Thursday, 1 February 2018

*Anxiety Episodes*: my anxiety as a TV show. Time To Talk day 2018.

'Anxiety Episodes' 
OR 'my anxiety as a TV show'

This was taken 7 days before the events in this story. In retrospect, those aren't happy eyes.

The scene unfolded like a page from a screenplay that had slipped loose from the pile and floated down into an average Wednesday morning before shouting ‘Action!’.

“You need to go home” she said, her arm outstretched behind her back, stopping her cigarette smoke from drifting into our conversation, on the chill November air.

“You need to go home, and you need to see your doctor” she repeated. Emphatically.

And there was something so sincere, unequivocal, about how she said it that, not only did I know that she believed me, it led me to believe it for myself. A case of “Shit, if someone outside my head can see the trouble I’m in … then I guess it must be real after all”.

Because, until that moment, sitting on a bench, talking to a work colleague, I hadn’t especially believed it.

I’d only starting feeling unwell on campus a week before that cold morning when I simply could not face going into work. Only three times I’d struggled to sit still in lectures, watched the clock, felt nauseous, crampy, sweaty. How can something that had only happened three times feel this insurmountable this quickly? How could it be real? It must all be in my head.

And it was:
  • it was in the constant, incessantly racing thoughts that impeded my ability to function, like a computer virus slowing down a laptop. 
  • it was in the negative self-talk that made me feel pathetic, childish, neurotic, for suddenly struggling with something I’d done regularly for over a decade. 
  • it was even in the positive self-talk I ceaselessly narrated while I was flailing. ‘You’ll be OK, this is nothing, you’re just exaggerating, you won’t pass out, you’ve been anxious before and never thrown up or fainted, just get through this next hour without jumping up, rushing out and making a show of yourself. OK, f*ck the hour, just get through the next minute, second …” and repeat until home. 
All of which had no effect, except to exhaust me.

So yes, it was all in my mind. But, funnily enough, your mind’s kind of a useful thing to have on board to get you through the day.

It kind of keeps the whole ship running. And if there’s a mutiny, well, nobody wins, you all just get scuppered, wrecked, pulled under with the tide.

But right then, when she said: “You need to see your doctor”, like Cinderella’s golden coach and snowy white horses, the reality of my mental illness suddenly materialised before me.

This thing was real. This wasn’t normal behaviour. Even for me. Something was wrong.

So, I did exactly as I was told. As instructed I went home and, the next day, I went to see my GP, who also believed my new – no longer a pumpkin – reality and signed me off work for a month. Just like that.

The explanation on the sick note read: ‘Anxiety episodes’. Which at least gives me the title for the TV drama, when I write it.

‘She’, by the way, is my closest colleague on the university campus where I’ve worked, part time, for over 11 years. Let’s call her Anna.

Anna is self-effacing, generous, funny (she can spin a good yarn, often complete with actions); the kind of person who knows everyone who passes by and who, somehow, also knows all their names, and they hers.

The kind of person who, without missing a beat, can turn someone’s month around, all while finishing off her morning ciggie and take-out coffee.

I’d been mooching around, unable to settle, when I spotted her outside and went down to join her. After waiting patiently, fake-smiling and laughing all the way while she chatted to one of the groundskeepers (who she knew by name, naturally) – I eventually did something very un-British:

When we were finally alone, and she turned and asked how I was, I didn’t say ‘Fine thanks’. I told the truth.



“I’m feeling anxious” I confessed, "And I just don't know why." then she pretty much intuited the rest.

“For no reason?” she suggested.

I nodded.

“And you thought if you came to talk to me it would help distract you?”

Another nod.

“But it’s not working is it?”

I shook my head half in laughter, half sadness.

That’s when she instructed me to go home and talk to my GP. Hell, she even offered to talk to the administrator in our office to explain why I had to go home. 

And – just like that – Fairy Godmother style again, there was the administrator, walking across the square in front of us. And Anna went over to her and the morning continued to play out like a TV show; now I was in one of those scenes where the protagonist can’t hear what the others are saying, but there’s enough gesturing and glancing in their direction to know they’re the topic of conversation. 

Then she was back by my side; obstacles magically removed; deal sealed: I was going home.

And I did go home. But, before I went, and before this story ends, let me tell you one more thing Anna did for me that day …

When I write ‘Anxiety Episodes’, (the hit TV series), it’ll include a scene that everyone watching will think is a little far-fetched, a bit on-the-nose, purely there for broad comic effect. Everyone, that is, apart from you, me and Anna because, we’ll know that it was 100% based on true events.

These events in fact.

While we were talking Anna’s student, a wheelchair user, arrived in the car park so we headed off to meet her. And there, while waiting for the student to get her belongings together Anna made me promise to text her when I was safely home, before uttering that simple, matter-of-fact phrase, often used by allies of the mentally unwell:

“There’s nothing for you to feel silly about” she chastised “You wouldn’t think anything about being off work if you had a broken leg, would you?”.

And, of course, she was right. Our society really shouldn’t still be finding mental illness so much harder to comprehend than broken bones, vomiting bugs and runny noses. But, it does. And, on that day, and for at least a few weeks afterwards, I did.

But, as I nodded in half-hearted agreement with her sentiment, Anna’s face changed, her eyes bulged, she tried to hold my gaze while wordlessly indicating something with a tilt of her head.

“I can’t believe it” she gasped. “Here’s me going on about broken legs and then …” the head gesturing grew more pronounced forcing me to turn around just in time to watch a student slowly, but determinedly, hobble past us …

… on crutches …

… with her a leg in plaster.

I swear!

So there we were. Two disability support assistants, trained to the hilt in inclusivity, loitering in a carpark while appearing to be – hang on, no, not ‘appearing’ to be – but actually, hooting with laughter at a hobbling student! Wheelchair to the left of me, crutches to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Anna, with the aid of the impeccable comedic timing of the benevolent universe, gave me laughter too that day. Right when I needed it.

And I hope the ripple reached you here. Have a smirk on us. And maybe pass my 'Anxiety Episodes' story along to someone who might need to hear it.


*** 

Thanks for pausing with me and Anna today. I should tell you that I’m feeling much better now, so there’s no need to be concerned about me. But I’m gratified to think it might have crossed your mind to worry.

Anxiety Episodes’ is my contribution to ‘Time To Talk’ day (1 February 2018), a campaign to tackle the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.

For more stories and information: 
And if you’re struggling with a mental health issue: 
  • please know that you are not alone. You might have your own Anna to confide in – even if you don’t recognise it at first. I’d never imagined how OK it would be to say it out loud until that morning. 
  • When our inner voices are telling us we’re useless and feeble, we judge everyone else through that filter. But most people are more understanding than we give them credit for. Plus others can be better than we are ourselves at appreciating that something’s wrong, as they have the benefit of distance and clarity. 
  • Alternatively, follow this link to the Time To Change resources page which contains many sources of information and support: 
  • And there’s always your GP. 
And if you're a potential Anna ...

  • if you're someone who might be able to listen without judgement and guide without criticism then, don't be afraid to engage.
  • You don't need to solve all the problems for whoever confides in you.
  • But listening, and even laughing, can be the perfect opening scene where someone can begin to share their story  ... 


Thanks for stopping by today.

Julie 

11 comments:

  1. What a great article. As someone who suffers daily with anxiety some of these emotions you mention I have had. It's nice to know your not alone when you have anxiety.

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    1. Thanks Natalie. I totally agree. When other people can say 'me too' I begin to feel less of the odd person out.

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  2. Thank you for writing this. I know it takes courage. As a result of your post I have written this http://www.newlycreative.com/2018/02/time-to-talk-day.html

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  3. Great article Julie. Must have taken some courage to write it.

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  4. Hi Julie, I am so glad you wrote this post, not just for yourself in being strong and brave to explain what anxiety looks like but also for people like me with a mental health illness. I have several Anna's and I am lucky and grateful to them for their ongoing support. Thank you for sharing today and know that you have others around you you have never met who understand xx

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  5. I salute your courage. As someone who lives with The Boy Child's constant anxiety, I'm sitting here and applauding your honesty (and the humour).

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  6. Out loud is such a difficult way to say things when that voice is in your head taking all your brave away. I have several friends who will understand this so I am going to share

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  7. Everyone needs an Anna in their life, and I guess we should try to be Anna ourselves when we suspect someone is silently suffering. You manage to write so well and describe your feelings brilliantly and yet still make it an upbeat post. I know that you will reassure and inspire many with your honesty.

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  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you! It takes enormous courage to tell it how it is when you 'know' the 'correct' response is 'Fine', 'oh, you know', or ' very well, and you?' You did it and the sky didn't fall around your ears, no one laughed at you or brushed your words aside with platitudes. Reading your words may be the turning point for someone else to share how they are really feeling and their 'Anna' to be wise enough to give such good advice and follow through x

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  9. Sending warmest good wishes and glad to read you are feeling a little better now - and thank-you for your openness and willingness to share. I am sure it will be helpful and encouraging to many.

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  10. Hi Julie, I really hope you start to feel a bit more like yourself soon. I've been going through exactly this and eventually got help summer last year. It wasn't until I started to feel better that I actually realised how unwell I'd become. I hadn't spoken a word to anyone about it - not even my lovely partner who I've been with for 23 years. Our relationship was floundering badly, in fact all my relationships were suffering and I was too unwell at the time to work out what I needed to do. Anxiety is an insidious illness that filters out all the pleasures in life and left me a neurotic husk of a human. Anxiety is like a parasite that takes you over and slowly destroys your personality. My illness has been brought on by the menopause - another subject which is never mentioned but it really doesn't matter why it happened, it could happen to anyone, anytime in their life. It's so sad that so many people out there might not realise how unwell they have become, you are indeed a lucky lady to have such a good and wise friend in Anna! Get well soon Julie! xxx

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