This lady's approach was to give me some elastic bands to wear on my wrist, telling me to snap them against my skin every time I felt my internal pressure gauge starting to rise. I don't remember it helping the anxiety itself, but it certainly made me aware that there was a flow of energy that needed to be caught. Somehow.Months later, I left for university in London with more of an understanding about panic attacks and the claustrophobic loops of anxiety they cause. My parents knew because I had to explain the abundance of fawn-colored elastic in both their houses, and were kind and understanding, but I still lived in constant fear of having one (something I'd later learn was a defining characteristic of panic disorder) when I was out and around other people. Whether I was in lectures, pubs or nightclubs, it never left me. Not for a minute.
Every next second and its potential escape route had to be mapped out. Just in case. Anxiety is the "what if" disease
At various stages of my life, I've had panic attacks every day, more than once a day. My first "breakdown" (therapists discourage us from using that word these days, but that's what it felt like) in my third year of university built as my fear of having a panic attack became a 24/7 obsession. I feared walking to the Tesco that was 100 yards away, let alone going to lectures. I needed a "get out" plan for every possible eventuality, even if that was just nipping across the road to the corner shop for milk.
Panic comes in lots of flavors. It can run the gamut from a gnawing unease in the belly to fear that feels like being hit by a bullet train.
Over the years, I'd become a master of disguise—no one, but no one, could have told you I had an anxiety disorder, save for my inability to get on the tube for more than a couple of stops.
All my friends now know I have a tendency for anxiety and panic attacks and, as with most of these grand revelation–style things you build up in your head, when I "came clean" about the reason I'd been so flaky in the past, none of them were fussed. They still aren't. People care, deeply, but are generally reasonable once you've explained something to them—be it struggling a bit mentally sometimes or tie-dying the hair in your bum crack. They just want to try to understand what you're saying, offer support, then get on with their lives.Not talking about our mental health just doesn't work out well. As Stossel writes, "My current therapist, Dr. W, says there is always the possibility that revealing my anxiety will lift the burden of shame and reduce the isolation of solitary suffering. When I get skittish about airing my psychiatric issues in a book, Dr. W says, "You've been keeping your anxiety a secret for years, right? How's that working out for you?'"If I can add my own tuppence worth to the conversation, the most crucial thing I've learned about treating anxiety is that you need to find a therapist you like. If that means "shopping around" until you find someone you're comfortable and can completely brain-dump with, and you have the resources to do so (most private therapists offer concessionary rates if you ask), that's OK. If you are relying on NHS services through your doctor and don't like or get on with who they refer you to, ask for someone else—it's your health and you don't have to stick with someone you feel weird around, just as it's your right to ask for second opinions with physical illness. Your brain is an organ and it needs proper maintenance when it gets ill. It is, like Louis Theroux said of his own therapy experience when I interviewed him recently, "like looking under the bonnet of a car and seeing what's going on."With this therapist, who I'll call "S," I've realized that the absolute backbone of me being able to function properly was accepting that there was no "cure" to make me better—only techniques and interventions (in my case, medication) to make life livable. Frustration is too close to anxiety and the constant "WHY THE FUCK IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME" thing, like not talking to anyone, makes it worse. It's too much pressure.How did I go from telling no one about my issues to writing in such detail here, you might rightly ask. To which there is a very simple answer: People all over the world plough the internet every day searching for mirrors to their own pain, looking for evidence that people have overcome dire mental discomfort. An echo. When I was unwell, that is all I wanted—some idea that I could come out of those black woods.It's a very base idea that being more open about our own experiences with mental illness will encourage others to talk about theirs. But it's true. Stossel writes about attending a dinner with a bunch of writers and artists in his book, and how, after he'd spoke about its progress, each of the other nine people responded by "telling me a story about his or her own experience with anxiety and medication. Around the table we went, sharing our tales of neurotic woe."I've been in a similar situation more times than there is to recount here. People—high-functioning, highly successful people—are crying out to talk about their struggles with mental health. No one would feel ashamed discussing an arrhythmia: Why should an instability in the brain be taboo over one in the heart? People want to be heard—someone just has to push that first domino. And this idea that we'll be "revealing" too much—as I have been fearful of in the past—making people uneasy or run the risk of forever painting ourselves as a "crazy person" by talking about our mental health is so very wrong. It's question of health full stop. The man who served you your coffee this morning may have overcome cancer a few years ago. Or, he may have overcome a bout of severe, disabling depression. He may have attempted suicide and been sectioned, but you'd have no idea because he has recovered and is getting on with his life the best he can.See, this is the thing about being human beings: We don't stay the same. We change, we adapt and we can get better—just as with any other condition. We're highly evolved like that.If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.Follow Eleanor on Twitter.Artwork by Nick Scott
People—high-functioning, highly successful people—are crying out to talk about their mental health. Someone just has to push that first domino.