely aggravated by anxiety, and this became wrapped up in my panic attacks in one big horrid ball of worry. Anxiety can give you absolutely awful stomach symptoms, and I had every single one of them (nausea, cramps, aches, indigestion, diarrhea) every day. I still have the stomach condition today and it's the one thing I've not managed to get a handle on yet, it still impacts me hugely and I do struggle with work, travelling and food still. I'll be talking about that in a later post.
The tipping point was 2011, when I left my admin job in the arts to forge a career in Marketing. It was completely rotten luck that I ended up in two jobs back to back that were absolutely toxic and under bullying CEOs (who both ended up in the press for their bullying a few years later).
I can't quite believe that I had the worst run of luck and ended up in two jobs back to back in the most awful environments, but after almost a year of enduring workplace bullying something snapped. I'd been constantly ill with infections, and I'd started to get heart palpitations all the time. I'd made an appointment to see my GP about them as they had started to stop me in my tracks, when one day I was driving home from a meeting and I had the longest palpitation I'd ever experienced. I pulled over, clutching my chest and struggling to breathe. They kept coming, one after the other, and I honestly thought I was going to die. I was rushed to A&E and it took them 6 hours to slow my heart rate down to normal. I was in for a few days whilst they did investigations, as it certainly isn't normal for a 25 year old to collapse with a bad heart.
They couldn't find anything wrong with my heart; it was caused by sheer anxiety. I remember spending every day feeling otherworldly and like I was trapped in a bubble, I would look at the world around me and feel like it was moving slowly and far away from me. I'd struggle to hear what people were saying and get my brain to connect to the words. I sometimes felt like I was watching myself go through life, completely disconnected from myself and everyone around me. I now know that this is called depersonalisation and derealisation, and is a sign that the brain is trying to defend itself from a very serious anxiety disorder; it was a sign that I was very ill and having a breakdown. I would see people eating lunch or driving to work and wonder how the hell they could do that without feeling completely terrified. I would wake up around 5am with a pounding heart, drenched in sweat and feeling trapped in a dream like state. You know when you wake up from a bad dream and struggle to shake it off, and you feel strange and fearful for the rest of the morning? Every single day I woke up feeling that way after a night of lucid, strange dreams that I can only describe as moving Dali paintings. I would get myself into work somehow, but then the panic attacks would be so severe I'd almost pass out at my desk and end up bolting outside for fresh air. I'd get myself in and then have to ask to go home, because the 'flight' part of my fight or flight response was so strong I could barely control what I was doing. I HAD to get out of there, I HAD to get home and safe no matter what the effect on my job or what people thought of me. I would still feel just as anxious at home, but at least I could hide away in bed and scrunch my eyes shut until the panic passed.
I was signed off work and tried a carousel of antidepressants again, which honestly made me feel at points that I was going to die. When I say this I'm not exaggerating for drama, I truly did feel so anxious and completely petrified at times I felt like I was either going to lose my mind or die. I barely slept or ate. The worst thing for me was feeling like nobody around me understood what I was going through or knew how to fix me. Through my life I have had counselling and through the NHS twice, two types of hypnotherapy and CBT. Personally it didn't really work for me, but that's because my anxiety issues are extremely deep rooted - CBT and counselling can be wonderful tools for people with different types of anxiety and depression.
During this time I lost a lot of friends. I would often find myself completely unable to leave the house for social engagements, or I'd drive there and have to turn around because the panic attacks would be so intense I'd almost crash. The friends I lost just didn't understand what I was going through and thought I was being an awful, flaky friend. It hurt me so deeply at the time when they told me this, but when I look back I realise that I didn't really ever try to explain what was going on because I didn't understand it enough myself. I used to make excuses for not turning up, rather than telling them what was really going on. I didn't think they would be able to handle the truth. I had friends tell me I was an awful friend and a bad person for not being there for them, and having to deal with this on top of everything was almost unbearable. I do remember trying to tell them about my anxiety once, and I was told to 'get a grip' so I gave up. For me, committing to something and having to be there is still a huge trigger for me today; I have to know that there's a way out of it as if I feel trapped into something I'm likely to panic. My closest friends are all fantastic and they would never tell me I'm awful if I had to cancel plans last minute - which ironically means I hardly ever do. The knowledge that they are doing their best to understand my condition is enough for me to feel safe enough to stick to plans even when I don't feel good.
I've faced a lot of stigma for my condition, especially at work in those two awful jobs. Ever since I have been very open about my anxiety in the workplace. It's not always understood by senior management, and it doesn't have to be - the key thing is that whenever I've started a job I go through an Occupational Health assessment, and it means that if I do have another bad patch it's on my health record and work are then obliged to support me in any way they can.
Needless to say I left the NHS job after being signed off long term, and I was unable to work for a year. I applied for Employment and Support Allowance (the disability payment for people who cannot work through illness) but was refused after scoring 0 on the ATOS test, despite bursting into tears out of pure anxiety that I'd have to leave the house. I then had to go on to Jobseekers Allowance when I wasn't ready at all to look for a job, and the stress of that did nothing but exacerbate everything. That year passed by in a blur, where my days were spent summoning up the courage to leave the house. Going to the supermarket was a huge achievement for me back then. I've tried many times to express how it feels to have completely crippling anxiety, and I don't think I have ever managed to do it justice with the written word.
Imagine the phone goes at 3am and jolts you out of a deep sleep. Your body courses with adrenaline, heart pumping and hands shaking. You answer the phone and it's bad news. Try to picture how you feel physically and mentally, and that's how a panic attack feels, except they can come literally out of nowhere. I could be driving, watching TV, at my desk in work, scrolling through the internet and BAM, it'd hit me and I'd have no idea why.
It was my boyfriend (now husband) who suggested that I try therapy. I shook my head and said no, I've tried therapy twice, it didn't work, nobody can help me nobody knows what's wrong with me I'm going to be like this forever. He said no, you've had counselling - what about seeing a proper psychotherapist?
This is where my life changed. I Googled psychotherapists in Liverpool. I didn't like the idea of going to someone's house, so I looked for therapists based in a proper office. I found some on Rodney Street (which is Liverpool's version of Harley Street) and after doing a bit of research found that they were reportedly the best in the city. I remember tentatively making the initial phone call from a meeting room at work and speaking to the top therapist, the director of the practice. I saw him for my initial assessment, and I'm still seeing him 6 years later. He told me much later in the process that he took me on himself rather than delegating to one of the other therapists because I was one of the most severely anxious and ill clients he had ever met in 15 years. I was so lucky that my parents paid for therapy for me, as unfortunately this kind of deep rooted therapy isn't available on the NHS and I had to go private for it. Without proper intensive psychotherapy I don't think I would have ever got better.
I'm going to finish this blog post here, because if I was to talk through my whole journey through therapy, the stigma I've faced, the ways and means I've found to get better etc this post would be HUGE, so I'm going to to a series of posts each focusing on different aspects of it. Spoiler Alert: I got better! It's not all doom and gloom!
The next post will focus on those initial days in therapy, getting myself back out into the world and how I got my first post-breakdown job and ended up on a PGCE mere months later.