Thursday, 2 April 2015

Anxiety, thou art a heartless bitch.

In 2010, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I remember the terror of those days, the absolute horror of not understanding what was happening to me, days spent crying uncontrollably and nights spent feeling ill and afraid I would never sleep. It was, without a doubt, the hardest period of my life. I recovered, gradually, over several months. I saw my doctor, who put me onto a psychologist, who helped me talk things out and make the decision to try medication. Within a couple of weeks of taking medication, I felt more capable. Not cured, but somehow tougher, more able to help myself. Roughly a year after first starting to feel terrible, I was feeling almost back to normal. The following three years were a pleasure, the calm after the worst storm ever. I spoke about my depression like it was a thing of the past, something that happened to me once that I had survived and was grateful for, because it enabled me to help other people and empathise with their experience.

Then, last year, I felt myself wobbling again. I was hyper-alert, scarred by the memories of 2010, and I called my psychologist, who I hadn't seen since early 2011. Due to an overseas holiday, and the fact that I wasn't feeling nearly as dreadful as I had four years earlier, it was several months before I actually saw her again. In that time, I slid a little further backwards. It was still not as bad as 2010, but the circumstances of my life at the time seemed to exacerbate my symptoms. I don't have a difficult life. Aside from mental illness, my life has been relatively untouched by trauma of any kind, for which I am extremely lucky and grateful. Yet, in 2014, I was as good as unemployed, unable to save any money, and feeling stuck and stagnant in a lot of areas. My anxiety shot through the roof. I experienced several panic attacks, and shaky days of expending SO MUCH energy trying to pretend nothing was wrong. I upped my medication again (having dropped it down in the last three years), and tried to research all I could about anxiety disorders, having worked out that I felt calmer when I understood the physiological reasons for feeling so rank. I made the mistake of pouring my expectations into the future - 'when this happens, I'll feel better', 'when that happens, I won't be as anxious about the other thing'. Thinking this way was setting me up for failure, looking for external cures for a very internal problem. My creativity dried up, and I became afraid of idleness. Having nothing to do for the day was a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately being overtired was another major trigger. Balancing being busy enough to distract myself from my negative feelings with getting enough rest was incredibly frustrating. I found myself avoiding all situations that had the potential to be stressful. I began to think I would never move overseas and never have children - two things I want very much to do - because of their potential for stress. I figured it just wasn't worth the chance of a relapse. My psychologist quite rightly pointed out that stress is part of life, no matter how much I try to hide from it, and avoiding things with enormous positive potential because of the normal stress that comes with them is cutting off my nose to spite my face.

My parents, my partner, and my close friends were, and are, invaluable. The support that I have been shown has been so bolstering, particularly the testimonies of people who have been where I am. I managed to stabilise my employment situation, and having a job that I love and find challenging and satisfying has done wonders for me. I began to save money, and made plans to finally move out of my parent's place. The move is done now, and I had about a month of feeling wonderful, before it hit me again. Transitional periods in life can be hard, and I'm not surprised that moving house triggered another episode, but it still sucked. I was having breakfast with my dad not long ago when I mentioned that I was starting to remember times in childhood when I was anxious, recognising certain memories and feelings as symptoms of anxiety.

'Em,' he interrupted, 'you've had panic attacks all your life.'

The realisation of this is weirdly comforting. I am being very organised in compiling strategies and tips to help myself when I feel terrible, but they don't always work. And that's okay. My doctor told me anxiety can't be cured, but it can be managed, and she's right. Before 2010, I was convinced I'd never been anxious in my life, which, looking back, is blatantly untrue. After 2010, I had three years that felt positively idyllic in their lack of anxiety/depression. Both these periods are proof that living with an anxiety disorder doesn't mean I'll feel dreadful every day. I won't wake up every morning with my brain kicking into overdrive before I'm even conscious, with every bad thought I've ever had whirling around my head repetitively. I won't exhaust myself with smiling and laughing and ignoring the twisted nausea in my stomach when I'm with other people, and I won't have to talk myself out of self-loathing and questioning every decision I've ever made.

Other fun things anxiety does (just a wee sample)

- makes me feel as though I'll never get over this particular episode

- sucks the joy out of things that usually make me feel good, including spending time with people I love and whose company usually helps me

- assists me in blowing up every single, tiny, insignificant thing that happens and overanalysing it to death

- helpfully reminds me of every time something negative has ever happened and plays it loudly and obnoxiously through my brain all day

- tells me constantly that I am a burden to everyone and that the people who love me would be better off with a more mentally stable daughter/sister/partner/niece/granddaughter/cousin/friend

- encourages me to take every molecule of negativity directed even vaguely in my direction (and often imagined, at that) extremely personally and as proof of my utter crapness

- fuels an inconvenient fear of normal, healthy, and unavoidable parts of life - such as failure, change, and loss

- smothers any joyful excitement/anticipation I have in the future and convinces me that only the worst versions of this future will eventuate (this is called 'catastrophising' and I am extremely good at it)

The only reason I've been able to write this blog post is because today I am not feeling like life is impossible. In fact, and I don't want to jinx it, but I've felt oddly normal for the last couple of days. This post isn't particularly organised, and I sort of just spewed it all out at once, but I hope it makes sense, and that it can help someone else if they need it. Sometimes knowing we are not the only person in the world whose ever felt like this can be enough to get us through the day.