DISCLAIMER – This post is about mental health. Mine in general and in particular. This is quite confronting for me to post online for all to read – including friends and family who have no idea about this, co-workers who may not be aware or (scarier still) prospective employers. My decision to publish is based on this fact – if the people I know as family, friends or colleagues feel adversely towards to me because of this post, then they’re not people I want to know. Sadly, the same goes for employers. If an employer is aware of these facts and doesn’t want to hire me – it’s probably not a place I want to be working.
I feel this is something worth sharing – because I know there are many others out there who are in the same situation, who feel totally alone and who think that it’s “just them”. I know, I was one of them.
This post goes out to those people – because you are not alone.
Just after my 30th birthday, I had a melt down. I mean, a full-blown, couldn’t-go-to-work, stuck in the house for 4 days melt down. Many thought it was the stress of turning 30, others thought it was just because I was so ’emotional” about the whole thing, some even thought it was work related.
What actually happened was that over the course of approximately 30 hours I had close to 13 panic attacks. Not small bouts of panic – this was full-blown fear, heart-racing, thinking-I’m-going-to-die panic attacks. And the scariest part about it was, I seemed to have no explanation as to why this was happening.
My husband (bless his cotton socks) decided that, as I’d been having these kind of panic attacks (or as I call them, “Impending-sense-of-doom” feelings) the entire time he’s known me (actually, since I was about 13-14), it was finally time to see a doctor and see if something could be done.
So off I went to the doctor – having yet another panic attack in the waiting room due to being forgotten by the receptionist yet again – who sat me down and checked me out to find out what was wrong. And as we walked through the questions, me nodding quite a bit, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a bit scared.
We get to the end of it all and the words he uttered are the ones I didn’t want to hear: “Well, yes, it does look like we’ll need to put you on a mental health plan. Based on your responses, it appears you have anxiety, general panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder” (Yes folks, I actually have OCD…it’s not just a joke, it’s legit. Hilarious, no?)
This was a bit confronting for me. I’d always joked about my ‘sense of impending doom’ and the fact that things had to be a certain way and that I was definitely a glass half-empty kinda gal (actually, more of a “glass is on the floor shattered into millions of tiny pieces never to be put back together again” kinda gal, really). But to be told that this wasn’t in my head, I wasn’t imagining it, that this was actually something I had and there were physiological signs and symptoms…it made it scarier, it very (VERY) real. But it was also somewhat relieving. Because it wasn’t all in my head. I wasn’t imagining it. This was actually something that was happening to me. There was definitely something that wasn’t quite right. And there were things that could be done to help.
We’ll break this down a bit to give you a better understanding of these new…things…and a little bit of insight into how I experience them.
Anxiety is pretty common, surprisingly. Anxiety affects 1 in 3 people over the course of their lifetime. That’s a lot of people. I’d already guessed this was going to be the diagnoses. Anxiety is that little gremlin that lurks in the back of your mind asking stupid “What if…” questions. It’s the thoughts that intrude ALL. THE. TIME! (Especially when you’re trying to sleep!)
It’s questioning every single thing you do, every single thing you’ve done, every single thing you’ve said. It’s wondering if people are talking about you behind your back. It’s wondering if people are judging you on things you said, things you did, the way you dress, the way you talk, for just being you.
It’s horrible gut-wrenching thoughts of “What if something happens to <partner> on the way to work?”, “What if I never see them again?”,”What if I forgot to lock the house and my pets escape and get run over?”,”What if I accidentally left <appliance> on and the house burns down?” These are just some of the many “what if” scenarios I’ve had…usually more than once.
To sum up anxiety – it’s utterly exhausting.
Panic attacks/Panic disorder
Panic attacks are something I’ve had quite frequently since I started high school – now that I recognise them and can put a name to this irrational, insane, illogical fear. A panic attack is almost like having a heart attack…just without the heart attack. Strange, I know, but that’s what it feels like.
For me, they manifest by my pulse going through the roof and my blood pressure skyrocketing. My breathing gets fast, I get sick in my stomach to the point of physically being ill, I get chills that make me feel like I’ve got a fever. The worst symptom (for me) is the vision – my vision turns blurry or it can switch between fine and blurry rapidly. This is a tad terrifying, if I’m to be brutally honest. I already have issues with my eyes (optically challenged as my other half likes to put it) so when things start going wrong in that department, I start freaking out.
Luckily, I can usually tell when something has triggered a panic attach, what the cause is and I can attempt to try to calm myself down. Sometimes I can’t…because I don’t know what the cause is. Those are the scary ones. Those are what I had after my 30th.
OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OCD was an…interesting diagnoses. On the one hand, I laughed a little because it wasn’t surprising. On the other hand, it was absolutely petrifying because something I just joked about was actually real. Coming to terms with that – and recognising my specific triggers and traits – has been an interesting journey.
My OCD isn’t the same as what you’ve seen in the movies. I almost see mine as slightly autistic. I like routine. Things need to be done in a certain way. I’m a tad rigid in the way my day is structured, the way certain jobs and chores are done, even down to the order in which they’re done. I’m also a neat freak – a place for everything and everything in its place. Not to mention organisation – I’m big on alphabetising, grading by size, sorting by colour. I’ve now learnt that these aren’t just personality traits, they are the way my OCD manifests.
The next step
Back to the story – so I get my mental health plan and off I go to see a psychologist.
Let me just say that seeing a psychologist for the first time is quite daunting. Being able to tell someone things you probably wouldn’t (under normal circumstances) tell ANYONE is a bit weird. I’ve also since discovered that finding a psychologist that you “click” with is also difficult…and something I’m yet to discover, much to my disappointment.
So, speaking with this psychologist, it turns out I’ve been living with (and self-managing) my anxiety for years. Actually, close to two decades. That’s a good thing – at least it means it isn’t something new. And it also means I’ve developed coping methods for when it happens – they might not be the best coping methods, but they seem to work (for the most part) for me.
Panic attacks are also something I’ve learnt how to cope with and have been inadvertently using the right techniques to calm myself down – probably because they’re just plain fucking common sense -.- Take deep breaths, try to calm your mind, etc. If you’re panicking, these are pretty standard – whether it’s a legit reason to panic or a panic attack.
OCD is a bit harder – it turns out my OCD is brought on by my anxiety. As those who know me know full well, I’m just a slight control freak. I like controlling things. I like things to be in order. I like to have structure, to have routine, to know. When anxiety hits, that’s when my OCD comes into full-swing. That’s when I start cleaning, start arranging things, start reorganising, start making lists.
Don’t get me wrong, some of those things can be awesome (husband can attest to the fact that getting me riled up can get the house cleaned in record time!) but they can also be exceedingly debilitating. How many of you can say you’ve gone to bed stressing and unable to sleep because you weren’t sure if you put the remote controls back in the right order? Pretty sure there’s not many of you.
So I’m learning to live with these new…things. I don’t want to call them labels, because I don’t want to define myself by them. I wish I could say they didn’t colour how I see myself, but they do. I’m now a bit more aware of my own head space, how I’m thinking and feeling and whether I feel anxiety creeping up on me. I suppose that’s a good thing but it’s also yet another worry to have to think about. And when you have anxiety, having yet another one is like putting straw on an already overloaded camels back.
Maybe it gets easier once you’re aware of your conditions. I haven’t yet reached that point. I was seeing a psychologist, but I just didn’t “click” with them the way I felt I should. I’m yet to go back and see my GP to get a new referral somewhere else – I suppose I’m worried that I’ll just keep having the same experience over and over and over. I’m keen to find someone new to talk all this stuff out with – while I didn’t necessarily “click” with the psychologist I was originally referred to, there was certainly some good that came out of it. So I’m certainly not adverse to trying to find another one. I’m just hopeful that I’ll have to go through spilling my guts to a total stranger only *one* more time!
Trying to explain to someone what’s going on in my head is a really hard one. Trying to explain to someone who’s never experienced anxiety is almost impossible. The phrase “Can’t you just get over it?” is common. I wish I could. I wish my head could stop thinking of “What if…” scenarios. I wish I could stop thinking about every single wrong thing that’s currently happening in my life. The worst part about my anxiety (coupled with panic disorder) is that it’s like a row of dominoes. When one falls over, it pushes on the next one until it falls down, and the next…and the next…and the next.
So while everything may actually be fine, in my head, everything’s broken, everything’s wrong, nothing is going right, the world is literally ending…until the panic subsides, the world rights itself and you come out the other side. Sometimes you can even look back on it and go “What the hell was I thinking?!”. It may seem completely irrational and illogical to you, but only in hindsight. In the moment, it can be terrifying. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
This collection of images gives some kind of insight to what it’s like. Even looking at them now makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable (that may also be my OCD coming into play though). It seeing a mountain, when really there’s not one.
The feeling can be summed up as wanting perfection. Wanting it oh so bad. It’s wanting it and not being able to achieve it. It’s wanting and trying to be perfect…and failing. And that feeling of failing is almost like a physical pain. Especially if you’re aiming for perfection because of someone (family/friend/significant other/colleague/boss).
If I knew how to stop my head from doing that, trust me – I’d do it. But I don’t. Telling me to “calm down” doesn’t work. Telling me to “not sweat the small stuff” REALLY doesn’t work. It may look like small stuff to you, but in my head, it’s not small stuff. It’s big stuff to me and if it’s not the way it’s supposed to be, I’m going to stress and worry and panic about it. That’s just the way I am. That’s the way I’m wired. My brain is just wired differently. Being patient, being calm, being understanding and not judgemental – that’s the way to help me.
Sure, there are coping mechanisms. Having a partner who is so logical and rational is amazingly helpful – someone who can literally talk me down from the rafters with pure logic. I think that’s the hardest part for me – I am such a logical, rational person and that part of my brain is usually facepalming really hard when my anxiety kicks in. I can almost hear it – “What the HELL are you thinking that for, you brainless twat?!” Humour can also help. I like making fun of it sometimes…though I don’t always appreciate others making fun of any of my issues. Sometimes it can be light-hearted, but other times it can feel quite cruel. It truly does depend on the frame of mind and the way the joke is aimed.
I originally thought my OCD was going to be a larger issue, but I’ve since realised that OCD is actually what helps me be so good at my job. All those jokes about me and spreadsheets – there’s a reason I’m so damn organised. Yes, it can get in the way sometimes – I do actually get worked up over certain things “being out-of-place”. Those photos you see online of things that make OCD twitch – they really do make me feel uncomfortable and internally twitchy. It’s a really hard feeling to explain. It’s a feeling of wrongness. There is something wrong and you have to fix it…or worse, there’s something wrong and you can’t fix it.
Where to go from here
So, now I’m at the point where
a) I know there’s something wrong;
b) I know what is wrong; and
c) I have some idea of what I need to do to try and fix it
The problem is, the “fixing it” part isn’t as easy as it sounds. Seriously, the next person who says to me that “Oh, at least with anxiety it’s easy to fix” is going to get a fist in the face. Repeatedly.
I know I need to find a new psychologist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the one I was seeing is a great psychologist – she’s just not a great psychologist for me. I’ve been told that it can take a while to find someone you can connect and click with, so that’ll be a fun journey. I think what I lack in a psychologist is someone with a similarly dark and sarcastic sense of humour and practicality to be able to understand me. I prefer facts and science (and humour) over the airy-fairy “breathe in the light” stuff.
But at least I’m now making steps towards doing something.
What to take away from all of this
If you’re a friend, family member, colleague or acquaintance:
- Be a little patient with me – yes, I’ll freak out over what you think is small stuff, but it’s not small to me
- Understand that I have routines – I like order, I like things done a certain way, I like routine *a lot* (not to be confused with an Alot)
- Don’t be patronising – phrases like “Don’t sweat the small stuff”; “Don’t worry, be happy!”; “It’s all good, right?” don’t help. They either make it worse or make me angry. Neither of which are good things
- Yes, my OCD can manifest is weird ways – just be understanding. It’s really not my fault my head demands I sort and eat my Smarties by colour; or hang things on the clothes line using matching pegs.
- Don’t mock it – it really isn’t funny, as much as it might seem absolutely HILARIOUS to you, it isn’t to me.
- If you’re worried, feel free to ask me if I’m okay – sometimes I’m fine, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I do need to just need to talk to someone.
- Don’t get scared if I burst into tears – it’s a natural way of dealing with it sometimes. It’s either that or general wanton destruction. I know which most people would prefer!
If you also suffer from one (or all) of the above mentioned afflictions:
- If you also suffer from a form of anxiety/panic/OCD, don’t assume that we suffer the same way. If I’ve said something, and you’re like “That doesn’t match how I feel/react/think”, that doesn’t make your experience (or mine) any more or less. It just means we’re different
- Help really is out there – you just need to know where to look. For those in AU, speak to your GP. Mental health plans are available.
- You don’t have to settle for your first psychologist – if you have a bad experience or don’t feel comfortable, you can get a referral to go elsewhere. Always try something else – never be afraid to get help.
- Above all – You really aren’t alone. There are lots of us. We don’t always advertise it (yay for stigmas and unconscious bias!) but there are more people who suffer from these disorders than you’d think. There is always someone to talk to.