It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and after a long time deliberating whether or not to write properly about my funny little brain, this feels like the right time to be honest, open, and help to end the stigma around mental health.
I’ll dive right in by saying I have never been diagnosed with anything. A doctors note would give me an entirely clean bill of health. However, I don’t believe this to be true. In August/September 2016, something happened in my head, a switch flicked; one month I was fine and the next I wasn’t, it really was that fast. In my unprofessional opinion, I began to suffer with anxiety.
I’ve tried to write this numerous times now, and it either ends up being a mess that very nearly rambles on for 18 pages (front and back), or ends up sounding like a sob story. So i’ve decided to try to keep it neat, vaguely lighthearted, and organised. So fuck it, let’s dive in.
I became aware that I felt a little out of sorts in August 2016. I was just finishing up my masters degree and trying to get through my dissertation without dying of boredom. Much to my surprise, i’d managed to land a grad job straight from uni and was gearing up for a total life overhaul.
While this was great news, it meant I was leaving Brighton, a city I’d come to love. As such, I faced the prospect of moving back in with my parents in Chelmsford. As far as I was concerned, that was not an option; I associated Chelmsford with being trapped and miserable, and I decided couldn’t go back after having such a wonderful four years away. Many of my friends and my boyfriend had all decided they were moving to London, my upcoming job was in London, and so London is where I decided to go. I began obsessively looking for flats, trying desperately to find a place before my job started, which I think is where it all started to go a little-pear shaped.
In the final weeks of August I left Brighton, moved back in with my parents, and spent my time constantly going back and forth to London to try to find a place to live. I was feeling pretty off-colour by this point, but at the time I thought I was just stressed out and under the weather. I felt sick a lot and had a tooth infection. The antibiotics were making me exhausted, giving me an upset stomach and generally making me feel really rough. My first day at work was looming, and I decided to come off the antibiotics for fear i’d be too ill to go to work.
Like anyone, I was nervous on my first day, that’s certainly nothing unusual. What was unusual was the bizarre physical symptoms that were suddenly appearing every time I left the house. I felt sick a lot, and hated being anywhere with no immediate exit. Because of this, train journeys and tube journeys were a nightmare; within moments of getting on either one i’d get boiling hot and have to take off all the clothes I possibly could to get through the journey. I’d find myself trying anything and everything to distract myself from whatever situation I was in; i’d play on my phone, read a book, and focus on my breathing, anything to take my mind off being trapped in a metal tube hurtling underground.
At this point, I genuinely just thought I was ill. Going from university to work meant my sleep cycle was changing, and getting up early in the morning was really tough. I wondered if the antibiotics had fucked me up a little bit, and was (not so) patiently waiting for the symptoms to subside. It wasn’t until Rai and I went on holiday that I had the lightbulb “fuck, this is in my head, isn’t it?” moment.
The physical symptoms
It’s fair to say I was a bit of a nightmare on that trip. Anything weird that had been happening in London was suddenly magnified. It would take me ages to leave the hotel every day because I was convinced I was going to be sick or have an upset stomach. When we finally made it outside I didn’t want to stray too far because I wanted to be in my own space if need be, and be able to get back to the hotel if I felt like I was going to have a meltdown. Things were so bad that it sent my periods off-kilter and I became utterly convinced I was pregnant – I wasn’t, but that didn’t stop me persuading Rai to buy a pregnancy test to check for certain there was no baby on the way.
Oddly (I think?), anxiety made feel extremely faint. I’d begin to get this feeling that I started to recognise was the beginning of something unpleasant; i’d get too hot and want to take off items of clothing, then my legs would begin to feel weak and my vision blurred around the edges. During a couple of particularly nasty moments I felt as though my eyes were actually rolling into the back of my head. That was, and is, easily the worst symptom.
When I was never physically sick or passed out, I started to come to the uncomfortable realisation that something was going on in my head that wasn’t right. I decided it had to be anxiety, i’d done some googling and it all made sense. Things were so bad on that holiday that I decided I had to see a doctor when I got home because whatever was going on was making me not want to leave the house, and I didn’t want things to spiral out of control.
So, the doctor?
Well, I never got around to seeing a doctor. Seeing a doctor about my mental health makes me very uncomfortable, and there’s always a part of me that wonders if i’m being overdramatic. I can’t walk in someone else’s skin; what if everyone else feels a little fearful about leaving their house from time-to-time? I don’t want to waste a doctors time if there’s no problem.
Additionally, and perhaps shamefully, I don’t want to have to disclose anything to anyone if I don’t want to. Whether I think I have anxiety or not, according to all medical records, I don’t. There are practical problems I worry about being diagnosed with anything mental-health related; do I have to disclose it to work? To insurance companies if I need holiday insurance? To my parents? I decided I didn’t want to have to deal with any of that, and so I would simply cope with it myself.
For a while after that holiday things were still fairly bad, but they slowly began to get better when I found a place to live in London and became more comfortable at work. Fortunately, as soon as I realised it was all in my head, I was far better able to control the physical symptoms; I would tell myself over and over again that it was just in my head, to calm down, think rationally, just put one foot in front of the other, and get on.
Recently, i’ve seen a massive improvement. I no longer have to play on my phone every time I get on a tube and i’m not fussed how busy it gets, nor do I worry much if i’m going somewhere without a place to feel comfortable in, like a park, for example (apparently my anxiety can’t decide if i’m claustrophobic or agoraphobic; consciously, i’m neither). I still have my odd moments; sometimes i’ll get quite stressed about going to a new location, or going somewhere with lots of people I don’t know. Generally I don’t like travelling from place A to place B, but i’m usually fine when i’m there.
Has it changed your life?
Massively. I’ve dramatically cut down on the amount I drink and smoke because I realised hangovers and feeling like I wasn’t looking after my body triggers anxious feelings. Like many students, I did my fair share of experimenting with drugs during my uni days, and now I never touch them as I think anything mind-altering is simply not good for me. I’m also more low-key than I used to be; I never go clubbing and I don’t really drink during the week, even when all my work mates are having a laugh. Aside from that though, I refuse to let it rule my life. I’ve had times when I wanted to stay home when I had plans, and i’ve forced myself out of the door regardless.
Overall, I think i’ve handled it well. I’ve found my own ways to cope without any medication, and I think i’m getting better and better. That said, I do worry that I won’t take up opportunities because i’m too worried about shaking up my life and putting myself in uncomfortable situations. I’m very comfortable now at my work, for example, and I worry that because i’m anxious about triggering anxiety (anxiety is fun), I won’t move on and further my career. Generally though, weird physical symptoms have chilled out, and life is much better than it was a year ago.
PHEW. That’s one long ass read, sorry about that. If anyone ever wants to message me about anything mental health-related, i’m all ears. Life isn’t easy when your brain is working against you, and i’m very fortunate that I have a lovely, understanding partner who has been an angel when i’ve been having a bad day. If any of this feel familiar to you, just know it gets better.