Back in winter of 2014, I was high on life. I had just been awarded career success for everything I had worked so hard to achieve, so it was of course over-whelming but in an incredible way. Life was GREAT. Then, on some random uneventful Sunday, I collapsed.
I remember the exact moment it began too. It hit me like a lorry load of logs: one minute I was my usual carefree self out shopping, the next I'm on the floor in the middle of a shopping mall and I was taken to hospital. I was luckily with one of my best friends so she accompanied me and helped talk me round from 'the coma' I was slipping in to. I wasn't actually slipping into a coma, I just felt like that was happening.
I had no idea what a panic attack even felt like, so when I had my first one I genuinely thought my brain had suddenly malfunctioned and / or I was having a heart attack and dying. I previously thought a panic attack was like: "Oh, I feel a bit worried. Never mind." The reality is, it physically and mentally renders you useless. I forgot how to actually be a human. After a trip to hospital then to a doctor, I was given a tablet to calm myself down and sent home to sleep.
This was a complete misdiagnosis and a cop out in my eyes. I was furious. Something was clearly physically wrong with me. I decided it was Labyrinthitis as all the symptoms were the same and my mum had suffered from it a few months earlier. Definitely Labyrinthitis. I went to my GP the following week when I wasn't feeling any better and he discussed the possibility of anxiety. AS IF! I argued with my doctor that it 100% wasn't that. I refused treatment and took instead tablets for nausea and dizziness to help my Labyrinthitis.
I kept trying to go into work but had to continually come back and sob on the sofa for a bit. My work mates and my boss were just amazing. I felt like one of those employees who people assume are taking MC days for no reason or just fancy time out. But every time I tried to go into work to resume my 'normal' life, panic and anxiety would flood over me out of no-where and I'd run off the MRT and head straight back home.
A few weeks later of never being able to complete a train journey, something I usually do in auto-pilot mode, I went back to my doctor and admitted defeat. Okay, so I am clearly not very well. By this point it's safe to say I was a shell of the person I was a month or so before. Every day I woke up and felt physically sick, I was dizzy from morning until night, I couldn't focus my eyes on anything like a TV or laptop, I couldn't walk straight without feeling like I was going to fall over. My concentration was completely ruined and sometimes even talking to people felt like a mammoth task. My appetite went completely and I was always shaking. I had called 999 two times because, I was dying. Paramedics would arrive, do all the tests and talk me round to the fact that I actually wasn't dying. I still didn't believe them.
Aside from the physical aspect, every other part of my life sucked too. I cancelled on my friends constantly because I couldn't leave my apartment, but didn't know how to tell them exactly what I was going through. I didn't even understand it myself. I didn't go anywhere near a guy. I was struggling to even be okay around my family. I had to cancel so many events that I was looking forward to, which made me feel like my life was over. I genuinely didn't know if I was ever going to be 'normal' again or if this was now my life, which of course made me more anxious. I was dealing with the unknown, on my own. The most horrific part of anxiety in this severe stage is that whether you're in the comfort of your own home, with friends, family, alone or out...it will always be there. When you're watching TV on a Sunday afternoon in your own flat and you malfunction and call 999....well no-where seems safe does it?
Basically, life got BAD. So there I am, back at my doctors, ready to do or take anything he suggests that will help me remember how to be a human again. His verdict?
I was diagnosed with GAD - Generalised Anxiety Disorder. How has this even happened? I was absolutely fine right? Where did this even come from? We'll get to that with my therapy sessions in a minute...
I was prescribed an anti-depressant which I took when I got home but I was such a over-the-edge wreck about everything by this point that within 20 minutes of taking it I decided I had a serotonin overdose and called 999 again. My exact words were "If you don't get an ambulance here, I'm going to be in a coma" before I dropped the phone and was retching over the toilet. Paramedics, once again, arrived and told me basically, to breathe properly or I really will pass out but it's my own doing.
It's hard to put into words just how horrific these few months were. Unless you saw me crumbled on the floor, you could never get the extent of it. The things I used to do without a second thought became impossible, including walking 10 minutes to get a coffee and back. Crowds? No way. I'd die in there. I couldn't even enjoy a stroll in the woods without the trees 'blurring' in my vision and setting me off. My mind was in constant over-drive and I didn't know how to approach the idea that I might have gone insane. I genuinely thought I might need sectioning if it didn't stop. When I say 'if it didn't stop' I mean the anxiety waves that ripple through you and make you wish you were asleep or dead to stop it. Every day, every single day, was a 24/7 struggle. With no way to work, I was also bored and this made me dwell even more on my sudden illness.
With weekly appointments with my GP, I slowly introduced Sertaline into my system. Another anti-depressant drug. I had such a stigma attached to taking any kind of drugs that I freaked out even at this - and he put me on 25mg to start with just to try calm me down without making me think I'm having a serotonin overdose again. I wasn't, ever, btw. The drugs take ages to get into your system. It took about 2 months for the Sertaline to allow me to be like "oh, I can do human stuff again". The drug had allowed me to go back to work and by that point, my CBT was ready too. Cognitive Behavourial Therapy (basically a talking therapy), helped me out loads.
This was genuinely the first time in a CBT session with my therapist when I started to realise why and how all of this had happened to me when it seemingly came out of no-where. It went something like this:
Therapist: Let's have a look at your diary schedule for the next couple of weeks.
Me: Oh okay. But just remember I've got a lot of catching up to do on, you know, life.
Therapist: Okay, you're apparently busy / going out 6 days out of 7 both weeks. This is your problem.
Me: Yes, however, if I don't go to these events then I can't write about it and I need to because they're great events for work.
Therapist: You can only go out 2 nights out of 7.
Me: Absolutely no way. Not possible.
Therapist: Listen, your lifestyle is the cause for your anxiety disorder and it's going to continue to break you down unless you adjust.
Me: Okay, so, like I can drop to 4 nights out of 7 at a push because that particular week they're realllyyyyy good events...
Worked out the cause yet? Yep...me too! Basically, my lifestyle was non-stop and I had worked myself into a physical and mental breakdown. If you have to argue with your therapist about how many nights you get 'off' to chill, you know you have a problem. All those awesome activities I was doing that were making me so happy and what I had worked towards were also the reason I collapsed. That's irony for you.
Having worked through CBT, taken up yoga, listened to advice on my lifestyle and learnt to relax...I got better. I weaned myself off Sertaline end of Summer 2015 - and that was an experience in itself! One minute you're too afraid to start taking the drugs and then you're too afraid to stop! I had all kinds of weird spasms and electrical 'zaps' which simply amused me in the end. Weaning yourself off Sertaline is totally doable and it seems really scary but you just have to source that strength that's clearly there to be able to carry on without it.
Since coming off the drugs I have the odd episode but on the whole, I'm absolutely fine. I know now when I'm over doing it. I'm literally back to 'normal' or whatever normal was before GAD came along. In fact, I'm probably even more confident and even MORE annoying because now I know just how strong I actually am as a person. It's still in the back of my mind, especially if I'm hungover and feeling the shame, but it is completely under my control now, whereas before it was controlling me.
Throughout this darkest winter of my entire life, I learnt SO MUCH about life:
1. Anxiety and depression are two completely different things and not to be confused. I have never been depressed. I have suffered with GAD. I cannot possibly comment on depression because I do not know anything about it. That being said, depression is similar to anxiety in that, it's an issue sufferers cannot just 'snap out of'. Taking tablets for anxiety is like taking antibiotics for an infection - if you're ill, you need medical help to get better. The stigma attached to taking anti-depressants can bore off.
2. Anyone dealing with anxiety / depression are not weak people - they're actually the strongest people you'll ever meet. Being able to have an anxiety attack then take 5 minutes out, control your own breathing, talk yourself out of the situation and go back to whatever you were previously doing is just amazing. Inner strength is out of this world. So big respect for all that.
3. If you've never had a panic attack or anxiety attack or, I guess, depression too, you literally cannot understand. So don't assume people are 'faking' it or they're okay because the 'look fine'. Mental disorders are as real as a broken leg. And please don't say "just snap out of it" or "try not panic" because that's the least helpful thing ever said in the entire world. If we could stop panicking, we'd have done so already!
4. A ‘Mental’ disorder doesn’t mean you're mental. Anxiety and depression doesn't mean you're off to an asylum, even if sometimes it feels that way. The stress of modern life takes its toll on people and if you're a workaholic like myself, then it's bound to come out in some form or another.
5. Never be ashamed if you are suffering from either. I think I managed to become better so quickly because I told everyone I trusted in my life, so they could help me if I needed it. Suffering alone is the worst thing to do and will only draw out the illness for you.
6. There is no relation between lack of confidence and anxiety. I am, if anything, over confident and I still got hit by it. Anxiety doesn't target shy or introverted people. Often, it's the exact opposite.
7. Stop worrying that you're the only human suffering. You're really really really not! Hopefully this article is proof of just that.
8. Anxiety hasn't changed me in the slightest and I'm still a gobby little overly confident woman.