July 4, 2016

Looking back, I realise now why I felt so uncomfortable and exhausted just being human. It felt like I’d spent the first 20 years of my life knowing the ropes and they suddenly snapped.

a photo of Bernice, the author

I didn’t know how to cope, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t cope.

Effectively, I was trapped in my own mind; increasingly terrified of the world it consumed every day.

 The years passed, ages 21, 22, and 23 came in thick and fast. Personally I wished they hadn’t. I wanted time to stop so I could catch up, to understand days that had passed. I was exhausted, the world was too loud.

During those years, and now at the age of 24 I’ve had my fair share of mental breakdowns, unable to comprehend what mental illness was. I’d spent years on the receiving end of “You’re so inept/anti-social/awkward”, and for a long time I believed it, that I was simply a problem, not a person.

 Why couldn’t I just “get it right?” Why instead was I curled up in my room, wishing the pain away?

Part of me didn’t want the label, I didn’t want to be one of the mentally ill, but the fact is I was, and still am. The only difference now is I understand my mind; I know what mental illness is, I talk about it openly, I reached out to a good friend, deciding I had to take my life back.

Social anxiety, like all mental illnesses doesn’t have an “off switch”. I don’t choose to wake up nauseated at the thought of being around other people, paralysed by a fear so strong I couldn’t possibly go out for dinner with a friend.

My support network of good friends just listened, provided encouragement where they could from personal experience and insight. For once I didn’t feel so alone in my own mind.

I made my notes, made the call and went to see my doctor; with the help of medication and therapy I’ve been able to take some of my life back, it’s going to be a long road but I’m prepared to take the scenic route.

The thing with my social anxiety is that it’s not on its own, it feeds off of my heightened general anxiety, propping up my depressive episodes in the process, screaming at me to control everything, to cling onto those ritualistic behaviours that made me feel awful but at least I felt like life was still tangible, not falling apart.

People often (sometimes innocently) make the mistake of seeing social anxiety and general anxiety disorder as shyness, a phase to soon be grown out of. It’s not. It can honestly ruin a person’s life, take this snapshot:

- Leaving the house: Fraught with panic about seeing people and talking to them. Leading to isolation, increased panic attacks, and fear of the outside world.

- Using public transport: Overwhelming panic at the thought of being surrounded by people kicks in, as does a panic attack. This led to avoidance of public transport for over a year where I could and overwhelming panic when I couldn’t.

- Dating: All I could ever think was “I’m a mess, what if he only sees my illness and not me? Should I hide it, fake being normal? I’m too much hard work, I’ll probably drag him down with me.” I didn’t feel good enough to be around anyone but myself.

It’s hard to not want to be invisible with the stigma still prevalent today but I like to think we, the unashamedly different are on the front line changing the conversation. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. Ever.

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