I was 18 the first time I was completely and utterly whacked round the face by anxiety. It was the summer before I was due to go to university. I remember being at work and suddenly feeling like the world looked different, people became blurry and I felt disorientated- it was terrifying. I left the shop I was working in and my Dad came to meet me, where he took me home to my Mum. I remember asking her if I was going mad- I felt completely disconnected from reality and the people I loved.
In the first few weeks I suffered panic attacks that would last for hours and severe paranoia- thinking people in the streets were whispering about me and laughing. The smallest of things, like going to the shop at the end of my road became impossible. I began to sleep a lot of the time, as shutting myself off from the world was the only thing that made the fear disappear. Before I was due to move to Leeds, my parents arranged a party for some close friends before we all went our separate ways, I ended up upstairs hiding under a blanket crying to my mum- the world as I knew it had disappeared, turning into something which I didn’t want to be a part of.
Having experienced trauma in the years leading up to this, it probably wasn’t that surprising that I developed anxiety, but nothing would ever have prepared me for the years that followed. I was put on medication and went off to university where I embarked on a road of self-destructive behaviours. During this time I began to experience the horror of sleep paralysis and nightmares. ‘University will be the best time of your life’- they all said, but it was the worst years of mine. It was agony in the first year not to drop out, but I didn’t want to give in.
During my second year my dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer and my anxiety quickly turned into hypochondria. I cannot express through words the shame that a daughter feels believing she herself is dying of cancer when her Dad is ill. I had several episodes over the years, where I was convinced I had MS, Meningitis, Cancer of every different part of my body, HIV, Diabetes the list goes on. One day I left work, and dropped to the pavement believing I had lost the feeling in my legs. My unbelievably understanding boyfriend at the time took me home and put me into bed, where I stayed for a whole afternoon and night convinced I was paralysed from the waist down. I have wasted hours of my life, and hours of other peoples time at hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, and on the internet diagnosing myself. I felt ashamed, not only because there are so many people that truly suffer from these illnesses but also ashamed at the realisation it was all in my head.
As time has gone on I have become less consumed by the health anxiety. Instead I have spent time plagued with self- doubt and self hate. I often feel like I am the worst person in the world. I say things and then think those around me are thinking I’m weird, or that they hate me. I have spent endless nights, overthinking things I have said, what I could have done differently. I have led a ‘double life’, dressing up and going out with friends, pretending things are fine, but not letting people know how bad things really are. My family and those who have had relationships with me have witnessed the absolute vulnerability, lack of self- esteem and negative self image that I have. Yet many people around me see the confident, calm and together me.
Holding loving relationships down has been near impossible: how can you love someone else when you hate yourself? I am so appreciative of those friends who have checked in with me over the years and I am sorry, to those that I could not give my time to, it has been all consuming. Stigma is far too real for anyone suffering from a mental health problem and it fills me with sadness when I realise how many friends I have failed to let in for fear of being judged. That is why I now spend my days working for a mental health charity teaching lessons in secondary schools on mental health and Wellbeing. In my opinion the more people that understand these issues early, the less people that will feel so alone in the world.