Panic Attacks, Holly Golightly’s Mean Reds and M.E.
Anxiety and AnxiME
Now would be the perfect time to write this blog as yesterday, for the first time in months, I had a spectacular meltdown. Well, to give it its technical term… I had a panic attack.
I don’t know at what age I first started having panic attacks; I’ve probably always had them. Even as a child I remember being incredibly anxious. My dad used to say I’d worry if I had nothing to worry about. And that pretty much sums me up: just a ball of anxiety who can accessorize.
Only when I was an adult did I realise it wasn’t ‘normal’ to feel scared all the time. The best way I’ve heard it described is by my hero, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She referred to the Mean Reds and described them as “horrible. Suddenly you are afraid and you don’t know what you are afraid of”.
The Mean Reds are what keeps you awake at 3 AM as a swarm of angry wasps stings bad thoughts and self-doubt into your brain over and over again. Too many of us are familiar with the Mean Reds.
Back to yesterday. I’d left my purse at work. It wasn’t a big deal, but I had been tired all day (M.E tired not regular tired) so this just tipped me over the edge into a hyperventilating mess of tears and snot. My wonderful partner drove all the back to my work via the motorway and collected my purse. I felt so ashamed of myself. I could have hit myself. It felt like such a throwback to the days of those really bad panic attacks when I used to literally slap myself during the worst of the attack. Crazy, I know.
The attacks were bad – and regular – enough that I used to keep a tally on my phone, and on one memorable occasion I reached 20 days without a panic attack… then felt so bad when I ruined it.
And that feeling of ‘badness’ is a problem. We’re not doing anything wrong when we have panic attacks. We’re just experiencing something difficult, and aiming to overcome it and cope as best we can.
There is so much shame and stigma attached to mental illness. We all know it. And when we live with it, we put ourselves through so much guilt and self-punishment. It takes a lot for me to admit I have depression. Even then, I try to rationalise it as a side-effect of having a chronic condition with no cure.
Why am I ashamed? Because to have depression is to show a sign of weakness? I particularly don’t like telling people I am on anti-depressants, even though I’d quite happily take a pill every day for the rest of my life if it meant not feeling like I did before I was on them.
These days I would describe myself as quite a happy, positive person who is (hopefully) fun to be around. Yes, even though I had a panic attack yesterday. However, I had very bad bouts of depression when I first got diagnosed as a teenager. Stuck in bed all day, your life revolves around the now defunct Paramount Comedy channel schedule. No friends, and your only social outlet is your mum taking you to the coast once a week.
In recent years my depression manifests more as apathy. It’s really hard to explain the reasoning behind the games my mind plays with me, telling me lies like “you’re contributing nothing to society or the people in your life. You’re just a burden to the people in your life, and they wouldn’t really miss you in the long run.” Unhelpful brain. Thankfully, this feeling doesn’t linger.
In order to dispel my own prejudice and those of society I have been speaking to people about their own experiences with anxiety and depression. I asked people what symptoms their panic attacks had and what the attacks felt like. One friend described the feeling as “like falling down a well”. Or like the world is caving in on you. Some people had no outward symptoms of panic attacks, just a feeling of immense dread.
As I am a very visual person, I imagine my anxiety and depression as demons. For example, for anxiety I imagine a demonic entity with lots of spikes with which to prick its victim with bad thoughts and feelings. For depression, I might picture a large black evil duvet which smothers you so you can’t move or cry for help. I’m not alone in anthropomorphising anxiety and depression, either – after all, Winston Churchill famously referred to his depression as “the black dog”.
My friend thought an anxiety demon would be a snail whose shell was weighing it down, and another friend thought depression would look “sort of like a dementor” sucking all the joy and fun out of life.
As always, talking to people made me feel better and less alone. It also made me feel sad, because I don’t like seeing people in pain.
Hopefully we can all help each other to exorcise our personal demons.
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