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?

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