Sunday, 31 May 2015

I'm not the kind of person that has an anxiety disorder

Okay, that probably wasn't the most surprising conclusion.

I just thought I was one of those people that simply worries more than other people.  I worried a lot, about a lot of things.  I'd worry that family birthdays wouldn't be remembered, and would text everyone to make sure no one forgot.  I'd worry who would be around for Christmas, to make sure that my parents would feel like enough of their children wanted to spend at least some of the day with them.  I'd worry if friends were careless with other friends, in case anyone's feelings were hurt.  I'd worry if people didn't queue properly, if waitstaff weren't thanked correctly, if I were going to ruin everyone's fun by being the slowest runner or cyclist in the bunch or the worst at tennis.  I even remember, as a child, absolutely hating the flower my mom appliqued on a Sunday School dress she had made for me (the centre of the flower was blue instead of yellow - it just was not right!) and every Saturday night I would work myself up into a state, in the event that my mom would suggest I wear the dress the next morning, but not wanting to hurt her feelings either.

This went hand in hand with a pessimistic, fatalistic way of thinking.  I would imagine a disastrous outcome to anything - for example, I'd imagine dropping a sharp knife and stepping on it every time I unpacked the dishwasher, or that a car would pull out and knock me over if ran past it, or that someone would jump the traffic light and drive into us if I, the passenger, did not pay close attention to how everyone else was driving.

My head was also filled with negative dialogue.  I was stupid, I was ugly, I was slow, I was useless, I was not liked, I walked funny, I talked funny, I stood funny, I was a fraud, I was going to be found out, I was not like everyone else, why was I not like everyone else, what was wrong with me?

So this chronic worrier decided to take up mountain biking.  I should point out that I am also painfully clumsy and very easily distracted.  Call me brave, call me daft, but the inevitable happened and I hurt myself in quite a bad accident (or as a friend described it, I stuffed myself up proper) and after six months I had not recovered mentally.   As my therapist explained, after six months PTSD sets in and it starts becoming impossible to unravel rational from irrational thought.

As a result, over the next few years I developed a fear of losing control that affected so many aspects of my life.  I would lie in the bath or in bed and have these flashbacks of the feeling of losing control of my bicycle.  I was terrified of hurting myself by falling down the stairs or a balustrade coming loose and falling to my death or going too fast in the car and ending up in a terrible accident.  It was utterly exhausting!  You'd think it is possible to talk yourself out of the panic, but I could not, because there was always that slight possibility that the worst outcome could conceivably occur, so I became absolutely obsessed with these thoughts of disaster, but tried to hide my distress by squeezing my hands together and digging in deep with my fingers in a drumming motion, grinding my teeth and breathing quickly and shallowly as inconspicuously as possible.

I knew I had a PTSD issue by the time I started seeing my therapist, but had not realised that the behaviours and thought patterns so deeply entrenched from as far back as I can remember were not normal.  Oh and I tried my utmost, in the first session, to explain myself.  After all, this is my role in my family.  If I am not there to make sure my dad has eaten dinner the day my mom has back surgery, who will?  What if he became ill from not eating properly?  Who would look after two sick parents?  And of course I had to organise Christmas Eve dinner or my parents' anniversary dinner.  Who would if I didn't?  And what if my brother in England hadn't received an Amazon delivered gift on his birthday?  What if no one else gave him a present?

About a week after that session the realisation dawned on me - I did not have anxiety because of PTSD.  The PTSD was an inevitable outcome of my propensity for anxiety.  This was devastating to me because, for the first time in this journey, I was faced with the truth this was so much more complex than I had anticipated, and I was not going to be 'fixed' quickly in two or three sessions.

What amazed me over the course of the next two months of therapy was that, if you catch the triggering thought, as it originates, you can challenge that thought and stop your brain from running away with itself.  You can learn this new way of thinking pretty quickly too and make it habit in no time at all (my throat-constricting panic attacks disappeared immediately and I've not had one since!).  Also, dumping your worries in a journal at night clears your mind and assists sleep.  Countering 'what if' with 'what if not', even if you don't believe it, slowly unravels logical from illogical thought.  And finally, learning that, even if you believe it to be, holding everything and everyone together (whether they need you to or not!) is not your responsibility, is so utterly freeing.  Because really, what IS the worst that can happen?  And if you don't, someone else will probably step up.  Or not.  But that would not be your problem either.

Freeing myself from the loud, glaring, obvious shoutiness of anxiety has been lifechanging.  I know what to do about it now.  I am not just a worrywart and I don't have to make excuses.  I have an anxiety disorder.  I have so much more peace.  No one has minded and nothing has fallen apart.  Who'd have thought it?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

I'm not the kind of person that goes to a Psychologist. Repeatedly.

I didn't really mean to in the first place.

In October last year I was sucked into the End Of Year Rush.  I'd taken on far too much work.  I'd done it before.  Repeatedly.  Sandra, my business partner (and one of my best friends), warned me that I was stretching myself dangerously far and was going to snap, but I guess you don't have any concept of your limits until you are faced with them.

Unsurprisingly, I got sick. The doctor, a new GP I was seeing, confirmed I had a sinus infection and asked if there was anything else bothering me.  Feeling a little like I may be overreacting, I mentioned that, recently, I kept feeling like there was a wind stuck in my chest when I went to sleep.  This was causing me to wake up feeling panicky, just after I fell asleep, often triggering a nightmare (more like a night terror) that I would to die if I breathed in or swallowed.

The doc reacted with a lot more interest than I had expected him to.

Him: How long has this been going on for?
Me: About three or four months now.  But (trying to downplay it all) I have always had nightmares.  My whole life.  Spider nightmares mainly.  You see?  Nothing to worry about.  My mom used to have spider nightmares too, it's probably just a genetic predisposition, right?
Him: Let's just worry about you for now.  Do you wake up just once, or more than once in the night?
Me: More than once.  Maybe four to five times on a bad night.  But I have episodes.  It goes away.
Him: And how long do these episodes last?
Me: Probably two to three months at a time.
Him: How many of these episodes do you have in a year?
Me (realisation setting in): Probably two to three
Him: And for how many years has this been going on?
Me (starting to feel somewhat embarrassed): Um, probably for the last six to seven years?  Maybe longer?

What I did not tell the doc is that going to sleep had become an ordeal.  Something I had come to fear.  Several times a night I woke up, fighting breathing in, convinced I would die if I did, and on occasion would resign myself to having already died, panicking about what Alistair was going to do when he woke to find me lying dead in the bed next to him.  Absolutely terrifying - pounding heart, shaking like a leaf, sweating - night after night.  I suppose I did not want to sound melodramatic.

The doctor smiled.  So are you telling me, that for the past six to seven years, you've spent up to nine months of each year not being able to sleep through?  Often causing you significant distress?

Imagine how completely stupid I felt, having always believed myself to possess a healthy level of self-awareness.  Apparently not.

The doctor suggested that the level of reflux setting off these nightmares was as a result of something that was subconsciously bothering me.  I figured that it was mostly likely just a case of PTSD from two unpleasant cycling accidents, seeing that I still had flashbacks and had not been able to climb on my bike in over a year.

That was the first time I was wrong.  The first of many times.

The Psychologist at the practice was recommended.


The word was foreign in my mouth and sat awkwardly on my tongue.  I am a verbal person and what I have noticed is that, when I struggle to identify with a concept, I struggle with the vocabulary.  Like when my dad had Cancer.  And, as I would later experience, the words Anxiety;  Disorder;  Depression; Anti-depressants.  Instead, I preferred the word Therapist.  Much less nut-job, far more easy to admit to.

I walked into the reception that Friday for my appointment.   I mumbled, I am here for Karolyn, the Psychologist.  I very nearly said, "Oh, but it's just because I can't sleep, nothing serious!".  I looked around the waiting room to see who had noticed me, the Psychologist's patient, and no one was particularly interested.  Then the shame hit me - I am a progressive woman, damnit!!  How dare I be embarrassed?  Except that I was.  Because I was now the kind of person that had a Psychologist.

The next day I went to dinner with three people, very close to me.  I decided to try out the word again and told them I had been to a Psychologist.  It turns out, all three of them had too, and still do when they need a bit of perspective.  They thought it was great.  Turns out I'm not so unique after all!

Karolyn has been a godsend.  Different therapists have different approaches and hers works for me.  We have a lot of conversation.  She gives me her opinion. She is a logical, rational sounding board and I could see the results of her influence as early as the second session.  I had experienced an approach that did not work for me in the past (during trauma counselling after an armed robbery) and if I could offer any advice I would say this: if you need the help, find the approach that works for you.  It could be a particular Psychologist's style.  It could be an alternative therapy even - Body Talk, life coaching, acupuncture even - I have friends who have all had their own successes with their chosen form of therapy.

I think we all suspect when something isn't quite right.  Finding the courage to scratch the surface?  That runny-nosed visit to the doctor could not have been more perfectly timed.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

I'm not the kind of person that needs that kind of help

The two biggest lies I've always told myself:

1. I always handle it, no matter how much I take on ('cos I am Superwoman like that, right?)
2. It must be tough to be one of those people who needs medication to cope.  I'm so glad I'm not like that

Until the day I sat in my doctor's office, a few weeks back, and in response to his question of why I was so against taking something 'non natural' to help me return to myself, I actually told him, "This may sound really ridiculous, but I am just not that person.  The type that takes medication to cope".

As I said it, I realised that I did, indeed, sound ridiculous.  He apparently thought so too, from the amused (and slightly pitying) expression on his face.  What does that even mean, 'I am not that person...'?  What sort of judgement am I placing on the character and resilience of 'those' people?  At that moment in time, I had no right to draw comparisons and hold myself, inadvertently, to a higher level.  Because the truth is, I am exactly the type of person that is conditioned to push themselves so hard, take on so much (invited or self-inflicted) and worry so incessantly about everything and anything, that one day they break their brain.

And that's exactly what happened to me.

So after seven months of visits to the psychologist, blood tests, GP appointments, homeopathic treatments, I have decided to write about my experience.  I am fortunate to be on the way out of the black hole.  If not, I would not be writing today, on account of having lost the ability to string a simple thought together for a while there.  What this experience has made very apparent to me is that mental health problems are confusing, difficult to recognise in oneself, and often not very apparent to anyone around you either.  They can be caused by something physical or they could just be 'all in the head'.  I don't know which is worse to accept.  They are seldom 'textbook' and can vary in range and severity.  Whatever the manifestation, they are utterly valid to the person experiencing them, whether we perpetuate the stigma of embarrassment or denial or judgement ourselves, or if anyone around us does, by diminishing our experience in any way.

For sure, the self-imposed judgement is the worst of it.  Thinking back to seven months ago, I was not the type of person that went to a psychologist or had an anxiety disorder or got depressed.  Until I was.

Perhaps some of what I have experienced will ring true.  And if my experience can make this all feel a little less scary, confusing or embarrassing to anyone else, that will be great.  If it doesn't, well it's a bit of therapy for me.  For free.  My medical aid will be very grateful.

Now let's go back to the beginning of it all...