Anxiety can be compared to your first email address, or the name of your first cuddly toy. It’s something you’ve grown up with, it’s weird, you can’t really explain the reason behind it, you’re definitely too scared for anyone to find out about it, but inevitably it will come out in the end. That one sentence more or less summed up the first nineteen years of my life. Anxiety has been a part of my life since I can remember, but like finding ‘x’ in an algebraic sum, I always knew it was there, but it took a considerable amount of working out and breakdowns to discover its identity. Since then? My current journey with mental health has included realisation, acceptance, discovery and reaching out for help, all with the continuation of those breakdowns I mentioned earlier, of course. While I still live with anxiety today, it has no comparison to what I described as ‘the unknown’, that I experienced throughout the entirety of my childhood.
On the surface, looking back at my childhood it seemed pretty perfect. I was lucky enough to grow up with a stable and supportive family, they worked hard and therefore we went on beautiful summer holidays and I received a large majority of the toys I circled in the Argos catalogue for Christmas. But even if you were to see what personality traits I had throughout this time you’d probably only see shy and introverted. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to worry about...right? Wrong. As I unravel my childhood memories it feels like I am opening Pandora’s box-I am met with a whole bundle of emotions and feelings. Worry, confusion, hurt, nervousness, and then there are the excruciating stomach pains, sweats and heart palpations that come with it. These are all kept in a tiny, untouched box at the back of my brain that I have labelled ‘the unknown’. What the vast majority of children would leap at excitement for (the summer holidays to Africa, joint birthday parties at Laser Tag), would give me such bad knotting in my stomach that I thought the monsters who were supposed to be under my bed, were instead gnawing at my insides. School did not offer the escapism or education I was craving, either. My teachers were simply there to teach me phonics and multiplication, no lessons were dedicated to the health of their students, unless you count the one assembly in which we were given a demonstration on how to wash our hands. So, as I’m sure you can imagine, being a child who lived in a constant state of worry and panic meant forming school friends was inevitably difficult. I lacked the typical carefree, reckless attitude all my classmates seemed to possess, and no matter how hard I tried to carry the same book bag, have the same packed lunch and wear the same headband as everybody else, I always felt different. A disconnect. The unknown began to feel so obvious I felt as if I had it embroidered on my uniform like our school badge. Perhaps it was, as it was only a matter of time that this distinct difference between the other children and me led to a lengthy period of bullying. Because who wants to play with the kid who is continuously living in fear? What better way to spend our lunchtimes than terrorise the girl who always has a stomach-ache? Taunts and threats became a regular occurrence, they pointed out my originality in attempt to make me change, become more like them, but little did they know it was making it worse. Primary school was supposed to be my version of escapism: a place for me to be submerged in country dances, mini discos, anything but the endless thoughts that circled inside my head. Instead it became the place that made it worse.
Having to live in a world with a great lack of awareness and somewhat blissful ignorance ran it’s course by the time I reached my first year of secondary school. Of course, ‘the unknown’ was still lugging itself around like the food tech & PE equipment in my school rucksack, but the signs and symptoms weren’t so obvious. I had finally reached a new and exciting chapter in my life where there were new experiences, opportunities and responsibilities...all with about 200 other children by my side. Finally, I was in the same boat as everyone else. It seemed as if I had reached a point where life had decided to work in my favour, and after receiving my first iPod at the age of twelve I honestly thought I’d peaked: unlimited opportunities to play fruit ninja, MSN my friends and do research into ‘the unknown’ until stupid hours in the morning. The light at the end of the tunnel was in sight! I cannot begin to tell you how many hours I spent scrolling through every online forum, help page, and even social media account trying to workout the method behind what I thought was madness. It didn’t take me long until the ‘unknown’ was in fact not unknown, and a very common mental health disorder: anxiety. Although the angel on my shoulder told me that I shouldn’t self-diagnose, all the symptoms that were glaring off my screen were adding up. Much like the simplicity of two plus two, all the pain, suffering and confusion that I had dealt with for the majority of my life were matched up to the keywords on the websites. I had validation. I had reassurance. I am not weird, I am normal. However, it didn’t take long until the harmless social media scrolls became part of my daily routine, I had become so hyperaware of this anxiety that it began to take control of my life in ways it never had before. Whereas in previous years I would spend all my time fighting this anxiety, I now wallowed in it and let it begin to take over my life. In fact, I cannot begin to tell you the embarrassing number of sleepovers and birthday parties I have had to leave because they resulted in me having a panic attack, but of course this was my fault. Before I had even left, I would work myself up that any social situation outside of my four walls would inevitably result in me panicking so I would therefore anxiously wait until it did. Even at my best-friends 13th birthday sleepover, a house I had been visiting and felt comfortable at for over a decade, had abruptly ended due to cold sweats and shivers, leaving with my sodden sleeping bag in one hand and her Mum’s box of Kleenex in another. I was definitely going to be taken out of her MSN note now. It was as if these websites were instructing me on how to act, if I read that one symptom was distancing from your friends and leaving social situations I indefinitely had it too...it slowly felt like I was having primary school déjà vu.
I had put up with the remarks and taunts until May 2017: the summer I finally left school. Twelve weeks where the scent of freshly cut grass, fragrant suncream and new opportunity had never been so apparent. My anxiety had always overpowered the thought of ever attending university, but having three months to um and ah every single outcome I had realised that I was actually tired of the laborious lifestyle and wanted a fresh start. A place with a whole new level of opportunity, individuality, and somewhere that no one knew my name or story. The first step I took was applying to be a commuter student. Whilst I was so eager to make a change, the angel on my shoulder reminded me I had to make myself realistic goals. This also meant I had to accept making friends may be more of a task, due to the fact I would not be living in alcohol-scented, mould-infected student halls like the majority of people on my course would be. But I had never been so confident in a decision in all my life. In fact, I became so caught up in this new level of motivation and inspiration I had forgotten what the course I was studying would entail. I was about to embark on a three year journalism degree, where my time would be occupied with phone-calls, interviews, television and radio work: an anxiety sufferers’ dream! But as the saying goes, life starts at the end of your comfort zone. A saying that instilled in my brain for all of four seconds until I sat down on my very first day. Perched on the edge of a very sweaty seat surrounded by people I would be spending the next three years with, I began to question every single decision I made. I could feel my anxiety on the back of my neck like the roaring air conditioning, and my automatic response was to leave. I turned the key in the ignition and drove as fast out of the car park as I drove in. Didn’t school teach me anything? I was an introverted girl who thrived off routine and comfortability. This was my version of impossible.
If it wasn’t for the support of my family, friends, lecturers and admittedly the looming student debt I had started, perhaps I would have left that day. Perhaps I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. Looking back at the last three years beaming with pride and happiness. I have since visited the doctors in hope to receive help, and I can confirm I no longer have to self-diagnose. I do suffer with anxiety. But instead of it feeling like an overeager best friend, I now see it as a distant cousin. Did things become easier the second I sat through a whole lecture, you ask? Nope. Do I still get days in my third year where I throw up at a phone-call and cry at a radio bulletin? I do, yeah. But now that I have finally completed my degree, I am able to complete the majority of my work without the persistent stomach pains and forehead sweats. Whilst there still needs to be an increase in awareness, funding and education, I believe the stigma towards mental health is detaching. I persevere because I have finally realised that I am as entitled to living a happy and healthy life as much as anyone else. If you have read this and realise you are struggling with your mental health and may not be as self-aware or educated as I have become, please believe work is being done to change this. Improving your mental health is an unique journey for each individual, but if we come together we can make the change happen ...
I truly do believe that.