Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Stigmas, smoking and support networks

Last weekend was basically a write-off.

I'd recently finished a course of antibiotics after a particularly nasty chest infection, and when I still felt pretty rough I thought that the infection hadn't completely cleared. But I was busy, so I just got on with things and ignored my increasing breathlessness and feelings of weakness. Friday morning I was due to sit an exam, but I realised soon after waking that I didn't feel right at all. Stepping out of the shower I felt faint and saw that my hands were shaking, and on the way to uni I realised that my spatial perception was off, and I was walking as close to the inside of the pavement as possible because I was scared that if I did faint, I would fall into traffic. During the exam, I felt awful - I know that I answered all the questions, but I have no recollection of what they were or how I processed them. Since I was seriously worried by this point, I got to the doctors that afternoon.

There was no infection - she diagnosed asthma. What I'd been experiencing that morning was an asthma attack, and it was lucky that I'd been given an inhaler to help with the chest infection and that I'd used it that morning, with no idea that what I was experiencing was an asthma attack.

Now there are two things you should know about me at this point:
1. I'm a smoker.
2. I have a history of anxiety and depression, rooted in low self-esteem.

This diagnosis floored me, and sent me into an acute anxiety attack that lasted the weekend. It was the most intense and extreme episode of anxiety I've ever experienced, and it was awful. I gave myself asthma by breathing poisons into my system voluntarily, and the guilt and shame added hugely to the intensity. I was scared and furious with myself, aware of my extreme reaction and then worried about my mental health as well as my physical health. I had another assignment due on Monday and I couldn't concentrate, I couldn't write, and the more I tried to read around the task and focus on it, the more I doubted myself and the more confused and frozen I became. This sparked more fury with myself and doubts that I could handle a degree, particularly in psychology, if my own mental health issues were going to incapacitate me.

It was horrible and scary, but on Sunday night I began sending emails to relevant people at university and started sorting things out on Monday. I've managed, with a lot of help from friends and staff at the university to start catching up with work that I was falling behind on, doing the readings I needed to do and getting myself organised. I've talked to the people at uni who can help me, or who needed to know what was going on so that they could support my studies, and I was brutally honest about what happened and how I felt about it, and what I'm planning to do now to get back on track. They've been unfailingly supportive and understanding, and have said encouraging things about my abilities and the way I'm handling the situation. I'm more informed about what support is available should I need it and what to do if I hit another bump. I feel more in control of the situation now that all that is done, which means I'm calmer and the anxiety has died down - I can focus again and be productive because it's all out in the open and I have a plan to catch up, with lots of offers of help and support when I need it from others, some of whom have only known me for a few weeks.

I also have an appointment for a session of hypnosis to try to quit smoking...Wish me luck! While I'm nervous about the idea of someone rummaging around in my brain, I'm willing to give it a go, it will be worth it if it frees me of the tobacco goblin.

The point to this post is to encourage others out there who read through my ramblings not to give up, not to be too hard on themselves if things do go wrong, and to let people know that in most cases, the vast majority of people are kind, accepting and supportive. Anxiety and depression are incredibly common, and admitting to having it doesn't make you crazy or weak. In fact, it can also help others - today I talked with a woman who is also on my course, and she seemed really stressed out about the workload. While trying to reassure her about the course and the support that was available, I also told her about my lost weekend and my diagnosis of anxiety and depression. She was very surprised, and said that she'd never have guessed - I come across as very confident when people first get to know me (I'm not sure why, but I've been told this before. Once people get to know me, they soon discover that I'm a quivering mass of neuroses and insecurities), and she opened up about her own issues and her life. We now have a connection and can support each other with the difficulties that come with studying and managing a mental health condition at the same time.

One of my biggest fears when I had more than one bout of depression and got a diagnosis of anxiety and depression was that I would be ill for the rest of my life, and never be free of it. I just wanted to be "normal", and the thought of facing another bout of depression was unbearable. That has probably been the biggest challenge, and the hardest thing to come to terms with. However after years of work and help from doctors and counsellors I began to accept that yes, I have a diagnosis of anxiety and depression, and yes, there is always a danger of a recurrence. But I have got to a point where I know what my triggers are, I know what works for me in helping to manage those triggers, and crucially - I know what to do when the worst happens and something goes wrong: I reach out for help, and I know that it's out there. I have a diagnosis, but it is something I manage, it doesn't define who I am, and I refuse to allow it to stop me from doing what I want to do.

Anxiety and depression are so common, but being able to talk about it so openly is difficult. There are, and will likely always be, people that will judge others for it. It leaves you incredibly vulnerable, and I have at times had it turned around and used as a weapon against me - to discredit my opinion or my feelings. But I've got to a point where I can be open about it, and someone who would use it against me isn't someone I would want in my life anyway, or whose opinion would matter to me. I can take the odd hit without taking it to heart, and I know that the people that are close to me accept me for who I am, the good and the bad. This mental health condition is a small part of who I am, and I don't regret the fact that it is. There was a time when I just wanted to be "normal" and wished it had never happened to me, but now it is so interwoven in my life and who I am, that I don't even know who I would be had I been born "normal." Most every quality I think I possess has both good and bad sides, and can be a character flaw or an asset, depending on the context and how I handle it. I am "too sensitive", but on the other hand I believe that this has helped shaped empathy. I've been through terrible anxiety and depression that has left me reeling and incapacitated at times, but then my battle to understand that and overcome it is what sparked my interest in and love for psychology, and has driven me to want to help others in similar situations. Without that and the lessons I've learned when battling my own inner demons, I wouldn't be who I am today, and after many years of work, I can say that I like who I am today. Why would I want to change who she is by removing one of the aspects that has helped to shape her?

The stigma that surrounds mental health issues is still very much alive, and keeps many of us scared to admit to problems for fear of being deemed "crazy" or weak, or for the very real possibility of discrimination. While we remain hidden away, the stigma continues to grow, and others don't realise that one in four people around them will have experienced a condition like anxiety and depression at some point in their lives. I've come to terms with who I am and I feel confident enough to speak openly about my issues: I want to fight that stigma, and the best way I can personally do that is to lay myself bare and encourage dialogue, knowing that I have a strong support network around me and the self-confidence to handle any consequences, good or bad. I don't ask nor suggest that others open themselves up to all and sundry in this way, since it's a very personal issue and I have opened this up to anyone on the internet who cares to read it! I do suggest and encourage anyone experiencing it to talk to someone though, and reach out for the help that is out there.

To conclude, I had an attack of anxiety and it was awful, but it was a blip instead of a slide into depression. It lasted three days, not weeks or months. Had this happened a few years ago, I would have hidden it as much as I could, tried to get on with it and catch up on my own and not told my uni what had happened, and it would have dragged on for weeks or months. I vividly remember how it was to carry that alone, afraid that I was crazy or that people would judge me, and getting lower and lower until I was drained and in a clinical depression. If anyone reading this is feeling that way, then please, reach out for help. Go to your doctor, go to a mental health professional, go to a friend or anyone you feel safe talking to and ask them to help you find professional support. You don't have to feel that way, you don't have to deal with it alone, and it can get better.


  1. You're right, it really does get better. You're out ahead of it now.

    Hugs and love!

  2. Courageous -- and, you are right, something which many other students need to (but usually don't) hear.

    Good for you :-)

  3. Thank you, both :-)

    I didn't manage to write it beautifully or in a very well constructed way, but I felt that it was more important to get it out there now than to worry about the structure and beauty of it and never get around to actually posting. I have slightly more elegant thoughts and a purpose to posting it that I might be able to shape and write more eloquently at a later date. We shall see!

    The ingredients are there, I've just left it up to the reader to put them together into a presentable meal. The "one-pot casserole, slap it onto a plate and serve" approach to blogging!

  4. One pot casseroles are good solid food, an important part of every cuisine!

    Your serving here is nourishing for many who are afraid to talk of their own pressures

    1. Thank you! I'm just delighted that anyone is willing to read through all of that! I'm slowly working on being a little more concise. Slowly and reluctantly! :-)

  5. I know how far you have come to be able to say 'I like who I am'...

    love you sweet, well done xxx