I’ve wanted to write about anxiety for a long time, but it’s hard to find the words to describe what living with it is like.
Last night, I had a panic attack. I don’t really like this term, but it’s the one most commonly used to describe the moment when you stop being in control of your anxiety and it starts being in control of you. I had to call an ambulance because I couldn’t breathe.
I’ve often wondered what it must be like to live without anxiety. How freeing that would be. I can’t actually even imagine it.
Anxiety is so closely related to my daily experience that I just consider it ‘my personality.’ I honestly think I would be an entirely different person without it, because it restricts me so much. I constantly turn down invitations to things I would actually love to attend, like birthdays and shows and even just coffee. I can’t relax if there’s too many things on my to-do list. I obsess over routine. Every time I get up in the night (about 5 or 6 times), I check that the front door is locked. I’ve been known to get up and iron my sheets in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand the wrinkles.
My anxiety is a constant presence. It’s there from the moment I wake up, a heavy blanket on my shoulders, a solid ache in my stomach.
Anxiety is physical. It’s caused psychologically but the experience of it is physical and I think this is maybe the hardest thing for anxiety-free people to understand.
It makes my muscles tight and I often feel nauseous. It’s difficult to eat. Even now, just sitting here typing, my stomach feels tight and my breathing is shallow.
My anxiety has gotten worse since I got ill. I worry about feeling well enough to do things. I don’t like committing to anything because I always end up canceling. I worry about when I’m going to be healthy again. I worry about how I’m going to support myself. I worry about my friends deciding that this has just all gone on too long and I’m terribly boring and they have better things to do than hang out with a chronically sick person.
There’s a scale to anxiety and it builds and falls in waves. When it builds too much, it often manifests in things like self-harm.
Last night, my anxiety got to the top end of the scale. I took half a quetiapine, a medication that is supposed to treat anxiety symptoms, and I had a relaxing chamomile and poppy mixture my friend made me. I laid down.Within minutes, I felt light-headed and dizzy. My throat started to feel very tight. My neck muscles ached. My legs started shaking uncontrollably. I was covered in sweat and I was having heart palpitations. There were spots in front of my eyes. In my panicked state, I convinced myself that the quetiapine and the herbal mixture were reacting with each other and I was going to die. I felt myself stop breathing. I was utterly terrified. So I rang 111.
The EMTs were amazing. They carried me into the ambulance and hooked me up to a heart rate and an oxygen monitor, to show me that I was definitely breathing and getting enough air. They talked me through a whole bunch of tests. They offered to take me to hospital but the thought of going there made me start convulsing again so they waited, talking to me calmly, until someone arrived to stay with me.
This is what anxiety is for me. This is what can happen at any time – my throat closes over, and I honestly believe I can’t breathe and I’m going to die.
I know that everyone is entitled to their own experience, but it does seem to me that there is a building internet culture around “social anxiety” as a “cool” thing. In the same manner as “awkward gamer girls” became an attractive thing to claim to be, people who might experience a bit of nervousness at normal things like meeting new people or public speaking, now identify as having anxiety disorders. That makes me feel really sad, and a bit invalidated, and a bit angry. Having an anxiety disorder is not an awkwardly cute phase where you drag your toes and blush while talking to people. It’s an ongoing, deeply painful experience that often results in not being able to talk to people at all.
I guess the good thing is, last night when I thought I was going to die… I didn’t want to. I wanted to fight. I think I could call that progress.