Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Mental Health Awareness Week: My Story of Anxiety and Panic Disorder

It's Mental Health Awareness week (12-18th May) in the UK and so this post is taking a turn from my usual topic onto my own experience with a mental health illness - anxiety and panic disorder. Mental health is an issue very close to my heart not only because of my own experiences with it but seeing my loved ones struggle as well. I hope it doesn't come off as narcissistic bullshit but it is a very self involved account because it is a very isolating illness and the events which took place were entirely in my head.

I'll start from, what I thought was, the beginning. Some time in early June 2011 at about 9pm, I was revising for my upcoming A-Level finals when I was filled with the most horrible feeling of dread which hit me in the pit of my stomach. I believed I was going to die. I thought that the lyrics in the music I was listening to while revising were telling me I was going to die imminently. I went into a state of fight or flight panic that I'd not experienced before. I felt sick, sweaty and couldn't think straight. My breathing was short and my vision went odd. All of the symptoms I was experiencing were feeding into my deluded thoughts about my imminent demise. I remember going to sit in the same room with my mum but being unable to verbalise what I was experiencing or how I was feeling. I couldn't tell anyone what I was experiencing because I was afraid that mentioning it would jinx it. I felt as if the universe had a sick sense of humor and would smote me down on the mere mention of death and dying. This is what I now know to be a state of psychosis. I'd lost touch with reality.

In the days following from this incident I was constantly feeling sick and had these horrible thoughts about dying clouding my mind. It stopped me from revising and this in turn added to the stress of the exams so I went to the doctor. Two of my friends came along with me but they didn't know the full extent of my condition. In hindsight I can't blame the doctor for his response because I wasn't at all honest with him either. I told him I was feeling sick and that I was taking my A-Levels. He diagnosed me with stress and was fairly reassuring it would pass. He tried to prescribe me beta blockers but as I was scared of dying the last thing I wanted was my heart slowing down so I declined and he prescribed me some anti-sickness tablets and sent me on my way. I was so distraught that he'd not picked up on my actual feelings because there was absolutely no way I could tell him myself.  I never took the doctor's pills because I carefully read the leaflet that came with them. It said they were primarily used as antipsychotics for schizophrenics. This made me worse because from then I thought I was alone and crazy. My nausea turned into vomiting before/during/after every meal.

After the incident with the doctor I attended all of my exams and did a fairly good job I thought. I got a couple of days where I wasn't as bad, the sickness was dissipating and I thought it was beginning to subside just as the doctor said. The day after my final exam I woke up fresh as a daisy and promptly vomited in the back garden whilst waiting for the kettle to boil for my morning coffee. My mum saw and didn't entirely know what to say - she told me to go back to the doctor again. I was so upset. I thought things were getting better but I was feeling worse than ever. I couldn't celebrate finishing my exams because I was still anxious, vomiting and short of breath. This was my lowest point.

I returned to the doctor and saw a different lady this time. She'd always been really kind to me. I broke down in tears in her office as I told her everything I'd been feeling. She was really concerned and quickly took me through an assessment to make a diagnosis. She provisionally diagnosed me with anxiety and panic disorder and made a referral for a an assessment and a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This was where I felt the most relief from the horrible ordeal. I had to wait a fortnight for my first assessment appointment. Over the next two weeks I was continually sick and saw my weight drop from a healthy 9'5 to a gaunt 8'6 within the first week. I barely left the house, I left occasionally for the odd night out to keep up the pretence to my friends that I was okay. I felt terrible due to drinking jagerbombs loaded with caffeine which sent my heart racing so I stopped going out after that. I told my two friends who came with me to the doctors the first time and they kept checking in on me which was nice, I didn't feel so alone.

The next part was a blur. Over the next 3 months I received CBT for an hour once every fortnight. I learned how to control my breathing and dissipate any negative thoughts. I tended to only leave the house for these sessions and tried to double them up with visiting my family. I also went to stay at my boyfriend's house in Worksop a few times for extended periods. I had to use the train to get there which caused me a lot of trauma. Unfortunately he was quite unsupportive during this time and tried to talk to me about dying which I hated every moment of. I'd learned to calm myself down but I'd not learned to stop getting worked up. One morning when I was at his, I got a phone call from my dad telling me my grandma had died. I was quite far on with my treatment and this was my first test for dealing with my fears head on. My dad took me to see her body but I stayed in the foyer of the funeral home facing the wall, avoiding the headstones and literature. When the day came for her funeral I didn't feel a thing. I felt empty.

When exam results day came I found I'd missed my grades but upon calling UCAS I found out Sheffield had accepted me anyway. In less than two weeks I'd be living in Sheffield. I was overjoyed. Later on that day I went to my 7th CBT session and was feeling much better about my anxiety and actually went shopping for uni stuff later that day. The night before I moved into my new flat in Sheffield I had a massive argument with my boyfriend because he didn't understand how upset I was about leaving my family because I'd be losing my support. When I moved into my flat I wasn't daunted and I wasn't going to let the anxiety get to me. I had my final therapy session over the phone with my therapist who said she was satisfied I was well enough not to need treatment and would write to my doctor to tell them so.

From then on it has been a slow recovery of getting back my confidence, leaving people who made my feelings worse behind and accepting helpful people into my life. Although I finished my treatment I had to use what I'd learned in real life situations. I also spent a lot of time reflecting on the start point of my illness, as I started to remember things made a lot more sense to me. I'd initially become ill from exam stress but previously I'd been to the doctors with chest pains and told there was nothing physically wrong with me. I'd also had three panic attacks at various intervals before then, one was following an RE lesson about death in year 9. Even then I still wondered if there was anything more. Had I been born this way? It was odd seeing myself going from a 13 year old who was confident enough to sing and play guitar in front of a crowd to a recluse who couldn't leave the house at 18.

I'm still getting my life back today. I've been in and out of treatment since to try and explore the possibilities behind the illness and attempting not to let stress get the better of me. It has got bad on occasion but at least now I can get the train without crying. I sometimes still humm in awkward social situations and flick my toes for good luck. Sometimes I feel like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as the anxiety is completely different to my actual personality. I've learned to live with anxiety and overcome everyday situations, which most people do not even think about, which still incite fear within me. Remember if you are struggling you need to tell someone and don't let it take over your life. It's a long road but you can beat it.

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Did you know that in the film Toy Story, Sid's hallway carpet is the same design as the hallway carpet in The Shining? That's well creepy.

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