In September 2019, I sat in a doctor’s surgery and sobbed. I was going on holiday in a month’s time and far from being excited, I was terrified. I was barely sleeping, and every waking moment since booking the holiday had been consumed with an abject terror of boarding that plane. My anxiety about flying had grown throughout my life, alongside my anxiety over my health, anxiety over the thought of losing a loved one, anxiety over failure, and anxiety over……pretty much everything it felt like.
This holiday and the resulting panic over the flight sent me into an anxiety spiral. This spiral was not unlike many I had succumbed to before, with any number of triggers. What marks this time as different is that it was the one which got me to the doctors, where my initial request for something to ease the flight anxiety, ended up with me offloading, through tears, a lifetime of being consumed by thoughts and fears I could no longer control. This spiral led to me finally hearing the words I had long since needed to hear – “maybe it’s time to get some help”.
Looking back now I wonder why it took me so long to get the help I knew I needed for most of my life. I had ignored every symptom, spiral, panic attack, and compulsion. I buried my head in the sand for the better part of two decades while my mind told me over and over again that it was not ok.
I’m not sure if I feared knowing I had a mental health disorder, what others might think if I did, or if I was more scared that someone would tell me that there was nothing wrong at all, that I was just being weak, or attention seeking. I think perhaps I felt like not knowing made the undeniable issues I was facing, somehow, deniable.
That day in late 2019 changed my life. It wasn’t instantaneous, I still had a long way to go but finally getting the validation that this wasn’t all in my head…well, it was, but that that didn’t mean it wasn’t real…was the first step towards living a life where I could live with my anxiety, not in its control.
Getting formally diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was the easy bit. Having the initial call with Talking Space finally gave me a name for what I had been experiencing and to start with I felt such a relief in knowing that I wasn’t alone, I felt validated and strengthened. What I hadn’t anticipated was the sadness that getting that diagnosis would bring. I felt sad for the little girl who always worried while her friends seemed so carefree, for the teenager sat outside parties hyperventilating from another panic attack she couldn’t understand the cause of, and for the young adult at university who, stomach churning, burned up with a fear she couldn’t name and fixated on thoughts she could not rid herself of. I was sad for the woman I had become who had decided that the fear I couldn’t name was a foreshadowing of something bad to come, something I had to control, by checking, by repeating words of self-reassurance, by avoiding and by making myself and my life smaller.
Anyone who has ever had any kind of therapy will tell you, it is exhausting. Delving into your mind and raking through all the thoughts and fears you have tried so hard to suppress, fight, and avoid is hard.
The kind of therapy I had is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is a talking therapy which identifies and challenges negative thought patterns and behaviour. Between sessions, there are often, activities and tasks to work through in your own time. Some activities were immediately helpful, such as calculating the probability of scenarios I had fixated on, seeing straight away that what I had catastrophised as a near certainty had an infinitesimally small chance of actually happening. Some tasks were much harder.
Two core beliefs at the heart of my OCD are an overestimation of responsibility and a fear of uncertainty. This led me to form an obsession with something bad happening to my partner and a belief that I could control it by ensuring I said certain things, in a certain order, a certain number of times before he left for work. Part of my therapy was to break this habit, first by altering the repetition, then the wording and finally, going without saying anything at all…and, importantly, not reaching for my phone to quickly check if he had gotten to work safely. Sitting with that uncertainty, acknowledging it, and allowing myself to feel it without reaching for what are termed ‘maladaptive coping strategies’ was terrible to start with, and for a while, it stayed that way, until one day it wasn’t.
I still face the original anxiety and have moments when I want to reach for those words, but when I don’t, and when my partner arrives home safely anyway, it strengthens my knowledge that the universe isn’t keeping track, so neither should I.
I had my first set of CBT sessions in April 2020. With Covid-19 and lockdown a new and very real threat to my mental health, the timing of this therapy was something I am eternally grateful for.
For many, lockdown was when people’s mental health started to decline, but for me, it was finally beginning to strengthen. Time at home meant the world was slowing and quietening around me, providing the much-needed space to reflect, do the work, and reset.
I still find myself on the precipice of an anxiety spiral, still wanting to revert to the safety of old compulsions, perhaps that never goes away. But now I have the knowledge that the feeling of safety isn’t real, it only brings me closer to the edge. I now have the strength to sit with the anxiety and let it pass. I have the tools to bring me away from the edge and when I feel the anxiety start to take hold I look for:
Five things I can see,
Four things I can touch,
Three things I can hear,
Two things I can smell,
One thing I can taste.
Then I breathe and know that I am here, and I am ok.
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