When asked to speak about a subject as personal and internal as mental health, it’s hard to know where to start. Do I talk about my diagnosis, my continued struggle, my recovery? Perhaps I should just start with the basics…
Hi, I’m Nikki, and I have anxiety.
I’ve never actually been able to pinpoint the very moment I started feeling anxious – I think it was something I’ve been experiencing my entire life, that’s just changed and evolved throughout the years. I remember being about 7 and feeling stupidly, temper tantrum-y reluctant to go to a wedding reception with my mum and dad. I kicked and screamed and shouted and almost made myself sick with fear that if I went to this party, something terrible would happen. All I wanted to do was stay at home. I’m not sure if that was a panic attack, but as a 20 year old with a fair few under her belt, it sounds like one to me. As I grew up, more and more scary things were expected of me – sleepovers, birthday parties, school trips, holidays, each one an insurmountable challenge that made me nauseous to even contemplate. I just about managed to hold on to a solid group of friends throughout primary and secondary school, despite the fact that I was always the one who cancelled on their plans at the last moment (or lied about being busy in the first place). But I was never able to tell them why I didn’t want to go their birthday parties and day trips out. I’m don’t think I even knew myself.
But the very first proper panic attack I remember happened at one of the few birthday parties I did actually attend. Unfortunately a big part of my anxiety centred around being horrifically unpopular, so when one of the coolest girls in school invited me to her birthday party…of course I was going to go. So I went, and within half an hour I’d locked myself in the toilet, hyperventilating, and phoned my dad to come and take me home. It was a claustrophobia I’d never experienced before, as all I wanted to do was be somewhere quiet, dark and alone. From then on, panic attack after panic attack would happen and I didn’t know how to stop them. In lessons at school, during lunch, in bed at night. I took so much time off school for this ‘mystery sickness’ that both me and mum nearly got in trouble for skiving.
Gradually, however, although I spent more time at school, my anxiety got worse and worse until the morning of my 17th birthday I had what felt like a complete mental collapse. I felt like normality had been flung out of the window, and the only thing I was able to feel was panic. I was in the middle of my AS level exams, I was stressed, I didn’t know who I was and couldn’t remember how to function properly. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat anything and after spending the majority of the day lying on the sofa, slowly falling into what felt like a big black hole, I hit rock bottom.
Not only was I an anxious, depersonalised mess, I was depressed at the state of my mental health too. I decided right then that I needed help. I vividly remember phoning up my GP surgery and telling them my date of birth, to which the reception replied ‘oh happy birthday! How are you spending it?’ I didn’t really have the heart to tell her it had been spent going out of my mind. Although my doctors appointment had been in May, the surgery unfortunately lost my referral to a therapist for 3 months, and it wasn’t until late August when I actually got some help.
Two GP appointments, and one terrible children’s counselling session later, I was on the phone answering 250 questions about myself in a triage discussion with my soon to be CPT therapist- nicknamed Dr Phil. My first class of CBT took place after I returned from a holiday with my family, where I received the results of those terrible AS levels…And spent a week wondering if I had any good qualities at all. But Dr Phil was brilliant.
CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy, was amazing. Focused entirely on how to change the thought patterns of the future than exploring the traumas of the past, CBT is an independent workshop which helps you, over time, and with much un-enjoyable homework, to balance out your thoughts and feelings. It helps you to identify and accept exactly what is making you anxious and how you can feel better about it. For me, who had refused to acknowledge most of the worst thoughts I had about myself, this was really hard – as no one wants to write down the truth now, do they? But CBT taught me to understand the processes of my own head, and to stop them before they did any real damage. Over 8 months of this later, I went to Leeds Festival with my friends, and felt no anxiety whatsoever.
Since then I’ve been to university, moved house, started a relationship, started two new jobs, begun a blog, developed a business and am just about to graduate with my degree. There are still bad days (and bad weeks), and there are still trips and tasks I’ve get to come to terms with. But I’m doing things at my own pace, and I’m doing ok.