An anxious past.
Looking back throughout my life, I realise that I’ve always had a tendency to be a little anxious. A bit highly strung. Maybe too tightly wound. While most kids were playing Nintendo, building dens or kicking a football around, I was worrying about something.
Like finding a “brain tumour” at the back of my head, the future deaths of everyone that I know and love, and rising tensions in the Middle East.
While most kids were thinking about what they were going to have for tea, what time The Simpsons was on or whether they’d be allowed to have those new trainers that lit up when you walked, I was worrying about something.
Truth be told, I was a pretty intense kid (in case you hadn’t already gathered), and the thing about kids is, they eventually grow up and become bigger kids — or adults, as they’re more commonly known; adults who carry the problems of the pasts with them all the way into the future.
Exactly like I did...
What does anxiety "feel" like?
You know that “butterflies in your stomach” feeling that you get before you sit an important exam or job interview?
Well, that’s a dash of "normal", expected anxiety. Everyone experiences it at one point or another. It's our “flight or fight” mechanism engaging. It’s the body’s own natural response to allow us to assess potentially dangerous/stressful situations.
But, what if that feeling decided to stick around from time to time, way past its welcome, and for no obvious reason.
Imagine this: you're at the bottom of a swimming pool and you’re just about to run out of breath, so you frantically begin swimming upwards, but you don’t seem to be getting any closer to the surface.
A "bout" of anxiety (as I like to refer), is a bit like being strapped into a big fuck-off rollercoaster that you can’t get off; you’re nauseous and you just want to go home, but it won’t bloody stop. It just gets faster and faster, every time it goes around, and the longer it goes on, the sicker you feel.
But you still can't get off the damn thing.
You become unable to enjoy the present moment, because: you’re either reliving what you perceive to be all of the mistakes of your past, or focusing on the vicious uncertainty of the future.
It’s as if your brain is sending signals to your body to tell it that you’re trying to flee from a pack of wild dogs that want to tear you to shreds, but the reality is, you’re just sat at a mate’s house on a Saturday night watching The Voice.
It’s a very unique form of self-induced (but entirely unwanted) hell.
(Anxiety, not The Voice, which on the whole, is actually quite watchable.)
The turning point.
Despite having a notably worrisome past, it was only a few years ago that a particular “episode” forced me into reaching out and getting some medical help. On that occasion, I’d managed to work myself into such an acute state of stress and worry — about the future, the perceived futility of life, and my place within it — that my physical health had taken a bit of a hit.
I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I’d become a waif. A husk. A withered version of my former self. Every single morning I’d I awaken to a deep, pulsing dread in the pit of my stomach. Each minute and hour of every day was spent over-analysing, over-thinking, and obsessing over various “what if” scenarios.
My mind was like a pinball machine with multiple ball bearings, each one of them representing a different worry or crippling thought. They’d ping from one side to another in the blink of an eye, and I entered into an unending negativity loop of catastrophic, debilitating thoughts.
Then guess what happened?
I stopped sleeping altogether, and became even more irrational. Jaded. Disconnected.
When stuck in this mode, I’m unable to make sense of anything; all reasonable rationale flees entirely during one of these “turns”, and this only leads me to become saturated in a truly agonising kind of confusion.
My behaviour can become erratic. I can act out of character. I might make rash decisions in the heat of the moment — some of which I later regret. As this cycle continues, it leads to frustration, pessimism, and eventually, mental collapse.
One of the worst things about suffering from any mental health condition, is that it can’t really be proven. The diagnosis of which is a series of conversations with a medical professional: a grouping of common symptoms that form the basis of "this" or "that" affliction. You don’t get anything tangible in which to prove that you’re actually ill. No badge. No certificate. No evidence. There are no obvious physical symptoms either, and because of that, you have to contend with continually feeling like a liar. Your brain tells you that “you're just being melodramatic” and "you should just pull yourself together”.
But it's not that simple.
To outsiders, it might appear as though you’re "perpetuating your own madness” — but you’re not mad, you don’t want this to be “you”. To know deep down that you’re being irrational doesn’t seem to help in any way at all. It only seeks to annoy you further. You don’t want this. Nobody would. Then you feel bad, just for feeling bad. You think "look at all of the other people getting on with their lives who are in a less favourable position than you are". This, in turn, only leads you to feeling immensely guilty, because you overthink that too.
Can you imagine how it feels to try and tell the people closest to you that you sometimes feel exhausted by life and everything in it, but you don’t really know why? How frustrating and terrifying that is. That occasionally, when you’re at your worst, the mere thought of another day is something to be gritted out and survived, rather than savoured and enjoyed?
Trying to explain exactly how I felt was something that I perceived to be an impossible task in itself, so I decided that I’d keep the vast majority of it filed away, in one of the vast, sprawling, caverns of my brain, in a mental filing cabinet which read:
*DON’T EVER FUCKING OPEN THIS DRAWER AGAIN.*
(But it had to come out, at some point or another.)
I was so desperate to escape from the way I felt, that I believed medication was the only possible solution. The thought of being chemically numbed out was something lustfully attractive at the time — anything that would allow me to be at peace — so, I arranged to see a doctor in order to try and figure things out.
Once and for all.
My suspicion, was that I might have been bipolar — due to experiencing many contrasting “polarising” ups and downs — but with me, there seemed to be a noticeable pattern: a gradual rise into the heights of worry, before an immediate free fall into a depressive state.
So, I told the doctor that, and then felt strangely reassured when he said out loud that he believed I was suffering from a condition called “Generalised Anxiety Disorder” (or GAD as is it’s abbreviated) — this resonated with me more than bipolar did, and it was proof that I wasn’t making it all up.
Me: I knew I wasn't mad!
Brain: Oh, you're still mad. You just have a label now.
Throughout our discussions, the attentive doctor explained that the condition often induces periods of such prolonged anxiety and panic in sufferers, that depressive episodes can coincide, or even overlap. Although medication was never formally recommended or forced upon me, I wanted to try it, because I didn't know what else I could do.
It felt like the right thing at the time.
After a dabble with a couple of different prescription pills (that I can't remember the names of), I decided that it wasn’t the most suitable route for me. It only masked the root of my problem, and pushed me even further away from being “myself”, and I was already feeling severely disassociated. On top of that, my body presented a myriad of unwanted side effects, which severely negated any positives the drugs themselves brought — and there were a few, to be fair.
I wanted to try and live without the possibility of a chemical fog controlling my mind — plus, my wicked self read every single side effect each of the drugs could cause, so I'd likely doomed things from the off.
(Disclaimer: this is purely my own experience with anti-depressants. I had to try them to decide they weren't right for me. That isn't to say they can't be lifesaving for you. Each of us has completely different set of problems and entirely unique biochemistry, therefore, there's never going to be any one perfect solution for all.)
While my diagnosis helped me to understand how my brain ticked over a little more, as the years went on, I found that the more I identified with the “label” I was given, the more I inadvertently allowed those behaviours to rule my life. I’d somehow let myself use my condition as a crutch, and it became a deeply rooted part of my personality. I had become the mental illness, or perhaps, I’d let it become “me”.
It’s just my anxiety again.
I feel this way because I’m an anxious person.
I’m mentally ill and there is nothing that can change that.
I can’t do anything to help these behaviours.
This is the mind I was born with.
I’m either anxious or depressed and that’s the way it is.
That’s the way it’ll always be.
Without consciously realising it, sentences like this had become mantras in my head. They were internal affirmations, that when ruminated upon, would solidify my own damaging beliefs about myself. It had me constricted and consumed.
I'd managed to become my own worst enemy.
This caused an almost permanent state of unrest, somewhere between the dizzying heights of anxiety, and the plunging lows of depression. I felt bad for feeling the way I did, and this only fed the beast further — and as long as the beast was fed, it continued to live, grow and gather strength.
I actively withdrew from everyone around me. From social media. From the world outside. From “myself”. I was detached and losing my grip on reality, one day at a time, and the more this happened, the more truly alone I felt, but nobody could possibly understand, because I didn't get it myself.
Through time, my issues had managed to get a true stranglehold on every single aspect of my life: friendships, my relationship, work, opportunities, and family bonds. I’d often be so focused on trying to get myself better, that I’d neglect those closest to me without even realising it— something I never meant or wanted to happen.
Yes, mental illness can be consuming, damaging and seemingly unending, but there is always a way through.
That brings us into the now. Today. The present moment. This collection [sprawling essay] of words.
After a recent climactic showdown with anxiety, it feels as though my brain has somehow decided to reconfigure it’s own wiring. This bout in particular, has allowed me to truly learn a lot about myself — more than before — as though through torturing itself all these years, the old head computer has somehow decided to shut down and start afresh. It’s been able to assess my past with a sense of clarity that was just never there before.
I consider it a personal breakthrough and I wanted to share it. I’m simply not going to allow my issues to impinge my existence and rule my life any further than they already have.
I know I have a predisposition to overthink matters, but that’s only because I care so much — about everything and everyone, even those tiny insignificant things that many would give little to no thought to.
With every single “bad turn” of anxiety or depression that I've dealt with, I’ve learned something valuable about myself. I’ve picked up a new way of dealing or coping, by using the adversity faced as a means to grow, and you know what?
I wouldn’t change my experiences with mental illness for anything.
It’s made me who I am today. It’s allowed me to become more empathetic, more compassionate, more self-aware and now more driven than ever to help other sufferers. Even if it’s something I always have to contend with, I’m sharper now. More resilient. More psychologically adept to face any potential issues that may arise in the future.
And indeed, they might.
To those who struggle.
I want to take this opportunity to say to anyone fighting their own battles, to use the experience. Embrace the adversity and the difficulty. Take small steps and achieve little victories day by day. Take note of them. Know that if you’re at the point in which something is almost too unbearable, you’re very close to a breakthrough.
Talk to someone, anyone that’ll listen: your parents, partner, sibling, ring a helpline, scream in the streets or take to social media. Tell them everything. Every last detail, no matter how “crazy” it might seem locked away in your head. Do whatever it takes to communicate your feelings. Write it down. Don’t keep it in. Get it out of you. Immediately. Don’t let it fester a second longer or you'll contort your entire being into some lesser version of who you should be. Be your best self and don’t let anything hinder that, especially not your very own mind. Hell, if you’re struggling to find someone who understands, message me. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to help, but I promise that I’ll listen.
My own brushes with the "black dog" have led me to the realisation, that I want to spend the rest of my time on this floating, chaotic ball, in the middle of infinite space, trying to do what I can to help those people who’re struggling to cope on the inside.
As the great philosopher Kanye West once said (or was it Nietzsche? I forget):
“That which does not kill us, only makes us stronger.”
Header Photo Credit: Costa Sister Productions