It’s difficult to know where to start when asked to write a piece about your experiences with mental health. My instinctive reaction was typically Irish: ‘sure I’m no better or worse than anyone else.’ I certainly don’t consider myself to have serious mental health issues, but I play most things down at the best of times. Certainly, I have a story to tell. What has heartened me over the past decade when I find myself recounting it to friends (and occasionally to strangers) is how banal it is. This isn’t unusual. Most people can relate, either through direct personal experience, or through that of a friend or family member. This is reassuring – maybe I’m not so different after all – but at the same time, it means that I tend to play down my own experiences.
This blog post is a perfect case in point. I was asked more than a month ago to write something. I may even have volunteered myself. Anyway, in the intervening weeks, I have found myself procrastinating, knowing that it needs to be done, but at the same time rationalizing my inertia by telling myself that ‘I don’t really have anything relevant to say’ and that since I have generally been having a happy summer, there was little point in delving into the negative when I was enjoying a period of relative positives (or at least, not negatives).
The other challenge of writing about mental health – especially a one-off post – is that I feel a certain pressure to draw a neat conclusion by the end. I’m an academic by the way, so when I write something, it’s usually tied up neatly by the final paragraph, with lessons learned and elucidated based on what has gone before. A piece like this poses a particular challenge: there will be no happy ending or pithy concluding paragraph. A post like this can only offer a glimpse into my world at a point in time which both reflects on the past and hopes for the future. And I feel really naked without footnotes.
Anyway, long story short – my summer of relative calm was rudely interrupted by the return of a rather unwelcome visitor who I had not seen in a while: anxiety. Palpitations and tightness in my chest wake me in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, and pop up to say hello at odd times in the day. Last week, I met a very good friend for lunch. He emigrated to North America five years ago was in Dublin for a couple of days. This should have been a wonderful chance to catch up and reminisce with someone who I rarely see. Instead, I spent our lunch on edge, tightness gripping my upper body, my heart pounding, my mind in a million different places. I wanted out. I had to get out. As soon as we finished lunch I skidaddled home where I spent the afternoon in bed, not surfacing again until the early evening. This wasn’t especially unusual.
Anxiety is a pain (hilarious). Until the start of this summer, it had gone from an occasional visitor to a constant companion. Oddly, it was ending my previous job and declaring myself free for the summer which saw it off. At first. Now it’s weaseling its way into my life again.
At its peak, it landed me in hospital. I was walking to work one day in the spring and woke up in the Mater. A stranger found me passed out in the street and called an ambulance. The doctors told me that I had a seizure which was most likely the result of intense stress and palpitations. I had never considered that anxiety could be anything more than an impediment to a good night’s sleep and adequate social interactions. Now I learned that it would have me miss work against my will (and without my conscious knowledge!) – the fucker!
Things have been better since then. I have learned (or been forced to learn) to try and take better care of myself and, in so doing, lessen the stress in my life. It has, until very recently, more or less worked in diminishing my anxiety. However, stress, anxiety, worry, nagging doubts and recriminations about the past are always competing for my attention, and they are rarely happy bedfellows.
By now, anxiety feels like a constant companion, but in fact it’s a relatively new part of my life. I had never experienced a panic attack, palpitations, or acute tightness in my chest until about three years ago, until a rather brutal dumping (the most unpleasant parting gift imaginable!). I have, since I was a teenager, always been prone to bouts of depression, and felt that, as I approach the end of my 20s, I was through the worst of things and could ‘control’ my life to a much greater extent. I’m learning that things aren’t that simple. Certainly, things will never be as bad as they were in my late teens early 20s: the scars up and down my arms are a reminder not only of how bad things can be, but also of my resilience. Things were bad. I got over it. I would like to think that I’ll do it again if I need to. Talking to others, discovering the vast number of friends, acquaintances, and strangers who have had similar experiences, also provides reassurance and hope. Most people have a story to tell and are all the better for telling it, even when it’s as mundane as this one.