I wouldn’t be upholding my tradition of over-sharing if I didn’t tell you all about what I’ve been up to in May. It’s been a highly anticipated month in my shambolic world because I finally hit the top of the waiting list and got me the beginnings of some CBT, also known as cognitive behavioural therapy. My CBT has happily and coincidentally landed in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. I wanted to do my bit, so I’m filling you in, because I’ve learned life is a hell of a lot easier when we talk (about mental health, in a nice café or something, not in the cinema, quiet carriage or…a funeral). By the end of this blog you will all be more aware of my problems, YAY. But I also hope reading it could be helpful too, even if it just makes you happy that your May was great simply because it had two bank holidays and didn’t involve a worry diary.
Judging even by my own comparatively microscopic and unoriginal experiences, the conversation about mental health should be a loud one. It took over four doctors to take me seriously (i.e. not just recommending marriage or a long walk). It’s taken around four months to get therapy on the NHS. Part of my own struggle has been believing my problem is real and finding a place for it among the more “serious” or painful, chronic, life-altering mental illnesses that exist, enough for me to get some help. But on writing my first, fairly naïve post about anxiety a few months ago from the other side of the world (February? Where have you gone babe?!) I had more people get in touch with me about its resonance with their own lives than I had get in touch with me to say happy birthday last year! I learned too many people are struggling on some scale every day too, signalling that we have a long way to go before achieving a level of acceptance, understanding and support of mental health in our society that will allow us to live our lives to the fullest (and be ROCK STARS).
So here’s how I’m getting along in my journey to rock stardom and my countdown to, well, some degree of sanity…
For those of you who don’t already know, I struggle just a wee bit with worrying because I have something called Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which is about as fun as falling down an escalator. This presents itself in certain ways that make my day-to-day life…interesting. Vivid, colourful, bleak, traumatic, dramatic, funny, unexpected, challenging, frustrating, inspiring. There is light and there is dark.
I wake up most days feeling very sick with nerves, like I’m about to take my driving test. I can be filled with dread or very overwhelmed at the thought of keeping everything on track, on time, not letting myself or anyone else down. I worry a lot about what people think and how my actions affect the people around me, and often completely lose concentration, can’t make decisions, stop listening. I fear the worst and the unknown. I am scared of getting ill or something being wrong with me way too often, so much so I’ve been on the verge of a panic attack twice in one week this month because on reading newspapers every day I was confronted with multiple headlines on the UK’s heightened risk of skin cancer. It’s hard to explain, but in these situations I basically struggle to distance myself from the “threat” and often convince myself it’s happening to me, it’s my life. It’s hard to snap out of it and incredibly draining trying to cover it up.
So you get the picture. Really it sounds more extreme than it is. I still have a pretty fun, happy life – I get out of bed and get on with it, butterflies and all. I see positivity and sense in other people’s lives too, sometimes I just struggle to replicate it in my own. I doubt nine times out of ten that anyone has any clue what’s going on in my head. I am an actress, duh…I have done over five school plays. I am incredibly self-aware. I am good at hiding my emotions. I am good at faking it.
However, faking can be exhausting. I’m fed up of managing it for a while and then tripping up and falling quite dramatically, reaching my limit and crying for a whole day about leaving the house or laddering my tights or the fact it’s going to rain. Hitting one too many of these blocks has made me determined to find ways to stop freaking out so much and to look forward to things a bit more. I have started exercising routinely. I’m not really drinking alcohol to excess as hangovers make me crazy and sad and that’s no fun for anyone. In times of real panic I find fresh air and cups of herbal tea are little miracles. So is talking to someone who can rationalise for you. I listen to or watch something happy and light-hearted (my go-to is F.R.I.E.N.D.S) in the mornings, or any time I feel most on edge, to help begin my day relaxed with a positive mind-frame. Generally all these things can be effective at times, but I still don’t feel I’ve specifically broken the cycle of getting anxious in the first place.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is designed to find you a way to basically re-programme your mind, to change the way you view and imagine situations, to enable you to access a more rational part of your brain so you can learn to avoid whatever it is that makes you crumble. It’s completely new to me and highly unappealing because it involves talking out loud/crying about all this to a strange person in a confined space, but I am determined to see it through because if I look at one more article on skin cancer and freak out about my freckles I’m putting myself in a coma.
I have had two sessions so far. The first was excruciatingly awkward because someone told me eggs were a brilliantly filling snack for vegetarians so I hard-boiled some for my packed lunch and realised walking down to the therapy centre that I was about to bring what smelled like a bag of rotting sulphur into a small, not-at-all ventilated room belonging to someone I’ve never met, for fifty minutes. What can I say? I was born to impress.
Fortunately it seems therapists are trained to see past eggs and I was able to get through the fifty minutes without crying but also without getting to the point of any of my issues because it was so overwhelming and I couldn’t really see past the eggs. But one thing I learned is not to be so hard on myself, so I’m concentrating on the positives that came from that session. I learned about mindfulness, and about breathing techniques. I got given a lot of pieces of paper to break down my worries, which in theory sounds like a sensible, practical idea but in reality outside the room was awful. Actually writing down on a piece of paper how anxious I was about a surprise party and skin cancer, I hadn’t judged myself so much since thirteen-year-old me thought she could pull off green and purple eyeshadow at the same time. But to my disbelief, at my next session I was taken seriously and realised that whilst in my head my worries are stupid, the effects of my worries are debilitating, real, and the causes and triggers make sense.
I’ve only had two sessions but already things seem to be falling into place a bit more. Having a professional listen to me has given me more control. I’m struggling to find the time to put every bit of advice into practice. It’s hard to dedicate fifteen minutes in my day to lie on my back and breathe. I think it’s because I’ve got too much hair. And I’m not doing brilliantly with my worry diary – I’m a natural procrastinator and have a habit of falling back into my comfort zone of writing my dream Waitrose shopping list instead. But the mindfulness thing is happening a little bit. For me, it means living in the present, instead of looking ahead and anticipating change or trauma. It’s very hard to train my mind as I have the attention span of a mosquito but I’m under instructions to concentrate on my present surroundings very intensely and accept worries when they pop into my head but just filing them instead of giving them the time of day. It’s very popular in Hollywood. I can imagine this is because their surroundings involve beautiful clothes and palm trees and private swimming pools. I too would relish being mindful of my fortune, Academy Awards and white sands any day. My morning mindfulness is more like, “I’m so happy to be lying on my mattress and its uniquely prominent springs / I’m so happy to be in my shower, it smells so lovely and the damp is such a fine addition to the décor.” But I’m persevering. When I am famous it’ll make it so much more special.
I’m on a break from the sessions for two weeks and I wanted to write this blog for anyone else who might have similar experiences, but also as a test for myself so I can look back and see if I’ve got anywhere. I was asked at the beginning of my sessions what I want to get from them. I said, not to wake up with butterflies every day and not to struggle with decision-making and not to believe every bruise or cough is a symptom of cancer. I got told it was very negative to set aims for myself that were all not doing something so I’ve changed them. I want… to be effervescent, positive, more relaxed, to live in the present, damp and bed-springs and all, to be a light in other people’s lives, to be myself always, to have more faith in myself, and to make a difference along the way.
One more thing, if you know someone who’s anxious, give them your time. A hug and a cup of tea will go a long way. If you are anxious, remember you’re really not alone, to seek help because it is totally worth it and you deserve it, to not expect too much of yourself, and to enjoy the little things. Much love and thank you for reading!xxx