I wanted to introduce a series of posts where others talk about their experiences with mental health and how they have been affected, have overcome them, what tools they use. It’s an opportunity for us to explore a wider world of mental health issues than just those I have experience of, and the same issues from a different viewpoint.
Today we are starting by looking at Anxiety by Anna Vaught.
I just wrote a cheerful book about things that suck. In it, I drew on episodes in my own life, early childhood onwards. It was a carnival of anxiety.
I came from a middle class and well connected family, with both parents paragons of the community and I had a substantially older brother who was, by turns, angel and devil. When he was devil, I thought it must be me. Because the thing was that within this socially lauded family, there was risible dysfunction. Don’t laugh: I am aware that there will always be dysfunction to some extent because we humans are inconsistent and not one thing; we are flawed and wanting. So let’s say this is only a question of degree. If you, as a child, are repeatedly told that you were lucky to have been kept at all – that you are an aberration, dreadful, responsible for terrible things and – more to the point – that this is a view held by your entire family and that everyone out there in the chilly old world can see who or what you are, then I am not sure it is easy to rebound and feel at ease. If, to others, your immediate family is praised and if, say, your mother is referred to as if she were a saint by people she worked with, or people that you would meet, sometimes family, sometimes just passers by coming to receive benediction from the blessed lady, then what do you do? It HAS to be you you you. It cannot be her or them, can it? When your sibling repeatedly tells you, you weren’t wanted and are a burden, the bringer of illness and the harbinger of death, you think that’s about right. And you cannot tell anyone because, on the occasions you tried, you were told, ‘Who would believe YOU? Everyone knows what you are like!’ That is the sort of dysfunction I am thinking of. If they think you’re that appalling, then you must be.
So, as a young kid, I did this.
I packed it down tightly.
I invented an alter ego (partly to have someone else to confess to and partly to provide a more palatable version of my horrid child-self to provide in company) and gradually begin elaborate conversations with imaginary friends from books (and their writers) and songs (and their singers), because I had to tell someone otherwise the anxiety and sadness were so bad that I knew I was going to explode.
I kept up the imaginary friends for years; my first was Frida (the brunette one) from Abba. She was cool and complimented me a lot and always told me how pretty I was and that I was really a good kid and that even if I ended up in prison, she would visit me. And I was a reader; a devourer of books. I still am. So I used lines from them as a talisman (which went awry at several points when such lines became incorporated into elaborate and frightening OCD ritual) or as a place to find people to have conversations with, which is how, as I got older, I came to speak to Keats and Yeats and Dickens and Dante and Charlotte Bronte and Albert Camus. Despite these early strategies, however, I needed, in the end, to know others – other ways to cope – because life as an adult was awash with shame for me and could not be corralled just by speaking to Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. My mother had been ill most of my life and died when I was twenty. I thought that I had contributed to her illness and was told that I contributed to her early death; my father (who went no long before her) had been fit and strong all his life and was diagnosed with serious illness, all too late. He refused most treatment, as far as I could ascertain and in his final year, he entered a startling decrepitude, shuffling around the house and refusing to speak to me. His last words were “You have let me down” and when I went to see him toes up and surrounded by the lilies he had loathed in life, my thoughts were confused, jarring, terrifying: I thought I had killed him. I had nightmares about it for years, lilies and all. Also, a childhood friend that I had used to play with when we were in reception class died around the same time as my father and my mind was in such a maelstrom by this point that I thought I might be implicated – things I had done aged five, when rough and tumbling. It didn’t matter how little logical sense this made, to me I was scared that this bad little girl had hurt a good little girl and fourteen years later had caused her death. I think I lived on my nerves constantly by this point. I was leaving university; both parents had now died; I felt ill, scared and confused, but thought that I had deserved it all and out I went into the adult world and made a fist of it. In the adult world, I had to keep up the cheery voices because inside my head was the cackling voice of my late parents and their assumed entourage.
‘Look at you. You should never have been born!’
What gave? I established a teaching career, did some pretty adventurous travelling and some satisfying volunteer work, but it would all come crashing down periodically and the self-harming of childhood took up: what gave? I did. Twice in my teens I had tried to take my own life; periodically in my twenties and early thirties things would come crashing down and I was given various courses of anti-depressant as my anxiety was linked to low mood and some more serious periods of depression. I had disabling and regular panic attacks, frequent insomnia and horrible nightmares, where I would wake up shaking and crying. The same recurrent dreams and their pointing, screeching, accusatory phantoms. I was offered CBT and it didn’t touch the sides, for me; then, when I was ill after my first baby I was sent for psychotherapy, which achieved very little and when I had my third child, my whole world came crashing down and I was temporarily unable to function at all. I remember sitting, paralysed, in the front room I was frightened of everything and thought that I had broken irretrievably. But this is where things shifted. Now, for the first time, I began to let people in. I told more people of how I was feeling. Friends rallied and advocated for me and, dear reader, after thirty odd years I got the help I needed partly because of them. CAT – cognitive analytic therapy – delivered by a hugely skilled psychologist and long-term support. It was life-changing to be with this clever, kind lady. We unpicked patterns of thought and found new pathways; I did homework and wrote letters; she wrote to me. Very gradually, I got rid of the nagging voices in my head and became more sure and more dependent on my own voice and my own judgement, because it was as if I were a sort of composite person, arranged of other people’s motley opinions and condemnations. I gradually looked at the whole picture; at how I couldn’t have caused the things that I did: it was as if someone had finally given me permission to let go. I began to look at my world more clearly and understand that there were some people (especially dead ones!) I could say goodbye to and that I could disentangle myself from past situations by freeing myself from blame for terrible things that had happened to others. I think that I had been incapacitated by shame and fear for so long and these things were at the heart of the anxiety I felt: I was perpetually at the point of annihilation, if that makes sense. I had always wanted to explore faith properly. I would try to pray. But I thought I was beyond redemption. Appropriate support meant I could begin to do this. I do believe and minds in terms of their attitudes to faith (or not) and to end of life and what comes next. We all think about it. But that is a story for another day (although the Dorothy Rowe book I mention below tackles this).
I wasn’t totally fixed at the end of this year of CAT but now, these days, I am very different. To celebrate this and, I suppose, acknowledge the bedding down of new ideas, I based my novel, Killing Hapless Ally, on my experiences. It got picked up by a publisher and, while, it’s billed as literary fiction, I hope that there is much in it to guide and give hope to those suffering from severe anxiety, or other mental health problems. If you read the book, I should love to know what you think. But in the meantime, for what it’s worth, here are my coping strategies. I’d say for anxiety, but we need to remember that anxiety, in mental health terms or in terms of mental illness, may be a complex thing and bound up with a myriad mental health disorders – so it is not a case of one size fits all here. So much rubbish is peddled about mental health; there is so much sloppy vocabulary around it. Please accept what follows only as a list of what helped me and of what I have to remind myself pretty frequently. So…
- Accept that just because you feel something does not mean it is real. Sounds simple, but having that expressed to me, in therapy (or by my favourite psychologist writer, Dorothy Rowe, in Depression. The Way out of your prison) was revelatory and revolutionary. Unpick a situation. Tweak it. Look at in a different way. When I tell you that at one point I fell from my chair with relief and that at another I thought I could see colours as brighter and truer…well, I know that sounds excessive or hallucinatory, but to me it was as if I had entered a new world. One in which I could be at ease and which I didn’t experience only through a glass darkly.
- Be kind to yourself. No-one has ever treated me as unkindly as I have treated myself and I would never judge anyone as harshly as I do myself. Nope. That doesn’t work, so practise getting rid of it.
- Be aware of your triggers, but laugh at them, reason with them and don’t run away. Face them down because, in my experience, anxiety amplifies if you don’t look it in the face. Know that you CAN do this.
- Bad day? Overwhelmed by conflict and to do lists and things you’ve screwed up? I think ‘tomorrow is another day’ sounds trite and twee, so I say ‘Keep it in the day’ otherwise you shift today’s concerns and start tomorrow burdened.
- Think, the past is a different country and that tomorrow is up ahead, where you cannot be or live. Focus, therefore, on the present, the hour, the minute, In other words, mindfulness.
- Frankly, don’t give up on finding the appropriate MHRA help for you. If your GP is not understanding, ask to see a different GP. If questioning your treatment feels too daunting to you, ask someone to come with you, if you can.
- Decent food; fresh air; self care. Reading to refresh and renew and help you see and entertain new ways of doing things; of building or re-building your mind. I do not say this lightly. I would not have survived without my books. And relax. If the pace of modern life and tirade of information and stimulation through social media make you feel overloaded, then give yourself permission to take a break. Pressing the ‘off ‘ button does not make you a total Luddite or a social outcast. (But see below*)
- Friendship or familial relationships. Keep at it. BUT I have had to learn to be ruthless, though. If someone puts you down constantly or if they are workaday cruel to you, ditch them. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh. And maybe remember something I have learned: family is a flexible construct – both internally in terms of roles and externally in that friendships may provide you with a warmth or love you never had in your family. Also *know that there is a great deal of support out there on social media; I find twitter a source of such – for example, through @mhchat every Wednesday night
- Focus on others. Look at what they need. I have found that if I am taken out of myself because I am absorbed by the needs of others, then I can help them and, as a side effect, it is healthful for me, too.
- Accept yourself. Compare and despair. No-one else can be you; don’t try to be someone else. Also, accept difficulty as normal. Failure is part of life. In a way, when we continually ramp up expectations, we raise the stakes and find ourselves feeling anxious and got at. I am not saying that I don’t look forward to things. Just that, for me, I find I am regularly delighted because I have let go of such weighty expectations.
I cannot promise you this is easy and I am realistic that MH treatment varies around the country; to say ‘help is out there’ is trite and all too glib. But, as I have learned, all the answers, for me, really lay, after all, within myself. These days I experience anxiety, but it is not the terrifying, all-encompassing thing it was for a long time. I teach; I write; I do volunteer work; I am raising three young sons and I have had over thirty years of depressive episodes, self harming, OCD, Generalised anxiety disorder and two suicide attempts.
But things are different now. I am well and I am happy and so I am sending you love and encouragement as I type this and I am crying a little bit now because I have just realised that I have never written the words ‘I am happy’ before.
For help with anxiety or other problems: Mind, Saneline and The Samaritans have all helped me. For young people Healthy Minds is a great resource and @respectyourself is of great encouragement on twitter. Also there is, @MHChat is for everyone, every Wednesday night; it is used by a diverse group of people. My favourite book about mental health: Depression. The Way Out Of Your Prison by Dorothy Rowe (Routledge, 2003).
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