I never used to think of myself as the anxious sort. As a child, I had a few repetitive nightmares but nothing that cowed me; I was never terrified of any particular thing – even when I was obsessed with the causes and effects of chemical warfare aged 8… When I was small, I would face any challenge, not undaunted, not without any sense of danger, but with no sense that I would ‘fail’. My parents worked hard to make sure that I never felt I had to conform to fashion or to gender stereotypes – in fact they actively encouraged be to be individual, different, to stand up for myself and to question authority and I was good at all those things. I think it made it harder to admit to being afraid.
When I first began to recognise that I had slipped into the rabbit hole of depression I still didn’t see anxiety – I was reckless with my personal safety and I thought of my inability to face my life as being simply a manifestation of being suicidal… looking back though I see how much the depression was entwined with fear. I thought that I was a failure, and since I was terrified of failing at anything I was tormented almost as much by the fear as by the overwhelming certainty of my own awfulness (& yes I still fight those feelings).
Only now do I see the beginnings of the anxiety that haunts me every day. The protections I put in place to face people each morning were there at 14 even before the idea of them dropping away plunged me into misery. It easy to see how each quick tot calmed the nerves; easy to see that leaving exams to sob and shake on my knees because I could no longer control the hyperventilation were early panic attacks; easy to see how my sense of isolation led to the failed attempts to walk into seminars… I have watched the words dance chaotically across the page in every exam I have taken since I was 15, as I slipped in and out of full consciousness whilst hyperventilating and couldn’t even admit I was afraid.
Sometime in my first few months at uni I realised I wasn’t just “stressed” & a bit “depressed” I was pathologically miserable and terrified of everything around me. I muddled through partly by being more afraid not to and mostly because of a rather wonderful girl. However, I was offered a job by someone I trusted & didn’t want to let down in my 2nd year of uni and I believe it has got me out of the house most weeks since even once he left. All through 2 years of undergrad & 2 years taught masters I had panic attacks on public transport and every time I went into certain shops and more significantly I had panic attacks before I left the house each time I did and again before going into lectures or seminars, even leaving in the middle to freak out in the toilets whilst trying to contribute (greek translation I’m looking at you especially) but I went to work and played my part because they relied on me to do so and those moments of being forced to fight saw me through university.
So every sodding day I fight
Sometimes the walking out the house isn’t too bad and crowds of people are easy to ignore; sometimes the knots even unwind a little but often it takes me 30 mins to walk out the door just to walk the dog and I never know how to express myself. As well as the physical discomfort of anxiety (racing heart, shortness of breath, insomnia, shaking, sweating, nausea, headaches etc.) there is a sensation of permanently struggling to get one’s head above water, of inadequacy, uncertainty of being permanently scrutinised. I grit my teeth and know when I need to find a quiet space and glass of water to stop the shakes and the stuttering. I don’t have many panic attacks now – I am much better at controlling my breathing at least – and I have both the CBT and mindfulness techniques for recognising illogical ideas, living in the moment and pushing myself to keep going. But knowing something isn’t true or isn’t harmful is not the same as stopping feeling like it is (logic is not enough to stop the whirring) and it doesn’t go away.
Turns out I’m pathologically anxious after all