How long have I suffered with anxiety for? I don’t know.
A therapist told me that I had it about four years ago. I thanked her for the information and did nothing with it. I think they probably call that denial. Or maybe just a byproduct of living in a society that was yet to accept a mental health problem as ‘normal’.
At the time I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious. But despite my diagnosis (from a woman I really didn’t like by the way) I was incredibly unwilling to recognise it as truth. In the midst of a panic attack I’d think: I’m broken. Or, I’m mad. Or I’m disgusting. I’d think that a lot. I didn’t know what anxiety was and made no effort to make the connection between the things going on in my mind that I didn’t understand and couldn’t identify and the word that the therapist had used.
I understand anxiety now, I understand why I felt like I did. I know now that it makes the simplest of tasks cripplingly difficult. I know that it makes me push people away. I know it’s why I can’t sleep sometimes or struggle to get up in the morning. I know it’s why I’m late to stuff and why I cancel things. I know it’s why I never reply to text messages and I let opportunities pass me by. I know it’s why I feel sick. I know it’s why I have bad days and why I cry. I know now that it is normal and that I am OK. But I didn’t know that. Even with my ‘diagnosis’ it took me a very, very long time to a) accept what anxiety was and b) that it affected me. Even in my book which came out this summer, I only touch on the condition.
I didn’t write a letter to to it, although I should have done. I wrote a letter to everything else. I wrote a letter to my handbag and I didn’t write one to the part of my brain that I think about so much. Anxiety wasn’t important then, it wasn’t worth talking about, it wasn’t that bad. That’s what I thought about my anxiety. I thought people wouldn’t really care, that they didn’t need to know. I didn’t think it merited a conversation, in print or in person, even with the people who love me most.
Before last weekend I hadn’t seen most of my school friends for five years. At first it was to do with our lives moving at different paces, they went to university and I didn’t. Then the ‘anxiety’ and the denial that came with it kicked in and before I knew it I hadn’t seen them for a year. Without using this as an opportunity to accept that this was anxiety in action I thought to myself that they were okay without me. They don’t miss me. Why would they? It’s better if I just stay here. Every time you say no to something it gets easier to say no to everything, by the way. So that’s what I did and I gave them no excuse. I lost so many friends and even I didn’t know how I had done it. I couldn’t tell anyone how I had done it. But then last weekend, after finally accepting why I had pushed myself so far away from everyone I used to know so well, I grabbed life by the metaphorical and went to my school reunion. I said to anyone that asked me where I’d been all this time: I’m so sorry, I find this difficult. They accepted that and welcomed me back. People are good like that.
Five years it took me to say that out loud: I find this difficult.
I would cry and scream and shout and storm out the house when Alex would ask me what I wanted for dinner. That was somehow easier than telling him that I couldn’t make a decision. That I was scared to make a decision. So scared that I would get it wrong, that I’d say the wrong thing. That he’d hate me forever. A crime punishable by death, choosing sausages for our tea. Or so I thought. Why couldn’t I just tell him: ‘I find this difficult.’?
Even my mum, I talk to her every day. That makes it so much harder to explain somehow. With someone that you haven’t seen for months it’s easy enough: I’m sorry, I’m anxious. With someone that you love and trust and talk to every day, what are you supposed to say? I finally understand why I find it so hard to walk Bua! I know why I can’t decide what I want for dinner! Don’t ask me why but every time I leave the house I convince myself it’s burnt down and I think that might be a symptom of anxiety. Broaching the topic of mental health in a serious manner shouldn’t be done on the phone. But it’s a bit much to do face-to-face isn’t it? To make a big deal out of this? It’s easier to say nothing. To pretend it isn’t happening. Sure, I find certain things difficult, but doesn’t everybody? Won’t this just pass? It will probably pass. Why isn’t it passing?
I waited for so long for it to pass, for it to just get better. And when it didn’t, I couldn’t understand.
It’s tricky. Because there is a part of me that thinks: the more I talk about this, the more I am thinking about my behaviour and the more I think about it, the more anxious I get. It’s like when you get a mosquito bite and if you think about it becomes even itchier. The minute I say out loud that I find it difficult to walk my dog, it becomes more difficult somehow. It’s a ‘thing’ now. In lots of ways it makes it easier, Alex will help me now when I’m having a ‘bad’ day, but the internal monologue that goes on every time I unclip her lead is excruciating, would that have happened if I had just swept this under the rug?
I’ve probably been battling anxiety, quietly, for five years. Why have I decided to talk about it now?
The reason is three fold. In part I would like to use my experiences to help others with what they are going through, I can’t be the only one to feel like this and personally I find it incredibly helpful to know that I am not alone with my struggle. To read someone else’s account of their anxiety helps me in ways that I cannot help myself and if I can be that person for somebody else then I am grateful, at least something good is coming of this.
In part I am talking because I think we should, it won’t be ‘normal’ until we do. If we lived in a fully accepting world I think I would have walked out of that therapist’s office four years ago and owned my diagnosis, working towards fixing it then and there. Instead I kept quiet, did not learn enough about it, convinced myself that it had just gone away and then was hit with a wave later on in life that could have been avoided had the conversation been happening already. It is my responsibility, as someone with a degree of understanding around my own mind and willingness to share my struggles, to share them.
And in part I am talking about it because I have to. I share a lot of my life, most of it really. I wrote a book all about it, every day I film myself for my Instagram story and use pretty much every situation I encounter as inspiration for a blog post. I’m not a private person and yet, I was keeping a massive part of me totally, totally hidden from the world. And from myself actually.
Last year I ended up battling a string of issues with my stomach, I didn’t understand a lot about what was going on and nor, unfortunately, did the medical world. In August 2016 I ate a piece of cucumber and out of nowhere my stomach swelled up like a beach ball, for weeks I was unable to eat anything without exploding. I went to a gut specialist in London who told me that I had IBS. Unsatisfied (and knowing that already since I hadn’t been able to eat gluten or dairy for three years because of this) we sought out more help. I was put in the hands of a nutritionist who deprived me of everything that I loved to eat. I could no longer drink coffee or alcohol, sugar was off limits, I was to avoid red meat, raw fish and all eggs. Yeast was a no no. Gluten and dairy were still off the table. “People can have fun without drinking you know?” she used to tell me.
It didn’t make me any better. I lived like this for months, my Christmas dinner was pitiful and I spent new year’s eve trying desperately to make one gin and slimline tonic see me through the whole night. I couldn’t go out for dinner, they wouldn’t be able to feed me and if they did, I knew it would make me ill anyway. My friends would go drinking and I couldn’t go with them, it was too depressing and I was too tired. I became a recluse, terrified of food and all that came with it. The anxiety surrounding anything to do with my health was becoming truly overwhelming. I was obsessed with all of it and I couldn’t be blamed for that, it was all encompassing. `
In the end I found a new nutritionist and she told me to get my life back. As it turned out nuts and seeds were causing me huge problems and if I removed them I would stop bloating. Gluten and dairy were still off the table. But booze was back on it again. I shouldn’t go on huge regular benders and if I do it should be spirits rather than wine that I drink, but I don’t always listen. And I don’t always have to and that helps. I shouldn’t eat grapes but if I fancy a couple I know that it won’t kill me. I should go easy on red meat but if I fancy a steak and a glass of vino when I’m out with my mates than that’s okay. I was told I had to listen to my own body. I was forbidden from counting calories. And I did get my life back. I only went to see her twice more after she told me to have a cup of coffee (first one in six months and I didn’t get out of Costa for a week). I wanted to do it on my own, no one knows my body better than me and yet everyone had an opinion on it.
The hangover from this episode has lived on. Although I can go out to dinner now and get pissed with my mates and I do, to all intents and purposes have my life back, I realise what this sorry story did for me, and that was to make me own up to a mental health problem. It was more than just being a bit bummed out that I couldn’t have a glass of champagne on Christmas morning, it was a total fear of food and every situation surrounding it that was becoming crippling, it was anxiety. Anxiety that I think stronger people than I would have fallen victim to, it IS stressful having a stomach that badly behaved. Made worse by the fact that the one thing an IBS sufferer really needs, is not to be stressed.
I can’t say that I’m grateful for this period of my life, as it was by far and away one of the worst, but I learned a lot about my body and for that I am riddled with gratitude. It’s exploding out of me. That second nutritionist was not a shrink, nor did she have any psychology degree of any kind, but she was the first person I said it to: I cannot go on like this. I am finding it difficult.
Perhaps I’d have accepted anxiety had it not been for the food crisis, but I think not, not yet anyway.
The day after my book was published I found myself stuck in bed. It was the first time this had ever happened to me. I was too anxious to move. I couldn’t leave. It was the Boxing Day on the biggest day of my life and I couldn’t celebrate it. It’s easy to pass that off as a comedown, as something that happens to everyone after a huge event, and a big part of me believed it when people told me that’s what it was. But a bigger part of me knew that something else was at play here; fear like this isn’t normal. Being afraid all the time isn’t normal.
And I am afraid a lot.
Living with these nerves, the butterflies, the sickness, the overwhelming sense of panic all the time, I was passing it off as normal, whatever that means. I wouldn’t admit that there was anything wrong with me: it’s nothing. Other people have it worse. Stop being silly. Get over it. Over and over again I would say this. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.
But it’s not nothing and it wasn’t the normal that I wanted for myself. I wanted to make it better. I didn’t want to feel sick, I didn’t want to spend hours convinced that Alex was going to leave me if I get him the wrong popcorn at the cinema, I didn’t want to cry every time I made a mistake, I didn’t want to pretend that everything was fine when inside I’d convinced myself that the house had burnt down. I did that one a lot, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
And it’s true, other people have it worse, so, so much worse. But that’s just classic isn’t it? An anxiety sufferer worried that she’s not anxious enough. Mental health and mental health issues are not a competition. I tell myself that a lot.
I don’t claim to suffer badly, but I do at least now claim to suffer. That is important. I need not be ashamed of this. In fact, I need to own it. There’s something wrong with me. That’s OK. We’ll fix it. That’s what I’d say if the dishwasher was broken. I’m going to pretend my mind is the dishwasher for a bit.
It has never been easier to be anxious. We are a generation that needs to be busy. We live online and we’re the first ones here. You tell me that the first men on earth didn’t have some teething problems. Where is the line between worry and anxiety? Between sadness and depression? Between an ongoing diet and an eating disorder? Who put the line there? Who gets the final say on this?
I didn’t hear it when a professional told me I suffered with anxiety, I actively ignored it. The only person who I could hear that from was myself. And that’s a weird one in itself. We’ve all googled a rash before now, we know how dangerous Dr. Google can be. But not for this one. Mental health requires acceptance, however we find it. Whether it’s accepting the diagnosis from a doctor or from resonating with a blog post written by a person living in a country that you have never been to, it’s all about acceptance. Not just accepting others and the battles that they are facing, but accepting ourselves and the battles that we are facing.
I’m not defined by my anxiety. In fact, it’s a very small part of who I am. It didn’t even make it into my Twitter bio. But it is a part of me. A part that cannot be ignored any longer.