“Yes, but there isn’t anything wrong with your heart, you know.”
These words still haunt me. They still cause me to bristle and feel ashamed. Yet, I can’t even remember if it was a male or female doctor or a nurse that said those words to me. Nor can I picture his/her face or tell you anything else about him/her. I do, however, remember the shade of lemon and mint green paints used in the consultation room. I remember clearly staring at the floor, face burning and feeling mortified. And just a little bit angry.
I’d been trying to describe the symptoms of what I would come to know was a mild anxiety problem. I would later be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) with some Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tendencies. At that moment, however, I was in my early twenties, with two decades of experiencing behaviours and feelings that didn’t seem normal, and desperately trying to describe them to see if there was any way to feel a bit better.
Perhaps the words came out harsher than intended, perhaps I misinterpreted them, or perhaps she just didn’t believe me, but which ever way, those words stung and left me with a complex about mental health that exists within me, to some degree, even today.
It takes no time to crush someone’s confidence if you’re not careful.
Anyone who has ever felt nervous about anything can testify that while anxiety is a mental phenomenon, it often manifests itself physically: racing heart, sweating, tension, sickness and shaking are all symptoms that anxiety suffers experience. Anxiety is common place; it’s an instinctive reaction to danger. It’s just it becomes problematic when it is your common state of being. It is an issue when you constantly react to danger that isn’t there.
Anxiety had been my every day for years, on and off. From waking in the night and feeling an overwhelming responsibility to ensure my family were alive to checking taps, plugs and electrical items, intrusive thoughts led to extended periods of worry. By my mid-twenties, it was getting out of control. There was always something lurking in the shadows. There was always a thought, starting off no bigger than a seed, that could come to life faster than Frankenstein’s monster. (Later I would learn that, like that monster, appearances are deceptive and engaging with the thought and understanding it would be the best remedy.) These thoughts chip, chip, chipped away at my confidence, my enjoyment for things, even some of my relationships.
It takes time, but recognising that something isn’t quite right is a big step.
So what changed? A little while later, on a routine appointment with another nurse, it came up again. I wanted to know if the medication I was taking could cause mood swings and sadness, because, well my moods were swingier than your average playground set and I felt mostly sad, most of the time. With some prodding, this nurse made me relax and got me to explain. And just like that, she was referring me to a counsellor. Nothing fancy, just someone who I could go to for a couple of sessions and talk it out. Someone who would give me some suggestions of how to take back the control I felt I’d never had.
It took time, but talking was the first step to feeling better.
And so it began. That couple of sessions became months of sessions. Each week was spent tackling a different thought or a different behaviour. There was no quick fix and no magic pill for never feeling anxious again. Everyone feels anxious sometimes. We’re supposed to. It’s human. However, understanding this, learning about how anxiety is useful and when it is useless made the biggest change to my life.
It took time, but listening to an expert explain anxiety was a huge step to understanding and, ultimately, feeling better.
It’s been five, maybe even six years since I last sat down with Jen and talked and listened. In that time, I’ve found a confidence to talk more openly about mental health. I realised that people I knew with back problems or long-term injuries could talk about their health, so why not talk about mental health? There’s nothing heroic in it. There’s nothing usual in it. We’re just not in the habit of it. So, in honour of Time To Change’s Time to Talk Day, it seemed important to share just one small story and remind people of the need to talk and the need to listen. I’m so glad that first experience talking about mental health didn’t put me off forever. Had it, my life would be a lot worse for it.
It took time, but talking and listening about mental health helps me to keep feeling better.
Take your time to talk. Take your time and listen.