It’s hard to comprehend, when it doesn’t happen to you. War, famine, disease – all of these things we know are awful, but we keep at arms length – saddened from afar.
For me, that’s where my journey with mental health began. At arms length. Something I knew was horrible, but hadn’t touched my life. Then, that changed, and I began a journey I’m still working out how to navigate.
So how to begin.
Hello, my name is Charlotte, I’m 30 years old, and I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and recurrent major depression in 2015. Two conditions that often come hand in hand, but rarely live harmoniously alongside one another.
Have you ever been asleep, and jerked violently awake by that feeling of falling in the dark? Adrenaline spiking, hands sweating, heart beating at 1000 bpm? Even when you realise you’re safely tucked up, that feeling lingers somewhere in the periphery.
In my experience, Generalised Anxiety Disorder feels like perpetually living in that moment you wake up – the moment before your logical brain kicks in and you’re running on fight or flight. Sometimes, there’s a specific moment or event that triggers the unhealthy thought processes, other times, you’re just on the threshold and you don’t know why it’s happening, but it is.
Then, there’s the mornings you feel like your head has just hit the pillow and your alarm has gone off; you’re sluggish, slow, struggling – it takes a few pushes of the snooze button before you’re willing to throw off the duvet.
For me, that’s depression. Like someone has come along and pressed the snooze button on your life. Even the most exciting prospects ahead don’t make you leap out of bed, and when, dutybound, you try to slither into the day, you find that the same person who pressed snooze has come and weighed you down, and everything feels like you’re wading through treacle, until, exhausted and defeated, you give in to the feeling, and return to the snooze.
Twins may be twins, but they’re still siblings, with all the ‘he said, she said’, the hair pulling and the bickering that comes with the territory. Two feelings that aren’t compatible with one another – and me, in the middle, refereeing a war where I want neither side to win.
Why am I talking in metaphors of sleep? Because sleep and mental health rely on one another, and after many years of learning, I know that lack of sleep is one of my biggest triggers. If I don’t sleep well, my conditions flare up, so I don’t sleep well, so they get worse, and so on ad infinitum. That’s usually when the panic attacks come.
Hyperventilating into a paper bag – we’ve all seen it on TV. Panic disorder is so much more than that. Mine are often more silent, or masquerade as something else.
Sometimes I struggle to breathe and have that ‘paper bag’ moment.
Sometimes, people think I’m being rude when I fall silent, or diassociate, or hyperfocus on something mundane, like a doodle, or mindless scrolling on my phone.
Sometimes, people think I’m angry, when my voice gets louder and my fear takes over and my brain just can’t process what is happening.
Even on a good day, when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and I leap out of bed, there’s always a little bit of dread. Will I still feel this content by the days end?
Although I wasn’t diagnosed with anything until 2015, now that I understand my brain a bit better, I can look back and identify times in my youth when I believe I was struggling. Those weeks on end in year 8 when I didn’t sleep. Those months at university when I couldn’t step out the door to go to class. Those times I broke down in tears at work because it all became too much.
Nowadays, I know my red flags. I can usually intercept and work out what I need to do. Spend some time in the sun, utilise my CBT coping mechanisms, play with my dog, call my GP, watch a funny film, ask for help, practice mindfulness, sleep. Sometimes it’s a simple fix. Others it takes more work. But I am learning to navigate it. Slowly, but surely, I am becoming master of my own brain.
Why am I sharing this? Good question. There’s often a reluctance to talk about these things – the fear that people will treat you differently, the fear of feeling unprofessional, the fear that nobody really cares what you have to say – it all feeds into the feeling of not being good enough, that mantra that anxiety and depression chant in your ear every day.
But I hope that if there is someone out there who is worried about someone else, that it gives you the confidence to reach out. Sometimes, people want to talk, but the thought of reaching out when all you want to do is hide away is too much to deal with. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to know, please do ask – I am happy to share my lived experience.
And I hope that if there is someone out there who is struggling in silence that it helps to know you’re not alone. I take medication. I’ve had CBT. I’m an outspoken champion for mental health provision. It’s all helped, in some way. But I do still struggle. And if you do too, you’re not on your own.