Here’s post number 2 for Mental Health Awareness Week. I just wanted to share some thoughts about what I find most difficult about both anxiety and depression. I’m sure there are other things that other people find more difficult and I do think these things play out differently for different people but here’s a little part of my story.
As an academic I am used to my brain working. I am used to being able to think, analyse, critique… I am used to being able to string sentences together and I am used to working with complex ideas. I’m a lawyer; language, words, text, arguments – that’s what I do. So for me the hardest thing about anxiety has been the panic that sweeps into my brain like a tidal wave of chaos. It turns my brain into a jumbled mess of negative thoughts and emotions and turns off my ability to process those. I’m generally a little chaotic and a lot emotional and I often have more than one thought or idea at a time and I am always working on lots of things at one but I can also sit down and map, sort, collate and connect, link and compare. I can deal with lots of information and I can do it quickly but when anxiety hits it feels like I forget how. It’s not that I get overwhelmed with too much emotions or information, it’s that I lose the ability to order it. Do you remember the bit in the first Harry Potter book where Harry and Ron have to catch a key with wings and they’re in a room full of keys with wings. Imagine my thoughts and feelings as those keys and imagine that I am usually a fairly competent witch flying on a broom but when anxiety hits someone increases the speed of the thoughts tenfold and makes me fly into strong crosswinds. It’s disorientating and frightening because I can’t hold on to a thought for long enough to deal with it. I can’t dismiss negative ones because they whizz past and I can’t work with productive or positive thoughts because they’re gone before I know what they are.
When depression strikes my brain goes quite fuzzy. I feel like Winnie the Pooh – a bear of very little brain, like there’s just cotton wool between my ears. It means that even thoughts I can hold on to, I can’t process properly. I can’t follow arguments or thoughts all that well. I don’t understand. As an academic that is terrifying. At my worst I have picked up my own work and haven’t been able to follow my own argument. I have had people talk to me and I have literally had no clue what they were saying. It’s like everything is presented in a language that uses the same words as English but they mean something different. Actually it’s a lot like having a conversation between sociologists, lawyers and political scientists – we often use the same terminology but mean something different. So maybe I’m not depressed, maybe I just do too much interdisciplinary work. (I am not being serious here – obviously. There is no way my depression addled brain could do interdisciplinary work and untangle the nuanced use of language. I can only do this when I’m well).
Because thinking clearly is so important to what I do and who I am, it’s the not being able to think clearly that I find the hardest about suffering from anxiety and depression. It also means that I often notice it coming because my ability to think deteriorates. That’s a good thing I suppose, it means I can try and stop it. More thoughts tomorrow maybe.
It’s mental health awareness week this week. How apt. I am acutely aware of my mental health this week. I had a people-y week last week and people-y weeks are exhausting because whenever there are people there is lots of potential for my anxiety buttons to be pressed. Whenever things get people-y I get super conscious of everything. I get conscious of my insecurities and anxieties. I am hyper-aware of what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. I question what people think and see when they see me and I over analyse everything. It takes energy and it’s also silly but I need time away from people to breathe and be me and remember that I am enough. Just me. As I am. I struggle when I don’t get enough time away from people.
I’m mostly doing ok though but because it’s mental health awareness week I thought I’d share some thoughts. Often people have no clue that I have wobbly mental health, a silly black puppy and rather over sensitive panic triggers. Unless I share that information, I don’t think that’s what people see. I function and I function at quite a high level almost all of the time. I am good at what I do, mostly anyway and I like what I do, mostly anyway. Having wobbly mental health is so hard to explain. I’m not sad or unhappy at all. I am ridiculously happy with my life. Some might say I have it all and in a way I do. I have a loving and supportive relationship, three crazy cats, twentysomething fun sheep, incredible, creative, strong, thoughtful, lovely friends, parents who have always encouraged me to be me, financial stability and good health all round. There is no reason for me to be depressed or anxious. None at all.
So what triggers my wobbles and what are they, how do they show themselves? I’m pushing outside my comfort zone here. I am always brutally honest on my blogs but this feels quite vulnerable. But if we don’t start sharing our stories we’ll never get to a point where we don’t need awareness weeks anymore and if I am too anxious when I’ve finished writing I don’t have to hit publish! Right then, what triggers my wobbles? I don’t know. Sometimes it is not having enough space to slow down the many thoughts in my head and filter the inputs and the emotions. That’s the people-y bit. I think that’s why I struggle with inane chit chat and small talk. My brain is already full. I want to talk about things that matter to me and that matter to the people I love. I don’t want to make conversation about stuff because my head is already full and then it gets cluttered and messy and I can’t focus on what is important to me. I need quite a bit of time, every day, to clear the clutter and just be, to re-balance. When I don’t get that I get anxious. I think that’s probably because my brain can’t distinguish between important and not important and becomes overwhelmed thinking it has to engage with and deal with everything.
Other triggers include having lots to do at the same time with conflicting or close deadlines. I can and do quite successfully prioritise most of the time but to do that I need distance and calm so if this coincides with general busyness and/or having to be around people then I struggle and wobble. Lately things not going to plan or suddenly changing plans is also a bit of an anxiety trigger, this is new so I am still figuring that one out. It may just be a bit of a control freak thing. A huge trigger is not being able to do something. I’m no good at being rubbish at something. I don’t do things if I know I am going to be rubbish at them. This is why running has been so hard and yet so good for me. I am a rubbish runner. I am not – by whatever definition you want to apply – a good runner. I find this hard. I have unrealistic expectations of myself and when I don’t meet them, I am my harshest critic. Running keeps pushing me out of my comfort zone and it does keep triggering my wobbles but it also teaches me how to deal with them so I am much more resilient now than I was.
So how do you know if I’m having a wobble? Well the short answer is you won’t know. Unless I tell you of course, or you’re running with me. When running my wobbles come as sort of ‘I can’t do it’ tantrums. They often include tears and sometimes they include sitting down en route while I wait for breathing to return to normal and then, sometimes the wobbles include a steely and silent determination to just do, it’s gritted teeth, head down, world shut out sort of running or walking or plodding.
Non running wobbles usually manifest in an inability to concentrate and focus, in breathing too fast and not deeply enough, in being exhausted and sometimes in an almost physical inability to get off the sofa. At their worst I can hear you talking to me but you might as well be speaking a different language. That hasn’t happened for a long time, it’s scary when it does. It can also just be a feeling of ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘there’s no point’ and there is always lots of ‘you’re not good enough, not clever enough, not funny enough, not likeable enough, not effective enough, not whatever fucking enough’. I sleep lots and sometimes I don’t sleep at all. Sometimes my wobbles last a couple of hours, sometimes a couple of weeks and sometimes I don’t really know that I was having a wobble until I suddenly feel better.
I have my strategies. I set off to go to my teaching rooms earlier than I need to so I can walk slowly and just breathe, I run up the stairs so I am forced to focus on the physical effort and then forced to breathe deeply. I will deliberately tune everything around me out so that I can then refocus on what’s important to me. I’ll always choose one to one or small groups over lots of people and sometimes I’ll talk more than I’ll listen – and it’s not that I don’t care about you – it’s just that if there is no more room in my head, listening might push me into panic mode. Other times I’ll just listen because I’m exhausted or convinced that you won’t want to hear what I have to say anyway. I run, I do yoga, I listen to music, I watch the birds on our bird feeder and I read because sometimes being in someone else’s story is better than being in my own. I have my mantras – they work in life as well as for running. I am enough. I am strong. I love hills. They’re all true and all lies at the same time.
Like I said, I am doing ok at the moment. I have more days where I feel like I am thriving, like my brain actually works, like I can do things than I have days where I feel like I can’t get off the sofa. I am no longer just functioning and I am learning to look after me – not once I’ve crashed completely from trying to function for too long – but look after me now, learn to deal with wobbles, see them coming, prevent them. I’m lucky, my black dog is a puppy and my anxiety issues are relatively low key. I have nothing but support around me and I am getting stronger. I am not in any danger and I am in a position to talk/write about this so there it is. If you are struggling I want to tell you this: you are enough, just as you are, you are so so so enough and it’s ok to not be ok. It really is and if we all start believing that then maybe one day we won’t need mental health awareness week anymore.