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?