It’s currently 9:54pm on Sunday evening. There’s a festival going on down the road from my house and I can hear the music from a mile away and the drunk people wandering down my road. I don’t know if it’s because of the festival, or because it’s the first day of my period, or for no reason at all, but I have been sweating and panicking and crying all afternoon. I feel silly and small; I know the heart palpitations and racing mind are just symptoms and I’m not afraid of them like I used to be, but ultimately, even though they’re manageable, they still suck.
I think, (well I know, I just didn’t have a diagnosis) I suffered from severe anxiety throughout my childhood. I wasn’t exactly a cool kid; I was terrified of people breaking the rules, and so felt like school was one nightmare class after another. If someone spoke out of turn, I would feel my heart race, I’d start sweating and suddenly I’d be silently panicking, trying to suppress it all so nobody noticed. That anxiety around lessons never left, although I got better at hiding it, distracting myself and playing along with the class. I really didn’t enjoy school and I didn’t tell anyone why because I worried about coming across as a bit of a loser. My mum caught on but even today, she always says she didn’t understand why I never enjoyed lessons as I never felt comfortable telling her. Annoyingly I still worry about coming across as pathetic – I never wanted to be the anal one and even writing this now, I wonder if I’ll ever publish something this honest, as it feels almost embarrassing to admit what was going on inside my head at the time.
In addition to general life/school anxiety, I had a hardcore phobia of sick, which got really bad in my early teens. Emetophobia at its worst involved me not eating in school, compulsively washing my hands and drinking a hefty amount of peppermint Gaviscon syrup every day for months. No seriously, I used to carry this huge glass bottle of medicine around with me and drink it in the school bathroom stalls when I was panicking. I had those freak outs every day when I was fourteen. If someone was actually sick, I’d fully shut down, start shaking, crying and panicking. It would take me a couple of hours to recover from those. I’m reluctant to use the phrase “panic attack” as I can’t be sure if I’ve experienced one, but those experiences are definitely the closest I’ve come. Fortunately, my emetophobia has become a lot more manageable over the past couple of years, but even when it was severe I didn’t consider that it could be a condition, or something that could be treated. I just thought I was weird.
I’ve never really talked about the anxiety I’ve experienced because to start with, I didn’t realise this was an abnormal experience. When I was growing up there didn’t seem to be any terminology that described what would happen to me when someone talked back at a teacher, or when someone made a retching noise at lunch. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that anxiety could be a disorder. I had friends who suffered from other severe mental illnesses, and this shaped a lot of my understanding of what it was to be struggling with mental health. I saw it all as very black and white – when my friends were in a bad patch, they were hospitalised, so if I wasn’t at that level then I was probably fine.
As I got older, I developed a more nuanced understanding of mental illness. When I was twenty, I finally got an anxiety diagnosis after crying in front of my doctor as I asked for a medical exemption for my final term deadlines. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening to my body, even though the experience was familiar, because I was more intense physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations, for the first time. I was prescribed beta-blockers and given an extension on my essays and a special room to do my exams in. I never took the pills; ironically I was too anxious about them to put one in my mouth and swallow.
A year and a half later, I found myself in therapy. I learned a lot about my relationship with my mental health in the year and a half that I was having sessions, and learned that the intensity and long-term nature of my anxiety isn’t something that everyone goes through. Over the past two years, I have become increasingly able to manage my bad anxious patches, although as I’m still learning, there will be off days, weeks and weekends even though I’m feeling generally a lot better. This weekend was one of the off ones, and that’s okay.
I don’t know if I’ll talk about anxiety again online, or if I want to. I think a lot of ground has been covered in the past couple of years when discussing it and I don’t know if my input is necessary, especially given how drained I feel when I talk about it. Even now, I don’t know to what extent this is an illness or just a way my body reacts to things that’s on the unusual end of the spectrum. But whatever it is, I’m learning to manage it, and I think that’s an important message to share.