Time to Talk: about the physical effects of mental health problems
Thursday 6th February 2014 marks the first ever Time to Talk Day: “24 hours in which to start conversations about mental health, raise awareness and share the message that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, neither is talking about it.”
So here I am, sitting in my sitting room, trying to talk to you about something I hid for years.
I’m not very good at this though because I have anxiety.
I find it difficult to make eye contact for long. I fidget, I look beyond you and above you and around the room in order to find my words. Often I find the wrong words just simply to avoid an uncomfortable silence. I offer you tea, I make it badly, and I shake a little as I bring it through. I’m not shaking with nerves but with the after effects of being anxious before you arrived. I will have worried about how everything looks, about how I look, about which cups I should use. I will have worried about what I will say and imagined all the things that might go wrong. I probably had palpitations, outbursts of anger, and I probably paced a lot. At some point I will probably have had a bad headache – or I may get one tomorrow when you’ve gone. I will be so anxious about being anxious that I will be ill.
You asked if I wanted to meet you in a café but I declined. My anxiety means I don’t drive. I don’t often go out alone and when I am out I need to know how I’m going to get back again and I need to know that it won’t take long. My anxiety has made me agoraphobic. Not because I am afraid of people or open spaces or crowds, but because I am afraid of being out of control and of not being able to escape. I literally feel so ill I don’t have to lie about why I can’t make it. I really am not feeling well.
But things are improving. About a year and a half ago, I had to admit I was too anxious about everything. I had to admit that being anxious was stopping me from doing things I wanted to do. It was difficult for me to make this admission. It was easier to pretend I didn’t want to do anything. You see that’s the way to avoid the physical symptoms. Don’t go anywhere, don’t see anyone, don’t have chats over a cup of tea, pretend you don’t need friends, and – lo and behold – you have no commitments to those things that give you the awful physical anxiety symptoms. It’s actually quite clever what we can do with our brains: how we can convince ourselves that we prefer things the way they are. ‘I’m happy being at home alone and not talking to anyone at all for days,’ I told myself. And it’s true I felt better. I feel healthier when I don’t have to honour any commitments to anyone. I find a certain peace from time alone in the garden, listening to nature. And I am shy; I do like a quiet life. But it’s not true that I don’t need people, and that I want to be always alone. In fact too much time on my own eventually makes me feel depressed and causes me to focus on unreal negatives. In essence: I become rather paranoid.
A lifetime of subconsciously inventing ways to avoid the physical symptoms of anxiety has made the unreal real and fitting my patterns to my health needs has limited my life choices. Not just a bit but massively. My world is very small, my ambitions are very lowly; my hobbies and activities are incredibly modest. How much of this is due to anxiety and how much of this is due to personality and shyness and naturally modest ambitions I’ll never completely know for sure. But I do know now what I’ve been doing all these years and I do know now that there are things I can do to help me enjoy things I would otherwise have avoided simply because I felt unwell or was scared of feeling unwell.
Changes didn’t happen overnight and there is no real cure, but there are coping strategies: The doctor has prescribed Beta-blockers for me so I can stop the palpitations in an emergency (just knowing I have them has helped and I hardy ever use them) – and there is also a surprising comfort to be found in admitting I have a problem: firstly because it means I can stop being so cruel to myself, but secondly because I can tell people honestly what I think I am capable or incapable of.
There are still some fairly bad episodes of anxiousness and the physical symptoms whoosh in like a horse bolting out of a stable before I’ve had time to shut the door on them. But I am getting so much better at reining them in. It’s easier when you know what’s happening.
If I could reach out to just one other person who suffers with anxious thoughts and doesn’t know how to enjoy life, I would say this:
Know that it’s just your imagination overworking itself. Know that you are not alone. Know that it’s difficult to make that first step to speak out and make a change but it’s even harder not to and to carry on struggling in silence. Know that hiding it is not the answer.
And most of all: know that it is not a sign of weakness. The energy it takes to cope with mental health problems exhausts us. We are fighting every day and we deserve some recognition for working so hard.
If just one person could read this and sit up and think, “Yup. I think I’d like to talk to someone,” then it would make my day.
You may be surprised at the peace you might find.