December 4, 2013

BeckiI've been struggling to different degrees over the last ten years and at the moment feel like I'm doing ok.

I actually work as a mental health support worker, trying to help others to get their lives on track and to get appropriate treatments. And yes, I do this job because of what I've been through.

Before being unwell, I would have said that I understood anxiety. I didn't. Now I can actually understand some of what others go through.

I didn't tell anyone when the panic attacks started

I do believe that I'm a better person for knowing metal illness. I have an understanding and empathy with things that other people have no idea about. However, sometimes when panic hits, all that goes out the window and I just feel consumed by it. I feel as if I take a few steps forward, start to think "I'm coping, I'm doing alright", and then this demon figure grabs me by the hair and drags me off saying "I've still got you, I'm bigger than you are". It's as if every time I start to feel better, this condition has to remind me that it hasn't gone away.

The scariest thing about all this, at the beginning, was the feeling of being completely alone. I didn't tell anyone when the panic attacks started because I didn't know what they were. I thought it would sound trivial. It was hard to explain, because I didn't know what was happening, so couldn't say "I've had a panic attack".

I thought if I said to someone "I sometimes feel like I'm going to die", they would just laugh because it sounded ridiculous. If only I had spoken to people, I would have learned just how common panic attacks are and, knowing that now, helps enormously. The first time I saw a list of symptoms for a panic attack, years later, I felt so much relief that it wasn't only me.

It's been helpful for me to tell people that I have issues with anxiety

On the whole, it's been helpful for me to tell people that I have issues with anxiety and to explain how it affects me. However, there is still that small percentage of people that I feel I can't disclose all to - my parents, for example. I worry about their reaction and that they won't see me as a strong person, and therefore I tell them the bare minimum. I'm also conscious of being a burden and making them feel they need to look after me or tiptoe around me. This is something I need to work on and break through - why should me and my problems be at the back of the queue?

There is an element of worry, I must admit, of how people will react if I tell them exactly how anxious I feel sometimes and that I have panic attacks. Will I be spoken to differently? Will I be given the simple tasks by my boss at work so that I don't 'stress' too much? Will friends stop confiding in me because they are worried I can't cope with it? The answer to some of these is likely to be yes - that's why it's important to talk despite these worries, and to break that stigma down. Keeping your health concerns to yourself can become suffocating, and makes it seem as though you have something to hide. You don't.

How do you explain to someone that you need some help?

I don't like to say that the anxiety controls me, but the truth is it does to some extent. However, it used to control me all the time. Every night was a battle and most days. I once went seven nights without going to sleep at all because I was so tense, scared, anxious, I literally couldn't relax enough to sleep even though I was beyond exhausted. I didn't tell anyone how life was for me - I was living alone, and just didn't answer the door or go out - it was surprisingly easy to keep it to myself, but so by far the worst thing I could have done. But how do you explain to someone that you need some help? It's not easy, especially when you've kept it to yourself for a while already. The answer is: it doesn't really matter how. Just say something to someone.

I was trying to attend university during the time my panic attacks began. They disabled me so much that I missed so many classes, I had to take a year out. I didn't tell my tutors that anything was wrong. I came up with so many excuses and ignored so many letters about my absences. I wish now that I had said something to them - there's actually a lot of help there, but nobody can help you if you don't let them. They didn't know I needed help, and I didn't want them to know. At university I wanted to be perceived as intelligent and forthright, not as a quivering wreck.

People don't understand how big anxiety can be

People don't understand how big anxiety can be. There's a difference between exam nerves and this kind of anxiety. However it's not well understood and it is important that we talk about it. I felt on my own for so long, it would have made all the difference to know that someone else in the world knew what I was going through. I didn't talk about it mainly because I didn't understand what was happening to me, which resulted in a very lonely and frightening time.

I really encourage anyone reading this to ask for help, to talk to people. Just go and ask your GP if nothing else, write your GP a note if necessary. Talking therapies have been very helpful to me. It's so important to learn about your illness. Also it's amazing how you can mention problems to a friend or just an acquaintance, and get the response "I know what you mean" or "I sometimes get that too, I don't understand it".

I wish I had been more open about my illness

The conclusion to this is that in hindsight, I wish I had been more open about my illness. It would have helped to reduce the stigma, I would have learned much more quickly that there is help out there, and I wouldn't have felt so alone and so lost. Talk to someone. Don't make my mistake. Talking to people, or actually telling someone the truth when they ask you how you are, doesn't take away your mental illness, but it can make it easier to live with.

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