I’m aware that I talk about my struggles with my anxiety disorder a fair bit. I make no secret of it. Me and my anxiety rub along quite nicely together now, and it’s something I’ve accepted I’ll probably always have to live with in some way. It’s a voice I can’t silence, no matter what I do.
Part of the reason I am so vocal about my difficulties, is pure elation at finally understanding my thought processes and behaviours. For years I thought I was “just” depressed. Very often, I was depressed, and I was medicated accordingly. It was only ever a short-term solution, and didn’t help to bridge any kind of mental gap. It’s down to pure luck, I think, that the GP I approached after booking an emergency appointment happened to be in the same borough, same post code even, as the South London and Maudsley trust. Mental health is generally at the forefront of most GP’s minds where I used to live, and that was without doubt, a huge help. I am working towards lessening my anxious thoughts and behaviors and on some level it really is working, even if what follows totally contradicts that! I’m doing okay, all things considered.
The day of my initial assessment, to see if CBT was indeed the right course of treatment I got off the bus early, two stops before the Hospital, and walked the extra five minutes. I didn’t want people to watch me get off outside and cross over to the entrance. I hate being watched. What if they think I’m mad? Rant and rave about the voices, whilst flailing about on the edge of Camberwell Green? Arrange all my biros in order of usage? That wasn’t me.
I was mad, of course I was. Depression. Anxiety. It had been going on for years, when I was 14 I told my GP how I felt, my voice was breaking from the effort of trying not to cry and I avoided eye contact. “Hormones, just your age” “Oh”. Four years later, I was eighteen and messing up my A-Levels, the GP took me seriously then. It was too late and I dropped out of school, took my meds and hoped they’d start to work their magic
Clutching my appointment letter and directions, I made my way through the corridors. It was quite busy, I hadn’t expected that. Why was everyone looking at me? I should have dressed in something more sober, and anyway, I really am getting too old to be gallivanting about in my denim hotpants/tights combo that I’d been wearing since I was 20. Stupid. Next time; Mum Jeans. Mental note.
Clinical Treatment Centre - on one of the many signs. I nearly missed it, all I could see where directions to various unspecified wards and departments. I followed them, through a door. Down some metal stairs. Out side. A path lined with flower beds on each side. Had the inpatients planted them? Where were the inpatients? There’s a very high fence over there. Is it to keep them in? Ah. An intercom. I can’t stand using intercoms. The disembodied voices, they can’t ever hear what you’re saying, they always misunderstand. I don’t want to talk to someone over an intercom. This is so awkward and inappropriate. This is a MENTAL INSTITUTE. I am here for THERAPY. Why would they have something like this? It’s not fair.
How did I end up there? Well, the mechanics were quite simple really.
The day I made an emergency GP appointment, to tell them that I wasn’t coping at all, I didn’t cry. I made a list, I was very matter of fact. “I broke a venetian blind, and I can’t stop worrying about it. I’ve been awake for two days straight. My Mother In Law is looking after my two children today. What should I do?”. I went away with a prescription and a promise. A referral to the Maudsley. “Yes, CBT. I think CBT would suit you quite well”. My GP nodded, satisfied with what she’d managed to sort out in the 11 minutes I was in her consulting room.
After that, I received a phone call from a member of the Maudsley Psychology Centre to establish how I was feeling, and to advise me their next step. I really struggle with telephone conversations, so picking up the phone and talking for an hour and sixteen minutes exactly was a huge achievement. From my GP to actually turning up at the Maudsley took around four months.
My life is emotionally exhausting. That’s not me being self-centred, or grandiose, it’s a fact. I average around four hours of sleep a night, because I cannot. Switch.off. There is ALWAYS something I am worried about. I have taken steps to help myself here, for example when my daughter was still waking up 3, 4, 5 times a night to breastfeed, I would lie awake checking my watch, totalling up the amount of wakeups and time between them all. It didn’t help, so I stopped wearing a watch.
I have cripplingly low self esteem, and I can’t take a compliment. If someone says something nice about me, and I accept the compliment, I then feel terribly guilty. I always assume people think the very worst about me, and I assume their actions are a direct cause of that. So, if a friend doesn’t answer their phone when I ring, or it’s off, I assume their avoiding me because they’re sick of me. Then that’s a night of sleep lost.
I make myself rules for living: Assume the worst, because you’re worthless. Because no one likes you, because you’re not a Real Person, practically a parody. No one takes you seriously because You Don’t Deserve It. Everyone is sick of supporting you. You’re not good enough. I still genuinely believe all these things, although I now know this isn’t strictly the truth, but is a result of my crippling, because lets make no bones of it, that’s what it is…utterly, totally crippling anxiety. When I am very anxious, I don’t eat. Can’t eat. Can’t sleep. I feel jittery and tearful and I cannot. Switch. Off. I will needle away at a problem until there is nothing I can do, and if it involves someone else then I usually end up embarrassing myself. I can recount, on the fingers of one hand, the amount of times I have felt at peace and none-anxious in the past three years or so. When I feel like this, I normally end up almost falling asleep because I can finally let go. The physical act of letting go is a huge relief.
My worrying escalates and takes on many predictable patterns, so I am going to use the example here of speaking on the phone. Here are some thoughts that will typically run through my head:
“What if they don’t answer, and I have to leave a voicemail? Why aren’t they answering, what have I done? Are they with other friends, see my incoming call and think ‘God, her. Why won’t she leave me alone?’. I’m not good enough to spend time talking to. Perhaps they don’t want to be seen talking to me…”
And if the call is answered:
“What do I say? What if there are awkward silences? What if the phone gets disconnected? What if I dominate too much of the conversation and come across as needy and self-centred?”.
And that’s just a social call.
Because of having such low self esteem, I have put up with a lot of crap I didn’t deserve, and I still do. I still allow others to make me feel worthless, even if they don’t realise they’re doing it. When you build up someone’s confidence, and they have anxiety, it takes almost nothing to bring it crashing down. It’s not you, it’s them, but it means I try not to rely on anyone too much. I try not to tell people how I am really feeling, and how much they mean to me because what would be the point? I should be able to say “Hey! When you say X but then do Y, it makes me feel like NOTHING. Have you considered that? Did you mean to come across like that?” but I don’t feel that I am able to, not usually anyway.
My therapist told me that anxiety is like a rocking chair. You can go backwards and forwards, repetitively, at great speed for hours…but you’re not actually getting anywhere. Acute worrying is as useless as that back and forward motion. Getting nowhere fast.