So, I’ve been wanting to write about my experiences with my mental health for so long; I’ve just been a little fearful of putting something out there that absolutely anyone could read. However, the fact that anyone could be reading these words is also the main reason I’m going to put it out here on the scary internet. Having only been officially diagnosed in recent years with anxiety and various forms of depression, for multiple reasons; I have a lot to talk about. My experiences range from getting as close as you can to giving up without doing so, to some really positive moments that I’ll be forever grateful for. Throughout my most difficult, and not so difficult times, dealing with mental health issues; I’ve always been searching for (and often found) others going through something similar. Anything or anyone that can make the situation less isolating have given me such a boost on the occasions when I’ve needed it the most. Therefore, I’ve decided to be open about what I have learnt, what I’m still learning, and some stories that will hopefully help someone else feel a little less alone.
I’ve decided to just tell my story in a series of blog posts; I will talk about my depression separately because although you might think it’s the BFF to my anxiety; I’ve found the two very different, and they have often struck me at different times. Please bear with me as I try to explain things; I will do my best not to flit here, there, and everywhere. However, this is often how my brain works, so it might actually give you a better sense of all the knots I tie up my thoughts and feelings. If you’ve read any of my other posts; you’ll know that I love a good metaphor. Therefore, I’ll start with my first, and say that dealing with my anxiety has been like trying to smooth through knotted, tangled, matted hair with a fine-toothed comb. Frustrating, distracting, fucking painful, time-consuming, exhausting, tear-inducing, and damaging to my head. I have yet to achieve a silky-smooth and shiny result regarding my brain and how it functions and processes things, but I am getting there one day at a time. On a positive note, my anxiety has given me empathy for others I never thought was possible, I’ve become patient, and far kinder to people; including myself. I have softened and strengthened all at once, and behind my quiet voice and sometimes shy demeanour; you’ll find someone determined, optimistic, and open to those who want to listen.
After talking to an array of therapists, both through the NHS and privately; I’ve realised that the beginnings of my anxiety began when I was 9 years old. After living a carefree, and from my memories, idyllic childhood; I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It wasn’t like I woke up the day after diagnosis full of anxious thoughts and looking through the Yellow Pages (it was the 90s guys) for counselling. However, with the help of mental health experts really getting stuck into my brain, I’ve figured out that this is where I first got the sense of a loss of control. Even at 9, I could understand that a few wrong moves regarding my diabetes could lead to an array of future complications, the worst being, well, death. That’s a lot to think about when your biggest worry beforehand had been finishing the work for your next Brownies badge or packing your swimming bag. My parents were incredible, and it was really them who had been diagnosed with the condition too; they took on my blood tests, injections, and diet like champions. It was however, the first time I remember the feeling of worry as they looked at me in my hospital bed. I felt uneasy and as I reached my teenage/puberty (ugh) years; I consciously gave up control and had complete denial about my condition.
I’m going to leave a huge chunk out regarding my teenage years and early twenties regarding my diabetes for a type 1 focused post, because that’s a whole other story for another time. Anyway, the loss of control of my health and life, leads me rather quickly to the point where my anxiety kicked-in like never before. As I’ve already said; poor diabetes control can lead to an array of awful complications, one of which is bleeding in the back of your eyes, aka retinopathy. I had known I had retinopathy for a couple of years before I’d got on a plane to go and live in Sydney (with my then boyfriend, and now husband). I’d had laser treatment to seal the blood vessels, and had thought nothing more of the condition as it hadn’t affected me for what had felt like ages. Then, one morning in the sunny Aussie city; I woke up and couldn’t see out of one eye. Looking back (haha); I can honestly say that this is where my life changed, and it’s never been the same since. I feel like I should keep popping in the fact that I’m okay now, so, I am okay now; otherwise I wouldn’t be sat here writing everything.
My right eye had collapsed at the back and I could no longer see out of it. It was just a very murky grey, like a cloud. I could kind of make out shadows at that point because the sun was so bright, but other than that; nothing. Bizarrely (the mind copes in various ways), I went a whole morning without saying a thing to anyone about it. I went and got coffee, and it was lunchtime before I told Marv that I couldn’t see out of my eye. I don’t think I could quite believe it. I felt numb; no panic or worry had arrived, and I calmly booked myself an emergency appointment in the Sydney Eye Hospital. All I can remember about that appointment is being told very quietly that I’d never see out of my right eye again, and I’d need an operation as soon as possible to stop the eye from dying which would result in the right half of my world going black forever. All I knew was I had to have a gas bubble put into the eye to help attach the back of the eye again, followed by another operation to remove the resulting cataract and to cut and seal some more vessels (urrgghh; I know).
Don’t get annoyed, but I will also save those operation stories for another time, as one of them resulted in my PTSD diagnosis a couple of years ago. Basically, I didn’t realise that I’d be awake for the duration of the operation, and when someone is doing things inside your eye when you’re awake; you can see everything. Therefore, I’ll save that separate mental health and biology lesson for future Fay to tell you about (if I haven’t put you off already). Let’s get back to anxiety.
Okay, so I was in a fairly new relationship, and living on the other side of the world from my family and my best friends. As a complete home-bird, only child, and up until recent years; a closed book to those i didn’t know very well; I felt very alone. I cried every night for weeks; I couldn’t bear the thought of ringing anyone back home as I didn’t want to worry them, but I didn’t feel close enough to anyone in Sydney to be truly honest with. I was devastated and scared, and it led to severe social anxiety and agoraphobia. I had no idea I was going through these things at the time, but it is very clear now that I was. I was doing my best to put a strong and brave face on everything during my days, then completely breaking down at night; this is a strain on any relationship, so I thought I was doing the right thing by taking myself into the shower to cry. Just so you know; I don’t recommend this, the best advice I can give is to always find someone who’ll listen.
Part of, what I thought was, being brave, was to get back out there and find a job. As my agoraphobia and anxiety became more severe; this obviously had a very negative impact on the whole process. My balance had been affected by my loss of sight in one eye, I had no depth perception, no peripheral vision, and had started to constantly trip up, bump into things, and fear whatever it was I wasn’t able to see. The beautiful bright sun in Sydney is great, unless you’ve just lost half your sight, and your left eye is struggling with the responsibility of doing all the focusing. My left eye lens was slow to change in the extreme changes of light, so my sight was often completely blurred for minutes at a time; not what you want when crossing a busy road, when you’re trying to read a bus number, or right before you walk into an interview. I began to loathe the thought of going out at all, and would do everything to try and get phone interviews instead of meeting face-to-face with potential employers. This didn’t go so well.
En route to one interview I experienced my first anxiety panic attack. My chest had felt tight for the duration of a bus journey; I put this down to pre-interview nerves and the heat being in the 30s. I stepped off the bus and started walking towards the mall where I was to meet my interviewer; my chest got tighter to the point I was struggling for breath. Then, I couldn’t breathe and was desperately trying to get some air in my lungs, which resulted in a weird loud screechy-noise, which resulted in some women rushing over to help, which then resulted in me getting worse because I was so fucking embarrassed. I was actually worrying about what everyone around me was thinking while I was struggling to breathe, instead of focusing on actually breathing. All I could process was; I’m going to die feeling embarrassed and surrounded by people I don’t know. Thankfully, it’s been months since my last proper panic attack, but back then I’d be having a couple a week. I was either alone, about to leave the apartment, or in a public toilet cubicle somewhere, or every now and again; I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to sit with me, hand me water, or find a bag to breathe into. Writing these memories is making me feel weird, even now, about 7 or 8 years later. I didn’t tell anyone because I felt ashamed, and, as usual, I worried about what people would say and think about me. I’ve since learnt that people are often too wrapped up in their own lives (quite rightly so) and issues to have the time or room to think about, and judge you. And, if they do, in a negative manner; fuck ’em. They don’t know shit and never will.
The weeks and months where I was searching for a job back then are such a blur. I must have made some terrible impressions on people. I often missed an interview because I’d had a panic attack and had to get a taxi home; I would lie and say that it had gone okay and they’d be in touch. If I managed to get to one; I’d sometimes turn up pretty sweaty and pale because I’d be trying to control my dizziness and breathing. Those are the times I don’t even remember what I said, not surprisingly; I didn’t get any job offers on those occasions. In my free time; instead of getting out in Sydney to explore and enjoy the weather; I’d stay in my bedroom, too scared to go and get a coffee alone and resenting my situation more and more. I had always been so sociable and loved exploring new places, especially when it involved eating and drinking; anxiety was stripping me of any confidence or self-worth. When I don’t feel like myself, I don’t like communicating at all; this is a trait I’ve had to change in order to better deal with my mental health. But back then I didn’t understand what was wrong or how to fix it, so I just stopped speaking to everyone I loved in the UK, and tried my best to keep things inside around those I knew in Sydney.
God knows how, but I finally managed to get a visual merchandising job in a store I loved! Did things begin to improve a little? Yes. Did my anxiety bugger off? Nope. I just wasn’t the same anymore. I was still having panic attacks in the bathroom before and during work hours. I wasn’t sleeping, and had to get up at 5:30 am each day, which meant that I was a bit of an empty vessel. I didn’t like myself very much, and was convinced that everyone I came into contact with felt the same. I can revisit this time now because things are so different. Even though I still battle with control and social anxiety; I actually like who I am, and am more realistic about other people’s feelings towards me (mostly). Sadly, I bottled so much up, pushed a lot down, and carried on dealing with panicking, nightmares, and self-loathing for a few more years up until I had to get help and finally got a diagnosis. I thought that I just had to learn to cope with things in my head, and it was a new way of life for me. Remembering I believed that that was my future makes me incredibly sad, and it’s probably one of the most painful things about my challenges with anxiety. I feel like they were wasted years in some respects, that I’ll never get back. I guess it’s that sodding hindsight thing; I want to scream at myself back then to say something and talk to someone, and to stick up for myself more.
I think I’m going to continue these anxiety experiences another time; writing all that has been quite draining. Very therapeutic, but draining all the same. If you’ve made it this far (thanks; you trooper); I’d really appreciate some feedback. At the moment I’m kind of thinking I’ll work chronologically towards the present day with stuff, but I’d love to hear any thoughts or ideas from those who are interested to read them. Please; ask me questions, share your experience(s), I’m all for talking about stuff, and as of now; even through the internet. The best thing I can tell people who are suffering with their anxiety is there is help out there, and it does make a huge difference. This first post is little sad, but that’s only because I didn’t know what help was available, and I kept everything inside. The second you open up in any capacity about what you’re feeling; the better your situation will become, I promise. There’s no quick fix or “cure”, but there’s help and guidance, and plenty of ways for your life to keep getting better and better. I shall pop a few links below, but you can always start by ringing, messaging, or hugging someone, and telling them that you don’t feel okay.
Peace, love, and internet hugs, Fay x