This one’s a bit long. You might need a cup of tea and a biscuit.
With all the discourse about mental health that has been so healthily discussed recently, and with the examples of World Mental Health Day, and beauty vlogger Zoella’s Don’t Panic campaign doing all they can to highlight the problems that are faced by people with mental health illnesses, I thought that perhaps it was about time to add a few words of my own.
My name is Beth and this is my story.
I’d firstly like to preface this story with a few words. A little disclaimer, if you like. I am an optimistic, bubbly and outgoing person (most of the time), or at least so I’d like to believe, and this has made it difficult for many people to comprehend the idea of me suffering from anything at all, let alone anxiety. Everybody experiences mental illness in different ways and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to understand, deconstruct and ultimately feel your feelings. “Really?” I have often received upon addressing the subject, “But you can’t tell at all,” as if the fact that nobody knew I was suffering made it any better. It didn’t, it made me feel more alone in fact. I really think that this highlights just how difficult it can be to know the struggles that other people face. In the wise words of supposedly Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I truly believe that the world would be a better place if we threw all the stereotypes about mental illness out of the window and saw everybody for who they are, with understanding, acceptance and empathy.
I guess you could say that I’ve always been a worrier, and that I don’t like it when things don’t go to plan. To my plan. But I had a very happy and sheltered childhood and my teenage years weren’t too terrible at all. So I suppose that everything all began when I moved to a university on the other side of the country, at the grand age of nineteen years and one week. The completely sudden change in environment and routine, and the thoroughly abrupt way in which you leave everything you know at home and are forced into new spaces with new people is pretty much the most terrifying thing you can do. It’s fun and it’s challenging but it’s also really difficult and really scary, and the research that I have seen in recent newspapers and journals drawing links between new university starters and increasing mental health problems comes as no surprise at all.
My first year was fine. Sure, I felt a little uncomfortable about sitting around small tables at night playing drinking games with strangers which more often than not involved awkward questions about your love life, and a good old smattering of ‘banter’, but it was such a strange and overwhelming time for all of us, and we were all in the same boat, and so I didn’t particularly allow myself to spend too much time worrying about anything at all. It was first year when nothing really mattered, not even your grades, and so I finished it with a handful of close friends, some good memories and even a boyfriend, however long that lasted (oh, first year memories). But then second year came and everything changed once again.
On a side note which is relevant, trust me, how stupid is it that we are brainwashed at university by this culture that the only form of fun is going out and the only way you can hang out with your friends, or make new ones, is going out? I cannot believe it took me so long to discover not only that I didn’t particularly enjoy going out, at least not the prescribed three times a week, and that there were plenty of other ways to have fun with your friends. I feel now as if I spent my first year in a haze of drinking and dictated fun where I somehow managed to lose sight of exactly who I was, and what I liked to do.
I lived in a very small terraced house in my second year with three of my good friends and flatmates from the previous year. Although we had a great time living together, they weren’t all the going out type and I found it strange having to suddenly adjust to nights in by myself, and spending time with a small group of people who felt more like my family than my friends. Problems then began to arise when I tried to hang out with other people which a) wasn’t that often at all and b) made me feel nervous and uneasy, and often resulted on an overcompensation on my part to make up for it. A year passed in this way and although I was happy and ok, I think somewhere underneath it all I must have been starting to realise exactly what was happening.
I had booked a trip to Cambodia for three weeks in the summer to teach English there, and I had an amazing time being continually pushed out of my comfort zone and catching glimpses of all the soul-searching and peace-finding, and all the other cliche things that you’re meant to discover about yourself when you go travelling. It therefore came as a surprise when, after I had returned and resumed my part-time job at a pub, that I found myself having my first panic attack at the thought of having to meet up with some work friends after my shift. It wasn’t great. It involved a lot of hyperventilating, my mum telling me to ‘calm down’, and a horrible overwhelming sense of panic which you realise is bigger than you ever could have known, and then I had to go straight to work with blotchy eyes and a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I remember speaking to one of my best friends about it a few weeks later back at university, and even talking about the experience made me feel like I was reliving it. He suggested that I seek help, that it sounded like I had anxiety, but I wasn’t so sure. I had close friends who had suffered very greatly from mental illnesses and in no way did I feel like my experience for those few minutes compared to theirs. Above all, I had a deep and cutting fear that I was simply being over-dramatic, and that people would think I was seeking attention through my actions.
Of all things to convince me otherwise, it was a Facebook notification that did it. As the invitation to a friend’s house party flashed up on my computer screen I felt the same feeling of panic clutch at my stomach and I knew implicitly that there was no way I could ever go this party. I realised then that I simply couldn’t live my life like this anymore, and I did something about it right away. My university had an ‘open doors’ team who you could email for help regarding welfare issues and by the end of the day I had an appointment at the Student Welfare centre for later that week.
There was something very strange and frightening about voicing my concerns and my feelings to trained professionals, to actually and physically ask for help. I’m so glad that I did it, however, because the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that I was referred to really helped me to, in want of a better term, sort out my shit. Admitting your weaknesses and discussing your deepest, most rooted fears to a stranger, albeit a lovely one, was one of the strangest things that I’ve done, especially as I am a foolishly independent person who does not like the idea of relying on others for any kind of help. For anybody struggling with any anxiety of any kind, I would most definitely recommend a trip to a therapist. In fact, scrap that, we should all go to therapists, no matter whatever state we think our mental health is in. Mine immediately understood just how frustrated I was at myself for having my anxiety and she gave me some great tips to try and control the panic which can threaten to overwhelm you at any moment.
At this point I was finding myself struggling during my seminars. One in particular involved thirty plus students crowded around a small table in a small and very hot room, and it used to cause me constant anxiety. I’m very pale and I found myself going red due to the warmth at the beginning of every seminar, and I would then proceed to spend the remainder of the two hours shaking quietly in the corner and hoping that a) nobody noticed and b) that my tutor wouldn’t ask me anything and direct the room’s attention to myself. As soon as one seminar was over I would allow myself a small moment of relief to just breathe, before promptly beginning to feel anxious about the next one. I cared so very much what people thought of me, and how I appeared. I would spend hours doing extra work so that I could answer any unexpected questions thrown to me and I would think carefully about how to dress on the day – short sleeves because I didn’t want to get too warm, no blusher because my cheeks would be rosy enough. It’s no way to live your life, continually feeling nervous and uneasy, but the problem with anxiety is that you cannot simply turn your brain off and stop thinking about it. It was also emotionally draining to simply exert so much energy on worrying. To put it simply, it sucked and I was not happy.
My therapist didn’t spend very much time on discussing why I was suffering from these problems and she understood that I simply wanted to be able to move forwards, rather than to dwell on the past. We met only a couple of times, in which she taught me some helpful breathing exercises, I had a breakdown on her sofa, and she helped me to keep an anxiety diary. I soon realised that she’d given me all the tools I needed to help myself, and that there was no point in continuing to see her. I wasn’t an anxiety sufferer who was anxious about everything, and apart from during the times of those seminars, I did not feel anxious each and every day. I have a very peculiar and niche kind of social anxiety, a rare cheese of the anxiety world if you will. Of course everybody experiences anxiety differently, but I really do feel as if mine is a very strange kind which leaves me fine on a day-to-day basis, but then becomes triggered by certain social situations (not all kinds, mind you, only certain ones. Ones where I thought I would have to sit in a circle with lots of people looking at me, ones which were at night, ones which would be in bright lighting, ones which would be in warm places…the list of endless ways in which I imagined how awful each situation would be was another fun thing my brain liked to do).
Sure, there were and are still days when I feel anxious for no reason, where I feel simply uneasy and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There are days too when I get anxious about really small silly things, like getting of a train with lots of bags, or seeing a friend who has a dog which may or may not jump up at me. The majority of my anxiety, however, stems from my fear of how I am presented to other people, and how other people perceive me. I have not let it stopped me from doing the big things that I wanted to do, like go to Cambodia, or move to Germany, simply because such things are too big to fathom, and even my brain can’t get anxious about things it can’t even begin to imagine. It has, however, altered my social calendar a little. It’s made me probably a little too comfortable in my own company. I don’t get anxious about the big things, I get anxious about the small things: about the everyday situations which involve people, about seminars and parties, about meeting large groups of new people, and always, always, always, about what people will think about me.
And so here I am, just under a year after my first CBT session and I’m living in a different country, continually having to meet and speak to different people in a different language, and facing a whole host of new challenges. I am asked sometimes by my parents and close friends, “How’s your anxiety. It seems so much better?” and I smile and say something vague. Yes, it is better, but that’s mostly because I have long since avoided any kind of situation which could trigger it. I probably spend more time thinking of valid and plausible excuses about why I can’t attend social gatherings, and then worrying about if the person who invited me then dislikes me for declining, as I would do worrying about actually going. It’s a twisted kind of vicious cycle. A Teufelkreis as they say here in Germany. I also continuallly and ironically worry about how people perceive my anxiety, and about whether they thing I describe it in melodramatic, or over-the-top terms. I worry that because my anxiety is a bit different, because I do not feel it all the time, that it is not valid, and that it does not compare to others. It comes and it goes; it tricks me and it resurfaces. 9 days out of 10 I am perfectly fine. But the tenth? Sometimes it can be a bit of a bugger.
Fortunately, I am generally a very happy person and I am able to find happiness in the small things. I have a great support system of friends and family, and although they do not always understand what I go through, they are always supportive and helpful. A particular thank you should probably go the the friends who have gone out of their way to go with me to things I’ve felt anxious about, who have offered to drop me off or pick me up if I need it and the one poor housemate who had to witness me having a full-blown panic attack in my car as I drove up to that first house party which my therapist forced me into attending. Most importantly, despite everything and despite my annoying, over-thinking brain, I am able to find a happiness in myself. Activities like yoga and mediation have really helped this, and I would definitely recommend them to anybody trying to find some kind of peace within themselves too.
As I reach the end of this extremely long blog post (sorry!), I have to admit that I’ve most probably written this mostly for cathartic reasons more than anything else, for what is a blog but an online diary? For the world to see. I’m also probably feeling a little braver because I am currently a few hundred miles away from everybody I know, and a thick computer screen away from the rest of the internet. But who cares. It’s about time that we were all open and honest about our flaws and our struggles. There’s nothing to be ashamed about in having anxiety, or indeed, any type of mental illness, and I refuse to continue to be afraid of using the word ‘social anxiety’ for fear of the stigma and the stereotypes that are attributed to it.
My name is Beth and I have social anxiety. That was my story but it’s not all there is to me. There’s plenty more pages left for me to fill. Your story is what you make of it; what will yours be?
P.S. COFFEE! I forgot to mention coffee, and rather than go back and find somewhere more subtle to slip it in, I’ll just stick it here obtusely at the end in a postscript. Coffee is the worst thing for people with anxiety to drink. It wakes you up and it gives you energy, but it does this by making your heart beat faster, and for an anxiety sufferer there’s nothing you need less than something artifical which mimics the effects of panic. Coffee shakes? Dizziness and lightheadedness after drinking coffee? I experienced all of this, plus near-panic attacks , and I soon realised that it was only making everything much much worse. Caffeine-induced anxiety is a real thing (I googled it!) and it could certainly alleviate your anxiety symptoms if you feel like you drink a lot of it. Go decaf for a while and see what happens. I did and it made me feel so much better. (I must also here admit that I am back onto drinking coffee. I’m a sucker for punishment, I know, but these 6.30 starts just aren’t doing me any good.)