Panic and anxiety attacks

What are you doing, why are you here, they are going to judge you, what are you wearing, they are going to wonder where you’ve been, they’ll notice that you’ve been crying, they’ll notice you’re not eating, they’ll notice you are eating, you look a mess, you’re life’s a mess, why does everyone hate you, why do you have no friends, why are you lying to your friends, people think you have no friends, why do you smile when you want to cry, you have so much work to do, why are you so tired, you have no money, you’re an embarrassment, you’re stupid, no one will ever love you, you’ll be alone forever.

I think a lot of people wonder what it feels like to have a panic attack, I used to have them a lot in secondary school and 6th form, and I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I say that I often felt like I was dying.  The majority of mine happened in the middle of the night, usually when I was lying awake plagued by dark thoughts, consistently coming one after another, but feeling as though I couldn’t at all control where my mind was going, it often felt like I was losing my mind.  It was then it would usually start, I began to notice the early symptoms and I think that only served to make them worse as I would start to panic about having a panic attack, oh the joys of anxiety. 

It would usually start with feeling hot and cold at the same time, like my core was on fire but I was still freezing, then the pins and needles would set in, beginning in my hands and moving its way up my arms.  It was the frantic beating of my heart that would really scare me though, I felt like my entire body was jumping with its intense beat and rate, as though it felt my body was doomed much like my mind, and it was trying to escape.  When this sets in it is like nothing really makes sense anymore, I’m never fully aware of where I am, often trapped in the confusing thoughts of my mind.  I know once or twice the panic attacks led to hallucinations, almost like stress dreams but I was awake, the one I remember most distinctly was when I was convinced I had somehow pushed my Mum’s entire business off of a skyscraper, I promise it was scarier than it sounds. 

I never really worked out what exactly caused them, I know that I was very unhappy towards the end of school, and I’m sure that added with the stress, and the insecurity of my friendship group at the time, all contributed to it.  I can only be grateful that I rarely experience them now, or that they have filtered out into smaller anxiety attacks, which although are still unpleasant I find easier to manage, it’s more of a mind over matter situation for me now.  If I become afraid or anxious about something irrational, I know I just have to force myself to do it, force myself out of my comfort zone, even if I’ll hate myself for it for the moment, I know it’ll be fine in the end.  Sometimes, it’s just a case of taking myself out for a walk, putting on some upbeat music, so I can clear my head and put things in perspective, and remind myself that putting the bins out is not something to get anxious about.  That’s the thing I think most people forget, anxiety isn’t just about social situations, for some people, its not about that at all, sometimes it’s the most menial tasks that trigger you for no reason at all. 

At the end of the day though, we just have to do every little bit we can to try and overcome it, small victories to some people can be big for us, so as long as you’re doing your best, you’re doing enough. 

Liv

Sadness without explanation

I have never found depression an easy topic to talk about, I still feel as though people won’t believe me, or they will assume that it is a cry for attention, when in reality it was the complete opposite. I would have done anything to make sure people didn’t know how unhappy I was with my life, because I had no specific reason for feeling that way, so how could I expect people to understand? I don’t blame people when they don’t, I barely understand it myself.

I found this short diary entry from February 2017, when I was going through a rough patch and couldn’t quite convince myself I was worth it. Perhaps this will give an insight into how my brain was working at the time.

Diary entry February 2017:

There is a saying that ‘life gets you down’ because life is tough. We all know that. But what do you do when there is nothing in your life to get you down, but you feel that way anyway?

What do you do when you feel so sad inside and yet so numb and empty at the same time?

My resolution was to talk to somebody about it, but I don’t want to talk about it, because voicing it means that I have to accept that this is real. And it also means that I have to try and explain it, and I honestly don’t even know where to start.

It’s sadness without explanation, therefore it is sadness without solution.

How can anyone hope to understand, when I can barely understand it myself?

How can I feel so alone and yet be sat in the middle of school with hundreds of people about?

Today I wanted to get help rather than run away, but again I am at a loss as to how to ask for it. There’s a hand around my throat that stops me from voicing the words, but perhaps that’s a good thing, too much would change if I was to talk about it, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

Normally, I’m not a negative person at all, I have a pretty positive outlook for the future, and strongly believe that if you work hard enough at anything then you’ll be successful in some capacity. In those times of depression though, it was incredibly difficult for me to stay in that mindset, and I was even more stressed about ensuring other people didn’t see that, most importantly my family, because I didn’t want to also bring them down.

In reality though, when I finally was able to talk to someone, it made such a difference, and allowed me to come to terms with what I was dealing with, and how I could better myself.

I Don’t Want to Pretend

From year 10 to year 12 at school I didn’t feel much of anything.  Towards the end of year 10 and the start of year 11 I had lost a number of people to various different illnesses, and every day from then on, wasn’t about living or enjoying life, it was just about getting to the end of that day.  The only thing that made me get out of bed in the morning was the promise that this day had to end, and then I could get back into my bed. 

It was a time when I hated being alone because that was when I became trapped inside a mind that was plagued with horrible thoughts that I couldn’t get away from.  Yet, at the same time I wanted nothing more than to be alone because being around people meant I had to pretend to be something I didn’t even know how to feel anymore, happy. 

So, I isolated myself, from my family, my friends.  I held everyone at an arms-length because having strong relationships with people would mean that they might notice that something was wrong, and I didn’t want people to think that I was weak.  Everyday was like a game, remember to smile, laugh, be happy.  I don’t think I even realised I was doing it half the time, I became somebody I thought everybody else wanted me to be, I got good grades, I was nice to everyone, I didn’t have my own opinion because I seriously doubted anyone would care.  I was like an empty vessel that waited for other people to show me how to be, because honestly?  The last thing I wanted to do, was think, make decisions and risk losing anything.  

I was clever, and a compulsive liar.  I fooled everyone, people only saw what I wanted them to see, if I was imperfect in any way, it was because I wanted to be, to seem normal.  I thought that would make me happy, until I realised I had never been more alone.

I hadn’t lost myself, but I had locked her away into a part of my mind I reserved only for myself, so that I could become someone else.

I was so repressed, so unfulfilled that as the numbness faded away I was overtaken by anger at the world, at society, for holding me back.  I wanted to scream at everything for making me feel like I couldn’t just be me, but that wouldn’t help.

So, I did something I couldn’t take back, I decided to screw the universe for making me feel so small in so many ways, and I started to open up about some of the issues I have faced, and my journey in overcoming them.  I became the person I really am, and sometimes that’s hard, because it’s natural instinct for me to want to hide away and pretend that I’m fine.  But, I have some of the best friends that I have ever had, because I have opened up to them, and although I still have points when I think it would be easier to just pretend, I know I’m happier now, and I don’t want to lose that. 

This is it for me, I know that in my heart I am going to defeat this depression because I know who I am now, I’m able to embrace that, accept that, and move forward. 

I never want to go back to the days when, ‘this day has to end’ was my mantra.

  Now, I try to live every day to it’s fullest, and that doesn’t always work out, but that’s okay, because I’ll get there, I know I will. 

Twists and Turns

The twists and turns that catch you off guard,

 throw you off kilter and drain you of energy.  

The happiness that is elation that gets you so high

you walk the clouds of your dreams,

above the obstacles of life,

but when the depression comes on the next bend you fall from your high perch,

through the floor and down 6 foot more,

until the numbness takes over and you can’t feel anything anymore,

at least until the next turn in that long road and then elation returns,

and you forget there was anything wrong at all

-Mental illness

The Struggle of Truth

A part of me believes that if I continue to pretend that nothing is wrong, then nothing needs to change.  As if willing something to be a certain way would ever actually make it happen, but fear of the alternative makes us hope for something we realistically know can never be. 

You see, I am scared, and I’m not afraid to admit it anymore, because the prospect of telling the people you care about, your family, that you are having mental health issues involving depression and anxiety has every right to fill you with dread. 

I know that what I really need to do, is to stop pretending, to stop hiding, and to start talking.  I know that because it’s what I really want to do, so that I can be absolutely me, rather than having to put on a façade of fake smiles on my bad days, and rather have people surrounding me that actually understand.  The difficulty of this is, I have no idea how I’m supposed to tell my parents, because how do you tell the people that you love most in the world that the daughter they thought was so strong, is struggling, and has been struggling for a really long time?

How do you tell them that without hurting them?  Without making them feel guilt that they have absolutely no right to feel?

It is for this reason I have stayed silent for so long, and every person I do open up to about this side of me, and every conversation I have about these feelings only serves to deepen my own guilt that my parents weren’t the first people that I went to when I started feeling this way, that I favoured talking to strangers over them.  I know to my Mum this would seem like betrayal. 

So, where do we go from here?  It seems inconceivable to me, I’ve gotten myself stuck in a place where I started to seek help, where I took a step in the right direction only to be held back by the paralysing fear of having my relationship with my family irreversibly change because they might not fully understand what I’m trying to tell them. 

Perhaps this is an issue that a lot of people struggling with their mental health face, because what really holds us back is the fear and shame of having the people we most want to make proud realise that you’re not quite managing things as well as they thought. 

Perhaps, really all this is, is my self-doubt that makes me worry so much about my family’s reaction, perhaps if I simply sat them down and had a truthful conversation then everything would be fine. 

The problem with that is, we can never really know until we bite the bullet and tell them, but what happens if that bullet becomes familial suicide that I’ll never be able to rectify?   I guess the only way to find out is to get a grip and fire. 

Belief

God doesn’t stop bad things happening, he gives you the strength to keep going when they happen.’ 

I have not been to a church since I was 6 years old, I do not consider myself a religious person.  I wouldn’t go so far to say I am an atheist, but I am definitely not an all-out Christian.  The truth is I have honestly never really thought about faith and what relationship that could possibly have in my own life.  Until now.  Ever since I have accepted that I am struggling with mental health illnesses I have been looking for ways to change up my lifestyle to give myself every opportunity to have a healthier mind.  In doing so I began to get curious about the church as some of my friends at university go every week, and the way they talked about the community made me think that that was what I wanted.  I wanted to be part of a positive community that would give me something to believe in. 

So, with that in mind I found myself in church on Sunday 19th May for the first time in over 13 years, and I can tell you it was the most amazing experience.  The first part of the service was all singing worship and the music was so hopeful it moved me to tears.  The lyrics just spoke to me as if everyone in the room was telling me that there was hope and there always will be, that I am not alone and that I would be okay.  I found myself overcome with emotion, openly crying in a room filled with around 500 people, without caring, which is incredibly unusual for me as I would usually hide my emotions away.  It was invigorating to feel like I didn’t care if people saw I was upset, because I wasn’t really, I was crying because the feeling I was experiencing was so strongly of hope and happiness, of a belief that I really would get myself, if not cured of depression, then at least to a place where it couldn’t drag me down anymore. 

I realised then, surrounded by all these people that clearly wanted the best for everyone, that would pray for strangers without even fully knowing what was wrong, that even if I was unclear as to what I believed in in terms of God and Jesus, I could have faith in people like these.  I could have faith in the message they were giving, I could have faith that the sheer determination these people had in healing you of your struggles would give me the strength I needed to heal myself. 

‘God doesn’t stop bad things from happening, he gives you the strength to keep going when they happen.’  I think I must have read this somewhere, but I think for me this is what God and Christianity means.  I by no means believe everything Christianity entails, but I do believe that faith gives you something to believe in, and some comfort in the dark times that you will make it to the other side.    

Turning Point

Mental health has been a big part of my life for a good few years now, but I think the biggest obstacle in the way of my recovery has been my inability to accept it for what it was.  Deep down I think I knew that it was depression, but it’s too easy when you have a good life, great friends, and a loving family, to convince yourself you’re fine and continue your life in denial.   I know I did.  I had problems, sure, but then everyone did, and my self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness lead me into a mental health spiral I wasn’t even fully aware I needed to get out of. 

My turning point came when I was volunteering in Nepal last summer (2018).  I had gone alone and met people out there, and I think being so far away from home had given me the much-needed space to think.  The culture there was so different that I was able to separate myself from all the problems that had contributed to weighing me down and trapping me in such a low place. 

On the weekend I had decided to trek in the Himalayans, and the landscape was so beautiful and unlike anything I had ever seen before that I was able to completely immerse myself in my surroundings.  I felt like a different person, I felt free from the depressing mess my internal thoughts had become.  I think it was the combination of being technologically cut off from the outside world, seeing the complete happiness of the locals who had absolutely nothing compared to my own rural village in England, and being surrounded by nature and like-minded people. 

The moment it really hit me though, was when we reached our highest point and were able to look back down over the mountains we had climbed to reach this peak.  It was breath-taking.  I remember suddenly thinking to myself ‘Oh my God, this is what it means to be happy.’ 

It was in this moment I almost laughed at myself, and I was finally able to think enough is enough, I do not have to feel this way, if I allow myself to admit that there is something wrong, that I am struggling, then I will be able to finally take the necessary steps to begin a road to recovery.  A road that will hopefully lead to a place where happiness was the norm, and my dark days the few and far between.  I had become far too used to a feeling of emptiness that it took a trek up the Himalayans to realise that happiness was within my grasp if I wanted it. 

I was ridiculously nervous to travel to Nepal on my own, I have suffered with anxiety too, and this led me to trying to think of every single possible way I could get out of going when it finally came down to a week before my departure date.  Thankfully, I took the plunge and forced myself to do something scary in order to reap the rewards.   Sometimes I think you have to make yourself do things outside of your comfort zone in order to break your normal routine and make a more positive change in your life.  I had gotten so caught up in my head over A-levels that Nepal was exactly what I needed to make me realise the way I was living my life was becoming detrimental to my mental health.  It was time I spoke to someone, even if that person was just a friend. 

We have a lot more control over our lives than we realise, and although mental health isn’t an illness that can be beaten alone, the first steps do have to be taken alone, and we have to be willing to take them.  Everyone has their turning points, and this was a win for me in more ways than one.  I had also beaten my anxiety and am now able to travel abroad alone without any issue. 

Although this was a massive point in my life, it didn’t automatically mean that I was on the road to recovery, it was more like I was on the journey towards recovery rather than having quite made it to the home-stretch.  There are going to need to be a few more turning points to reach that landmark, but at least I am now pointing in the right direction. 

The Speech I Will Probably Never Speak

I am here to speak about something that is very close to my heart, mental health.  Most of you listening to this that know me, or even consider themselves close to me will not know the reason this is so important to me, because I have always been afraid to say it out loud.  But, the reason I care so much about mental health awareness is because for a long time now I have been suffering with depression and anxiety.

Looking back, I can say I have been suffering with mental health issues since I was 13 years-old, I am now 19.  The reason I never reached out to anyone around me wasn’t because I didn’t have a loving amazing family that I thought wouldn’t support me, it wasn’t because I didn’t have friends, it was because I felt ashamed.  I was considered a high flyer, I came top of many of my classes at school, I had lots of friends, I had goals, it seemed to others like I had everything in my life together.  But, in reality, I felt like I was drowning.

From year 10 to 11, two people I was close to died suddenly and two others who I had a less close relation with also died, and although those deaths didn’t have a direct impact I still felt their effects.  All of this happened in less than a year giving me little time to process, and I began to feel like everyone was dying, and I started to question the meaning of life itself, what was my purpose, why was I here?  Throughout all of this I tried to act strong, knowing that my parents were struggling with these losses too and not wanting to worry them that I wasn’t coping.  I knew everyone in life lost people, so I felt like I didn’t have the right to grieve in front of others because I didn’t want to bring them down or bore them with my problems which I felt were inconsequential. 

This resulted in me bottling up my feelings to a ridiculous capacity.  I went to school everyday with the knowledge that I had to smile, laugh and act happy around my friends so that they wouldn’t see my cracks.  I wanted them to believe I was perfect, and because they didn’t really want to see anything wrong, they didn’t.  I became an Oscar-worthy actor, able to function through my worst days, able to laugh out loud when I was positively sobbing inside. 

It was the evenings that got me, I became so used to squashing my true depressive feelings down so far that whilst around others I could almost forget they were there.  But then, inevitably, I had to be alone at some point.  It was then that the horrific feelings of self-hatred and self-worthlessness would attack and overwhelm me to the point I would often have panic attacks so severe I would hyperventilate and, on occasion, hallucinate.  I was able to keep this from my family under the persona that I was simply hard at work on coursework, or these attacks would happen in the middle of the night meaning that no one would notice anyway. 

It was at this point that I began to suspect that there was something wrong with me, I didn’t know much about mental health issues back then, all I thought was that if you were mentally ill you also had to be clinically insane.  And so, it followed that I began to think that I was crazy, medically crazy.  This in itself was psychologically damaging because I began to doubt that anything I thought was valid, I retreated into myself, no longer participating in debates at school or offering my opinion because I believed that everything I thought was undermined by the fact that I was crazy.  This only fuelled the fire of my thoughts of self-worthlessness.  I was spiralling, and I felt I had no one to turn to because I was afraid I would-be put-on medication or thrown into a mental hospital.  I didn’t want to be treated any differently, but I knew my friends would never look at me the same if I told them I thought I had schizophrenia, so I held them at arms-length.  I know there are probably others out there that went through that too, a belief that they were insane, and that is why it is so important we have a rise in awareness for mental health.

I just didn’t want people to think that I was weak, because I thought I was weak.  I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t cope with situations that everyone in life goes through.  Because I hated myself, I expected that if others saw the real me they would hate me too.  It was this mindset that, in the words of Wentworth Miller, meant I navigated everyday in a ‘survival mode’ of pretended happiness. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t feel happiness, I did.  It was just that after every happy moment I would find a reason to hate myself in that situation, or to criticise that everything was always going to get bad again, that I would never find a permanent happiness.  My good points were great, my low points were depression.  And, it was with the realisation that it was my depression and anxiety that was making me feel this way that allowed me to understand where these thoughts were coming from. 

The point to this story is that the thing that prevented me from starting recovery and finding healthy coping mechanisms was my paralysing fear that people would find out about my secret.  But, when I finally worked up the courage to confide in someone, to share the weight with someone it was an amazing feeling.  I’m not saying it’s easy, it took me two years from the point that I decided something had to change to me actually telling someone about what I was struggling with, but once I did the knowledge that someone was truly there for me was amazing. 

I had confided in a girl I lived with in my first year of university, and I remember the morning after she sent me a message saying that no matter what she would always be there for me, that I could always talk to her about anything.  This moved me beyond words and meant more than she can ever understand, because I had never had anyone say that to me before.  I finally felt like I belonged somewhere, where someone knew the real me and accepted me for it so readily and so naturally.  I cried out of happiness for the first time in a long time.   

Although I am still working on getting professional help, and I have a long way to go in terms of recovery, I am telling my story to show that even if you feel, like I did, that no one is there for you, and there is no one you can confide in, there is.  There is always someone, and if there’s no one there right now, you will find that person that you can rely on.  I went through a long period where I truly believed I would be alone in terms of friendships forever, with no one I could count on.  That feeling of loneliness is one of my biggest battles, but it starts with talking to someone.

The battle against depression starts with talking to someone, because no battle can be fought alone.