I have been asked so many times about my breakdown. What happened, how did you get to that place, when did you know? So many different questions, but all have the same response. I don’t know. Everyone manages their ‘stuff’ differently. What I didn’t realise was that my anxiety was hiding deep within my stress levels. And there was nothing I could do.
We all have been stressed, and we all know what stress feels like. It affects us all in very different ways. But stress is a very overused word and sometimes gets used when actually it is really anxiety or depression. The last ten months of my life has been about regaining control of my stress and recognising the stress that created the anxiety. I have decided to share my story to hopefully help show that we are not on our own. And that there are so many people who suffer from Anxiety. This post is about finding the hidden anxiety, the anxiety that lurks behind the stress.
I love my job. I am in a very privileged position that I am working in my dream job. Literally! I get to do what I am good at every day, for an organisation I believe in, for a cause that I am deeply passionate about. Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? The funny thing is having your dream job can cause a double life, an internal battle with yourself. You love what you are doing and you are so motivated and driven it can lead you to over give. It happens in so many careers where you give your absolute all to your job whether you love it or it just pays the bills, but then it hits you… burnout.
Let me introduce you to your lizard. Mine is called Larry (Yes I named it and yes it is a HE!), he lives in the back of my mind, as does yours. Now Larry and his Lizard mates are funny little creatures. They are your survival lizards, watching over you, looking out for you and guiding you to survive. There is a very intelligent scientific term for this which my psychologist has told me many times however I prefer her metaphor of the tough nut of a reptile thinking his job is all about getting me to survive the world. Larry isn’t scared, Larry isn’t fearful. He is in control. He is the part of my brain that tells me that I must eat to live, that when I’m tired I must sleep, when I am in danger he triggers my adrenalin to make sure I get the hell out of there! The problem is Larry can become a little sociopathic.
Nearly 12 months ago now, Larry got the better of me, and I had a mental breakdown. I was on my way back to London from Bristol where I had been for an all-day meeting. It has been another hectic day, and I was so tired. Larry kept telling me I needed to get home, I kept driving. I kept driving so much I ran a red light. My body jolted, SH*T, what have I just done?? Something came over me that I can only describe as a volcano erupting. A fear rushed over me and I started shaking, I felt sick, and started to struggle to breathe. The logical thing to do was to pull over and recover, but Larry was in charge at this point. He just wanted us to get home and pronto. I continued driving it, my hands were wrapped round the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles were white.
I can’t quite explain how I got home, I guess Larry was paying attention to Google Maps as I certainly didn’t feel I was. I clambered out the car, at this point the tears came. I was so desperate to get home, and although I had parked just opposite my house, it seemed a million miles away. The steps I took from the car to my front door were the hardest, it was dark so scrambling for my keys while in my state was pure agony. Wiping away the constant tears, and trying to calm the shakes at the same time trying to take a semi-decent breath was excruciating. Larry found my keys.
I stepped in my door with one foot and my legs gave way. Collapsed in my hallway, crying, shaking and curled in a ball. I couldn’t move. I knew something was seriously wrong, and I knew I needed to call my boyfriend, my mum and dad, anyone I could. But there was one big problem, I was paralysed with anxiety. My fingers, hands, arms – none of them would move. The slightest effort seemed like I was lifting a ten tonne truck. I was on the floor and couldn’t move. None of my limbs would work. I was on the hallway floor with the front door wide open for what seemed like an eternity. From this moment on my mind goes hazy, and almost blank. Obviously Larry is protecting me somehow from those memories.
I remember waking up in bed and the covers feeling like a tonne weight, and then BAM! Larry wakes up and starts telling me that my world is over and I need to stay here and never leave. I instantly start crying again. My wonderful friend Gavin was the first to arrive, I vaguely remember attempting to message/call him the night before. He brought me food, and love. Tough but supportive love. I couldn’t eat, I just couldn’t stop crying. He made me eat. Larry didn’t like that. I felt so ill. I sat at my kitchen table and felt a complete sense of depersonalisation. This is when your anxiety is so severe that you almost feel like you are separated from your body and observing everything that is happening rather than living it. I remember feeling completely numb. Nothing worked, I couldn’t focus on anything or listen to anyone.
My amazing friend Phillip arrived, and then my wonderful parents. I knew I had my support, I could see them all around me, tidying the kitchen, talking to me, but I wasn’t listening. Larry was though, he was responding for me. I felt like there was no hope. There was just nothing. I could see things, I could see people, the best kind of people, my best friends and my parents. The people I needed and wanted to be there. But to me at that moment, there was just nothing. To me I was just part of the furniture, an inanimate object that had no sense of being or worth. There was no more Vix and there was only Larry at this point. He was preparing me for the next 10 months.
Where things lead from this day are a bit hazy. I don’t really remember much if I am honest. Larry made sure those memories are well and truly scrubbed. But I remember feeling numb. Very, very numb. I could get out of bed fine, but actually deciding to clean my teeth, or taking a shower was the biggest task of my day. Committing to doing something was like choosing between your family and your friends. I just could not cope. I remember crumbling into a heap on the floor as I attempted to pack the dishwasher. I just couldn’t do it. It was too much, too complicated and at that moment way too overwhelming. A dishwasher!!!! Larry c’mon. But that wasn’t the worst trick he played on me. He conjured up such a force of strength to make me believe that if I stepped out of the house the world was going to end that I suffered from Agoraphobia for a whole two months. I would not leave the house. Luckily my wonderful boyfriend of 2 months at that point basically moved in as said before even the very basic of tasks was way too overwhelming for me. I needed help, and he was there for me every step of the way.
The next 2 months were numb, and if I am honest I don’t remember much. I know I had an overwhelming amount of support from my work, friends and family. I wasn’t on my own and someone was with me every single step of the way… it was Larry. Larry was strong and powerful and would stop me listening to those who were trying to help me and push me. Larry was in front of my eyes and ears, with a big danger sign, the rest of the world was a dangerous place. Look what happened to you in the car, it isn’t safe. Stay in the house, its safe in here.
You would think that having two months of not leaving the house meant TV slobbing and Netflix binging. But that was far from the truth. Even watching TV seemed too much at that point. I seem to remember doing a lot of staring. A lot of crying. And a lot of sleeping. Larry had convinced me I was exhausted, and that the world just was way too much. The more I slept the quicker life would move on. I was still empty, very numb and overwhelmed with the feeling of hopelessness. Nothing was worth it, and the constant pain in my chest and beating heart to the point I felt I was going to throw up stopped when I was tucked up under a blanket or in my bed so why would I want to do anything else?!
I knew I needed help and I knew I wasn’t going to work this out on my own. I had a breakdown when I was 23yrs old and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Manic Depression and Severe Anxiety. (This is for another post and another glass of wine on another day!). And although that one was extremely different to this one, I knew from my experience that the dark hole I was trapped in, needed someone else’s guidance to clamber back out. I emailed my Psychiatrist from 2004, he must know of someone that can help. He did. Again I can’t remember how the appointment was arranged but needless to say that when the day came for me to go to the clinic, my fear was at breaking point again. I remember I wanted to go by myself. But quietly wept all the way there. I hated, no correction I detested being on that no.44 bus. I was shaking, weeping and felt a few times like I was actually going to throw up on the bus. I criticised myself in my frustration. I belittled myself and scoffed at what a weakling I had become. But that was a tiny part of my mind, and Larry was louder. He was making sure I was petrified every single mile that I travelled going to my appointment. But I got there.
I saw the resident Psychiatrist and for 90mins spluttering and weeping while attempting to tell my breakdown story. I remember feeling ridiculous, but Larry was making sure this was way too much for me and I was struggling to take a breath after every sentence. He wasn’t happy I was reaching out for help.
Life was straightforward from this point onwards. The only stress was how I was going to get to my appointment each week. I had been assigned a Psychologist as well as my Psychiatrist, and I would meet them once a week on a Tuesday afternoon. This meant avoiding rush hour, and avoiding as much of the world as I possibly could. One bus there, one bus back.
For the purposes of your sanity and my fingers, we are going to take a break. Its a pretty hefty tale and I sincerely appreciate you coming along for the ride. If you are still with me at this point, I salute you. Now, grab a cuppa and chill out before we move on to: My Story: Stress – How to find the hidden anxiety (Part 2)