There have been some great posts over at Uncorked Thoughts on Mental Health Awareness Month. Reading Leah’s post about her anxiety made me want to put together something about mine, because it’s important, and because people like me so often feel alone. It takes over and makes everything ten times harder.
If you’re not in a great place yourself right now, read this with caution. There’s a lot of health detail. If you’re just here for the books, feel free to skip this!
For me, it started in my second year of university. I don’t know why, really: some combination of stressors, proverbial straws on camel’s backs, whatever. I was home alone a lot over the summer, in my first flat, shared with a university friend. I was getting along pretty well, reading, gaming, and cleaning the place top to bottom to really make it ours. Joy was out at rehearsals, visiting friends and family, etc. So there I was on my own, reading in the living room, and then — rustle, rustle, rustle. I went to find out what the hell it was, and came face to face with a surprised mouse.
That was the start of months of rodent problems. I don’t think I saw one inside the flat again, but they were in the ceiling, waking me up at night with loud skitterings. One night as I came home from seeing friends, one ran between my feet and down under the front step. That night at three AM, I rang my dad and just had hysterics until he sent my aunt (who lived nearby) to pick me up, calm me down, and put me on a train home come morning.
From then on, it just got worse. I got afraid of insects, too. Every bump and irregularity on my skin was, to me, a bug bite. I picked and tore at them, until my arms were just a complete mess of scabs. Every resulting skin infection was cancer. Every twinge and pain was something awful. (And yet, the awful pain that heralded my gallstones was just anxiety making me think I was ill, I was sure.) When my nan died of cancer, the depression fell on top of me too, and I spent days unable to leave my room, sometimes unable to even get out of bed. Curtains closed, room a mess, sneaking downstairs to stick a meal in the microwave and smuggle it back up to my room.
I went to the GP and was given fluoxetine (Prozac), in a dose that was steadily increased over the next few years. It helped. A little. I asked for counselling. I got none. I saw a university counsellor who told me I’d never get better. I saw a hypnotherapist who identified some of my problems and helped me start to get a handle on the picking. I saw a counsellor who blamed it all on my sexuality. I saw a counsellor who blamed it all on my parents. I wasn’t really getting any better.
I got diagnosed with gallstones, I had them out. Recovery from anaesthetic was awful: I was frightened, wanted my mother and my teddy, couldn’t see because I needed my glasses which they’d sworn to put right back on me before I even woke up, and god, it hurt, but mostly I was just frightened. A month later, my grandfather died of cancer.
The anxiety was just getting worse and worse, as you can imagine. Everything was insects, everything was cancer, everything was frightening. I had no job, I was struggling to finish my MA, I could barely leave the house. I took diagnostic tests and showed my scores to my GP: GAD7 score of 21/21, high scores for OCD, PTSD, depression… I asked to see a counsellor, was denied. My mum (a psychiatrist) suggested I go on pregabalin (Lyrica), normally used for chronic pain and epilepsy. It helped, a bit. My dose was increased again. I finished my MA. Graduated. Didn’t get a job, hid in bed a lot. Asked to be referred beyond primary care to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Was told it wasn’t serious enough, that they would just “bounce the referral back”.
Because of the anxiety and the depression, I had a hard time getting anyone to take me seriously. Eventually I just grit my teeth and pushed, told the doctor I demanded to be referred to someone. I wanted someone who taught CBT: I got the practice counsellor instead. I was disappointed, but maybe the counsellor (since he or she would be within the NHS system) would be able to help me push for better treatment. It took months for my referral to go through, but finally it did.
At this point, I was scared all the time. I thought that if I kept on being this scared, I’d rather not exist. I didn’t want to die, didn’t want to be dead, I just wanted not to be a problem anymore and not to feel that anymore.
My counsellor was great. She asked me what had worked for me before and what didn’t. She looked at my GAD7 scores and finally acknowledged that yes, I had a big problem. She probed into my family, my history of being bullied, and she never pushed beyond the point I was willing, on that day, to let her go. So I trusted her, told her things I’d never talked much about before, let her see the vulnerable parts of me. My teddy went with me to my counselling sessions, and I was not mocked. She figured out the way I learn and take things on board and gave me books to read. Slowly, my scores improved. I went out more, picked less, got a job.
Counselling ended after six weeks, but I kept on improving. I still don’t really understand why: maybe just because I was finally heard and acknowledged. I’ve dropped to half the previous dose of my anti-anxiety medication, and I’m planning to come off it entirely. I might even be able to come off the anti-depressants. I cut my hair short, stopped worrying about insects, stopped worrying about cancer. I started doing the things I’d wanted to do: volunteering, blogging, chatting to people I didn’t know, standing up for myself and others. When I talk to doctors about my medication and my old GAD7 scores, they always ask why I never saw a psychiatrist. I guess it’s lucky I didn’t need to, in the end.
That’s about where I am now. The most important things I ever heard during all of this were you’re not alone and you can get better. I have bad days now, like anyone, and I’m always going to be an anxious person. I have stressors and responsibilities that push my limits hard. But I’m not scared.
My GAD7 score is 3/21, today. “Normal.”