I have been working on this blog for a few months now. I understand what a delicate topic it is, and I have really struggled to be this vulnerable on an exposed platform. But since so many people have been so courageous in opening up to me about challenges with their mental health, I feel that I should be honest with my own experiences and share the tools that I learned as a teenager that have been so transformative.
My first recollection of pure anxiety is being in primary school and feeling so ugly that my body felt constricting; my ugliness was inescapable, and it choked me. I was prisoner to my flesh. I felt the conviction that I was unlovable and repulsive. When people laughed at me for my looks or made passing comments about my ugliness, I am sure that they had no comprehension of the soreness that every word ignited. I can now reflect that my catastrophic thoughts were symptoms of anxiety, and that they were gross exaggerations of what I was told. Nobody was crueller to myself than I was.
In later years, I would receive counselling after a series of upsetting events caused these fearful stirrings to detonate.
“Where in your body do you feel it?” my counsellor asked.
“In my head,” I replied.
“What does it feel like?”
“What colour is it?”
Sticky red licked my insides during my lessons. It fizzed through my pores when I laughed with my friends. It mocked me when boys showed an interest. They would never want you if they knew I was here, it sneered.
The worst of the acid was at bedtime. I could not sleep. Loneliness leaked from me like sweat in my hours of wakefulness. Compulsive thoughts of how to get to sleep scratched at me until I was slave to acts that I thought would help me: go downstairs again. See if mum is awake. Change beds. Move something.
I became Head Girl. I got good grades. I started going to parties and working in my weekends. I was excelling, in the conventional sense.
I became a liar. I smiled often when I felt like I was at the bottom of some chasm. What was the point in telling people how I felt when they had never felt it? I would be ostracised, mocked, ridiculed.
I was the painted version of a girl who got it right. I had a dark secret; I was unhinged.
I have a distinct memory of being told by a very religious primary school teacher that if I did not believe in God, I would go to hell. I had agonised over this statement at the time: would I have to believe in God to ensure a safe passage to redemptive paradise? Would I have to be separated from my parents whilst they suffered eternally for being non-believers? Could God sense that I was merely forcing myself to believe in him out of fear?
At 16, I recalled these younger anxieties on a particularly upsetting night. How, I marvelled, could anyone in the world sleep and be still? There was so much to fear. People died, people were false, and life was full of unexpected complications. I feared myself above anything. I felt that the serenity that I sought was congested by a self-made fire that scalded every sweetness I touched. I was flammable. The very hell that my infant self had so feared was my own mind.
What was I to do? I was consumed by the sureness of my irreparability. I was different from other people with anxious conditions, I knew; others could be helped. I was a special case. Nothing could ever save me.
I really want to share those thoughts, because they were amongst the most lonely and scary. But, as I would later discover, they are in fact classic examples of anxiety. Such self-doubt is ironically a precise symptom of an illness that, as with many illnesses, can be treated.
Finally, my mother and I decided that getting professional help was my only option. Travelling to my first appointment, I began to cry. How had I become one of those people? One of those people for whom normality was a daydream? One of those people who was not strong enough to work things out on their own? One of those people who had to relinquish their independence for a shot at – dare I even believe – happiness?
And bleeding through my sobs was a screaming fear that my conviction was about to be confirmed by someone with qualifications and experience: I was beyond help.
My counsellor’s garden was beautiful. That, too, made me anxious. I could no longer appreciate beauty. It reminded me of a feeling that I knew I would never have again: peace. I cursed the beautiful garden and continued up the path to the counselling room.
My counsellor’s name was Barbara. She had grey hair and kind eyes. She wore floaty clothes and smiled with her mouth closed. I wept and wept to her that day. She asked me to focus on my breathing. I tried and told her that I couldn’t; concentrating on my breathing too much made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. She nodded calmly. Then I went home.
For around a year I had weekly sessions, and after this time I returned a lot less frequently. The 50-minute slots were comprised of two elements, the first of which was general therapy. At first, I spoke about obvious traumas. I spoke about the death of a close family friend and its impact on my family. I spoke about the bullying, the searing prejudice of the city where I grew up and my grade-related worries. Gradually, more feelings emerged that I was surprised had found their way to articulation; I felt that I didn’t deserve the life I had. Why was it fair that I was doing well on the outside when I knew people whose life circumstances had left them broken and hopeless? Perhaps some of my anxieties were self-punishment for my own glaring privilege.
One day, we were discussing my age-old struggles with my appearance. I recalled to her how tired I was of the comments about my skin colour. A boy had come up to me at a party and informed me that sex with me would be ‘fish curry’. I told her how it felt to be out in public knowing constantly that I was being sexually and racially evaluated. The frequent comments were starting to make me nervous about being around boys when they were drunk and uninhibited.
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?” asked Barbara.
“Someone who is brown,” I told her.
She nodded and said “You said you write. Have you ever thought about writing about how you feel? It might be a healthy outlet.”
I had, of course. I had written stories, poems and articles all my life. I had a fortnightly column in the local paper. And yet nothing I wrote really reflected the anarchy of my thoughts. My words clung to imaginary people, or self-deprecating journalism that mocked my heavy holiday packing and love of shopping. When I was upset, I would make fun of what upset me. I had yet to be courageous enough to write something that publicly conveyed my intimate disturbances.
When I got home, I wrote a blog called ‘Human Girl’ about my struggle with my appearance. I surprised myself with the honesty of what I had written and was willing to share. I was also surprised by how my mind felt a little lighter; the lie that I felt I had been telling everyone for years was eroded.
Shockingly, honesty about my anxieties began to unravel them. Being flagrantly flawed was not so terrifying. Holding standards of perfection to myself had been exhausting; it had left me comparing myself to the pristine Mia that others knew. I could never truly shine like her; erasing the illusion of her was liberating.
The second part of my sessions involved learning mindfulness and self-compassion techniques for dealing with negative emotions. This is the part that I would really like to emphasise the importance of to every reader. I will share here some of the most significant lessons that I have accumulated over the years.
- The human body has not yet evolved past the cave-man stage of fiery responses to any threat and, very significantly, any potential threat. Panic attacks are our bodies’ flight-and-flight response to something that either is happening (a bear is about to eat us) or something that might possibly happen (I will fail my exams). Our bodies’ physiological systems cannot distinguish between the imminence of these two predicaments. We can therefore have very real, and very destructive, reactions to events that have not even occurred. Remember, having this irrational reaction does not mean that you are broken or weak. It is a natural component of being a messy, complicated, very real human.
- As a component of our physicality, alleviating the symptoms of panic attacks cannot happen (except I presume via drug therapy) by eliminating the undesirable feelings. Feelings are entirely natural, and objectionable emotions are only to be expected. Self-soothing arises not from blocking difficult feelings, but from reacting to them with warmth and kindness. The initial unpleasant reaction to an event is only the first stage of a panic attack; the cycle of terror that ensues is a response to this initial feeling. This response might consist of self-judgement for feeling upset in the first place and the distress that your panic makes you abnormal. Mindfulness cannot remove the original feelings of sadness or fear. It can, however, teach us to respond to ourselves with loving kindness instead of judgement and aversion. With time and practice, we become less reactive.
- We do not feel horror, dread or sadness only in our mind; these feelings manifest themselves physically. Where do you feel anxiety? What colour is it? Does it move? Depression, loneliness and anger will all be manifested by different bodily sensations. Identify them with curiosity and interest; realising that emotion is something tangible to be identified and treated with care makes it far less frightening.
- Lastly, anxiety can be felt by anyone, at any time. People respond very differently to it; some might try to control their surroundings or their eating behaviours. Some might become reclusive. Some might become incredibly extraverted. Some might become irritable, distant or erratic. Some might immerse themselves in social media to avoid confronting their own reality. There is no right or wrong way to be anxious; every way is valid and a very difficult journey. Understanding how many other people must be feeling the way that you do allows you to connect with those around you. It does not have to be so stiflingly lonely to be anxious.
Incredibly, through years of mindful practice, thinking carefully about what triggers negative thought patterns for me and learning to be kind to myself in difficult times, I have come to be the person that I once thought entirely impossible. Your thoughts are not an indicator of reality. Even the strongest of persuasions is eroded with time. I was not beyond help. The courage that it takes to be your own help is the most challenging hurdle of all. Seeking professional guidance is terrifying. Removing yourself from familiar situations is terrifying. Befriending yourself is terrifying. Change, even if it is beneficial, is terrifying. But the human mind is elastic; contrary to what our thoughts and society tell us, the mind is malleable and can be retrained.
Individual differences make it difficult for me to give specific advice, but there are a few things that I can recommend. Be very cautious with social media. For me, deleting Instagram was an imperative. Our society is complex enough without the ambiguity of online expression and messaging. I know ample people whose online personalities would suggest that their happiness is unwavering when their private reality is the opposite. Removing yourself from the situation is the healthiest option, although I know that for many this is very difficult. Decreasing screen-time, unfollowing accounts that increase your stress or beginning to post less are still great ways to minimise a pressure that you might not even realise is draining you.
Also, ghosted messages haunt my nightmares. Social media has facilitated the rise of the flake. It can be very hard to admit our hurt at being able to see that we have been outright ignored after making ourselves vulnerable, and suppressing this pain is very anxiety-inducing. Deleting an app for a week is allowed. My phone broke almost two months ago when I was abroad and is still in the lengthy process of being fixed. This means that for days on end I do not touch social media. This is fine. You can enjoy being detached.
That being said, tell people how you feel. Learning to be vulnerable is terrifying, but incredibly liberating; it unfetters. This can be so difficult, both in friendships and relationships. Be gentle with yourself if the fallout hurts but do try to tell people how you feel where possible. Allow yourself time to develop this ability – it can be very hard, especially if you have been let down before. I am still far from mastering the heart-on-your-sleeve outlook, but I am still striving for a more open heart and mind! Letting people feel your affection is the best combat we have to the stark emotional wall of our social media personas and messaging. (For more on this, I would recommend reading Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’).
Some friendships and relationships are simply poisonous: allow yourself to leave entire groups if you feel that the impact on your mental health outweighs the emotional benefits. Listening to the signs that your body and mind emit can be a very effective indicator of a dangerous set of relationships that aid no one. You are perfectly entitled to set boundaries.
Having an outlet is very healthy too; I try to be honest on my personal blog. This allows for authenticity, which for our generation is difficult given our online presence and the ‘game’ of our sexually liberal society (see ‘Good Girl’, my blog from a few months ago). This is so freeing. If you have a creative mind or inclination, it is a perfect space to express yourself!
Most importantly, speak about how you feel. One of the most petrifying notions for my adolescent self was that I knew no one in a similar situation. After some time in counselling, and working out how best to aid myself, I opened up to friends and family. I was surprised to find that almost everyone I knew had a similar story. Every friend my age had something to admit to concerning their mental health. The relief of our frankness was beautiful. I was able to acknowledge the mutual pressures that we all experience but ignore, to the detriment of our mental health.
Being in a very different place now to where I was as a teenager has given the most precious gifts; the ability to empathise with others, to help and assure those struggling, and to understand better the mechanisms that make me who I am. I will never pronounce myself ‘cured’, despite feeling so far removed from the dark place that I found myself in. I am able now to reflect that whilst my period of severe anxiety was an immensely difficult personal trial, everything that it taught me has been a critical component of maturation. However, I still get anxious, sad, upset and angry. On some days all that I have been practising is forgotten and my feelings are overwhelming. But as with any day when you are very hungover, or hungry, or betrayed, or laden with work, or have seen the state of the environmental and political landscape lately, such a state is inevitable. Sometimes you feel atrocious just because. Having the courage to allow yourself to be imperfect is part of the mindful process. You may one day feel utterly overwhelmed once more, and there is no need to label yourself with “always fine”. Life is nothing if not unpredictable.
I would like to close this blog by saying that if anyone needs someone to reach out to, I will be there to listen, and help you to find the right help and resources. If you, like me, have experienced a period of mental struggle and feel ready to, discussing calmly what you have been through and your course of action can be deeply soothing for others and can encourage them to be proactive about moving forward. I recommend finding mindfulness meditations to practise online, or better still reading up: my favourite is ‘The Mindful Path to Self Compassion’ by Christopher Germer. It provides a variety of exercises, with useful anecdotes and guidance.
Seeking help, whether from a counsellor, friend, partner or family member, is not weak as I had supposed. It is brave. It is brave to learn the tools that promote peace, and it is brave to share these tools with others. Do not be fooled into considering yourself a failure if you are unable to cope without aid. Remember the courage it takes to admit instability and learn slowly to love yourself for it.