'Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.'- Angela Carter

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Me, My Anxiety and I

It's always hard to know where to start with a post like this. I don't do many posts that aren't book related in some way so this is a completely new experience for me. If you know me in person, you know I'm not shy to talk about my experiences with anxiety and panic attacks. I'm fairly open about it. I'll talk about it with people in the hope that my experience can help anyone else that has it. This wasn't always the case. I used to be absolutely mortified by it and I felt like I was so weak and useless. I was also prone to a fair amount of self pity - why me? etc. etc. but I think that's only natural. I feel like this is taking on such a formal tone and this wasn't my intention. I think after so many years of essay writing it just comes natural. Anyway, I thought today would be a good day to chat through my experiences of anxiety, how it was for me and the changes I went through. Please bare with me!

My anxiety and panic attacks started towards the end of my first year of university, so June 2010. So that's roughly four years ago. At the time, I had no idea what was going on. I felt sad, shaken up, dizzy, sick, I couldn't breath. I was convinced that there was something seriously wrong with me. This happened on and off for days, weeks, then months. I went to the doctors so many times with complaints and each time they told me I was healthy. I was fine. There was nothing wrong with me. This did nothing to ease my mind. These symptoms didn't stop. I remember sitting in my Introduction to Gender exam and not being able to stop shaking. I sat there, wrote as much as I could for 45 minutes and then pretty much ran out of there and back to my room. I couldn't cope with it and I got such a rubbish mark and didn't complete the exam.

It was around this time that myself and my partner Phill were getting together. We had a bit of a bumpy path in getting together but everything worked out perfectly. I knew it was almost time to go home for the summer; I lived in South Wales and he lived in Yorkshire. A fair distance. It was our last night in university that things really kicked off for me. I couldn't settle in bed. I couldn't breath, couldn't sleep. I had to get out of the room so we went for a walk along the beach front. Sounds peaceful doesn't it? It wasn't. I couldn't stop shaking and kept tearing up. I didn't know what was going on. We got back to his room and I freaked out. The room starting closing in on me, I couldn't breath, I felt so hot and clammy, I couldn't do anything. My face started swelling up (which I discovered later was an allergic reaction - but it didn't help!) and I just fell apart. I remember feeling like I was about to be sick and tried to get to the bathroom across the hall. I couldn't walk or stand up. It was horrific.

This was one of my first experiences of a panic attack and it was this experience that sent me on a downward spiral for the next year. Phill and my friend Charlie were so freaked out by what was going on that they took me to A&E. When having tests done, they were convinced I'd taken drugs because of my fast heart rate and behaviour. I ended up leaving A&E with a shot of antihistamines and the fantastic advice to "calm down". That was my second experience of crap health care. This experience shook me up and I was convinced that the swelling was related to my panic attacks. I didn't realise at the time that what I had was a panic attack and didn't equate the swelling to the food I'd eaten earlier. I went home for the summer and things got so much worse. I didn't have Phill, who had been there when it happened, to support me through things and I found myself trapped inside my own head. I felt like I couldn't get out and that this was never going to end. I thought I was dying. Genuinely.

My first experience of panic in the work place was that August. I was doing some temporary enrolment work at the local college for a little bit of money to go back to Swansea with. Enrolment was in a stuffy library and the students were literally milling around you. My boss approached me to change a minor detail on an account and all I can remember was the room closing in on me again. There was no reasoning for this. I was in a safe place and my boss wasn't pressuring me at all. This continued for the week and led up to me leaving mid day, unable to cope. I couldn't go back inside and face those people again. I felt awful and weak and absolutely terrified of what was going on. I still didn't know that I had anxiety and panic attacks and Googling things definitely wasn't helping. This is where things really went downhill.

I got back to Swansea and into my second year of university; I couldn't even handle my lectures. I'd battle through the smaller seminars, painfully aware of everything around me and trying to draw as little attention as possible to myself. This happened every day until I stopped going altogether. I started getting obsessive with certain ritual in the day and was convinced that if I didn't do all of these things and have all of these items with me at all times, I would fall apart. At this point I was having 4+ panic attacks a day. I couldn't eat or sleep and I lost a lot of weight. I had to carry with me at all times a water bottle, a frozen water bottle (in case my face swelled up again), my phone, chewing gum (to help me breath), eyedrops (in case my eyes burned), my Nintendo DS (to distract myself) and my glasses. These things came everywhere. Everywhere in the house that is.

By this point I'd also developed agoraphobia so things weren't going too great. I couldn't leave the house and walk down the street without falling apart. I couldn't go to Tesco. I couldn't do anything except force myself on my runs, limited my self caffeine and chocolate because all of these things were prone to increase what I'd now identified as anxiety. It was following what I call 'The Tesco Incident' - in which Phill forced me to overcome my fear and stay in Tesco for an entire shop - that it was  time to get help. I tried to go to the doctors on my own, but panicked in the waiting room and left. Phill came with me and sat with me as we waited for my name. This could take anything from 10 minutes to 2 hours in the university. It was torture. I got diagnosed pretty quickly... because I panic attacked all over the doctor once my name was called. All of the stress of the waiting room bundled up and came out. What was lucky was that it didn't warrant much explanation. Following this trip, I got put onto the road to recovery and I am so, so grateful to Phill for helping me there.

This trip resulted in a prescription of Citalopram, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) therapy and the assignment of a personal mentor. The personal mentor wasn't much help; it took place in a small box-like room with a really high window so that didn't last long. The prescription definitely helps and is something that I'm still using, the therapy was fantastic but I think the most important thing that helped was understanding what was going on with me. I finally knew what everything was, how it worked and that took a lot of the stress away. I started going back to lectures again, which wasn't easy, but it was better. I started leaving the house more, stopped carrying so many objects around with me and interacting with my boyfriend and housemates again. This is a really simplified version. It took a long time to get back to normal. I'm not 100% now and I'm not sure if I ever will be, but I can function, I can go about my life and I can cope with everything. What more can a person ask for?

I was lucky that Phill was so strong and supportive for me, as were my friends. Therapy made me realise that I'd suffered with anxiety throughout my teens and was something I'd been harbouring for awhile. I don't let it get me down as much any more. I'm still not sure what it is exactly that causes my anxiety, I don't really have a 'trigger' but I'm okay with that. There are days where things are pretty horrible, but they're never as bad. That's the main thing I want to get out. There's a way up from rock bottom. Things won't always be like that. I definitely hit there, I had depression, anxiety, panic attacks and a lot of after effects of these things. There's a line to what I can talk about and that's one of them. But there are so many ways to get help these days and there are people that are willing to help you. I'll admit, it took a long time for the doctors to catch on to what was wrong with me which still makes me angry now, but it doesn't mean that you'll never get better.

Now, I make regular trips to London to meet publishers and bloggers; it's fantastic. It's something I'd never have done all those years ago. I had a little freak out pre-Bloomsbury launch but managed to get in there. As soon as I was in it was great. I understand how easy it is to get caught up in your thoughts and to feel trapped. I just want to end this saying that if any of you that are reading this and suffer from the same thing, don't hesitate to contact me. I'm definitely there for anyone that needs encouragement, advice or just someone that's been there to talk to. I won't lie, it's tough, but you'll definitely get there. Funnily enough, I feel like I've become a better, more confident person since coping with panic attacks and anxiety. It definitely makes you grow up quicker but it's beatable. I promise.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. It means a lot to me.

How about you guys? Do you have your own mental health history? 


  1. Ah hun, I'd never guess what you went through! After meeting you in person, it'd never cross my mind, which just shows how far you actually came.

    Health care can be a real shit, and that's why I never went in for my panic attack when I was at uni myself. It started my first year as well after I failed because I took it all too easy. I failed my year, lost some friends (mostly because I failed, which was also really not helping me at the time but I am so much better off now) and it all spiraled down to having meltdowns of crying and not leaving my room for 3 weeks straight unless it was to eat or use the bathroom. I was closed in 3 weeks of that summer, watching movies and shows all day long until my mom lost it and threw me out of my room, changing the bedding and not allowing me back inside for entire day. It was horrific but I managed to survive that day outside, reading, which wasn't as bad after I had a new distraction. I was also anxious over exams and not failing again, and I even started smoking again then which really wasn't something I'd recommend - it makes everything worse. I was a mess. Then I got angry at myself, because if everyone else can cope with those stupid exams, so can I. I must really let go and not be as freaked out over it all as I am. I started a new work and study routine and slowly picked up my grades. It wasn't until 4th year that my life got easier. I didn't freak out for the smallest things anymore (like having to do 2 essays that week - before that got me into a crying fit for hours) and now at masters I finally managed to ease through exams like it was nothing and even have a decent sleep in the exam month, which never happened before. Basically it all comes down to kick your own ass into gear, and not let this mess bring you down. I'm glad I had mom and her tough love, because even though it sounds bad I am grateful she threw me out of that room and get me moving in the right direction.

    I still freak out today, over the smallest things sometimes. And when I have to go out for a meet with some friends or something I get super anxious and want to cancel every time. Then I force myself to go and when I am there I have the best time and don't want to leave so soon. But just going is something that's still hard. Or shopping - I get super anxious, and my Christmas shopping is done months before actual event, or even online so I don't have to go out at all.
    What happened on the way back from London, you already know... I was a mess. :X

    I am glad you shared this. Maybe I will, too.
    But we got better, and we still have time to improve ourselves further, because we definitely got out stronger, which is all that counts.

  2. I'm so glad the people around you were supportive. That's so important, especially with panic attacks - because you basically feel like you're dying.

    I've had panic attacks too, since I was about 12. Needless to say I had absolutely no clue what was happening to me. Panic attacks are different for everyone, and my particular brand gives me the feeling that I'm outside myself looking down. For the people around me it looks like I'm no longer there; I'm unresponsive and my eyes glaze over. Around high school I went through these bouts of panic attacks. I would go weeks without having one, and then having one every day. After a few years my mom found out, and she told me she'd experienced something similar when she was young, but she didn't have any name for it. Because my symptoms were so vague, the doctor thought I was just school sick and didn't have any friends. Which was sort of true, but didn't trigger my panic attacks. I only found out what it really was when I read Veronica Decides to Die by Paulo Coehlo, where a minor character has panic disorder. I was like OMG THAT IS WHAT I HAVE TOO.

    I've never had any medical help, but knowing what was wrong helps me stay calm during an attack. I'll just sit down somewhere, tell people around me that I have a headache, and wait for it to be over. There are no triggers for me - I've had panic attacks while having dinner, walking to the store, by just sitting in my room... It's not directly connected with anxiety, although when I'm stressed it will come up more often.

    It's interesting for me to read other people's experiences, because they're all so different! Thank you for sharing your story :D

  3. Thanks for sharing your story *~hugs~* My dad has high anxiety (he takes meds for it), and I see signs of it in my oldest daughter. Right now by removing her from the trigger situation, it's enough to calm her down, but we'll see how it goes down the road.

  4. Aww Leah, this was such a powerful story, thank you SO MUCH for sharing it with us ♥ You know it's odd, reading your post reminded me that my first ever full blown panic attack was in a class at Uni as well. We had oral presentations to do (which always stressed me out) but I got through my turn no problem. When I was done though, I felt the room start to close in on me, my heart rate went sky high, I was sweating and all-around freaking out. I had to get up and head to the washrooms down the hall and stayed there for a loooong time. That was the begining of my downwards spiral too cause it wasn't long before I was panicking before heading out the door regularily. Had to work? Had a freakout. Was in a crowded place? Had an episode and had to leave :( All that to say I can definitely understand where you're coming from and the worst of it is that before you fully understand what the hell is going on with you, you feel like you're all alone and nobody else understands! I'm very happy for you that you got the help you needed and had such wonderful support throughout! Recovery can be a long road, and flare-ups do happen but you seem to have a great handle on things - and a great attitude! Well done Leah and thanks for sharing this beautiful post. Reading it makes me wish I'd writen mine more like yours, with more descriptions of how it all started to go down for me as well ^^ Thanks again love XOXOXOX

  5. This was a great story to share. I have had anxiety now for ... well.. 15 years. Mine is very similar to yours. I don't work because of it... I don't fly because of it... there are many things in my life that have changed because of anxiety. But there are also things that have changed for the better. I believe that I look at life differently. I enjoy things more because when I can do them on days without anxiety it means so much more to me. I do also believe though that medicine made a huge difference in my life. It was so hard though for me to take that first pill.. I was so scared. It also took going through a few different meds to find the right one too. Anxiety is hereditary in my family so this is something I will deal with till the day I die. Thanks again for sharing this story and I hope others read it and learn/relate to it.

  6. Thanks for sharing your story, Leah, and I'm glad you have supportive people around you. I had a stressful period in my late teens, and experienced a couple of panic attacks too. The strange thing is that the attacks could strike in periods where I was feeling that the pressure was 'off', and you'd think when you're relaxed the world wouldn't feel as though it were closing in. It's not easy, and I'm glad that I've not had a more extensive experience personally. Well done for not letting it hold you back from doing what you're passionate about. xx

  7. I am really glad you share your story to raise awareness to the blogosphere. I don't want to call you brave because it should not require courage to share your story like this, at least in the ideal world but nevertheless, I am struck by the fact that you are very brave in doing so. Thank you very much for the time you have taken to draw attention to the mental health topic. :)

  8. I wish I'd read this a couple of years ago, when my own anxiety was bad. I think I'll do a post like this too. A lot of people don't know how many of us there are.

  9. I'm sure this was a hard post to write, but I'm really glad you shared. I've never had a panic attack, but people in my family have anxiety and I think your post has helped me understand what they go through a bit more since they never talk about it. Thank you.

  10. This is Exactly the place I am in right now. I read your post and was like yes this is me, this is so me. I only hope I can be as strong as you and cope like you are doing.

    1. You will get through it. I promise. I am currently running a high level of anxiety at the moment but I know it will pass. All I can suggest is going to the doctors and getting the help you deserve. It will get better.


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