I had an odd experience today. A somewhat muted version of a “eureka” moment.
I was on the tube, reading my Kindle. There was a woman on my left, writing things on her copy of the Evening Standard. Suddenly I became aware of the fact that she could – and was – able to see what I was reading. My stomach lurched and I immediately shut my Kindle up. (No, I wasn’t reading that ridiculous book, but much less excitingly, Overcoming Perfectionism, as recommended by my therapist).
In doing so, I glanced over in her direction, at her copy of the Standard. On it she had written words including (I tried not to read-read as it would have been rude, but these jumped out) “I resent myself at work,” “self-esteem,” “OCD” and “not safe.”
For a moment, I felt the world stop. And then I decided finally to write and publish this post, one which I’ve been thinking about for a few days.
What happened when the world stopped? I realised three things:
1. I am incredibly self-conscious about admitting I have mental health issues, I find it very difficult to talk about them and I fear people discovering I have them. I possibly even feel ashamed I have them.
2. My instinctive assumption is that people will judge/criticise/pity me and see me as pathetic/weak/a failure if I do “own up” to the said mental health issues (I now have The Saturdays’ ghastly “Issues” song in my head).
BUT, here’s the thing:
3. I’m actually far less alone in battling mental health issues than I have ever possibly conceived.
At the beginning of this year I was signed off work for “low mood” for three weeks. I had been having difficulty sleeping, I was crying all the time, and I had started to think some dark thoughts. I avoided going outside because loud noises and cars were terrifying me. I was jumpy. My thoughts were just a chain of worries, peppered with thoughts of how useless I am.
I have been depressed before, which is why I was a bit more able to talk about it with my loved ones, who were able to recognise signs and suggest I go to the GP. I was also very, very lucky to have had an appointment with the only decent GP at my surgery of 5, who gave me 45 minutes (35 of which should have been her lunch hour) in order to talk and be listened to.
I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and referred to my local Mental Health services. Since then I have had a course of telephone therapy (a half an hour a week call) which I found both nerve-wracking and frustrating, but a step in the right direction. Indeed, for a while, I thought I had sorted things.
But I think my mind is actually in a series of complicated knots, and I’d only begun to untie them. It was quite easy, in the month in which my telephone therapy ended, and whilst I waited for a referral to face-to-face cognitive behavioural therapy, for those knots to knit themselves back together again and things quickly got fairly dark again.
My therapist says I’m a perfectionist. I’ve found this very hard to process – because I don’t think I’m good enough to be one. She thinks this is hilariously typical of a perfectionist. I’m coming around to seeing that my thought patterns are overwhelmingly governed by achievement, striving, and their dark Others, failure and inertia. I basically worry about failing and letting people down, all of the time. It doesn’t make sense, does it? But it rules my life at the moment.
To illustrate, here’s a rundown of a few hours of this week that show what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder combined with perfectionism (at least for me):
1. Think about packing to leave for London trip and speaking event.
2. Feel dizzy at the prospect of doing everything before leaving (washing up, tidying, packing exactly the right things, not forgetting important things).
3. Put head in sand for a bit.
4. Take head out of sand, look at time, freak out.
5. Pack in a mad dash and leave with just about enough time (10 minutes) to get to the station and arrive eventually at event in time.
6. Undercurrent of nerves buzzing because I don’t feel prepared enough to speak.
7. Make notes on train, which are ok, but then realise as London approaches, that I will only just about make my event on time.
7. Freak out (internally, silently, but also quite intensely).
8. Arrive in London and madly try to update Oyster card and work out fastest route even though I’ve done journey hundreds of times.
9. Actually end up standing like a rabbit in the headlights for 7 minutes as I can’t decide what to do.
10. Keep looking at different clocks all of which have different times and panic madly.
11. Get on tube, eventually.
12. Try to think that I’m on the tube, I can’t get there faster.
13. Doesn’t work, instead I chastise myself for not being more organised, at the same time freaking out about being late. Visualise the organisers calling me repeatedly, audience assembled, all waiting for me.
14. Get off tube, walk mega-fast to event building, getting sweaty and breathless.
15. Am THREE minutes late, and am told that event won’t actually start until 7.15 (which, deep down, I also suspected would happen).
16. Try to calm down, but then start freaking out about my speech/the possible questions/how I’ll match up (I will not) to other speakers.
17. Event goes well but I think I could have structured speech better. I don’t feel proud but annoyed with myself instead.
18. Adrenaline stops rushing around as everyone goes for post-event meal.
19. KNACKERED. Want to sleep FOR EVER.
20. Morning after – just want to sleep/hide/sleep.
Looking over that, it’s not a wonder now that I’ve been rundown and ill all summer, and that a massive chunk of my hair has fallen out.
Why have I decided to write this? So many people, when I’ve told them I have an anxiety disorder (heck, even some depressives) have asked me “but you’re so happy?” or, “what have YOU got to be worried about?” I know I can come across as a bright, sunny, extrovert of a person. I’ve lived through stuff that’s made me resilient (if not tough), and my instinct is to nurture and look after rather than be looked after. I don’t anymore, wear pain on my sleeve. And because I don’t want to fail, seem weak, or impose on people, it’s almost impossible for me to come back from such responses. I want to say to them: look, it’s not that my life is filled with worries – it’s that my life is all about the worrying. But I don’t. I just clam up. I say I’m doing ok.
But if it was someone else telling me about GAD (how’s that for an ironic acronym for General Anxiety Disorder), depression, bipolar disorder, OCD or something else troubling them, I’d want to tell them it’s ok not to be ok. That’s what seeing the woman on the Tube brought home to me. Lots of people are not ok. My therapist says I’ve put myself on a treadmill, trying to achieve, succeed, be perfect, exhausting myself, getting nowhere. I see now that lots of us are on parallel treadmills, all battling our particular demons, and all thinking we’re the only one on one.
This is a long post, and if you’ve made it thus far I really do salute you. But the point I wished to make is that I’m struggling – struggling to allow myself to just be happy, even to just be. It’s actually far harder than I thought – than it sounds. But I’m not the only one. And that makes it a bit easier. So I just wanted to put this out there for anyone else who’s on a difficult emotional journey: we are all co-travellers.