It's mental health awareness week. As a nation, we are finally making some real improvements in eradicating the unnecessary stigma attached to certain conditions. I personally believe that if they dropped the word "mental" people would find it easier to ask for help. Health is health, whether you've broken your arm, or your brain and body feel discombobulated, it's one in the same.
So today I'll practice what I praise, admire and champion in others and share something I rarely talk about. Although I'm becoming more open and at peace with talking about my ongoing 13 year battle with me/cfs, to offer support and encouragement to others, I find talking about an additional and lifelong battle far more difficult. So here goes (yikes)...I've spent my entire life silently living with severe and crippling anxiety. It has been a permanent fixture stitched within the fabric of my soul. There were periods where it was ferocious and all consuming, and other times where it would rise and fall in much more gentle waves. There were years where I would be physically sick every single day before (and often during) primary school, in a perpetual state of panic for reasons I could never fathom. I liked school, I had lovely friends, I wasn't bullied, I found the work really easy, I had no idea why this was happening to me other than it was simply how I'd always felt. I knew the other kids didn't go through this, or certainly not every single day with such intensity. They got up, got dressed, ate some coco pops, watched cartoons then went to school, happy, a little sleepy and unfazed. I sat in my living room shaking, short breathed and clammy palmed, unable to eat the breakfast that was in front of me without immediately projectile vomiting. That was my normality, though it was anything but normal compared to everyone around me.
That was back in the early-mid 90's and how I felt was written off as an annoying personality quirk rather than something I genuinely needed support with. I knew that wasn't right. I knew it in every ounce of me, but I didn't know how to ask for help with something that was "unfortunately, just how Holly is" as a 4 year old. It was the only thing that I ever got told off for as a kid and I was completely mortified, not only that my body was doing such strange things in reaction to such mundane stimuli, but that people were unhappy with me. I felt so guilty and like a complete inconvenience and liability to those around me.
Teachers were exasperated with me and used my natural “nervousness” to either ridicule me, or permanently make me the centre of attention in the hopes I'd somehow just “stop being silly and snap out of it". Over time, I got better at hiding it as I grew up, finding ways to micro manage my symptoms and subconsciously adopting avoidance behaviours as a form of self preservation. Thankfully, there were periods where the serverity of the daily dose of panic settled down, but in all honesty, it never truly went away.
I eventually fell ill with ME/CFS at the age of 15, which is no surprise, with hindsight, as my body was relentlessly in overdrive, my immune system was nonexistent and I was always falling horribly ill with viruses - Labyrinthitis being the final virus that knocked me down and I've been clawing my way back up ever since.
Having a serious illness almost made the anxiety more bearable in the early days because at least these feelings now felt justified. They had some merit. They weren't just some generalised, incessant overwhelm where my body couldn't seem to differentiate between excitement and sheer terror. Everything had just felt like terror on a physiological level no matter how cheery and positive I was, and always had been in my mind. My mind and body did not work as one, my body was simply a ticking time bomb and I was presented with the idea that I just had to put up and shut up. So shut up is exactly what I did. But of course, when I fell ill, anxiety in the face of chronic illness was more socially acceptable. Of course you’d feel anxious when your life has been put on hold, when you’re bedridden, living with terrifying symptoms with no timeframe or treatment plan of how to overcome this chronically ignored condition. Of course you would. Anyone would.
Subsequently, M.E gave me somewhat of a scapegoat to continue my battle in silence as when I was having a raging panic attack or an episode of unbearable anxiety on the morning of an event, I could simply say “I’m not feeling so good today, can we rearrange? I’m so sorry to be a pain” and M.E would be the immediate and unspoken culprit. Therefore, I didn’t have to admit the agonising reality that my mental health was also, and always had been, truly suffering. M.E was obviously always a hugely painful and unruly factor in why I couldn’t attend something, but for some reason, not disclosing my anxious truth felt more bearable. M.E is completely misunderstood and, in a peculiar way, I preferred to receive the barrage of ignorant backlash for “bailing” last minute because my friends or family really had no concept of what M.E feels like and the “we all get tired, Holly” comments were water off a ducks back by that point. Everyone in life experiences anxiety or has felt nervous about something, but the judgement based on their own concept of what it means to feel anxious couldn’t be further from the truth of what it’s like to live with an all consuming and unrelenting anxiety disorder, that is ever present for no real rhyme of reason. Those taunts from a forged and false place of knowledge, were something I could do without.
I still don't really know where the anxiety I experience stemmed from. Perhaps I was just born a little wired up on the wonk, perhaps it was inherited or perhaps it was learned, but regarded of the root cause, I am now far better equipped to deal with it. I think it's something I'll be dealing with on some level for the rest of my life, but I will never give up trying to find my flow with it.
I still have a huge amount to learn, to face up to and take action on every single day, but I will continue to try my absolute best to take small, manageable steps forward.
Pretending everything is ok when you're crumbling on the inside is only going to make it worse. Please know that if you are battling silently, you are absolutely not alone, there is help available and we are all so much stronger together.
I truly believe that our struggles can grow to be superpowers. We have an abundance of empathy, strength, determination, resilience, sensitivity, humour, courage, compassion and gratitude on our side. Everyday we survive, we win.
I will share another blog post soon with lots of tips and tricks that have worked for me. Simple actionable steps you can take to regain some control and how I like to start my days off on the best (and most calm) foot.
P.s Did you know, there's arguably a strong corollary between anxiety and intelligence. Genius works in mysterious ways, ay? Ha!