ENDLESS CRAPPY DAYS
ENDLESS CRAPPY DAYS
It’s hard to know where to begin a story that seems to encompass so much, but I’m about to have a good crack at condensing it as much as I can (probs still be a right old essay though) . I want it to be an honest account of what I have been through, where I am now, and where I hope this will all lead. Anxiety can be a bloody lonely place, and I want anyone reading this that might be trapped in that place to know that they most certainly are notalone and things canget better.
So a brief history of me (like A Brief History of Time, but less intellectually stimulating):
I guess I’ve always been an anxious person since childhood. I only found this out about three years ago when I had a course of counselling and, actually, it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Not the anxiety, obvs, but the moment when I finally understood myself.
I was seven when I lost my Dad to lung cancer. My world had been a safe and predictable place until then, so I always presumed that any problems with anxiety I have gone on to have must have directly stemmed from this terrible event. Now, I don’t think they do. I mean, it was obviously a tragic thing to happen, but my counsellor pointed out to me that all my memories of that time were actually hugely positive; my Dad showed me nothing but strength, courage and determination. I only remember a smile on his face and no pain. In that session, I remember she asked me what I thought I’d be like if I’d had my Dad’s influence: how would he have taught me to tackle difficult moments and challenging emotions? Having grown up without him, I still knew the answer: he’d have taught me to fight it and not to let it beat me.
I think my anxiety first reared its ugly head when my Mum suffered a few major health issues in the years that followed my Dad’s death. Having lost one parent, I became terrified that something would also happen to Mum. Eventually, these fears transferred to my own health and an on-going battle was born. I don’t know why my health anxiety has laid dormant in me for all these years, but I managed to make it through my twenties without any major hiccups.
Ironically, it wasn’t until the happiest time of my life that this whole thing came back to screw me over.
I’d just got married in the September of 2013, turned 30 in October and had a wonderful Christmas. In January of 2014, I started taking a form of Prozac prescribed to me by an endocrinologist I’d been seeing about some hormonal problems I started with a year before. Apparently, taking this drug for 10 days during your cycle can help the way your body copes with the different fluctuating hormones, and my culprit seemed to be Progesterone. At this point, I was diagnosed with having PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) and was suffering various major symptoms in the second half of my cycle every month. I had to leave the job I was doing at the time because of it and was really beginning to struggle. I started on the treatment but was so violently sick from it that I couldn’t see the 10 days through. One Friday morning, I took the decision not to take any more and to return to my GP for advice on something else to try instead.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that Friday.
To this day, I can’t be 100% certain it was the Prozac that evoked everything, but it would be a massive bloody coincidence if it wasn’t. As that day went on, I began to have waves of panic. It started off like butterflies and a bit of an unsettled feeling, but as the day went on it got worse and worse. By the time it came to 5 pm, as I was waiting for my husband, Alex, to get home from work, I was in the grip of such absolute terror that I was minutes away from calling myself an ambulance. The thing is what would I have said? I was experiencing fear on an epic scale but had absolutely no explanation for it. There was no danger, no trigger, nothing happening to me at that very moment. It was completely inexplicable and irrational, but very, VERY real. Alex managed to calm me down that night, but from that day on things just took a terrible turn. These anxiety attacks kept coming back every day, sometimes several times. I began to wake up feeling fear from the second my eyes opened. At my lowest point (and this might sound bizarre) I couldn’t see or hear ambulances without getting the urge to stop them or shout out for help; it was like I was being tortured from within, but I had no way of pinpointing the cause.
This is the point at which my health anxiety made its return – like an Eastenders character you thought was dead, but turns up in the Christmas Special to f*ck everything up.
I suddenly had all this panic without a cause, so my brain (cheers, love) gave it one. I began to get concerned about my heart rate. In hindsight, it was probably beating faster from all the anxious thoughts and feeling I was having, but I was convinced it was fluttering, missing beats, beating too hard, etc. because I was on the brink of a heart attack. I checked my pulse several times an hour and Googled the shit out of my symptoms every single day. If the ‘90s song Sunscreen is lacking one line, it’s ‘DON’T GOOGLE YOUR SYMPTOMS’. We all know it, but we just can’t help ourselves. It was an obsession, and it nevermade me feel better. Suddenly, my anxiety had a purpose and was running with it. I’ve been chasing it ever since as it’s passed the baton from heart attack to asthma attack, to ‘is my temperature actually Meningitis’, to ‘stop using tampons because you might have TSS’, to diabetes, to ‘what if I get ill on holiday?’, to ‘is my chest infection turning into Pneumonia?’. The list is pretty endless, and this has been my life for four years.
At least it was my life until I started a challenge that was doing the rounds on social media. It was the ‘100 Happy Days’ challenge where you had to take a photo a day of something happy for the full hundred days. I decided to give it a go, and I honestly haven’t looked back since. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous that something so simple and trivial could help me with chronic anxiety, but it has absolutely changed the way I think on a daily basis. It forced me to look at everything as having ‘happy potential’. Suddenly, lots of little moments/events were a possible entry for that day. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking dark thoughts about my health and looking for signs of anything that might be wrong; I was too busy looking at all the lovely things in my life. Some days (like the day I started it) were photos of big family gatherings, parties, or trips and other days it could be as simple as a great cup of tea, a beautiful sunset or a delicious meal. Either way, I have gone on to document 365 Happy Days on Instagram for the last two years, and am halfway through year three!
It hasn’t cured me, by any means. I’m not saying that doing this has made my health anxiety magically disappear because it is always, always lurking in the background waiting for a chance to stick its beak in. Sometimes it succeeds, but never for long. Now that I know my anxiety is always trying to attach itself to something, I can see it for what it is. I experience the panic, give it some air time, recognise what it’s trying to do and let it go. This might only take half an hour, it might take a couple of days, but I’m not at its mercy anymore.
The only thing I am at the mercy of now is PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). Those hormonal issues I was having four years ago? Yep, you guessed it. It has taken four years for various doctors to figure out that this is the source of my problems. I guess it wasn’t until we started trying for a family that it was investigated properly, but there you go. Funny how I’ve never lost a night’s sleep or a heartbeat imagining that my ovaries weren’t doing their job…
Going back to Sunscreen; ‘The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind’. How true this is! I never once considered that we might not be able to have a baby, or would at least struggle for years in our quest to have one (‘quest’?! Frodo Baggins) I’m now facing a few different options to try and make our dream of becoming parents a reality, and a whole new set of worries is rearing its ugly head. How will I cope with the treatment when taking new medication puts the fear of God into me? If it works, how will I cope with health anxiety during pregnancy? If we finally get our baby, how will I cope with motherhood and my mental health? It’s at this point that you find me, and so I know this is a journey that I won’t be taking alone. Not only do I have my husband and our families and friends behind us, but I know I’ll have the support of many women online who can offer their own experience and support if I need it and I’m here standing by to offer my help and support back. I’ve managed to turn endless worry into endless happy days, and so can you.
WRITTEN BY JEN RICHARDSON
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Women talking unashamedly about their mental health and parenting innit.