Anxiety crept up on me. I didn’t expect to have mental health issues. Not when I was 37, not after I’d just about navigated the intensity of having two babies and seeing them through toddlerhood. It caught me out, and I was really cross about it. It’s difficult to accept that it’s ok not to feel great. Even if everything looks great on the outside. My internal monologue went along the lines of “stop worrying, don’t be ungrateful, there are plenty of people worse off than you”. I quickly discovered that even if you know you shouldn’t feel bad it’s absolutely possible to feel wretched. Mental health challenges don’t discriminate, anyone is fair game.
This was two years ago and my life didn’t outwardly appear any different to how it looks now.
If you didn’t know me very well, and I suspect even if you did, there appeared nothing out of the ordinary about my life.
Anxiety: Tipping Point
But I was at a tipping point with anxiety. Tipping point makes it sound extreme and terrible; it was neither of those things. What I felt was wretched and awful, not myself. But mostly, I felt afraid.
I felt like an observer of my own life. That I deeply wanted to be the woman I portrayed on social media- happy, busy, successful, active, loved. But I was watching my perfect life, rather than living it. Being annoyed at myself for feeling bad.
Let me give you the context. I count myself as incredibly lucky, I grew up in a loving happy home. We weren’t well off, but we were comfortable and I, as the youngest of 8 children in a complex blended family benefited from the years of hard graft and the experience of my parents. I do not know two stronger people than those two. I grew up knowing that bad stuff might happen, but that there’s nothing you can’t cope with if you talk, if you love and if you’re there for each other. There was loads of love, still is.
I did well at school and was the first generation to go to Uni. I settled in the North East, a long way from my family but where the friendliness of the people, genuine sense of community, shared heritage and identity made it feel like home to me.
My aspirations were to find a job I liked, earn some money and, importantly, have a family. Materially all I wanted was to be able to afford to buy my lunch from Pret every day and have a makeup bag stocked with Clinique.
Two years ago, aged 37 I realised I had literally everything I had ever wanted. Everything. I don’t want to sound smug, I realised how lucky I was, and while life had thrown its ups and downs at me I was wanting for nothing. Yet I still felt bad. Motherhood is harder than I expected, being the breadwinner is a tough job, living up to my own expectations of perfection, it turns out, is impossible.
Anxiety: Mounting Symptoms
What people didn’t see were the mounting symptoms of anxiety. I displayed avoidance and controlling behaviours- cancelling plans at the last minute, saying no to things I wanted to actually do or having to be the organiser and controller of everything so I felt comfortable. My heart would race at having to do normal family stuff- like the school run, nipping to the shops or taking the girls to parties. I felt vulnerable having to look after the kids on my own. If Steve was away for any reason we would often stay in the house the whole weekend. We stayed at home rather than having adventures and I pretended that was ok. I cancelled meetings because I just couldn’t face it that day. I cried a lot.
When I look back I realise that the “safety” behaviours I’d let develop had grown over a lifetime. I also have IBS which has played a role in defining my comfort zone.
Two years ago in spite of “having it all” I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t being the mother, wife or friend that I wanted to be. All my efforts were put into my job, I functioned well at work- excelled at times and just wrote off my safety behaviours as symptoms of stress and tiredness and in some ways that was true. But I knew it was faintly ridiculous that I was more nervous about walking the kids to school than standing up delivering a speech at a conference. My priorities felt totally upside down.
In the end I headed to see the Doctor in tears, she referred me to NHS talking therapies where I was diagnosed with anxiety. I undertook an online CBT course called Fear Fighter over 6 weeks which gave me tools to manage anxiety and to better understand the causes. It was an eye opener, and incredibly challenging at times. I also started meditating, via the Headspace app, 10 minutes a day- and I still do this- this has had a bigger impact than I thought, I’ve just been through and edited this blog, realising how many times I referred to “my” anxiety, rather than just anxiety, how you frame a problem affects how you feel about it.
Anxiety: being kind to myself
I still have “wobbles” but that’s to be expected with the pace of modern life, but I feel much more in control and happy. I have tried to rewrite my narrative- taking control and having the life I want, appreciating all I have and do. Being kind to myself. I now run- for the last 8 years exercise is something I avoided, too busy too tired. But I don’t want to waste my physical wellbeing because of anxiety. I’ve also changed jobs, moving outside my comfort zone into a new sector- my instinct tells me I’ve made the right choice. And I can do the normal stuff again.
So how to end? Anxiety has never been severe for me but it chipped away at the very essence of me and eroded my quality of life, and my confidence, and it had to stop. I took back control and thanks to the patience of my closest family and friends I feel like myself again. I’m sure it’s not gone forever, but I’m not afraid anymore.