It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week, 12th to 18th May. Each year, for one week in May, the Mental Health Foundation focus on campaigning on one specific theme for this special period. This year the focus is on anxiety.
I’m sure that there are a million different forms of anxiety, with a million different ways of making people’s lives difficult. My experience of it is mainly limited to a very small part of my life. Or should I say, part of my routine. I feel lucky that for most of the time, this is the only part of my life that it affects. For others it seeps into every part of every day and makes everything more difficult. I can only talk about how it affects me and how I cope with it.
I’m self-concious about this subject. Delaying getting to the point, because part of me desperately wants to hide this part of who I am. Because it’s silly. Don’t tell me it isn’t silly, because I know it is. Nobody else I know has to go through this every day. I often feel like I’m just a loon, and I need to get a grip. I often get cross with how stupid it is, and have even had feelings of hate towards myself because of it. See. It’s silly.
Here’s my problem. I HATE leaving the house. I don’t hate being out of the house. I love being out. I just hate the leaving part. Particularly if I have to do that bit by myself. I have two huge phobias. Both of them are of things that have never ever happened to me, and I am therefore unable to work out how they started. After leaving the house I will immediately convince myself of two things;
1. I have not locked the doors, and somebody will know and go into the house.
2. I have left the iron/oven/straighteners/hairdryer/other electrical item switched on and the house is going to catch fire and won’t be there when I get back.
It’s ridiculous. Utterly silly. At the moment, I have these feeling largely under control using a couple of techniques that I’ll tell you about in just a minute. However, there have been periods where these feelings have taken over my whole life. I know the door is locked and everything is off because I remember doing it, yet for some reason I distrust my memory and wonder if I imagined doing it when really I forgot. This isn’t possible. I check everything so many times that there just is no way I could miss anything! On occasion, before even reaching the end of my street, I’ve found myself sweating, shaking, unable to breathe, crying and on one occasion I even puked in a bin. In panic. It’s definitely a feeling of panic. I’ve cried all the way to work on the bus. I’ve called friends and asked them to go check my door is locked. I’ve phoned in sick, when this was at its worst, just so that I didn’t have to go through it. Doctors have prescribed tablets. Even Valium at one point. I did a long stint on Citalopram, which helped immensely, but left me feeling sick and headachey for most of the time. I attended a course on Stress and Mood Management in Bristol, which was free and an incredible help to me (I’ll post details below). It taught me some skills to use to overcome the feelings as well as teaching me that I wasn’t totally crazy. I’ve read a whole ton of self-help and CBT books. Some that were an incredible inspiration, others that were no help at all. However, I’ve come to realise over the past few years that this ‘anxiety disorder’ (a label my doctor gave it, not me) goes up and down depending on the circumstances of my life. It seems less related to stress, and more connected to just being unhappy.
When I’m doing a job I don’t love and I don’t want to go each morning, or towards the end of a relationship I know isn’t going anywhere, when life just generally isn’t very fulfilling and I have that sense that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. That’s when its at its worst.
At the moment, my life is a whirlwind. Its stressful, exciting, terrifying, wonderful and happy. Its a whole bunch of things that are incredibly overwhelming but it is most definitely not lacking in anything and it is definitely not sad. Therefore, the anxiety has eased off significantly. It’s still there. I still have to do my little rituals a lot of the time just to get out of the house. But within moments I’ve moved on and I’m thinking about where I’m going, the day ahead. In approximately five weeks time life will change again, hugely. Everything will be different and my life will be even more full. I hope its the beginning of the end for my battles with anxiety, but I’m prepared to face it again if I have to. And I know I’ll win.
Anyway, I promised to tell you my funny (or not so, at the time) rituals that I go through almost every time I leave the house in order to just feel ok about leaving it alone, here, without me. Here I go.
1. I check everything. A million billion times. Especially if I’ve used something that my brain has decided is dangerous. Usually this is either the iron or hair straighteners.
2. I’ll take pictures of things on my phone. I’m not kidding. Don’t laugh. I tell myself at the time that if I happen to panic later about the iron, I can just look at a picture, see that it is unplugged and calm down. I never ever look at these pictures later. Never. Yet taking them makes me feel better.
3. I’ll take the hair straighteners with me in my handbag. I haven’t actually done this one in a long long time, but in the past it has been the only thing that calms me down enough to just get the hell out of the house.
4. I sometimes video myself locking the door. This I still do fairly regularly. And its the one I’m most ashamed of. Yet its the one that helps me the most. Again, I never watch it later to make sure, but somehow just doing it makes me feel well enough to leave. I don’t make a big deal of it now, and can do it really discreetly without really thinking about it.
5. I just run. I learnt, on that Stress and Mood Management Course I mentioned earlier, that the symptoms of anxiety are self-limiting. They don’t continue to escalate. They reach a peak and then they ease back off. So I know that if I can just get far enough away from the house the feeling will gradually decrease and I’ll soon be getting on with my day, having completely forgotten about the back door. Learning this changed my life. The anxiety symptoms now go away pretty quickly as I walk away from the house, having never reached the point where I have physical symptoms.
I hope Mental Health Awareness Week will this year encourage more people to talk about their experiences with anxiety and to seek help. Or if they feel they can’t talk, I hope they at least realise that it isn’t that weird and they most definitely are not the only one.
*The Stress and Mood Management Course I attended in Bristol was run by Lift Psychology. To find out more or book a place go to http://lift.awp.nhs.uk/bristolandsglos/all-courses/browse-bristol-courses/ *