With the recent death of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health.
While the stigma of mental illness has definitely reduced thanks to some great campaigns and advocates for mental wellbeing, it’s still something many of us struggle to talk about. If a physical health condition was affecting our lives most of us would discuss it. Yet when it comes to our mental health many of us bury it away and just do our best to be ok when our lives are impacted. I know what that’s like because I have been one of those people.
I got thinking, if we say to others ‘it’s ok to be not ok’, then if we’re not ok we need to say how we feel. Knowing others experience mental illness helps. So I thought I’d share my story so others know that they are not alone.
The onset of anxiety
Anxiety was never an issue for me until a few years ago. My first anxiety experience was around work. I got this terrible sense of panic that something bad that a client experienced was my fault. It wasn’t. Not in the slightest. But it felt very real and it was the worst I’d ever felt. I felt both physically and emotionally sick and just wanted to cry because I felt so terrible. This eventually passed and I felt better, but these anxiety episodes would keep coming back. When it happened I didn’t tell anyone. It was too hard to talk about because it felt so scary and I’ve never been great at talking about tough stuff. I hoped it would just go away.
What is anxiety like?
For me, anxiety is like the feeling that something terrible is going to happen and I am responsible. Sometimes it’s worse than others. When I have mild anxiety I feel panicky and have a racing heart. Other times I feel so bad I feel physically sick. I am fearful, my heart races so fast it’s like I can hear it in my head and I cannot bear the thought of eating. If it happens at night, it takes a long time to be able to go to sleep and I’ll wake in the night feeling anxious.
After my first anxiety episodes, I saw a counsellor for three sessions who taught me a few techinques to help. It helped lessen the intensity of them sometimes, but when I had anxiety it still felt terrible. But I didn’t do anything about it or tell anyone else just yet.
For a while when I was on maternity leave I went through particularly bad time so I went to see my GP. At that stage I wasn’t depressed, I would just go through bouts of having anxiety. Some months would be ok, others would be bad. He took some blood tests, suggested perhaps a psychologist would be useful and said to come back if I needed to. However I wasn’t eligible for funding to see a psychologist, so I kind of put it off, and put it off, trying to deal with it the best I could. Sometimes I’d have a good patch and I’d think ok I’m alright, it’s gone. But anxiety would hit me again and knock the wind out of my life.
I eventually rang a psychologist. My heart pounded as I rang her, I wanted help, but I almost felt like I shouldn’t need to have it. Her phone went to voicemail and I was kind of relieved. However, bless her, she rang back to say she had missed a call and I answered and booked a time. I found it really useful to talk through my anxiety, and I think I will have more sessions in the future.
But I was still was having terrible anxiety and it was stealing the joy from my life. I started to feel down in between doubts of anxiety. I was experiencing anxiety more often, and I felt like I was struggling to cope some days. On the outside looking in, it would be hard to notice. It was an internal struggle. There were small signs. I had a few mini moments at work where I snapped and got angry and cried. By nature, I’m what some would call ‘placid’. In general it takes a lot to get me angry. So this was also an alarm bell to me that I knew I wasn’t doing that well.
I’d also put things off at work, some days I found it hard to work, I’d forget things and I found it hard to make rational decisions. It was hard to know what was a real fear and what was the anxiety. It’s hard to make decisions. You question and overthink everything. Some things feel impossible to deal with. There were some projects I just couldn’t take on. Well that has been my experience. Everyone is different.
Not long ago, I decided I didn’t want to live this way and I needed more help. I just felt terrible – I wasn’t living, I was just surviving. I had opened up and was talking about my anxiety with some people who are close to me and experience the same thing and that was so helpful . They encouraged me to get help and reassured me that I would be able to feel better again. So I booked a GP appointment. I almost didn’t go to my GP appointment. I knew deep down I needed medication but even though on an intellectual level I know and believe medication is beneficial and can be necessary, on an emotional level it was admitting that actually I wasn’t ok. I wanted the anxiety to just go away by itself, but I had to accept the fact it wasn’t going to. I wasn’t well and I wanted to be so that meant I had to take further steps to be well.
I think in the ‘wellness’ world there’s the idea that you can take control of your health just with lifestyle. And while all lifestyle related changes can be very beneficial and an important part of wellbeing, they are not always enough. Sometimes you need some pharmacological intervention.
So I have started medication. It may take a while to work, it may take a change in dose. It may take a combination of things before I feel more ‘normal’ again. But I tell you what, the second my GP prescribed me those tablets I felt a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. There was something that could help me. I didn’t have to feel this way forever. My GP made me feel at ease and I felt that there was a way to feel better again. I also know I need to take care of myself, I need to know my limits, get enough sleep and to make time to exercise. So this journey to better mental health is still new but I’m feeling positive and I want others to know that it’s ok to ask for help and to admit you’re not feeling ok.
If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, don’t hold onto these feelings yourself. There is help out there, and once you reach out, you can begin the process to start feeling better again.
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
More helplines can be found here