Until around this time last year I never actually knew what anxiety was.
I work for a mental health charity, I’d had a lot of experience of depression and a horrible period at university where I was so unhappy I developed an eating disorder, but anxiety was always something people talked about that I couldn’t quite distinguish from the basics of being someone who worries about things – which happens to all of us a lot of the time.
In February last year that completely changed, I had to do something quite big for work and about half way through the day I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe properly, like my heart was racing so fast I might faint and like every decision I had to make was going to be the wrong one. I had a nagging and increasingly loud voice in my head telling me repeatedly I would never be good enough, I shouldn’t be in charge of important things and everybody was sitting there knowing how terrible I was at everything and wishing someone would be brave enough to tell me. That night I had the first panic attack I’ve ever had and I continued to have them on and off for the following couple of months.
I think anxiety is quite hard to understand and describe until you’ve experienced it – that intense and paralysing fear is like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I didn’t have the safest of upbringings and spent a lot of my young life feeling scared, but somehow back then I always had the feeling I could control it, like if I could just make sure I was good enough then everything would eventually be ok. Anxiety isn’t like that, it doesn’t care what you tell yourself, it doesn’t let you be in control of anything, even the tiny decisions like opening an email would leave me shaking, crying and feeling like the world was caving in but nobody else had noticed.
A while ago I was reading Moranthology by Caitlin Moran and it changed the way I felt about anxiety because I realised so concretely that a) it wasn’t my fault and b) I wasn’t the only one. There’s a lot of power in realising those things because as a society we still generally believe mental health isn’t really an issue, and if it is an issue for some people then it must say something about them – that they’re choosing to be anxious instead of just getting on with things like everybody else. To those people I would say just wait until it’s you, because it could be, just as easily as it's me – no warning, no reason, just suddenly there, terrifying and stamping all over your ability to handle every basic decision in your day-to-day life.
Since reading about Caitlin Moran’s experience I’ve been amazed how many of my friends and colleagues have been through or are going through the same things - something I didn’t properly understand before is such a real and disruptive part of life for so many people. We can’t be silent about it, we can’t blame ourselves or keep it hidden because it makes everything worse, for the people living with it right now and for everyone who might in the future, we’ll all benefit from a world where no one feels afraid or ashamed to talk about mental health.