In honour of mental health awareness week I am going to share with you my personal account of how by changing my perception of anxiety, I changed my entire life.
If there is any misconception about mental illness being a choice people bring unto themselves, let me make it clear: NO ONE chooses to have a mental illness because if they could they wouldn’t even wish it upon their worst enemy. How do I know this? Because when I was 18 I was diagnosed with high anxiety disorder.
Frankly, my first feeling upon being diagnosed was relief. I used to scratch the palms of my hand until there was no skin and had a year without any appetite; leaving me looking like a pile of bones covered in fleshy tissue paper.
What I didn’t do when I was diagnosed was seek professional help for managing my symptoms; stomach cramps, oversleeping, lack of appetite, sweating, heart palpitations, excessive crying and panic attacks.
Accepting anxiety into my life
Defeatism wasn’t the reason why I accepted my diagnosis as a life sentence, it was based on my own experiences. Having lived with a schizophrenic family member who refused medication and would have episodes that swung from manic highs to vitriolic rants, I didn’t know of a person whose illness didn’t own them. So rather than thinking I could divorce my anxiety I just prayed it wouldn’t take my mind.
Five years after my diagnosis, my anxiety and I had graduated from University, got a Masters Degree and had even done a six-month tour of Europe. Throughout those years nothing ever came without a bit of drama; which brought on deep lows that followed me no matter where I moved. Only later did I see that in not loving myself enough I created an opening for severe bullying, unforgiving and complicated friendships and two emotionally manipulative relationships.
The realities of living with anxiety
When I moved to London at age 24 I was officially over living with my anxiety. There would be periods where for weeks my moods would stabilise and I would became hopeful that these episodes were all in the past, but then I’d wake up one morning sobbing with a self-loathing so deep I couldn’t get out of bed. It felt like I was back to square one, again, and I would punish myself for letting the anxiety control me.
While settling into London I began a healthy relationship but it wasn’t just the two of us, somehow my anxiety thought it was okay to pop in from time to time. While neither of us welcomed my episodes with open arms, we would treat it much like you do a family member who overstays their welcome; with bitter and silent acceptance.
Dating someone with anxiety
During an episode, it can be challenging for your partner to feel like their feelings and needs matter because how do you talk about a bad day at work when your partner is saying she would be better off dead. Knowing how to approach your anxious partner is also difficult. There are no manuals or guidelines. (I’ve googled and all you get is sympathetic partners on a Reddit thread asking the same thing.) So instead of reaching towards your anxious partner during a crisis, you turn into yourself, and, as I later learned, repressing your feelings can trigger the silent death of your emotions. Men are expected to be infallible providers and the burden they feel to take care of you is enormous. If you are suffering they want to fix you but the problem with anxiety is that nothing they can do will ever be enough to make your episodes disappear. And worse still, men aren’t allowed to publicly have insecurities, panic attacks or their own mental illness because culturally they aren’t portrayed as being anything less than hyper masculine.
When your partner feels unable to reach out to you about the issues they are dealing with, that is the moment you have lost your partnership. You are no longer equals turning towards one other for support, instead you have one person acting as a life-saving device and the other person clinging onto them as though they will drown without their strength to keep floating. That dependency creates an enormous pressure and most loving people would feel incredibly selfish to tell their anxious partner, “I cannot keep swimming. You need to start kicking your feet too.”
Judging how someone else is handling their situation
The other more unspoken issue with mental illness is the judgement placed on how the partner responds. If you end a relationship with a mentally ill person, you are getting a first class seat to hell, right? Wrong. If your partner isn’t able to address or acknowledge their mental issues then the relationship won’t positively progress and ultimately, you could both end up drowning. From personal experience I promise you, you cannot and should not be someone’s therapist. The pressure to get someone through their worst days without any professional qualifications is overwhelming and unrealistic.
Worse still, when you watch someone you love experience their tenth panic attack and not mention the words ‘therapy’ or ‘help’ you may feel frustrated. Society says that we aren’t allowed to tell our anxious partner ‘GO SEEK HELP’ or highlight that their behaviour has an impact on you too. As the mentally stable partner (whatever that means) you are meant to be logical enough to know that their behaviour is not personal, it’s the mental illness speaking.
My Rock Bottom
So after four years of giving it my all, I lost my partner and myself, and it was only at rock bottom that I saw the light. How humbling heartbreak and loneliness can be for reminding you to look within yourself. Suddenly I saw that this destructive behaviour and all that had happened to me was my responsibility. I couldn’t be a victim anymore. Yes, people had bullied me and that was in no way my fault but my own lack of self-love and negativity made me open to people treating me this way. Does it hurt to say this out loud? You have no idea the tears that flowed from this realisation. And please don’t misunderstand me, I know I cannot control having high anxiety but I sure can tell that bitch of a mental illness where to stick it and disempower her from ruining my life.
The lightbulb I found at rock bottom
After I had that epiphany you might be wondering what changed. In short, EVERYTHING. I did not just fix the leaky roof and the broken windows, I knocked the building of stories about my past down to the ground and created new, truthful foundations where I was responsible for the life I experienced.
While anxiety still sits with me like a shadow, she is quieter now thanks to a combination of Buddhism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The act of loving and accepting myself was the most transformative change I’ve ever experienced. Broken relationships were repaired in weeks and the people I attract now are so joyful.
When you take ownership of your life and realise that your energy and perception of Self will impact on who and what enters into your life, you focus on making sure your experiences are as positive and soul fulfilling as possible. Now I wake up each day with a simple prayer, May I gift the day with light and joy. Once you realise you were born with all the tools you need to be happy, becoming happy shifts from an effortful act to an effortless way of being.