Today’s post is by a friend and former colleague Julia Harrison. Julia isn’t a blogger, but was kind enough to respond positively when I put a call out for guest posts. I think this is a brilliant piece, which must have taken a good bit of courage to write, and I feel honoured to have it on my blog.
I’m very happy to be doing a guest blog for Ruth, while she’s away. I really enjoy her blog, so I’ve given this my best shot, ‘cos I know how high the bar is for what she writes. I want to talk about something in my own experience which I’d like people to know more about. My brain is very good at telling me to run away from lions.
Lions? What lions, I hear you cry… Don’t worry, there aren’t any around here. But I do worry – that’s my problem. I suffer on and off with anxiety, the lesser known evil twin of depression, and closely associated with it. Many people suffer from both, and I do. You wouldn’t know this if you met me. I seem quite calm, relaxed and happy. A liberal, happy hippie in fact. I mostly am. Most things that normally worry people don’t bother me. I like spiders, and I’ve held a tarantula twice. I like most insects in general, and I like snakes, and flying, and heights, and I don’t have a problem with dentists or needles. I’d like to do a parachute jump. But I’m not very good at dealing with all of life’s ordinary little tensions, like busy commutes, worrying about saying the wrong thing, other people being upset, or being rude, my self-esteem, running short of money, being late (although I usually am), keeping on top of my perfectionism and neatness, and my desperate desire not to bother anyone else with my problems. So I bury it all – and it makes me ill, mentally and physically. Anxiety has had a little more profile lately, since George Michael admitted he was having problems with it. I hope he gets better, and I hope he feels able to talk about it afterwards, in the way that Stephen Fry has done about depression. Not that I’m suggesting these are only two illnesses – there are several versions of each. But we need public figures to raise awareness of them – it affects so many people, and they mostly keep it to themselves.
But what about the lions, you’re wondering..? Well, with my background in biology and animal behaviour I have tried to understand what’s going on in my brain, in the way I know how. This is the science bit. The oldest part of our brains, in evolutionary terms, is called the amygdala. It controls the ‘fight or flight response’ which was essential when we were early humans hunting and gathering in the savannahs of Africa. This response kicks in, in the form of panic and running away, so that predators don’t kill you. Very sensible. It works much more quickly than your conscious mind, because by the time you assess a situation logically, you could be dead. Every time you get nervous before a speech or a job interview, or you see something move out of the corner of your eye on a dark street and jump, your amygdala has sensed potential danger and is trying to help you to run away from it. It is also connected with empathy. An over-active amygdala is associated with too much empathy, so I can reassure myself that I’m the opposite of a psychopath – they have an underactive amygdala, and a complete lack of empathy. Read Jon Ronson’s book for more on that. Our brains haven’t really evolved since the Stone Age, effectively, so we’re stuck with a survival mechanism that is normally more of a hindrance than a help.
Well, what about me? How did it start? Well, I had a few panic attacks when I was a kid, usually if someone pushed me underwater in the swimming pool, or something similar. I didn’t think anything of it, and I didn’t know what panic attacks were. But then I had a nasty relationship break-up in 2008, and lost my partner and friend, my house, my self-esteem, and my trust in people’s ability to be nice to me. The panic attacks started in earnest then. And anxiety, all the time. The worst thing about it is the way it paralyses you. Your body is focusing so much on running away from the lions, that all non-essential processes shut down. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t remember things properly, you lose your sense of time, and you can’t do anything, except sit or lie quietly. Preferably in the dark, and silence. You don’t do the washing up, or shower, or clean your house. And the more this happens, because you like to do things well, the more stressed you get. You know it’s illogical. You are bored, frustrated, and generally fed up with yourself. Anxiety is built through vicious cycles, and all the power of your logical mind can’t make it go away, without help.
I’ve had some help from the NHS, but only because I’ve been determined to get it. It took two years for me after the first bad bout of it before I was diagnosed, partly because the first GP I saw realised I was distressed but just tried to give me diazepam, and I refused and went away. I tried counselling, but that didn’t help. After that, thanks to the lovely Dr Singh who actually figured out what was going on, I started taking the lowest possible dose of anti-depressants, which they prescribe for anxiety too. I started taking the pills, and after that I ignored it. Then, this year, I began to realise that things were still wrong. I wasn’t functioning. I hadn’t been experimenting with cooking, I’d not been opening mail, or reading many books, or painting, or being musical, or doing evening classes, or going out to see friends much, or doing any of the creative things that make me happy. That’s because it was all bubbling away there, under the surface. And all I could summon the energy to do was to go to work, to see my boyfriend, to spend time at home on my own, and just exist.
I had about four weeks of hell, and about four weeks of being pretty crap, while I increased the dose of my anti-depressants. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I’m coming through it. Friends, and work colleagues, tend to be more understanding than you’d think. I’ve finally managed to get myself referred for CBT by my GP, and while I’m on the waiting list, I’m going to do an evening course in stress management. I’m back at work, and if not 100%, then getting there. I’m starting to think about DIY, and cooking, and what book to read next. And feeling optimistic. I feel as if a dark veil has been lifted from my eyes, and I can see again.
What have I learned? It takes a long time to get to know all your little defects, and you’re a better person when you do. I’m mostly a tomboy, but I was always a fan of Sex and the City (the TV series, not the films, I hasten to add). At the end of the last series, the main character Carrie says “the most important relationship in life is the one that you have with yourself.” That is so true. And I’m doing OK, and I’m going to find out more about myself, because it’s the most important of life lessons.
My parents have been fab, but their understanding has been limited. So finally, I have to specifically thank two people, for helping me through this. My wonderful friend, Juliet, for being constructive, positive and kind. And to my darling boyfriend, Alex, who has been a star, and who has given me many hugs, which are important.
If you want to talk to someone about anxiety, there’s a charity called Anxiety UK. Mind and SAMH are also good, for any mental health issue. And finally, if you find out that someone you know has a mental health issue like anxiety or depression, don’t worry – they are perfectly sane. They just feel things differently. And they’re trying their best not to.