Anxiety has made me do some pretty strange things over the years. There have been the minor everyday inconveniences, like the bus journeys I’ve insisted on leaving ten stops early because of a sudden and stubborn conviction that I am about to suffocate.
Then there have been the considerable public embarrassments, such as the evening I had to pretend to colleagues at a fancy professional event that I’d got lost on the walk in to cover up that I’d spent a miserable half an hour hiding in the car park, calming myself down before walking into a room full of strangers. People think I get lost a lot.
There have even been a few times when my anxiety has gotten me into situations that could have been catastrophic for me and others around me. If you think you have a bad anxiety story, I raise you the time I had to abandon my car in a ditch on the side of a country road because a panic attack had caused me to nearly black out at the wheel. Don’t worry - I don’t drive anymore. Thanks, anxiety.
The sad thing is, on each of these occasions (and countless others), I have felt the need to lie to everyone except my boyfriend and my parents about why my behaviour seems a little bizarre. Getting off the bus becomes a new fitness kick! Missing the start of the professional event becomes an inability to work Google Maps! The fact that I don’t have a car anymore – well, y’know, I never really liked driving anyway….
The thing is, I don’t seem like a very anxious person. A trifle odd, sometimes, but usually chatty, confident; not the shy and retiring type. And because I don’t want people to change their opinion of me, I rarely admit to my anxiety. I keep it covered up, I even lie to people I care about for it.
But slowly I’m realising that doing so is not so different from just letting it off the hook. By not talking openly about it, I let anxiety dictate the story I tell about myself, and I deprive myself of some of the power to challenge it. I’m writing this blog as the first step of this challenge - to take back some of me from anxiety.
I hope to be able to tell it like it is next time I feel like I need to skip that trip to the pub, or when I want to lock myself in the bathroom during networking time at a conference. When I imagine a world without mental health stigma, I think how much less stressful it would be to truthfully explain why I feel like I might need to sit this one out. I imagine having someone to talk to who will say the right things, just like you might offer an ibuprofen and a glass of water to someone with a headache.
So my plea to those of you struggling with your mental health is to start talking, and my plea to absolutely everyone is to shake off your preconceptions and be ready to listen! Then, maybe, anxiety will stop making us do strange things. And we can all just get on with being us.