A Master of Disguise
Imagine living in a world full of predators. You are walking along one day and suddenly an angry lion is within your tracks. What do you do? Run away? Fight it? Or do nothing?
That’s why, as part of the human body’s nervous system, we have a response known as ‘fight-or-flight’. Without this response, you’d probably do nothing. You’d have the inability to feel fear so you wouldn’t need to run away or if you did decide to run, you’d have nothing to help you. No extra blood flow or adrenaline for energy and no fear to keep you going.
However, thankfully, we are all naturally gifted with this response. Just sometimes, you could say it sort of malfunctions.
Differentiating a real threat to anxiety is something I find extremely difficult. For me, this threat ends in automatically panicking so much that I have an uncontrollable feeling of nervousness that feels like it lasts for an eternity or having a panic attack that exhausts me for days.
This is because for the past 4 years or so I have negotiated with the delightful Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which in turn links up with the ever so wonderful Panic Disorder causing me to have these panic attacks.
A lot of people think a panic attack is just someone feeling pretty nervous and being a bit ‘dramatic’. I’ll admit it, I once thought the same. But actually, it is an exaggeration of the body’s normal ‘fight-or-flight’ response. It can affect everyone differently. In my experience, it’s my breathing that is affected first. My heart races so fast that I can see it through my top as I stare down trying to control every single gasp. I then start to feel my lips and the tips of my fingers and toes go tingly which eventually spreads up my arms and legs to the point they feel numb and useless. Huge waves of nausea flow through the pit of my stomach and my head feels like it’s spinning completely out of control. In all honesty, it is utterly terrifying. The first time it happened I genuinely thought I was dying.
It is living in a constant ‘what if?’ that is the most exhausting part of having GAD. The “what if I have a panic attack and everyone sees me” or “what if I feel so panicky I burst into hysterical tears or throw up and again, everyone sees and thinks I’m a ‘weirdo’?”. That tiny, simple question determines how I feel and everything I do each and every single day. From my uni work, to my part-time job. My relationships with friends, family, boyfriend and most of all my own self. For most people at the age of 19, the thought of going on a night out is exciting and fun. For me it starts off with a feeling of complete dread and making sure I’ll definitely have a toilet to run into in case I do have a panic attack or need a good cry to try and calm myself down without anyone knowing. Everyday there is something there that I will worry about. Going in for a shift in work can be so overwhelmingly nerve-wracking that I force my way through my shift. I get so frustrated with myself to the point of complete exhaustion.
However, the thing I hate most of all about it is who it turns me in to. Whenever I feel stressed and nervous I become irrational, down, snappy and very emotional. I take it out on the people I am closest to and avoid everything I can that doesn’t involve lying in bed all day. From this, I have lost friends and missed out on so many great opportunities. I like to kid I’m just a granny at heart who doesn’t particularly like going out on nights out all the time but, if I’m being honest with myself, I am just avoiding any possible panic. I’m terrified to be ‘normal’ because of the ‘what ifs’ so staying in my little comfort zone bubble is exactly where I want to be, at all times if it was possible.
But why should I hide something so common? Around 1 in every 6 people will experience some kind of panic disorder at some point in their lives. So why is there an awful stigma attached to it? Why do I feel so embarrassed to talk about it? Why do I run and hide when I have a panic attack when it’s the time I’m the most vulnerable and need comforting? Why do I never tell, not even my parents, when I am having really anxious day and just need to a cuddle and a chat?
I am tired of being a master of disguise hiding it at every opportunity I possibly can… ‘No one ever needs to know. You’re fine, Heather’. Lies lies lies. I am tired of having to make up excuses for not going to a night out. I am tired of massively struggling through coursework at university because I have had a really bad nervous day and my brain just wants to sleep instead of stressing out some more. I am tired of feeling so guilty for not being my usual ‘happy’ self and getting told to just “cheer up and calm down” if I do speak out and say I am feeling a little sad or anxious. And this is why I wrote this. I am not looking for any kind of sympathy, I am merely searching for a worldwide understanding of mental illnesses. The stigma needs to end. People should be able to speak freely about anxiety or depression etc. without an automatic judgement of getting called ‘crazy’ or ‘dramatic’.
I often tell people “it’s not me, it’s just my anxiety” as an excuse for my moods. But in all truth, for the time being that anxiety is me. And until I finally fight it (which I am so determined to do), I will continue to talk about it and help people who may be the same. I will continue to try stay as happy as I can possibly be and push myself to do things I didn’t once feel I could ever do. And most of all, I will continue to be cheery, silly, oddly tall but a little anxious, Heather.