Today I welcome a new guest contributor to the blog. The author, who wants to remain anonymous, wishes to highlight the important issues of mental health awareness. With Mental Health Awareness Week taking place between the 12th and 18th May 2014 I thought this would be the perfect time to release this post. This year’s theme is anxiety, which ties in with the Mental Health Foundation’s first London-based Mental Health Arts Festival, Anxiety 2014.
Asking you to enjoy this post seems a ridiculous thing to request. Instead, I merely ask that you try to take something away from it. Whether you yourself suffer from a mental illness, or know someone that does, please help raise awareness and remove the stigma that is still attached to something that affects so many people every single day.
It only became apparent to me in the last few months that I’ve actually always suffered with anxiety. It is not a recent occurrence. When I was a child I would often feel an overwhelming sense of fear or uneasiness when visiting friends, even though I would have been so excited at the prospect of seeing them but a few hours earlier. However, as soon as my friends would arrive I suddenly didn’t want them there. I did not want them around me. I did not feel comfortable with them being in my home or being in theirs. I feared that somehow I was missing out on something else at home. That something would be happening with my family that I would perhaps miss out on. At least that is how I rationalised it at the time. It was a feeling that I didn’t belong in the situation I found myself in and I needed to leave.
In response to this I would often arrange for some kind of emergency to happen meaning that I would have to go home or my parents would have to come and collect me. They once had to drive in the middle of the night to a campsite and collect me from a Scout trip. I was starting to panic and feigned food poisoning. It obviously wasn’t so easy for me or my parents when a friend was visiting my home. How could I, or my parents for that matter, just turf them out because I suddenly didn’t want to play with them? I just had to grin and bare this feeling of panic building within me. Most of the time that feeling eventually would go away and I would end up having fun as any child was supposed to. Yet, looking back now, I realise that this was just the start of the condition I now find myself struggling with.
The first time I ever thought there was something really wrong with me was the night before my final exam at university. I had never really worried about exams before. Sure I would get nervous on occasion but I always put that down to anticipation. But that night before my final exam I got scared. Really scared. Actually, scared doesn’t really cover it. I had a major panic attack. I just knew I was going to fail. I believed that I wasn’t prepared enough. If I failed I would have to retake the exam in the summer which meant I would miss out on a place on a postgraduate course I had set my heart on. My whole career, my whole future, would come down to a three hour exam that terrified me to my very core.
I found myself pacing back and forth across my room trembling with fear. My mind was going in circles and I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to skip the exam altogether. I convinced myself I could tell the university I had been unable to make the exam because of an accident, a family emergency, a terrorist attack or something else that my panic-stricken imagination could dream up at 12:30 at night. I could then, perhaps, take an earlier resit that would be considered a first attempt and my overall grade wouldn’t be affected.
The next morning came. I got up and went to my exam. I passed. I didn’t ace the test, far from it in fact, but I had to my mind overcome that demon that had struck me in the middle of the night. However, this isn’t one of those stories where someone overcomes a challenge and is rewarded because they believed in themselves. But this was the point where I should have realised that I needed help. If I had looked for it back then perhaps what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all. Or at least I could have controlled it better.
Passing my finals meant I was eligible to do my postgrad studies. I was so looking forward to it. I had worked hard to get onto the course and it was one I needed to complete to get the job I desperately wanted. My first day didn’t go so well so. I was presented with a seemingly insurmountable mountain of literature that had to be read over the next year. To me, this pile of tomes looked like the north face of Mount Everest. So once again I got scared. But being only the first day I managed to push my doubts to the back of my mind and tried to convince myself that I could do it. On my second day things were going well. That was until I left the reading material in my locker. It meant that I couldn’t prepare for my class the following day. Then came the panic.
Writing this now I feel like kicking myself. It was hardly the end of the world. All I had to do was explain the situation to my tutor the following day, like a grown up, and make sure I wasn’t so careless in the future. These things happen. There is a reason someone came up with the ‘my dog ate my homework’ excuse. However, I instead started to panic. It was, at that time, the worst panic attack I had ever had. It made the night before my finals look and feel a minor event by comparison. A mere pinprick compared to what I was now going through.
It is difficult to explain to anyone who has never experienced a panic attack what you actually feel both physically and mentally. It is my understanding panic attacks hit some people differently than others. For me it always starts off with a hot flush starting at the back of my neck and consuming my face like someone has taken a flamethrower to it. My whole head starts to tingle and I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears like a drum. Next I break out in a cold sweat which in turn makes me shiver all over. My extremities; my feet and hands feel numb. My eyes begin to blur and I begin to feel lightheaded. Internally, I freeze. My mind goes blank before then suddenly running at the speed of light through every potentially worst case scenario. All you want to do is get up and run. Run until your legs will no longer carry you and that which you deem a threat is but a distant memory.
All I could think of was that I was going to get screamed at by a tutor, that my new classmates would ridicule me, that they would all realise how much smarter than me they were, that I would never pass the course, that no employer would give me the job of my dreams, that my relationship with family and friends would suffer, that the ones I loved would leave me. Incredible I know. I’d only left a sodding book in a locker.
Yet there I found myself pacing my kitchen and crying like I had never cried before. Wringing my hands in what probably looked like an attempt to channel Lady Macbeth. Only I couldn’t get rid of that damn spot. It was inside me and I couldn’t get to it and rub it out. My family were understandably worried, perhaps even scared, but I don’t think they really understood what was wrong. After all, everyone has moments of anxiety. Everyone gets anxious about being late, or messing up at work, or for any number of other things. Why was I bouncing off the walls like someone out of Bedlam?
I took some time off from studying but eventually went back to college. Lo and behold I graduated. I even got a job. I quickly got promoted. I was even headhunted by another company and landed what I thought was the job of my dreams. I was suddenly working for a well known employer – a specialist in its field – with some incredibly intelligent people that I greatly admired. But again, this is not one of those stories where someone has a challenge and overcomes it by believing in themselves.
It all went wrong pretty quickly. I started to get paranoid. I came to the conclusion that everyone in the company was smarter and more capable than I was. Of course they were, after all I was just the junior and was there to learn, to be the next generation of the company. But internally I feared that I would be found out to be a fraud.
My boss probably didn’t help. They were a very distinguished individual but not what you might describe as “cuddly”. They would shout and swear and crash around the office like a cross between a bear with a sore head and a bull in a china shop and all at seemingly the slightest of offences. Their ire didn’t even have to be leveled at me before I found myself shaking like a leaf in a stiff breeze at my desk avoiding all eye contact lest their gaze fell on me. I don’t blame them though. They had a certain style of management that many employers do. And many employees are able to deal with that kind of behaviour; like water off a duck’s back. But I, unfortunately, couldn’t.
Things eventually came to a head one day when I was finally the one in the cross-hairs. After receiving a dressing down – and one that was really only a minor one by my boss’ own high standards – I found myself trudging towards my local tube station. My ears were ringing, my heart was pounding and my feet seemed to move of their own accord. I could not feel the pavement beneath me. Sweat was dripping down my back, whilst my throat felt like someone was strangling me from the inside. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest.
All I wanted to do was to get back to the safety of my home and loved ones. But then I started thinking about their reactions. Once again I was a mess. A failure. I stepped onto the platform just as a train pulled into the station. I don’t know where the thought came from, it just popped into my head out of nowhere. But it was a perfect moment of clarity. I suddenly understood how every single day across the globe people finally reach the point where taking one step off the edge of a platform could bring all their pain to an end.
Obviously I didn’t take that step. I don’t think I was that far gone. But the realisation that I could empathise with anyone considering taking their own life – that I could reach a level where the thought of throwing myself in front of a train was a viable option – scared me more than anything else ever has previously or has since.
It was the height of summer, and even though I was underground, I left my sunglasses on. To do otherwise would have meant everyone would have seen the tears that steamed down my face. Actually, I am pretty sure plenty of people did see but as is the mark of any self-respecting Londoner it is always best to keep to oneself and avoid asking, “Are you okay?”. But then again if someone had asked me the questions what could I have said? “Yes thank you, I’ve just scared myself shitless at the thought of topping myself”.
By the time I got home I was sopping wet. Between my tears and the sweating I looked to the world like someone had thrown a bucket of water over me. My dream job was over. I couldn’t go back. It was just far too much for me to cope with. In my mind I equated that moment on the platform with working in that office, in that city, with those people, with that boss. As melodramatic as it may sound, I honestly thought that if I went back there I would die. Completely irrational I know but whilst in the grips of a panic attack someone can swear blind that the sky is orange and the sea is brown, or something else as nonsensical as that. Not only was my dream job now but a fading memory, so was my career, something I had striven so hard for. But I knew I could not go on with what I was doing, at least not until I got some help.
A few sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy did just that. Or at least I thought they did. Talking about my feelings and problems was cathartic, just as writing this blog is. However, the problem with anxiety and panic attacks is that while it is very easy to understand what things can set you off, actually controlling it when it strikes is not. You can even talk about it and consider the best ways to deal with it if and when you have an attack. One’s issues are surprisingly easy to rationalise and deal with 23 hours and 59 minutes of the day. But when a panic attack hits all your rationality, all your understanding, all your objectivity, just flies straight out of the window.
Once again this is not a tale of triumph over a debilitating condition. At least not yet it isn’t. I still get anxiety and panic attacks. I know there are some people out there that have it far worse than I. People who can’t even leave their homes because of how firm the grasp of anxiety is on them. I can go weeks, even months without feeling its debilitating embrace. But it only takes one email that I wasn’t expecting or a stern look from someone I fear at work and I find myself right back in that same dark place again. I am transported back to the very room I had at university pacing the floor before my exams. I am back bouncing off the walls in my kitchen shaking uncontrollably because I left a book at school. And I am standing on a tube platform, looking down the tunnel, waiting for a train that I have yet to decide whether or not I want to arrive.
The views expressed are those of the writer(s) and may not reflect the views of JvdLD. This article does not constitute legal advice. In relation to posts by a guest Author(s), these are made by them through their own practical experience or knowledge of the subject in question or as a matter of their own opinions. Opinion posts expressed by the Author(s) or by readers of the blog on the site’s comment section are those of the individuals in question and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of John van der Luit-Drummond or JvdLD. The copyright of the individual Authors who guest post on this blog are theirs alone and John van der Luit-Drummond lays no claim to their intellectual property other than to be allowed through mutual agreement to display their posts/articles on this blog and share via social media such as sites as (although not limited to) Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.