“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” – Albert Einstein
The first time lasted for two weeks. To start with I managed to pass it off as a sickness bug, claiming that I had been feeling queasy all day, which was technically true. For as long as I can remember school was a source of panic; before we even got there I would be digging my nails into my palms, twitching every time we had to stop at traffic lights or a zebra crossing. The radio would be on because I could not and still cannot stand silence; trapped with only the sound of my jagged breathing and incessant thoughts. Then, when we finally arrived I would have to walk into an overcrowded building, full of people who had no respect for others, praying that I would be the first to arrive in class so that I would not have to walk into a room of judging eyes. Head down, shoulders forward, march. On this particular day my heart was beating harder than usual; it was year ten, and I had a performance for drama. I worked myself up, overthinking the situation until my stomach was churning so much it hurt. We didn’t even perform in the end.
Later that same day I found out that my friends were thinking of sleeping over at a sister’s house in London. Sleepovers are also something that made me nervous; even now I get butterflies despite living away from home most of the year. I don’t know why and I probably never will. I couldn’t eat much that night, and after a couple of hours alone with my thoughts it only got worse. I felt over-heated and dizzy, my stomach was twisting and I had a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow. My heart was beating so hard it terrified me. My body was shaking and before I could stop myself I had been sick.
Trivial. Unnecessary. Melodramatic. These were the words tumbling through my head, and unfortunately, other people’s as well. It was stupid, a thing most people get excited about not nervous; but I have General Anxiety Disorder, which means that there are no stupid things. One in four people worldwide will suffer from some form of anxiety disorder during their lives, yet many people believe that it is still just an excuse. I know that I have certainly been made to feel that I am overreacting for attention. But the point is that most of us know we are overreacting, and that is why it is so hard to deal with.
“Nature has not got two voices, you know, one of them condemning all day what the other commands.” – Marquis de Sade
From your conscience to something more serious, like someone telling you that you are too fat or you need to kill someone, everyone has some sort of voice in their heads; but people with a disorder like GAD either cannot connect their reaction with the voice, have two voices, or both. I have both. Sometimes I will find myself thinking one thing, and reacting the complete opposite. For example, ever since that first attack I have had a love/hate relationship with food. My mind will be telling me I am starving, and that I have been looking forward to this meal all day, but my stomach will be telling me that if I eat, I will be sick. It is as simple as that. Although I have managed to partially control this reaction there are many who let it control their lives, and this can lead to illnesses that are much more serious.
More commonly, however, there will be two voices bickering like children or characters in a play. Imagine this scenario; it is Christmas day and you are sitting at the dinner table. Your family is sitting around you, laughing and enjoying a fabulous roast dinner. And then the voices begin:
Rational: I am so hungry, Christmas cannot come around enough.
Irrational: You had better not start thinking about panic attacks then.
Rational: I wasn’t going to.
Irrational: Well you are now, don’t get stressed.
Rational: I have nothing to be stressed about.
Irrational: But what if you have another panic attack?
Irrational: You can feel it coming, the sickness and the heat, it’s coming on.
Rational: Because you keep thinking about it!
Irrational: They’ve put so much work into this dinner, better appreciate it.
Rational: Shut up!
Suddenly everything is panic inducing, and the embarrassment and disappointment the voices have brought on are controlling you. For others this is very difficult to understand; how can having a family meal bring on a panic attack? But even for people with GAD this is a very arduous question to answer, because a lack of understanding is an aspect of the disorder in itself. I don’t know why I find certain things terrifying, all I know is that I do, and it is one of the most frustrating things about it all.
“I’m full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications. I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm.” – Alfred Hitchcock
As well as the anxiety, many people do not realise the implications that come with it. Anxiety can lead to a number of additional illnesses such as rotting teeth and gum disease due to continuous sickness, hernias, stomach ulcers, multiple heart problems and Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, which is something I personally suffer with. This is basically a leaking valve in your stomach that lets acid back into your oesophagus, causing stabbing pains in your torso when you breathe, eat and/or just generally. Anxiety has also weakened my stomach, which means that when I cough or laugh too hard, eat food that is too spicy or react to something disgusting (although that could just be me being sensitive in general!) there is a much bigger chance that it will lead to gagging or stomach aches. For example; Titanic. Everybody knows it, why wouldn’t they, it’s very popular (the film that is.) But there is a particular scene that has made me realise how sensitive I really am. Jack and Rose are admiring the view, talking about a life they want to live, the sun is setting and their hair is blowing in the breeze when Rose turns to Jack and says, “Teach me to ride like a man!” And he says, “Chew tobacco like a man!” “And spit like a man!” I’m sorry, what was that last one? Next thing we know they’re hacking and gagging over the side of the ship, and I’m trying not to throw up in front of everyone. Lovely, right?
As for a person’s social life, everything has a tendency to go downhill. Ever since I was young I have been a nervous person, but there are people in my past who have done nothing but antagonise my nerves, triggering them until they eventually developed into GAD. Whether it was the people in school who made it clear that curly hair is not as popular as it seems to be now, the friends who let me down more times than I can count, or the people who make me feel like they forget about me the second I leave the room. They were all a part of making my confidence the lowest it had ever been, making me retreat further and further into myself until the only place I could feel comfortable was at home. Confidence is, for me, a massive factor in GAD; it enhances every criticism, every memory of the jibes and the times you have felt alone, until suddenly it is the only thing you can feel. Emotions become almost unrealistically powerful; so even though you know that you are overreacting there is absolutely no way you can stop it. You just have to power through.
Another major outcome is paranoia. My track record for choosing good friends is, well, poor to say the least. Every time I have let myself get close to someone I have been let down in a spectacular fashion. Obviously I am not blaming one person for any friendships that may have fallen apart; people change. But when you take things as personally as I do it is easy to believe that it is all my fault, and that I am unlovable. However, I find that I do not build walls to keep people out but continue to behave in the same way. This could be a good thing; however I often let paranoia get the better of me. I find myself going above and beyond to make people happy; gifts, praise, compromise. And then I seek reassurance of their friendship, inclusion in everything, a desperate need not to be forgotten again. Part of me snaps that I am being overbearing, clingy and needy. The other part has to know that they like me. This is where GAD can become particularly overwhelming. With constant squabbling running through your head it is easy to pick up on things that are not really there. She is not looking at me as she talks to us, does she wish I was not there? They laugh more when I leave the room, I must be a drag in the conversation. She is so quiet, is she mad with me? Maybe I should not have made that joke last night! When you finally find people who are genuine it is hard to believe they are not going to suddenly see you the way everybody else did; some unknown factor that made you unlikeable.
“Real obstacles don’t take you in circles. They can be overcome. Invented ones are like a maze” – Barbara Sher
The vicious cycle. A bundle of laughs for those with GAD. A thought passes through my head; the thought makes me slightly nervous; I get more nervous about it turning into a panic attack; I panic about it turning into a panic attack; I have a panic attack. A thought passes through my head. I think it is about time someone invented an off switch for the brain.
“Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” – Alice in Wonderland
In the life of someone with an anxiety disorder, every day is full of ‘what if’s’ and associations. Problems and situations that may or may not exist are thoroughly analysed until a reaction for every possible outcome can be prepared. What if the bus is late? What if I don’t get it done on time? What if she really doesn’t like me? What if I am like this for my whole life? What if I can’t have the future I want because I am too scared? What if I stopped worrying about it and just went with it? Wouldn’t that be nice! On top of this, association creates a Skinner’s Box kind of scenario in life. Skinner used operant conditioning in his study to teach rats which emotion goes with which stimulation; people with GAD use similar association, connecting situations with negative reactions. If something causes a panic attack or even just mild stress such as being late, it will be stored until the situation occurs again when the same emotions will be brought to the surface. Even other emotions and physical actions can lead to the same affect. If I read a book that I find very exciting and enjoyable before trying to sleep, my body tells me that I am getting too worked up and it could turn to panic. If I go swimming or running and get out of breath, my mind tells me that I’m not just extremely unfit but am, again, beginning to panic, making the breathing worse until I begin to hyperventilate. Association is extremely predominant in GAD and can escalate an everyday situation into something else entirely.
“It’s our challenges and obstacles that give us layers of depth and make us interesting. Are they fun when they happen? No. But they are what make us unique. And that’s what I know for sure… I think.” – Ellen DeGeneres
The best way I can describe the kind of emotions GAD brings is by using a metaphor, so I have gone with Russian dolls. You have the outer layer which is the one everybody sees; whether that is happy, positive or a bit quirky. And then you have the next layer, and the layer under that, until you get to the middle; the bit nobody can see. Now, I know what you’re thinking, everybody has those kind of layers, Hell even ogres have layers! But the cruel aspect of this disorder is that somebody has come along and nailed that middle section shut, containing those negative emotions so that they seem to fester inside of you. In my centre there is a shell full of anger, frustration and helplessness that taps away as it tries to escape. Sometimes it taps louder than other times, often when I am trying to sleep, and I find myself itching to throw something heavy against a wall, or scream at the top of my lungs. But most of the time it just sits there, stewing away until it explodes and someone has to come and trap it once more. Usually, that someone is me.
“To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.” – Bertrand Russell
A couple of years ago my biggest fear was moving away from home to go to university, away from the only people who love me unconditionally. I spent a good two years feeling like I was trying to claw my way back up a slippery slope with a clock tied around my ankles determined to drag me back down it. In the midst of this, however, I went out with a boy. Now, I went to an all-girls school; the only guy who was a daily occurrence in my life was my grandad. I had just never been around boys and it took alien species to a whole new level. I always thought I was a natural romantic; I wrote love stories, I loved the films and the novels, but when I was handed the opportunity, I panicked. Turns out I’m naturally quite cynical! It lasted two weeks before I bailed, and I could go back to worrying about university.
Now though, I have faced my fears and am currently in my second year of higher education, only for that irrational fear of relationships to rear its ugly head once again. I find myself suffering from ‘peter pan syndrome’, desperate to go back to the days when all I had to worry about was the monster under my bed… Whilst everyone around me is enjoying life with their other halves I am fighting an internal war with myself. If I had to choose between the battle of two minds and the battle for Middle-Earth, I would choose the orcs. I read an article written by Christine Miserandino about the choices one has to make when suffering with an illness, mental or physical. She described that each decision made is represented by one spoon. Someone without an illness has an unlimited amount of spoons and so does not need to think about how many are used, whereas someone with an illness has, say, ten spoons a day. Every time a decision has to be made, a spoon is lost. Whether it is getting out of bed, doing your hair, or skipping breakfast, each one costs you. There are things that most people don’t have to think about, but there are those who are affected so deeply by a simple decision that it can ruin their lives. If someone likes another person they date them and see where it goes, but for me it is not that simple. I cannot live in the moment, and so those moments pass me by. Like Christine has to choose whether to run an errand or save a spoon for washing the dishes, I have to choose between being nervous during a relationship, or being nervous about the unknown world of the relationship. Is it my fear of change, my fear of love or my fear of rejection? I don’t know, all I know is that my need for control is my biggest downfall of all. If I don’t face my fears I will be constantly living in a state of terror, but can I really find the strength to “grab the spoon?”
(For anybody who wants to read Christine’s article you can find it at: http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/wpress/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/)
“Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” – O. Henry
Besides deep breathing and a small bottle of Rescue Remedy that I like to keep on my person, there are very few ways to relieve stress that actually works. I have tried medicine; like the time I went to the doctor who practically rolled her eyes when I told her I was getting overly stressed, before she prescribed some pills. I had to ask her if there was the possibility of a hormone imbalance. Then there is strength of will, therapy, distraction (I get through a LOT of Pride and Prejudice and F.R.I.E.N.D.S), drinking, avoidance and, I’m not going to lie, giving up. Everyone has those days when it seems easier to just go to sleep and not wake up again. Like many disorders it is exhausting, and takes strength every day to not let it control you completely, but I have discovered one sure fire way to release tension. Laughing. That is probably the cheesiest thing I could possibly suggest at this point but it is true. One time when things were getting on top of me a friend gave me a picture of Tom Hiddleston with a little note on the back. “Look at that adorable smile! That smile just melts away stress and anxiety! Just take a deep breath and let his smile melt all the yucky bad feelings away.” And it did, even if it was just the knowledge that I now have a group of friends that I can completely rely on to be there for me, no matter how hard it gets. Whether it’s a note or a midnight heart to heart, it helps.
“Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.” – Oprah Winfrey
When I was eighteen, before I came to university, I decided to get a tattoo. I wanted one that might give me courage, remind me that I was stronger than I thought I was. The problem is that my mum does not like tattoos, and I hate being told off. I hate that look that parents give you that says, ‘I won’t stop you, but I disapprove.’ I have been known to cry when other people are getting scolded, that is how much I hate conflict, and so naturally, doing something she disapproved of near enough gave me a heart attack, despite me technically being an adult! However, I booked it, had a panic attack, could not breathe properly for about a week, and still managed to go through with it. The tattoo artist kept grinning at me as if to say, ‘if you need to throw up, the toilets are out the back,’ and my friend kept looking at me with a worried expression. But once I was in the chair the pain was a nice distraction. When it was done my fingers were numb from gripping my arms but it said all that I need it to say; ‘Just Breathe’.
I would just like to clarify that this was not based on anything Oprah Winfrey said.