Thursday, 15 May 2014

Anxiety: It's Time to Start Talking

Anxiety is a really difficult thing to talk about. Trust me, I have spent many years trying to explain how I was feeling to people; how I felt my mind was overflowing with catastrophic thoughts and how I worried
endlessly about the people I cared about. Even now, after having treatment, I am finding writing this a real uphill struggle. Despite the difficulty though, there is a good reason why I am writing this, and that is to help start a discussion about anxiety.

I have always been an anxious person. When I was a child I would cry whenever I needed the loo for fear of wetting myself, or would cry when a fire alarm went off as I thought I would die. This wasn't helped by me realising my sexual identity at a very young age which always made me feel like I had something to hide. But, it was my unstable family life that caused me most issue.

Being the eldest child in a family where my mum has bipolar disorder and both parents struggled with alcoholism I found incredibly distressing. I always felt I was the person who had to look after everyone and that if I didn't do my job properly the family would fall apart. It was a very isolating position as I felt I never had anyone to talk to.

I couldn't even tell friends at school, I used to put on a mask most days where I would smile all the time because I didn't want anyone to find out. I felt that it would make me weak; that people would judge me and think it is my fault this was happening. Looking back you realise how ridiculous those thoughts are, but at the time they consume you and you can think of nothing else.

This continued into university, and despite all the difficulties I had actually managed to cope to some degree. I had made friends and was doing well on my course; I had even gotten over the initial guilt of leaving my family behind. But then in second year it all fell apart. A friend passed away and I literally felt like everything was falling apart. Everything from the past, all the fears and emotions, came back full force. I used to spend most of my time fearing for the safety of my loved ones, planning funerals for them in my head – even down to eulogies I would give. It was truly a terrible existence.

If it wasn't for a few close friends literally forcing me to go to the counselling service then it would have just gotten worse and worse. I had also just gotten my first boyfriend, and he was someone I felt truly comfortable around and one of the people I could really open up to and tell the true extent of what was going on in my mind which helped. Thankfully I was able to get myself together just in time for exams because I had done pretty much no coursework the entire spring term.

Everything was looking up; I had close friends and a very supportive boyfriend, but then I moved for my placement year and suddenly I felt isolated again. This time however I felt I couldn't open up to anyone, not even my boyfriend, and just started to go downhill again. I would get into petty arguments with him because I was just holding back a lot of emotion; in fact once I had an argument with him over a missing zip.. it was that bad!

Eventually he broke up with me, for reasons other than my anxiety, but it was probably a contributing factor. I was devastated and I didn't know what to do. My anxiety came on full force, coupled with depression, and I just couldn't get anything done. The stress led me to get a heart infection and I was in and out of hospital for that. But, it wasn't until I had a panic attack in the hospital I thought “enough is enough” and decided to deal with it.

So I finally picked up the courage to tell my GP and discovered that all my fears about him saying I was making it up or that nothing was wrong were all in my head and he diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. He set me up for a long course of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as putting me on SSRIs (an antidepressant; I was very hesitant in taking these at first... looking at the side effects sheet is a very bad move for someone with anxiety). I was even able to gather up the strength to tell my friends and family about it. I even told my work and they have been nothing but supportive – even getting me lifts to counseling sessions.

This was about 4 months ago now and honestly it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. CBT has taught me some great skills for managing my worries and preventing rumination and the SSRIs have helped to reduce the physical symptoms caused by anxiety and depression. I have been able to make many positive changes as a result; for example I am doing more exercise and I even volunteer at the local dogs trust which gives me a sense of enormous well-being (definitely ripped that off from a Blur song but oh well).

Don't get me wrong, I still struggle with anxiety from time to time, but then I am only on the beginning of my journey – in fact just today I had a panic attack at work due to not taking enough time to look after myself. However, despite this setback I am still looking forward because I have learnt that it is fine to have blips every now and then; real strength comes from how you get back on track. My life has undergone such a positive change, so I just have to keep going.

So, at the beginning of this post I said that anxiety was difficult to talk about but unfortunately, I have found that it's the best way to start to work through it. One day you will find the courage to say how you are feeling to someone and as hard as it may seem it will be such a relief and it really is the first crucial step to dealing with it. As you can see from my story, it was when I stopped talking that things went south so make sure you get talking!

Tommy Snipe
LGBT+ Part-time Officer Elect