My journey with mental health, especially anxiety, hasn’t been a smooth ride. It took me a long time to come to accept my issues and the use of medication, and that wasn’t an easy thing to admit to.
I was offered but declined anti-depressants when I was in my early teens, not wanting to go down the route of pills. I was first prescribed anti-anxiety medication when I was about 19, but not for the same reasons. After I took and failed my first driving test, my instructor suggested I talk to my GP as he thought I had high anxiety. I managed to pass the theory with flying colours, but the practical was another matter. I declined, thinking I didn’t need pills to get me through anything. I tried and failed again. After a few attempts I realised I wasn’t just nervous. It wasn’t worry over passing that was getting to me. It was the shaking, the desperate itch, the repetitive thoughts, the twitch in my leg that meant I couldn’t keep my foot on the clutch. My instructor had said later on that I could have passed first time if I had sorted out the physical aspects of my anxiety as my driving skills weren’t the problem. When I saw my GP and explained what I was going through and the symptoms I was experiencing, and had experienced for a while, added to what a psychologist had already diagnosed years previously, I had to face up to it. I had high anxiety, and I could either keep putting my head in the sand and failing all of my tests, or try medication and see what happened. After fail number 6, I accepted. Test number 7 went smoothly, though nothing had changed other than taking the medication, which stilled my leg, stopped the shaking and calmed the itch of the anxiety.
Since then, it’s been a bit of an uphill struggle with medication. I have hated to admit that it helps me. Knowing that it makes a positive difference battles with the other part of me that doesn’t want to be on pills. I don’t want to admit that I need them or have a use for them. I don’t want to feel powerless over my mind or my body in this way. I don’t want to seem weak or inadequate or be labelled as having ‘mental health issues’. High anxiety was something I was embarrassed about for a long time, but back then it wasn’t as widely acknowledged either. And so it went, with me being on/off them for several years, struggling to accept and admit to having an issue and taking medication for it.
I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a hypocrite. I’m someone to whom the phrase ‘Doctor heal thyself’ applies. I can say all of the right things to someone else; I know what to do, the advice to give, the way to treat someone with compassion. I just can’t apply the same thoughts and knowledge and advice to myself.
It’s silly, also, that I know the underpinnings of anxiety medication through a Psychology degree and my personal interest in mental health. I know the biochemical aspects of SSRIs and how they work. I can appreciate the factors that cause and contribute to anxiety, depression and other mental and behavioural activities. I know, I know, that anxiety is real, that there are things going on in your head and in your physical make-up that form part of the cause and effect. I understand CBT and reframing thoughts, but also how this doesn’t always impact and improve issues such as anxiety, that sometimes the neurological and biological elements can override them to some extent. I therefore should be able to accept that, as a human being, these factors apply to myself too. I’m no different to anyone else. These things can affect me, I can’t always change how I feelby changing my behaviours and thoughts. Sometimes there’s something bigger at play, something that medication can reach when you cannot.
The psychological and physical impact of anxiety, and indeed depression, has been quite forceful as it affects day to day life from minute to minute. It’s not just worrying and stressing. It’s overthinking. An obsessive need for control that gives way to nervous worry and painstaking indecision over the smallest of things. Repetitive thoughts. Dizziness and heart palpitations. Panic attacks that make you feel as though you’re suffocating. Shaking. Poor sleep and concentration. A metaphorical itch you can’t scratch.
Just because you can’t see the anxiety inside your head doesn’t mean it’s not there. You may not be able to show someone the imbalance of brain chemicals, the firing of neurons, the regulation or serotonin and noradrenaline. You may not be able to give a reason for having anxiety. It may or may not form part of another issue; it may be generalised anxiety, or it may be part of post-traumatic stress or a result of social anxiety disorder. It may just be, just because it is.
I can’t truly pinpoint mine. I had a degree of OCD when I was much younger, though it was never known back then what it was, I was simply rather frustrating at times and a little odd. I still remember now the painstaking time it would take some mornings to get my shoes on in the morning before school, with my mum having to keep taking my shoes off as one was slightly tighter than the other, and then one sock was slightly off-centre, and then because she had touched my left foot she had to repeat the exact same action with my right foot except it wasn’t quite right so shoes and socks had to come off to start all over again. While some remnants of this remained, the OCD style behaviours transformed in to more repetitive thoughts as I got older. I had social anxiety when I was younger, the kind that was crippling when you’re entering high school and can’t even cough in public. Depression and anxiety took over from there, and still affect me to this day to differing extents.
But what has changed over this period of time is society. Conditions such as anxiety and depression and OCD are now more widely known and accepted, more talked about. On top of that, more famous faces are speaking out about mental health. Amanda Seyfried has recently commented on how she has been taking anti-anxiety medication for the past 11 years and believes mental health, as an invisible illness, should be taken as seriously as physical health.
It’s a shame that despite the increased awareness and therapies, both psychological and pharmaceutical, that are available, that stigma and judgement still abound. As with other invisible illnesses, mental health conditions can’t be seen until they affect overt behaviours, and most of us can get pretty good at covering them up and plastering over the cracks. I think we need to challenge how we look at medication too. Everyone is different; some will benefit from the likes of CBT, some will benefit from exercise and dietary changes, and others will benefit from medication for the biochemical and neurological elements.
One thing I have found really difficult to come to grips with is the sense of being out of control. That I can’t fully control the anxiety myself through the things I do or the way I think. But taking medication isn’t giving over your control. It’s not admitting there’s nothing you can do and now need to be reliant on taking pills. Quite the opposite. It’s about realising that mental health conditions can be viewed and treated akin to physical conditions. There are times when medication can work in conjunction with other forms of therapy or self-care. It doesn’t make you weak, you are not simply at the mercy of your brain chemistry. You are taking control of your life by admitting there’s an issue and doing something to help yourself. And that is something to be proud of.