I have had anxiety, at least in a way that I recognised it, since I was 17 years old. In reality, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was probably a lot longer than that. It took me 15 years beyond this to work out the best way to deal with it. For the record, I’m still dealing with it.
There is a lot of talk currently about getting rid of the stigma of mental health through sharing experiences - something I completely agree with – but more than this for people who are dealing with these issues, talking about it is also a lifeline, something that can help you get through one issue at a time. But when you are just starting to understand the thing you are fighting, or you are in the middle of it, it seems neither obvious nor easy to take this option. But first, some background about my anxiety.
We are all different and things effect us in different ways. For me, anxiety gets me from A to Z in the space of 30 minutes - ‘A’ being an event that has happened and ‘Z’ being the worst, most unlikely thing you could ever possibly think of.
The problem is for me, at least, is that ‘Z’ does not seem unlikely. It almost always feels like it is the reality. Oh and then there are the other unlikely scenarios running in the background (should I manage to rationalise myself through that one). It often feels a bit like never-ending ‘whack a mole’ - and when it doesn't end, eventually you get overwhelmed by it. By that point all the physical signs are there, not eating, not sleeping, can't concentrate, cold sweats, endless walking and pacing… I am sure for many these will be familiar. What triggers it? I'm not really sure, but likely to be around people I care about getting injured, catastrophic loss and relationships.
So not talking...where did that get me?
When I’m not talking about my anxiety and trying to deal with these thoughts on my own that means absolutely 100% believing that my house is going to fall down, all because of a crack I found in a wall.
or... thinking I was going to get fired, lose my house, get dumped - all because of a minor mistake I made at work (which I’d point out actually had no impact and no-one else noticed).
or....convincing myself that my girlfriend will have left me because of a MINOR disagreement we had in the morning (and being so convinced I went to check on my lunch break - to be clear I do not live near work).
The list could, and sadly, does go on and on and on. Writing it down is interesting – because, in the cold light of day, it doesn’t make much sense, but I know it was very real.
As a man even now I think “this is ridiculous, you cannot tell people this is how you feel - it doesn't make sense, you will look weak”. So the thoughts continue, the physical symptoms get worse - you can’t function correctly at home or at work and then other things happen as a result, you disengage, you get snappy with people, you miss things you should have spotted (because you are focusing on things that actually aren’t likely to happen), you make real mistakes - and the anxiety builds another layer.
Even then, when you’ve finished suffering in a silence that makes no logical sense, there is the aftermath - feeling wiped out, playing catch-up, making apologies. Relationships in particular were disjointed and, in hindsight I feel unfair for the girlfriends who knowingly or unknowingly lived through it with me.
Keeping quiet about it left me on my own, substantially ill equipped to deal with the problems I faced. I remember laying awake at night and thinking ‘will it ever be any better?’. I remember being around my family, friends, colleagues and being completely alone – not because of anything they did, but because I was dealing with something they were relatively unaware of.
So, in the end, I talked. Not because I wanted to, but because I’d gotten myself into a place where there was no other option (I won’t go into details!).
So, talking. Where did that get me?
It got me the friend who would walk around the city with me on my lunch break until I’d gotten my anxiety and thoughts back under control. No questions asked.
It got me the friend who gave me their book on CBT and I realised that I wasn’t the only person dealing with this. I read the book, it didn’t help – but I understood things a bit better.
It got my next relationship on a decent footing where my other half knew what to expect. We’re married now. I don’t think my wife would say she understands anxiety, but she does understand me, when it is likely to happen and why I go quiet and disengage sometimes.
Finally, It got me the help that made sense, because my manager at the time recognised what I was going through and arranged for me to see someone they trusted. I have never looked back from this moment.
It got me the friends and family who would come round when things really got on top of me. At times I don’t think they knew what to do, but they were there and that was really all that mattered.
To be clear – I did not go around advertising that I had anxiety – I chose who I spoke to. That said, I am glad that I spoke to someone. If I could offer anyone going through similar one piece of advice – please don’t leave it until you have no choice but to talk – it simply isn’t worth it.
Find someone to talk to who you trust, just one person and tell them how you feel. I didn’t tell people I had anxiety – I told them how I felt and I kept telling them, because actually that was the easiest way. No-one ever laughed, no-one ever mocked – I got the feeling that people couldn’t always understand exactly what I was going through, but equally I just needed them to be there.
Where does that leave me now? I have a family I never thought I would have, I have an amazing career that, at times, didn’t seem possible and I have friends around me who, whilst they may not understand anxiety, they do understand me.
I’m also trying to make a difference to others by talking about it. That all seems quite dramatic – but actually when you can't think beyond the next 10 minutes because your brain and body is on overdrive, this does actually seem pretty amazing. I do feel like I have it all – and that includes anxiety, because for me, whilst I can manage it better, it’s still around and I still have to deal with it, but I’m not going it alone anymore.
More importantly, I think it leaves me as a person others go to. Because I think (and I can only guess at this) they know I am likely to understand. They may just be feeling anxious about one thing, they may just be going through a bad time – but because I’ve been open I think it helps them be open as well.
I don’t always understand everything people tell me about their lives, their feelings, and that’s ok – but if I can listen, maybe offer a bit of advice and check in to see how they are doing I think that is a start. Often, people just need someone to listen and if we can do that for each other, before things become a huge issue, then maybe stigma isn’t something we have to deal with because people will just listen to each other, make time for each other and support each other. In reality, we’re probably still a long way from that – but there is hope, as long as we are talking!
I don't think there will be many more articulate and open descriptions of anxiety and we thank Richard enormously for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Do you recognise what Richard talks about when it comes to anxiety? Let us know in the comments below.