November 28, 2013

HayleyWhat if. Two words that probably have little or no meaning to most but, to me, they form the basis of my anxiety. What if something happens? What if I am ill? What if that was the last time I see that person? What if, what if, what if.

My fears are irrational but when my anxiety takes hold the questions consume my thoughts, I become paralysed with fear and spiral into depression. I feel trapped, like I am lost in an extremely large world with no way out.

My confidence vanishes, I feel on edge and the stress triggers panic attacks. During my worst moments the only place I feel safe is at home, meaning daily tasks, days out, eating out and holidays are almost impossible to face. My relationship with food suffers too. I link food to illness, so during heightened anxiety I only eat ‘safe’ foods. I once went on holiday to Italy, staying in a 4* hotel, but was awake at 3am each night eating cereal bars – in my mind no other food was safe. Crazy, isn’t it?

I have phobic anxiety and anxiety disorder

I have phobic anxiety and anxiety disorder. The problem with this type of illness, or any mental health issue, is that there is no outward sign to those around you to signal just how badly you are suffering. In addition, the treatment isn’t as simple as putting a plaster over the wound. The hardest part of my anxiety is the fact that I don’t understand it. I struggled for years to put into words how I felt, or to know where to begin to explain.

I realise now that mental illness doesn’t just affect the person with lived experience; it affects everyone close to them too. My anxiety has tested the strongest of relationships, and also broken the weakest. My friends at school somehow accepted me for who I was, and it didn’t matter how much of the school day I missed, or what social events I bailed on, I would always just slot back in. They never questioned my absence, they just accepted it.

One of my friends was my rock

One of my friends was my rock during the latter years of school, college and uni. We have grown apart slightly now, but she was never judgemental and offered me support at some of my lowest ebbs. To this day she probably has no idea how much her actions meant to me, and no words would ever be enough to thank her.

Teachers played an important role too. From the ones who just nodded when I needed to leave the class, to the ones who asked if I was OK quietly after the lesson, or the ones who would stay after school and plan with me how I would get through the next school day. It was these times when you knew you weren’t alone. I wasn’t understood, but I wasn’t alone.

Newer friends wouldn't want to know, that was my thinking

Newer friends wouldn't want to know, that was my thinking. My anxiety returned in my final year of uni and I found it easier to move out of my uni house and back home rather than subject them to my behaviour. I thought panic attacks and isolating myself just made me a burden, and it wasn't their place to pander to it. It meant I missed important social events, but at the same time they were impossible for me to face. To them it probably looked like I didn’t care, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I have huge sadness over this.

The strength of the relationship between my parents and I was the one that was always tested. We came through stronger each time, and we are incredibly close now, but to this day it makes me sad to think of the anguish my anxiety has put them through. They couldn’t comprehend the irrationality of my fears, but they tried desperately to understand, and I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must have been for them. It was their comments that struck a chord with me though, and made me realise that the only person who could help me, was me. So, at 17 years old, I asked for their help in arranging for me to see a counsellor. I had seen various people before, but somehow I felt in a position to face up to my fears. I needed someone impartial to talk to, someone who wasn’t in a position to judge. Asking for help was the scariest thing I have done, it was admitting I had a problem but, in time, I opened up and talking saved my life.

I owe my recovery to everyone who listened, accepted and supported me

My 'illness' comes in waves, I wouldn't feel like this all the time. I have been in a period of calm for 3 years now. Don't get me wrong, there are times that I can feel it creeping back in but, over time, I have learnt how to dismiss the 'what if's'. I still don’t feel strong enough to travel the world, which I would love to do, but I hope one day I’ll get there.

I have learnt a lot in my journey; never be afraid to ask for, or to accept, any help. It isn’t a sign of weakness; it is a sign of courage and a small step in a long road to recovery. The second, to realise that no matter what battle you face, or how frightened you might be, there are always people who can help. I owe my recovery to everyone who listened, accepted and supported me and to them I will be forever grateful.

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