I vividly remember the day I uttered the words "Do you think my anxiety could turn into Schizophrenia?". I remember where I was, even the weather, and exactly how I was feeling. Utterly trapped. I guess that's when I knew I had to do something about the state of my mental health.
That was 3 days after my first experience with Dissociation/Derealisation (explanation here) and nearly 7 years ago now, which seems an eternity ago yet like only yesterday. It was the most hellish 3 hours of my life and I could only describe as feeling totally disconnected/detached from my body. I remember not recognising myself in the bathroom mirror, and at that stage of drunk where you don't want to be drunk anymore. The problem: I wasn't drunk. I'd woken up suddenly in the early hours of the morning with a total unknown self of being and thoughts of 'What if this is it? What if I'm actually going mad?'. But I wasn't going 'mad'. Dissociation, although extremely unsettling can happen to anyone, especially those suffering from anxiety or extreme stress and thankfully doesn't last long. It's now something I wish I'd been aware of and believe it needs to be talked about much more. But that's a whole other blog post!
That's when I decided to do the 'right' thing; I took myself off to the doctors. Actually no, it took me months and numerous attempts. Even then I remember my sweaty palms and increasing heart rate as I sat in the waiting room wondering if I should just forget it and buy a book on mindfulness from Amazon instead. Another side note: There's probably going to be a lot of side notes! I joke. Actual side note: This isn't a story about how I cured my mental health problems with medication and therapy through the NHS (although that is an option and a good one for many) but a journey of discovery & kindness.
Of course seeing my GP went fine and he was more than understanding. However, as I explained my anxiety was only brought on by going to infrequent social events, stressful periods in my life that were ultimately beyond my control (i.e my parents divorcing, family deaths) and not a daily problem as such (I can now see I probably played it down somewhat), he thought CBT therapy would be more helpful than medication. At the time I was praying for that magic pill I could take as a one-off as anxiety kicked in to suppress all symptoms (spoiler: it doesn't exist!). So I left feeling pretty deflated. Now years on I'm glad I didn't have that option of medication as I think I could have relied on it and possibly wouldn't have gone down what was going to be a path of gradual self-improvement, although I can't say for sure. Of course medication can be a good option in some cases. But for me I know realise it wasn't.
Did I go CBT therapy? No, I never got there. I quickly realised that the NHS often aren't very good at understanding the immediate needs of someone with mental health problems reaching out for the first time. If my doctor had signed me up to the 8-week waiting list that day there would have been a good chance I would have gone through with it. But instead, I was handed a generic printout that contained a phone number to ring to book a telephone assessment call back which would then determined what type of therapy I would need. What?! Just no. With my social anxiety I wasn't one for making phone calls at the best of times but then to having to wait for a call back from a stranger that would be asking me personal questions surrounding my mental health... it was never going to happen. I'd like to think the NHS has changed since then but I strongly fear it hasn't.
After that, I can't really remember what I did. I don't think I did much. Eventually I remember at least feeling like that was the first step to improving my mental health, acknowledging it fully. I knew I had to stop the obsessive thoughts of what if I became severely mentally ill as that in itself was creating more anxiety. I also decided I had to be kinder to myself, anxiety was affecting most parts of my life. I had hair loss, trouble sleeping, I was unmotivated to work and was comfort eating more than ever before and ultimately pretty miserable.
This was when I decided I had to stop forcing myself to make appearances at family gathering/commitments, something I constantly struggled with, and putting on a fake smile to please other people. Of course at the time my family probably would have said I was already doing that, but behind the scenes after committing to family events I would have anxiety the day of said event/party, and then even more anxiety and guilt having to cancel at short notice. So I decided I had to start saying no up-front and if I'm honest it was hard to do. I felt like my family didn't like me at points and I knew they were aware of my anxiety and I presumed they thought it was getting worse. But by relieving myself of family commitments and responsibilities that I knew wouldn't deeply hurt anyone in the long run, I was able to reduce a lot of my anxiety. A lot of self-help books suggest that the more you avoid situations in which you have anxiety the worse anxiety can become but for me as I knew it was a temporary situation to gain back control of my mental health I didn't find that to be the case. For the first time I was fully accepting I had anxiety and was being kind to myself; freeing myself of the pretence of happiness in front of my family when I could just about muster it and the guilt when I couldn't. Call it an unannounced life sabbatical!
Gratitude & a bit of a 'wobble'
In that time, which was at least 1-2 years, my life was pretty boring and I didn't do much, but I did start to enjoy the little things and was aware that I was generally feeling more grateful for even the smallest of things. One of my favourite things to do was to sit outside and read or strangely just look up at the sky on warm days. I also went on more walks and without noticing spent less time on the internet, no easy feat for a blogger! I realise it was an important time for me now. Realising my own health was more important than any family commitment or the appearance of a social life.
Slowly anxiety was only appearing at stressful times and it was brief, compared to the days on end I'd suffered with it. But then I had a wobble, I call it a wobble but it wasn't even that... it was a reminder that mental health requires constant maintenance. After over 3 months without any anxiety a rushed walked/half run to my local Post Office to post a parcel and then waiting in bunched up long queue resulted in no more than 2 minutes of anxiety/panic. I was back to being that anxious girl with a racing heart beat and sweaty palms and it was a total shock. However, I told myself I could leave the queue or stay in it and both would be ok. I decided on the latter and it was ok... surprise, surprise (anxiety for you!). But instead of putting it down to a very rushed walk on a very hot day along with I guess taking my mental health for granted again at that point, because I had become comfortable being anxiety-free, I decided enough was enough and I had to cure my anxiety once and for all. In hindsight it was a major overreaction! I should have been proud of myself for dealing with unexpected anxiety in a balanced way and the fact I was able to carry on with my day quite happily should have been a marked achievement. But what did I go and do? I got myself a therapist!
I actually think it's laughable now because I'd come so far yet in my mind that blip was a sign/wake-up call that I wasn't 'normal' and so it wasn't good enough and I needed to be 'fixed'. Sadly we aren't programmed to be proud of ourselves, actually I think we are often programmed to be tough on ourselves. Family members will also always want the best for us and I guess the best would be to be mental health-free (which doesn't exist!) so my decision to find a therapist was supported. I had 6 sessions in totally with a therapist I found through Google. She was nice and I didn't have a problem being open about the struggles I still faced but I didn't get anywhere. We actually ended up talking about my family members most of the time, which I didn't see as related to my anxiety or current issues with anxiety. But through my slightly wasted time and money I did realise that I was and had been doing well and that was maybe why I wasn't seeing the huge improvements I expected from getting a therapist. I also realised I should have been proud that my anxiety was confined to my sole rushed post office trip and the odd 30-second lapse in concentration when watching a movie at the cinema.
So I ditched my weekly therapy sessions and started feeling prouder about how far I'd come and became more open about talking about my anxiety, especially with my family. I also bought a few self-improvement books (I recommend Calm & Making Friends with Making Friends with Anxiety) and became more mindful of my overall health, especially sleep. Fast forward to today and I'm a much happier person and feel grateful for almost everything in life. But I do feel I'm now aware of my mental well-being on a daily basis, which I consider a good thing and something lifelong. After a crappy day or even at the first sign of any illness, I often take what I call a 'mental health' day. I go to bed earlier the night before, I don't get dressed if I don't want to and I watch either a feel good film or an uplifting documentary. Then I feel reset and back to facing the world. I'm also aware of my stress levels, because I now find I get stressed instead of anxious, and I either work through it or again take time to myself, it can even be as simple as taking a longer shower or having an impromptu shopping trip. It wasn't as simple as this in the beginning, every day was a self-care mental health day for quite some time, but the fundamental idea of being aware of how I'm feeling and to act upon it in a caring and importantly none criticising way has stayed the same.
The Future & Feeling Proud
Am I anxiety-free? Right at this very moment I can say I am! But I'm aware that in extremely stressful situations which are out of my control my anxiety could likely reappear. But I know I can face it and it will go away again. Importantly I no longer fear it.
I do often wonder if anyone that's had a long period of suffering from anxiety can ever truly be anxiety-free and I'm still unsure. Everyone has mental health, just as much as they have physical health, and once you know how fickle that fight or flight mechanism in the brain can be it's almost impossible for it always to opt for fight instead of flight, especially when it's easy to become lacs with looking after your mental well-being. But as long as you can focus on caring for yourself the best you can and are aware of the fragility of mental health I believe you can almost overcome it, which is as good as overcoming it for me!
I'm now the proudest person in my life of myself. Even typing that makes me emotional because it's been a long journey and I will never forget how trapped I felt but how amazing life feels right now. It's also a slightly odd thing to admit and in any other context could seem fairly narcissistic. But it is true... I'm my biggest cheerleader because I've overcome my suffering with mental health and that's a huge deal and something I hold onto dearly!
It's taken me many years to get to this point of happiness but I got here not with hope but belief in myself and a whole lot of inner kindness.
If I could wish for you to take anything away from this blog post whether you are suffering right now or not, it would be to make your mental well-being as important as your physical well-being and to be the kindest person to yourself that you know. Ultimately life is precious and deserves to be lived fully.