Thursday, 22 October 2015

Mental Health awareness - anxiety

There's a lot of mental health awareness stuff floating around on social media at the moment, with high profile celebs admitting their own struggles, and it can only be to the good of us all when we are open about this stuff.  So here's my own confession - I suffer from anxiety, quite badly at times in the past, not so much now.

I got quite sick when I was 21.  It resulted in post viral fatigue/ME (which took years for a GP to suggest as the probable issue).  One of the things I noticed around this time was that when I did manage to get out and about, I couldn't deal at all with noise or crowds.  I used to love going dancing in the little clubs in Aberystwyth, but suddenly I couldn't even go into a busy cafĂ© without feeling like I couldn't breathe, all I could hear was a rushing noise, my heart would start to bang, my vision dim.  I didn't realise at the time but I had started having weird surges of adrenaline which my body couldn't deal with.  I couldn't concentrate for long enough to read a book, which was devastating to a book worm like me.  CFS is a physical illness with mental health effects.  I was exhausted all the time, at the real low points I was awake for just a few hours a day.  Perhaps the worst thing was that previously I had been constantly on the go, working, studying, exercising, socialising.  I didn't do downtime, and suddenly I had an illness that made me seem like a lazy crazy introvert.

I recovered slowly and built up my confidence. Starting working in an outdoor job where I was in the air working with kids and on the move all day definitely helped, although I still had an occasional panic attack if my rota changed unexpectedly and I didn't have time to run through in my head what I would be doing and my coping strategies.

I completed teacher training at 25 and went to work in a school.  Again my health crashed.  I took some time off, then got a less stressful job.  I discovered 'I have a migraine' was a better explanation for incapacity than 'I had a panic attack and couldn't leave my house' (although this was pretty rare and I mostly functioned, although I was never awake past 9.30pm, my life was pretty much work and sleep).  I tackled the anxiety head on, reading up on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and applying some of the principles.

I improved, I went back to teaching.  I didn't really make friends because I got home from work, did lesson planning and marking, then went to bed at 9.30.  You only get asked out on evenings out so many times before people stop asking.  I felt very lonely when almost the whole staff room got asked to one teacher's wedding but not me.  The anxiety was pretty well in control, I just couldn't do crowded lifts etc (I still can't now, and regularly barge out past people if they keep piling in, although if it's an option I'll usually take the stairs). I leaned on Matt a great deal.  I still do, such as when I need to go to a new place and he drives me there, or at least does a drive past the night before if it's local.

When Ollie came along, the worst of the CFS departed.  I don't know why.  The day on antibiotics and an oxytocin drip perhaps altered something, but I realised at 11.30pm one night, dragging my catheter bag down to SCBU to attempt to feed Ollie that it was 11.30pm and I was awake.  In amongst the physical pain of the C-Section and mental guilt at feeling I had failed at the mothering before I'd even got started, was a little elation.  My baby would be ok, and I was awake.

Two small boys later I'm in pretty good shape mentally and physically.  The first year with a new baby and a 2 year old and no local friends or family able to drop by was tough and I cried a lot, but volunteering changed all that.  I still get every bug going, for longer than normal, which I guess is something to do with the CFS.  I got Scarlet Fever last year for goodness sake.  Adults aren't even supposed to get that.  The anxiety is something I continue to tackle head on.  I learned relaxation techniques, breathing and visualisation. I practice rock steady self confidence and the use of the 'sod it bin' - i.e. if I can't do anything about it, I mentally file it in the 'sod it' bin and move on.

The biggest thing I do though is to put myself in situations that stress me.  Mental block around Maths - I did a Maths for Science Uni course (98%, take that fear of maths).  Scared of heights - so up the castle towers I go.  Noisy, crowded places freak me out - so I do face painting and science at kids parties.  Screachy sports halls and group exercise makes me feel like I want to run (or perhaps wobble) away and hide - I started up a sports club.  You stress, and relax, stress and relax.  Eventually your brain starts to accept that nothing awful happened last time you were in the noisy, busy place, it'll be fine next time too.

 Becoming a volunteer gave me friends and the skills to help with, and now run, groups to try to help out other families.  Even when I'm really unwell I can pull it together for the couple of hours that it takes to be bright and bubbly at a party or a group event.  A couple of times a week I'll be in bed at 8pm, but generally it's back to burning the candle at both ends studying and whatnot.  In my heart is the fear every time I get sick that this is the one that will last for months, shutting down my ability to think and live my life, but every year that passes I am stronger and happier, and blessed in my family and friends for helping to keep me this way.  I have to be busy.  I cannot be alone. I can't spend too much time with negative people. Any confrontation at all makes my heart race and my hands shake, even having to deliver a polite message that may be taken wrong.  An old guy who lives opposite has had my favourite 100 year old Darwin book for two years and I haven't the guts to go ask for it back (what was I thinking lending books to people!).  I accept this, there are worse things.

I take the horned poppy as my symbol of resilience.  It stands there on the shingle, battered by storms, covered in salt spray, but still the most persistently cheerful blighter on the sea shore.  It could have been any other flower tucked in a comfy hedgerow somewhere, but it thrives on the excitement of the coast.

So that's my contribution to the mental health thing.  I'm a little crazy.  All the best people I know are.