On the unbearableness of existence

The last three months of my life have been pretty awful, I’m not going to lie. I’m prone to depression anyway, but around November/December I found myself falling into a whole new type of brainfuckery — anxiety.

I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, but this really knocked me for six. I have reservations about everything but this was totally different. Imagine being mortally terrified for your life, all the time, about everything. Imagine talking to people, smiling but not really concentrating, because you’re completely convinced that in a few minutes you’re going to die. Like, that is all you can think about — “when am I going to die? It feels imminent.” Imagine sitting at work, with trembling and clammy hands, trying to swallow the rising panic in your chest; the sort that leaves you reaching for the cup of water but almost spilling it. Just sitting quietly without screaming is really, really hard.

It’s exhausting and fucking horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

I’m normally a confident, fun and funny person who enjoys life and loves laughing and likes doing cool stuff. Anxiety stripped me of my joy, not in the same way that depression does, but because you’re always watching your back, always on alert, waiting for something to happen. It robbed me of my ability to really enjoy things that I previously enjoyed, because everything was tainted with pure, unreasonable fear. I went from someone who loves travelling and having new experiences to someone who spent an entire holiday in Cuba feeling terrified, exhausted, and wanting to cry a lot, and came back seriously wondering if she would ever go abroad again. I watched Star Wars: Rogue One at the cinema which somehow triggered what I can only describe as an extended panic attack that lasted for the entire film, and I burst into tears when I left the cinema.

It’s utterly unbearable to live with.

I was fairly determined to not let it control me, and to do everything to try and get rid of it. I took extra vitamins and minerals, went for walks, listened to mindfulness apps, tried to rationalise a lot of my ridiculous and unfounded fears, spoke a lot to my then-boyfriend about why I was scared and what was happening. The thing is, no one really understands. Because it’s so irrational and ridiculous that it’s just bonkers to try and comprehend. It’s like a phobia, but a phobia of literally every single thing in the world. I can’t emphasise enough: Every single thing is scary. And it therefore fosters a self-fulfilling cycle and sense of helplessness and paralysis. Even as I explained to people, as the words tumbled out of my mouth, I found myself thinking “this is so insane. I’ve gone mad”, but the brain is a curious thing.

Nothing seemed to fully shift it; I would feel better and have a good handle on things, only to slip back into paranoia and a whole cycle of ‘what ifs’ that could start as innocuously as me leaving the house, and lead to the inevitable, horrific demise of everyone I love, and then my inevitable early and painful death. I resolved to go to the doctor, who concluded that I did indeed have what sounds like “debilitating, severe anxiety”, and he gave me a few tips but most importantly he explained how I could self-refer to IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies).

IAPT is basically a system where individuals can self-refer for mental health issues, and I think they offer a range of services depending on what your exact problem is. I was offered self-guided CBT. To be perfectly honest with you, I find a lot of counselling to be a bit patronising. It’s very ‘back to basics’, but then it kind of has to be — what you’re trying to do is rewire your brain to not freak out all the time, and to understand how anxiety happens so that you can take steps to prevent panic attacks and deal with it better.

You have to fill out a survey that takes into account how you felt over the last fortnight. “How often have you felt you don’t enjoy things?”, “How often have you wanted to hurt yourself?”, “How often have you not been able to sleep?” My first meeting had me answering that I felt lots of these things “more than half of the last fortnight”, which meant I was quite seriously not ok. The tactic that we started on was to start classifying my thoughts and worries into “I can do something about this” or “I cannot do anything about this”. Like I say, patronising, but it actually seemed to work, as I’ve been mentally categorising my fears or anxieties into “I can fix this” (so let’s do something) and “I can’t do anything” (let someone else worry about it) ever since. It helps to give me a bit of space between me and my thoughts, space between reality and my own head.

I’m happy to say that at my second IAPT appointment today, I did the survey again and was told I am in the recovery zone — I don’t need to see anyone anymore, but I can always go back if I need to. It’s weird how sometimes the smallest thing that someone says can be a real game-changer for you. I am not by any means fixed or totally ok, not by a long shot. But my recovery is beginning and it feels like the clouds have parted somewhat. I feel like I’m making positive steps to get rid of this stupid, crippling anxiety, and that can only be a good thing.

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