April 8, 2014

annaI have suffered from a severe anxiety disorder for over half my life. And by anxiety I don’t simply mean that I’m a worrier (although I am) or that I get nervous (although I do). I mean that, when the anxiety is at its worst, I cannot function at all.

Unable to leave not only the house, but my bedroom, I disconnect the doorbell, turn off my phones, cannot sleep, eat, or see family and friends. The majority of the day is spent pacing, trying to stave off panic attacks. My hyper-alert nervous system produces palpitations, shaking, nausea, hot flushes, and feelings of impending doom. In this state, the feelings are so intense that I am utterly convinced that it will last forever; it is like being in hell.

What I find hard to swallow is ignorance and dismissiveness from professionals who should know better

While people’s response to my anxiety disorder have been largely sympathetic, I have also had my share of negative reactions: irritation, impatience, insensitivity, lack of understanding, and discrimination. When it comes to those with no knowledge or experience of anxiety, I do my best to forgive. Yet what I find really hard to swallow is ignorance and dismissiveness from professionals who should know better.

Let me give you a few examples.

My GP refused to do a home visit

Once, when housebound, I rang my GP – who was familiar with my history – in desperation. Despite explaining that I was too agoraphobic to leave the house, she refused to do a home visit; I would have to come into the surgery when I was feeling a bit better.

A behavioural therapist terminated my therapy, deeming me 'too anxious'

So I found a behavioural therapist who would do home visits. We would walk up and down my street, with me rating my anxiety on a scale of 1-10. When, in session three I was showing no improvement, he terminated my therapy, deeming me ‘too anxious’. He suggested that we recommence when I was calmer. I didn’t like to point out – as to the GP – that, were I calmer, I wouldn’t need help.

In crisis, I admitted myself to a private clinic. On arrival – pale, shaking, heart racing – I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, started on medication ... and told to join the other patients for dinner. This, despite the fact that I had been unable to have dinner in my own dining room for two weeks.

On my ‘release’, I went to the chemist to pick up medication prescribed by my psychiatrist. After twenty torturous minutes, the pharmacist shouted my name and demanded to know, in front of everyone, why I was taking these drugs. Finally, after ringing the hospital, I was allowed to leave with my pills, panicky and shamed.

One of the panel members believed I should not be allowed to continue my studies

Later, too anxious to do a live presentation for my PhD, my (very understanding) supervisors suggested we use Skype. I later learnt that one of the original panel members – a psychologist – had refused to participate, believing that I should not be allowed to continue my studies until I was ‘cured’, something I may never be. (I’m happy to report I am now a Dr.).

Society's knowledge of anxiety remains clouded in ignorance

It was partly experiences like these – from healthcare professionals – that made me want to raise knowledge about mental illness generally, and anxiety particularly. For whilst it seems to me that societal understanding of depression is improving, our knowledge of anxiety – which is as, or more, common than depression – remains clouded in ignorance.

And so the idea for What’s Normal Anyway? Celebrities’ Own Experiences of Mental Illness was born. In this book ten well known people talk about their experience of mental ill health, including three very articulate accounts of anxiety from the actress Stephanie Cole, writer Richard Mabey, and MP Charles Walker.

I draw comfort, strength, and hope from their experiences and, if you suffer from anxiety, I hope you will too. And for those of you who have never suffered from anxiety – whoever you are – please think twice about how you respond next time someone tells you that they do.

What’s Normal Anyway? Celebrities’ Own Stories of Mental Illness, by Anna Gekoski and Steve Broome, is published by Constable & Robinson.

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