When a person breaks their leg, everyone starts falling over themselves to ask questions. How can I help? How long will you be out of action? Do you have a cast? Crutches? Wheelchair? I can still remember being back at school when the lucky kids who broke a bone would get to skip the entire lunch queue. When you break a bone, no one makes assumptions. They know there are varying degrees of seriousness, and not to assume your capabilities.
I have never broken a bone but I do I have a sort of broken brain. The chemicals in my brain aren't doing the right things (or something like that). I have a kind of chronic anxiety. No one ever asks questions about my anxiety, no one asks how serious it is. Telling someone about your mental health leads to nothing but assumptions. First I say I have anxiety and they respond with a lacklustre "oh I'm sorry to hear it" - then I go on to say that I have panic attacks and struggled to leave the house for years and suddenly they're shocked, as if my initial introduction was a lie.
When I introduce my anxiety to someone new, it always seems that they assume it's not that bad. Mental illnesses have become so trivialized that no one expects it to be serious. Let me tell you, I'm not just "an anxious person". I have panic attacks frequently. I'm not sure what it feels like to not be anxious anymore. At any given time, I am anxious.
I think part of the problem is that for those who have never experienced it, anxiety just means a little nervousness. A little jittery before an important event, a little overwhelmed in large crowds.
Picture yourself being chased upstairs. There's something deeply terrifying about being chased on stairs and I think we can all relate to that. You're being chased by the kind of danger you only see in horror movies. You reach the end of the staircase and meet a doorway to the roof. Once you pass through that door, you're trapped. This is it. The danger is behind you and your only way out is backwards, or downwards. The intensity with which your heart would be racing, the utter terror that you have no way out, all those soul-crushing feelings, that is how I feel when I say I'm "anxious".
A panic attack is something entirely different for me. I'm one of the lucky ones who get to experience not one but two types of crippling anxiety. The generalised day to day dread of being chased up the stairs, and the occasional but far too frequent panic attacks. What I've learnt from meeting others with similar conditions is that everyone experiences panic attacks differently, so what I can share is only my own version - but is still something I don't usually talk about. When my anxiety turns into a full-blown panic attack is fairly random, sometimes it will happen when I truly don't expect it. Usually, it's when my brain has perceived such an intense threat that even my strongest anxiety isn't enough to address it.
I begin to feel very hot, in a way that feels nothing like when you're outside on a hot day. My skin is cold but my insides are boiling, I start to sweat so much from places I didn't know could sweat from that I could be mistaken for having taken a fully clothed shower. My senses then all disappear. I cannot see when I am having a panic attack. My vision becomes so blurred and my brain stops sending visual messages so I am no longer taking in anything around me. I have to close my eyes to forget that this is happening. I cannot hear. Noises become muffled as if someone has cupped my ears. I shake uncontrollably. Not shivering, not quaking, I am literally vibrating as if I am intentionally trying to throw my own organs around inside me. I cannot stop it. This torture usually lasts no more than 5 minutes, but each one feels like hours and the beginning of the end for me. When it's over I am usually a ghostly white colour with a nice green tinge, and more tired than I can explain. It is as if my body has run a marathon all while I've been trying to stay still. When the whole experience is done with I have to address how this attack has set me back. It can take months to fully rebuild the confidence lost in this betrayal by my own body.
I understand that mental health can be a bit mysterious, and everyone gets a little nervous about the topic, but I really wish we could find a pleasant middle ground. I want people to be comfortable asking questions because I'm always happy to share my story. That said, I'm not always as honest as I think I am. I'll talk about my anxiety to anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into a conversation with me, but I suppose I never really cover the full extent of my injuries. I tell them I left college at 17 because I was having panic attacks, I say I've spent the last few years putting myself back together. I then begin to retract my statement as I witness the discomfort flood across their faces. I tell them I'm doing well now and I'm on my way to finding a job or some sort of further education so they don't feel like they have to be supportive. This is only mostly true.
I should not have to dilute myself just to keep others comfortable.
These days I usually make it out of the house multiple times a day, when a few years back I barely left more than once a week. I can see how that would give the impression that things are all okay, but it would only take a second of genuine conversation to learn that not everything is as it seems. I think it's about time to make a confessional, for me and for every other anxious soul who is trying their best to wear a mask. We shouldn't have to cover the truth just to blend in.
I wake up every single morning feeling anxious. I go through phases, sometimes it's not all bad, but more often than not I have to take a few hours to myself to adjust to the day. Breakfast is hard because I can't help but feel sick in the mornings. Feeling sick is my go-to anxiety symptom, I'm not sure I know what it is to feel healthy anymore. Between the headaches, the dizzy spells, the nausea, and the muscle pain, there's not a lot of time for feeling healthy.
In the last year, I've started taking myself for walks, I love being out and independent, but the furthest I have ever walked from my home is 2 and a half kilometres, about 15 minutes away. In fact, that is the furthest I have ever been from home by myself. In a car with family, I can just about make it on a 20-minute drive, but that totally depends on the destination. I can't learn to drive myself because the thought of being trapped in a car with a stranger makes my skin crawl.
Being "trapped" is the crux of it when it comes to my anxiety. I have a special talent for feeling trapped anywhere anytime. I can't stay in one place for more than 5-10 minutes without beginning to panic, because the longer I stay there the more chance my anxiety has to creep in. I have anxiety about my anxiety - to cut a very long story short. For example, I've gotten pretty familiar with supermarkets now (albeit with a parent in tow) but if, for any reason, I have to wait in one spot for more than a few minutes my heart begins to thump.
I have yet to venture out socially. Every social interaction I have only takes place in my own home, because at least here I can control my safety (or my thinking of it). I get overwhelmed quickly and need to go into things believing not much will be required of me, so my social events tend to be short-lived, and exist only during the daytime. Night's are a place of safety for me. I feel my most peaceful in the evening and not getting enough sleep causes me to panic, so I'm better off alone.
There are a very limited number of places in the world I can go by myself and not feel terrified and that includes our local corner shop and the building my therapist works from. It's hard for me to explain it, but I'd rather be alone than with a friend. My parents are safe for me and I can achieve plenty with them alongside. They understand the ins and outs of how I feel and they know how to act around my varying degrees of anxiety. While I have many people in my life who try to understand and I love them with all my heart, there is still no one in my life who meets the same level as my family does - so if I'm out, I'm with my parents.
When I have nightmares they involve being forced to go to a shopping mall or staying awake later than midnight. Everything I fear are things most people take for granted.
I have a very long, rather embarrassing list of "cannots", longer than I could remember accurately. I'm not proud of it, but I'm also not ashamed, or at least I'm trying not to be. It's hard to watch the world spin without me and notice that I'm falling behind my peers but I also know that this time last year, my list would have been even longer. I should be allowed to talk about my true life without feeling like I'm doing something wrong, and without ruining the new relationship I'm forming. I should be able to speak with pride about how far I've come and be met with support, not awkward silences.
If there's one thing I wanted to change in this new year it would be to allow myself to be more open. I'm fortunate enough to have more confidence to be more honest than some, and I vow to use that for good. No more hiding the truth and telling little white lies just to save face. My mental illness is complex and at times embarrassing, but I deserve the same respect and relationships that any person is owed because the connections I make should be based on who I am as a person, not my mental well being.
If the truth causes me to lose out on social connections and opportunities then that's on the person who's chosen to lead a sheltered life, not on me. I am not to blame for someone else's discomfort. I do nothing wrong by trying to be honest. I want to be appreciated for my person, not how far I travel.