My Anxiety & Me

To mark Mental Health Awareness Day, I wanted to share something with you all. There’s no satire or humour this time; no puns to hide behind. This is simply a story about a young man battling something he didn’t understand. It’s a true story and it’s taken 18 years to write, but maybe it helps someone else now, so I think it’s worth it.

Anxiety & Me – an 18 year journey of discovery

From the moment my head cracked against the stone step and the ambulance rushed me to A&E, I knew that I had to finally confront this. It wasn’t normal for a 23-year-old to have daily panic attacks and keep fainting in public.

On the surface I was a normal graduate with a good job, renting a flat in London and on my way to great things. Now, as I rub the 3-inch scar on the back of my head, I am reminded every day of how fragile that surface really is.

When I regained consciousness in that hospital bed, the temporary amnesia meant I didn’t know my address or even what year it was, and because I didn’t know my own name I was unable to sign myself out of the ward. I couldn’t even call anyone for help as I didn’t remember if I had a girlfriend or not. So there I lay, wondering what on earth had happened. I had no alcohol in my system and had actually been training in the gym for my first 10K the following week, which was my challenge to myself after quitting smoking a few months earlier.

Days of tests and clinics came to the conclusion that I had a form of epilepsy, and I was told to immediately stop driving for a year and return my license. I had to stop drinking (I was never a drinker anyway) and was told I should be careful in public places and try not to go out too much in case I had a seizure. But none of that felt right to me. I’d never had any kind of epilepsy and I didn’t understand why it would suddenly happen to me now, when arguably I was the healthiest I had been in years. Doctors shrugged and said there was no reason for it, but that was definitely what had happened. Not once did they question why it had happened or if there was any underlying mental reason that had brought it on. I think once they asked me if I was depressed, but I genuinely wasn’t and so they moved back to more medical questions.

So, a few weeks later, there I was all stitched up and on the train again ready to go back to work as if nothing had happened. Only something had happened. Aside from the scar that I was secretly quite proud of (and still am), the whole situation had scared me to death, and that feeling wasn’t going away any time soon.

In the story of Pandora’s Box, once the box is opened and all the demons and evils of the world have flown out, what is left at the bottom is hope. But in my case what was left at the bottom was the absolute fear that there were more demons just waiting to jump out. Within five minutes of getting on the train I felt a crippling fear start to creep up my body. My heart was pumping and my vision was narrowing. I was convinced I was going to faint and so got off the train immediately. I phoned in sick that day, but the next day was the same. And the next, and the next. After a few weeks I quit my job because I physically couldn’t get into the office. I then gave up my flat because I had no way to pay the rent, and moved back home.

All the while I was telling everyone I had epilepsy and they were saying how awful it was. Not once did I tell anyone how I actually felt and not once did anyone ask me why I was suddenly having panic attacks. It was as if the word epilepsy was a death sentence passed down with no option for appeal or parole, and no one was telling me to fight back.

So I didn’t fight back. I labelled myself as epileptic, even though deep down I knew that was incorrect, and I adjusted to my new life. I say ‘adjusted’, what I mean was I put on three stone in a year and stopped seeing my friends and just sat around feeling sorry for myself.  It didn’t help. I began to get night terrors where I woke up imagining someone was trying to break into my room. I stopped going out because I was scared about fainting in public and maybe injuring myself again.

The idea of working was terrifying to me. I had always been confident and was the guy you sent to the client to pitch, the guy you relied on to come up with the idea at the last minute, and the funny guy who didn’t do things conventionally but who always got the job done.

Not anymore.

Now I was the overweight guy who was too scared to even interview for a new job, and certainly too scared to venture into London where there were too many people, too much noise and too many stone steps to look out for. When I looked in the mirror I saw crazy eyes staring back at me, and the stress was making my hair thin, just to add the icing on the cake.

People started to assume I was depressed and started to pity me. But I wasn’t depressed, this was a different feeling. I didn’t know it’s name at the time but I have come to understand that it was called anxiety.

Anxiety takes over your body as well as your mind. Anxiety makes you doubt everything you’ve ever taken for granted about yourself. Anxiety forces you to hide from the world. Anxiety doesn’t care if you are young or old, happy or sad, successful or struggling. When anxiety grabs hold of you, you march to its beat and its beat alone.

The isolation was the hardest part to get through. And with hindsight it was self-inflicted isolation born out of misplaced shame and a lack of understanding about what was happening. I just didn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain it to myself, let alone to anyone else.

This went on for years. I forced myself to find ways to cope – usually by avoiding situations or deflecting things with humour. I learnt to trust myself to get on public transport again and got back into a full-time job. I even bought my own flat and got married in time. But the anxiety was always there and the anxiety about the anxiety was a constant reminder that stopped me every really enjoying my life or emotionally engaging with the world.

Then, nearly 9 years ago, my first child was born. And boom, there it was, I finally had a reason to confront these demons and make myself better. There was no way I was going to pass this terrible baton onto the next generation. I threw myself into work and fatherhood like it was my sole purpose in this life.

But it didn’t work. It was the ultimate deflection and denial. I was simply prioritising other things over my own mental health. Yes, I did well at work, yes I am a good father, but all the while anxiety was gnawing at my confidence and telling me I was going to fail. It still does by the way, but I try to use that as motivation rather than obstruction.

I now know that the one thing that would have helped is the one thing I couldn’t do: talk about it. When we’re young and we lie awake scared about the monsters under the bed, what do we do? We call for our parents, who switch the light on and show us there’s nothing hiding down there. So why do we lose that ability to ask for help as we get older? Is it pride, or fear of being judged, or maybe we tell ourselves that we’re grown up now and monsters are just for children?

If I could go back and do it all again, I would try to talk about it more. I would tell a friend or family that I’m not okay. I would ask them to come over to mine to watch a film instead of making an excuse for not going outside to see them because I was literally frozen at the front door. I wouldn’t; look for rhyme or reason, or hide behind medical labels or excuses. I would just be honest and say I’m not okay.

In our modern world of mental health awareness and enabling technology we all have the tools we need to balance our lives and accommodate our demons. From simple email communications to flexible working environments to social media groups, we all have the ability to reach out to others, no matter how far down in our own Pandora’s Box we are trapped.  It’s not weakness, it’s strength. I know that now. I wish I had known it then.

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