When I tell people that I have had pretty serious episodes with anxiety in the past they look at me in astonishment and disbelief and usually say something along these lines:
"You Ceri? Anxiety? But you're such a confident and outgoing person!".
Well yes, that is completely true, I am very confident and outgoing but anxiety is no respecter of persons: young, old, male, female, extrovert, introvert, black, white.. it can strike fear, quite literally, into the heart of any individual. And it's not fun. Not one bit.
The year was 1998, it was spring time, May if I remember rightly. I was in my room at university and my French friend, Lionel, had kindly offered to come and help me proof read an essay. We were heavily immersed in checking verb endings and adjectival agreements when all of a sudden I became aware of a funny feeling in my stomach: I had butterflies in my tummy and they had come from nowhere. There I was in the comfort and security of my room, there were no apparent threats or dangers and yet I was becoming increasingly agitated and tense, a strange prickling sensation had taken over my face and my hands were cold, clammy and trembling. Over the next few days it became more intense: I wasn't eating or sleeping, I had chronic diarrhoea and I was terrified to be on my own since in moments of silence and solitude my mind would run riot and thoughts of doom, dread and destruction threatened to overwhelm me. Thus, in the space of a week I had become a completely different person, the very antithesis of the upbeat, self-assured individual I considered myself to be.
That was my first encounter with the ugly, soul-sucking monster that is anxiety . The thing is, at the time, I had no idea that what I was experiencing was termed "anxiety"; I simply put it down to exam stress and burning the candle at both ends. And sure enough, once the exams were over and the summer holidays began, the strange feelings that had invaded body and mind went on their not-so-merry way and I was soon back to my old self. The years passed and I barely gave a thought to those few anxious months. As far as I was concerned it was an isolated incident and history was unlikely to repeat itself. If only...
Flash forward to 2002. I am in Romania undertaking a mission for my church. It was to be an 18 month mission but I'm only 6 months in and then one day my stomach begins churning and fluterring, my face starts to prickle.. I cannot believe it is happening again. I desperately tried to continue with my mission, to fight the nausea, dry mouth, palpitations and the increasing sense of unreality. This last symptom is hard to explain. It's was as if my thoughts and actions were not my own and that I was looking at myself from the outside. In any case, it was terrifying, debilitating and meant that I had to leave the mission field and return home. I was devastated and so very, very disappointed in myself and my apparent inability to control my thoughts and feelings.
I went to see a doctor. He prescribed me anti-depressants and advised me to come back in 6 weeks time if "things weren't any better". Removed from the situation in Romania and whatever had triggered this most recent episode things did get better within a few weeks and without the medication. Me? Take anti-depressants? Don't be so ridiculous. I could cope perfectly well on my own. What I did do, however, was to give some serious thought as to what could possibly be the cause and after many hours of soul-searching, introspection and self-analysis it came to me:
I was a perfectionist and always had been. I wanted to do my best and be the best and nothing but my very best was acceptable. Failure was not an option. Ever.
When I was at primary school anything less than full marks in spelling tests was unthinkable. When I took part in swimming competitions coming second was mortifying. When I received 3 A's and a B for my A-levels all I could focus on was the B: it was nothing less than a crushing blow and, if I'm being completely honest, it still bothers me to this very day and is a blemish on my otherwise spotless academic record.
The thing is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with striving for excellence and shooting for the stars if you're able to accept that sometimes, just sometimes, you may end up landing on the moon instead. I couldn't accept this and therein lies the dark side of perfectionism: goals set are so high, so lofty that disappointment, frustration and heartache are inevitable.
So there it was, I had my answer, I merely had to let go of my perfectionist ways and all would be well. Easy to say, unbelievably hard to do. How do you get rid of what is, essentially, a part of you? How do you isolate and extract just one character trait? I do not claim to be a trained psychologist but my own feeling is that you can't and that the very act of trying to do so will only serve to make things much, much worse. I had to accept that I was prone to feelings of anxiety, that I would have to learn to live with them in such a way that I was aware of their existence yet I wouldn't grant them the power to destroy me.
And that is what I have been trying to do since 2006 when I experienced my most crippling episode of anxiety to date. This time it lasted for several months and I accepted that I needed professional help. The doctor that I saw was beyond wonderful and it saddens me that I cannot remember his name. But his beautiful, kind face and his warmth, compassion and understanding brought much needed light and guidance during a very dark time. This time I did go on medication and I wasn't ashamed. And nobody should be. Despite the alarming statistic that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year the stigma surrounding mental illness prevails and prevents sufferers from seeking the help they so desperately need. If this stigma is to be lifted then we must be willing to open up our minds and hearts and share our experiences, as hard as that might be. Who knows? Something we say may strike a chord and bring solace, comfort and hope.
So in conclusion, my Warrior friends, I am happy to report that I have made huge progress, massive inroads. I am finally able to "let go" to a much greater extent without sacrificing my desire to do well and to succeed and I possess a much greater sense of inner peace. It has taken years to get to this stage. It has taken a combination of anti-depressants, counseling sessions, self-help books and a huge, concerted effort on my part to fight the negative, worrisome thoughts and to retrain my brain. And my friends; my ever-loving, ever-patient and incredibly supportive friends who were there to rescue me figuratively and quite literally, never judging.
You know who you are and I love you.
Ginger Warrior, over and out.
P.S. If you're willing, please share your own experiences with anxiety/depression or any other aspect of mental health. We're all in this together. :)