Quite possibly the only time some of you have met me I stood up in front of a room of 200 people and opened my heart, soul and mind to you by reading one of the most honest and personal blog posts that I have ever written. I think that I did okay, despite a nervous wobble at the beginning and a few tears along the way. I couldn’t believe I could make a room full of people laugh but I did.
So, it might come as a bit of a surprise if I tell you that throughout my whole adult life I have suffered with social anxiety, depression and panic attacks. When I was 18/19 I was living with friends and had a full time job. I had a nice boyfriend, a great social life and brilliant friends. But without any warning I started to get anxious and have panic attacks when we went out clubbing. So after a while I stopped going. Then I started panicking when we were in a restaurant or pub. So I stopped going. Then it started at people’s houses, then when shopping and bit by bit my life got smaller and smaller until the only places I could handle being were at home or work.
I cannot remember what made me finally admit that something was wrong and go to see my GP but I went thinking he would just tell me that nothing was wrong and I should just get on with it. So I was shocked when I walked out that day with antidepressants, a sick note from work and an appointment to see a therapist. I guess it is not until you stop, and look at your life that you really see the extent of the problem.
I went for my first visit to my therapist, her name was Elizabeth and she drank herbal tea. We talked about how I felt in social situations, what I could (very short list) and couldn’t do (very long list). Together we rated them in terms of difficulty. Going to Tesco to do the shopping at a quiet time of day, going into town for an hour on a Saturday, going to the pub, the cinema, a nightclub. Off I went the first week to try and achieve one small thing. I had to write a diary every day and bring it with me each week. I don’t really remember much more from the therapy apart from one thing. I was struggling with the whole process when we suddenly had a breakthrough. I remembered a night, one that I had pushed to the back of my mind. Not a horrible memory but one I wasn’t happy with or proud of. Turns out, this was one of the most significant nights of my life considering the implications it has had over the years.
I was 18. I had passed my A-Levels and gone off to University in Cheltenham. I was young, it was my first time away from home. I couldn’t get a place in halls so I lived the other side of town from my campus, in a room in a family home. One night during Freshers Week there was a comedy event at the SU bar and then I tagged along with some people that I had met to a nightclub in town. Once there I don’t remember a lot. I had been drinking but not excessively as I had to get myself home. I remember being standing by a railing looking at people dancing and feeling hot and hemmed in and panicky. The next thing I remember is coming to as a bouncer carried me down some back stairs, and dumped me on some steps in a side alley. I was alone and scared. I guess he just assumed I was drunk but I have no idea why he thought it was okay to just leave me there. Thankfully I remembered how to get home from there, and following large groups of people as much as possible so people didn’t know I was on my own, I made my way back to my room. Within 5 weeks I was back home, although I didn’t think that this incident was even part of the reason I left it definitely knocked my confidence and I found it harder to make friends.
Discovering there was a root cause to my anxiety definitely helped me deal with how I felt and to understand what happened and why. I had three months off work, and bit by bit I reclaimed bits of my life. I learned to recognise the signs of a panic attack, to know how to diffuse how I felt before it ramped up into a full blown attack. I learned that a panic attack was never going to make me throw up in public (my biggest fear). I ended up being signed off work for three months, on antidepressants for over a year.
I am not ‘fixed’. I never will be. Funnily enough I am happier standing up in front of a room of strangers than I am going to a friends house for a party. I know that I will never be the life and soul of the party again. I know I probably spend too much time at home in my comfort zone. I came to terms with my new smaller, but happier and more comfortable life. The day I moved to Brighton was a high like I had never imagined. I felt that I had done it, beaten it. I soon found out that was not exactly the case, that I still have limits. I hate going for a meal with lots of people, a combination of worrying about the bill and I tend to end up in a conversation vacuum, where the people either side of me are both talking to other people and I just sit there like a plum. I don’t do house parties anywhere other than my home (and I can only invite close friends). I get freaked by crowds. I don’t like to be hemmed in, I will always be somewhere on the edge. I still have dark, black days where I just want to stay in bed, although having a baby means you just can’t do that anymore.
I read Rebecca’s post on two-become-four and I started to leave a very long comment so I decided to tell my story here. I just want to say that yes, it can feel like life is small and these things will never get better. But that sometimes they do, and perhaps if there is someone out there that feels like I did, you might be stood on a stage one day overcoming all of your fears and feeling like you are on top of the world.