“Nothing is to be feared but fear [itself].” Sir Francis Bacon knows nothing of the importance of his words to my life – this year alone, I’ve stated iterations of his quote (to myself) more than I’ve used any other words in the dictionary.
My problems began in summer 2011. After three months of blood tests, scans and invasive procedures, I was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer. The summer passed in a blur of shock, denial and fear. It quickly became apparent that I had two major problems to tackle – the cancer with accompanying treatments and the severe anxiety that would run alongside it, eventually becoming the more malicious of the two evils.
I’ve suffered bouts of ‘normal’ anxiety throughout life – who hasn’t? However, after my cancer diagnosis I began to experience a heightened state of fear almost constantly – it just wouldn’t leave me alone. After an intolerable amount of panic attacks and the realisation that I was becoming a recluse, I began cognitive behavioural therapy. Mid-way through, the psychologist diagnosed me with Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) with obsessive compulsive tendencies, post-traumatic stress and panic disorder. And I thought the cancer was complicated! Labelling them didn’t matter to me as they all contributed to each other, feeding the anxious beast in my mind.
Perhaps I should have expected this but at the time I was otherwise consumed with all the fun and games of cancer treatment, and it didn’t really occur to me that my feelings were escalating out of control.
Fast forward through many panic stricken days to May 2012 when I was deemed a medical miracle – although not cured of cancer, the doctors hadn’t expected me to respond so well to treatment. My life was to become my own again, allegedly. I should have been euphoric, singing from every rooftop in London. I just felt awful – I may have won a battle but the war was just beginning.
Currently a typical day begins with strong feelings of dread and doom on a spectrum ranging from mild to horrendous, characterised by the feeling that ‘today is my last’. I’ll spend (a lot) of time wondering whether I’ll choke on my breakfast; trip over the cat and break my neck; whether my partner will be hit by a car and other such niceties.
The physical symptoms are always there – the crushing feeling in my chest, the difficulty swallowing, the hyperventilation and the dizziness. My mind whirrs continually – negative thoughts compete for space in the dusty loft of my memory lobe. Panic releases adrenaline into my body – I’m always in ‘fight’ mode. Unfortunately when the fight is against an antagonist that is unseen to all and extremely unpredictable, it’s very difficult to win even one round.
GAD is a difficult thing to explain rationally, especially when you’ve been a fully functioning member of society. I try to keep my sense of humour when explaining to loved ones that I am sometimes controlled by a ‘beast’ and that, yes, weirdly, I have degrees of both agoraphobia and claustrophobia.
I fear most forms of transport, being alone in my house, being outside in a crowd, choking to death/drowning/being murdered and the impact of this leads me to feel there is no purpose to my life. GAD is an illness of peaks and troughs – one day I can feel fabulous, the next dreadful. The continual not knowing is a very difficult thing to accept and however hopeful I am one day, GAD quickly slams me back down to earth the next.
I would be so very grateful to wake up without the doom-filled prophecies, leave my house with a jaunty whistle, hop on the train, go to work, sit in a meeting with my colleagues without feeling like the walls are collapsing in on me, walk down the street without clinging to a person/fence/bollard, have lunch without wine to calm the nerves, not jump out of my skin when I hear any loud noises. All the things I used to do without even thinking.
I’ve tried various anti-anxiety drugs and alternative therapies with some degree of success. Positive mantras used to be an alien subject to me but are now a daily habit. Music rates highly on my list of things to make me feel better. Crying is unfortunately a regular occurrence but it’s a good way to release tension. I’m currently undergoing treatment called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing which I am hoping will make a difference in the long term.
It’s interesting that although one in 20 people have GAD, I’ve yet to meet anyone (outside of anxiety forums) who really talks about it – I think anxiety is still a taboo subject. I am really appreciative that Anxiety UK is trying to rectify this by raising awareness with this video (below). I hope it helps people talk about anxiety a bit more, so that we can try to beat this malevolent enemy.
For more information about anxiety visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk