"She’s good-looking, has a privileged lifestyle, a high-flying job (if she’s still got it) and a hairdresser in Knightsbridge. Why doesn’t she just pull herself together!”
These words were written in a letter to my mum by one of our friends during my most recent period of acute anxiety.
And worst of all, at the time, I believed it; why couldn’t I just “pull myself together!?”
It is reactions like this which I think have most compelled me to write about my experiences. I experience episodes of anxiety where, for a couple of months, I seem to go into self-destruct mode.
This is normally triggered by placing excessive expectations on myself to achieve, to the point where my body just cannot take it anymore.
I found myself sat at my desk having a panic attack
This summer I began a high-pressured job in a consultancy in the City of London having graduated from university. Here I truly realised the massive gap between what people say they “understand” and the realities of how this “understanding” plays out.
The job was wrong for me; I was so unhappy and for weeks barely slept at all. I became more and more anxious to the point where one day I found myself sat at my desk having a panic attack (not even my colleague next to me said anything) and feeling an urgent need to walk out of the office. I wondered around London aimlessly for hours going from states of utter panic, hysteria and hyperventilation to moments of calm. Back at the office I made my excuses to leave and was signed off work by my GP.
I felt pressure to return to my job
Despite this, I felt such pressure to return. My boss told me she understood and made constant comparisons to periods in her life when she had been unhappy but had just thrown herself into work. I told myself I had to do this too and kept pushing until my body reached breaking point.
I remember a day when I should have been going to work but I just lay in bed in my London flat; I didn’t move almost all day and only got up when the thirst or hunger became unbearable. This is when I knew something had to change. I quit my job.
My family and friends were amazingly supportive
My family were amazingly supportive and I moved back home with my mum. I believed that no one could help me; I had failed and my life would never be what I wanted it to be so what was the point? I found it so hard facing my friends back home as I thought I was not the person they knew. It was my family and close friends that finally helped my get out of this desperate spiral.
Writing now this seems absurd but I felt a real sense of achievement just from getting out of bed in the morning and having a shower; It was such an enormous struggle. A close family friend helped me to understand that this was normal given how I felt; I had to give myself permission to feel proud for achieving even the smallest thing.
I needed to let my body recover, just like a physical illness
I needed to let my body recover; just like a physical illness. It takes time. The most important thing I learnt was that (although it was so important that I tried my hardest to fight my body which told me the best thing to do was to retreat from everything) this was not my fault and I needed to allow myself to get better.
I did get better. Through the help of my amazing family and friends and an incredible CBT therapist. I feel now that I understand myself and my body so much better. After having been told, wrongly I believe, by my GP (whilst making gestures to some sort of imaginary scale) that although my intelligence might be “up there” I may need to accept a job “down there” due to my fragile mental state, I am now in a rewarding and challenging role that I love. It wasn’t that I needed to find something easy; just something that I enjoyed and gave me the right kind of pressure.
It is not easy telling people about mental illness or anxiety
Being able to tell people you are/ have been mentally ill and that you experience anxiety is never something I have found easy. Those few looks of pity or disapproval I think will always lie there somewhere in my self-conscious telling me I’m not normal. But I am and mental health is something that should be shared. Finally speaking out about it now, I am amazed how many people I find have struggled just like me.