Last year, I wrote this piece about what living with generalised anxiety disorder felt/feels like, after I was diagnosed with it in the summer of 2018 – but in the end I was, hilariously, too anxious to actually publish it. *facepalm*
It’s been living in my saved drafts, taunting me, ever since.
I’m still anxious about publishing it, but I’ve reached a point where I’m as at peace with that discomfort as I’m ever going to get – and, seeing as this week marks two years since I ended up in floods of tears opposite my GP trying to explain the amount of chaos and confusion and fear my brain was drowning in, it feels like a good time to finally share it. It took an embarrassingly long time to write (and it’s probably going to take a long time to read as well, sorry). I kept having to take breaks away from it because the line between catharsis and relapse turns out to be quite a thin one. I’ve left it how I wrote it last year, so the timeline is all wrong and there’s one word near the end that made me cringe when I reread it (you’ll see why when you get there). Also, as of March this year, I’m back on the SSRIs and back in therapy (yaaaay) to try and address the body stuff I’m still struggling with, so my “therapy free life” comment at the start definitely no longer stands. Aaaaand lastly, I know some parts of this post might sound self-pitying or pity-seeking but that’s really not what I wanted to get out of writing it – I just want to share some of the experiences I’ve had. The more I read, the more I listen, the more people I meet, and the older I get, the more I realise that we’re all struggling with something, we’re all just winging it, and we’re all just trying our best with what we’ve got – and that growing sense of perspective has been invaluable. My only hope for this post is that by sharing these things I can help anyone who’s been through or going through similar experiences to feel a little bit less alone.
What Life With Generalised Anxiety Disorder Feels Like
Back in February, after five months of CBT, I was officially released back into the wilds of therapy free life.
I was treated for generalised anxiety disorder, which – at the time – felt like a rubbishly undramatic and pathetic name for what was happening inside my brain. But, to give the name its due, it means exactly what it says.
everything + anxiety = disordered thinking, disordered behaviours, and a disordered life.
This is what it feels like…
Your brain is wired all. the. time. but it’s not wired for useful things or happy things or things that will improve you and your loved one’s lives – it’s flaring like a nuclear reactor siren for all the things that could go wrong, all the things that have gone wrong, all your failings (recent and ancient), and all the world’s failings (recent and ancient). And that anxious inner monologue is like a dog that just won’t stop barking – painful and mind-numbing to listen to, incredibly annoying, and unbelievably distracting.
You can’t sleep because, although your body is dead to the world, your brain is busy convincing you that you might never wake up; that maybe the hob is still on; that maybe all the doors and windows are unlocked; that maybe you forgot to put your car’s handbrake on (not weird worries); that maybe you said something unforgivably nasty to someone during the day and just can’t remember saying it; that maybe you ran over a cyclist whilst driving home and just didn’t notice (getting weirder worries); that maybe your foot is itchy because you scratched it on a syringe and just didn’t realise and now you have HIV or hepatitis or both; that maybe you’re the ugliest human that has ever lived and should stop leaving the house in case you make people unwell with your disgusting face; that maybe you put bleach in your cup of tea earlier and just can’t remember doing it; that maybe you randomly wrote the c-word in the middle of an e-mail, maybe wrote a whole paragraph’s worth of them, and just didn’t realise (definitely weird worries); that maybe there’s a sinkhole under your house and you’re about to die; that maybe there’s a plane tumbling to earth above your house and you’re about to die; that maybe another world war will break out and you and all your family will die; that maybe you’ll start sleepwalking and accidentally kill your family (triggered by this story in the news – fully fledged weird worries); that maybe someone in your family will start sleepwalking and kill you; that maybe you’re not real and the world isn’t real and that there’s no point to anything.
You struggle to make decisions – big and small – because you’re sure whatever you decide will end in disaster – big and small and all shades of disaster grey. You can’t concentrate and sometimes struggle to even talk because your brain is too busy processing absurd scenarios that it thinks it might need to deal with to focus on the actual task in front of it or to focus on the sentence it was half-way through saying. You stop trying new things and stop practising old things because you’re afraid of failing and afraid of ruining things that you love with your rubbishness. You refuse to put your heart on the line – refuse to put it anywhere near the line, eventually stop noticing/believing other people might be close to the line – because you’re embarrassed by your mental messiness and convinced of your physical ugliness, and you’re sure if anyone gets too close they’ll just hate you like you hate yourself.
Your memory is shot to pieces. You nod along blindly as people reminisce about events you were physically there for but mentally absent from – absent from because you were too busy trying to locate all the emergency exits; too busy wondering if there were glass shards in your drink or in your dinner; too busy imagining all the fat in your body tearing through your clothes; too busy trying to figure out how hideously disgusting you looked from 360 different angles; too busy assessing people’s faces for signs that they were repulsed or sickened by your physical appearance; too busy scrutinising an awkward moment from three minutes/days/months/years before; too busy picturing your house burning down; too busy working out if the ache in your head was actually a headache or if it was a brain haemorrhage in headache disguise; too busy praying that the sirens in the distance weren’t the police coming to arrest you for a crime you couldn’t remember committing; too busy contemplating the likelihood of gunmen appearing, which direction they would most likely appear from, and the chances of everyone’s survival.
You become vulnerable to bad people doing bad things to you because you stop trusting yourself and stop knowing which instincts you should believe in, because you blame yourself for those bad things when* they do happen, because you feel so worthless you assume no-one could be bothered to do anything bad to you anyway, because your default reaction is to shut down and convince yourself that the bad thing can’t have been real, that maybe it was just an anxious thought slipping into your perception of real life and that what you really need to do is just get a fucking grip (THIS issue is the biggest fucking kicker, I swear).
*and, unfortunately, it’s most likely when and not if – bad people know who to pick on.
You startle constantly at the smallest things: a customer walking through the door, a friend’s hand on your shoulder, a cute little butterfly fluttering passed on its cute little way to do cute little butterfly things. You cry and you cry and you cry because you’re exhausted and don’t understand what’s happening to your brain, because you’re frustrated that you can’t just pull yourself together, and because you feel unbelievably pathetic. You hurt yourself because it puts some of the pain in your mind onto your flesh, and flesh can’t think and chitter-chatter and babble away like a mind can; and because you’ve reached a point where you really don’t care about mistreating your body anymore – burning, bleeding, and bruising feels like all it’s good for.
You’re so, so ashamed because you don’t know how one person can be filled with so much negativity and badness and horribleness, and you feel guilty because you don’t know how you’ve wasted so much life – life that could have gone to someone else, to someone who would have done something useful with it.
Round and round in circles you go – minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Weeks, months, and years pass. The circles get smaller, but they, somehow, encompass more worries. They, somehow, spin faster. Your centre of balance tries to shift, tries to keep up, but the dizziness balloons and grows and morphs until you’re bursting at all the threadbare seams that are, somehow, still keeping you together; until you’re pitching left, right, forwards, and backwards on an ever shrinking life tightrope; until you’re actually not sure if just giving up and falling off that life tightrope is really such a bad idea anymore.
You realise you maybe, possibly, perhaps (desperately, desperately, desperately) need some help.
You wait months before actually phoning the doctors because you’ve invented a scenario in your head where the receptionist will tell you to stop wasting their time and strike you off the surgery’s list and then that’ll be the sign from the universe that you definitely have to die. They don’t strike you off the list when you eventually ring (funny that), but you do have to wait a month for an appointment. Then you finally, fina-fucking-ly, get to the appointment – the day before your 26th birthday – and break down the second you walk through your GP’s door. You cry, and blubber, and soak the whole lower half of your face in snot and tears (classy).
You’re lucky – so, so lucky – and have a doctor who listens through your incoherent sobbing; who politely ignores all the stuff dripping from your eyes and nose, and quietly hands you a box of tissues; who takes you and your misfiring brain seriously; and who – most importantly – comes up with a plan that gives you hope that things can change, a plan that doesn’t involve you dying.
Replace all those ‘you’s with ‘i’s and – tadah – there’s messy old me.
*also makes preparations to go and live in a cave to avoid facing family/friends/colleagues who didn’t already know this story*
There’s no start date for me plus GAD, no stressful epiphany, no big trauma, no pantomime villain. My therapist and I raked through a lot of things, and the words “perfect storm” are the only ones that fit – no matter how clichéd they are.
I love, love, love a cliché.
Lots of little things led me down the anxiety-brick road. I had all the life ingredients and all the personal traits to go right ahead and make myself a big old anxiety disorder cake. And I baked that cake to perfection.
What can I say? I’m a good baker. *flicks hair over shoulder sassily*
Generalised anxiety disorder is addictively habitual. It’s superstitious – ‘if I worry about it every second for twenty four hours then maybe the bad thing won’t happen because I’ll be ready? But maybe I’m making the badness gravitate towards me by thinking about it? Fuck, which one is it supposed to be?’ – and it’s so, so delusional. Painfully delusional. It’s a hall-of-mirrors lense that tricks you into thinking you’ll see the world more clearly – in beautiful, crisp focus – if only you just take a look through it. But once you’ve leaned in to see what’s behind the glass, once you’ve leaned in to take that sneaky peek, it shows you a kaleidoscope of horribleness instead – and you don’t know how to tear your eyes from it, don’t know how to unscramble the picture that’s being painted before you.
Being painted by you.
That lense is all you think you have. It’s all you think you can rely on.
With each day, week, and year that passed GAD became inseparable from my whole sense of the world. I decorated everything I loved, all the things I dreamed of, all the hopes I had for my life with its awfulness – some Armageddon tinsel here, a few epidemic* baubles there, plus a sprinkling of sudden death glitter on top.
*okay, so let’s not talk about this prophetic word choice. 2020 is turning out to be some epic exposure therapy. *laughs awkwardly, breaks down in tears*
Every day, my brain still tries to get out that sudden death glitter and make the world sheeny-shiny with horribleness. Every day, I have to remember to put the GAD goggles down and back away from the black hole of worry lurking in my heart.
I think I’m getting better at it.
Obviously, I worry that I’m not. It’s a hard habit to kick.
But mostly I’m finding it easier to dismiss the anxieties that before would have hijacked – hook, line, and sinker – my mind for hours and days and weeks. Mostly I’m able to get on with doing the things I need and want to do. Mostly.
And for now, mostly feels like winning.
For always, mostly is winning.
Some links, tips, and resources that might come in handy:
- I was helped by Steps 2 Wellbeing (a NHS service based in Dorset and Southampton, UK).
- The Samaritans – you don’t have to be feeling suicidal to call them (maybe this is stupid of me, but I didn’t know that before I went to my GP), they’re there to help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year if you’re feeling bad and need to talk to someone.
- Mind have lots of useful information on their website.
- And so does the NHS.
- Made of Millions have loads of great information, advice, and resources on their site too.
- There are useful links for support on the Heads Together website. Heads Together is a charity founded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to tackle the stigma associated with mental health issues.
- Arm yourself with knowledge. Whether it’s through books, tv documentaries, podcasts, or radio programmes – learn more. It’s comforting to know you’re not alone and gives a sense of perspective that is invaluable. I find authors like Bryony Gordon, Rose Cartwright, and Matt Haig helpful. You might not have the same symptoms or diagnoses as them or me but it’s remarkable how similar the patterns of mental illnesses are, and there’s no harm in learning more about other people’s experiences.
- If you work for a larger company, they’re likely to have a helpline for their employees to ring (that should probably be anonymous, but double check if you’re unsure). Ditto unions.
- And please, please, please contact your GP – don’t let make believe scary receptionists put you off.
If anyone has other charities/organisations/books/tips they can suggest, please do!