Imagine being scared every moment of your life.
Except when you’re numb.
Scared of waking up. Of falling downstairs. Of crossing the street. Of tripping in public.
Scared of the supermarket.
Scared of talking to people. And of being alone.
And even when there’s nothing you could possibly be scared of, your brain invents scenarios.
You’re scared of the future. Of anything uncertain.
You’re terrified of change.
Yet you wish you could change everything about yourself.
Living in a perpetual state of fear, you can never relax. Your heart is always agitated, which makes it difficult to breath.
Sleep is all but impossible.
And when you do sleep you have endless nightmares. You wake up with your heart hammering, feeling like you’ve had no rest at all. You wet the bed once and you’re terrified of wetting it again.
Panic attacks are a regular occurrence, triggered by the silliest of things. It’s as though your body is made of very thin, very brittle glass; the slightest tap can break you.
One of the worst things is the sound of a telephone. Every tone slices into you with a serrated blade. It’s like a bomb about to go off. You rarely have the courage to answer. Mostly you’re just frozen there, like a deer in headlights, until the ringing stops.
You can never live in the moment, even if it’s an objectively good moment, because you’re scared of what will happen next.
You’re always nauseous.
It’s as though you’re separated from everything. As though you’re underwater, seeing and hearing people through a liquid barrier. And you never know what to say to them. If anyone ever deigns to talk to you, your brain goes blank and you’re terrified of embarrassing yourself. You sweat. You shake. Sometimes there are white flashes. Your thoughts are screaming.
It becomes easier to never see anyone. To stay at home. In your room. In your bed.
To shut out your friends, if you even have any friends.
They’re better off without you anyway.
You find it impossible to believe that anyone could care about you. If anyone approaches you, you genuinely believe they’re putting themselves out.
Yes… easier to stay at home…
But then your food runs out.
You put if off until you’re faint from hunger – now you have no choice but to brave the supermarket.
The supermarket… with its lights and noise and people and too many choices and checkouts and self-service checkouts… Not to mention all the roads you have to cross on the way there…
It’s not rational. You know it’s not rational. You know you’re being stupid. But knowing doesn’t help. If anything it makes it worse.
It’s like there’s a wall in your mind. A big, thick, looming wall. It’s there when you try to do anything. Even stuff you could always do.
It wasn’t always so bad. When I was a teenager, whenever I was lonely, or sad, or scared – whenever the bullying got too much – I could always escape into my writing.
Or my performing.
For some reason, even though I was useless facing people in real life, I was never too scared to get up on a stage in front of hundreds – it was liberating.
Both writing and acting allowed me to get to a place where I could leave the misery of everyday life behind. Where I could feel things other than fear. Experience the emotions of the characters whose stories I was telling. I’d get high off the adrenaline rush and I’d feel… happy.
Then I lost the ability to escape.
At some point during university, my confidence was utterly shattered. I suddenly knew I wasn’t very good at writing, or at acting. I knew I should give up because I was useless. I would never be good enough. Whenever I got up in class to perform, the wall was there and I couldn’t break through it. I couldn’t feel the emotions of my characters anymore.
All I could ever feel was misery and fear.
Whenever I sat down to write, I could no longer get to the place. It was as though the portal to my magical world, which had been open to me since childhood, was suddenly closed. I was now miserable without respite.
‘Everything you write is rubbish,’ said the voices in my head. ‘You’ll never be good enough. You’ll never be happy. You might as well kill yourself now.’
The voices in my head – and I’m being metaphorical here, because they weren’t actually voices – were always there.
My brain just wouldn’t shut up.
It wouldn’t stop berating me. It wouldn’t let me think properly. It wouldn’t let me sleep. It wouldn’t leave me alone for five minutes!
If I had killed myself, it would have been to make the voices stop. To get some rest.
Occasionally, I could trick my brain into forgetting to berate me for a few minutes at a time. I achieved it through distraction. Through concentrating intensely upon a computer game, or binge-watching an entire television series at once whilst wrapped in my duvet.
It’s possible that How I Met Your Mother is responsible for saving my life.
But as soon as I realised that my brain had been silent for the last little while, it always started up again with a vengeance.
I remember the moment I realised I should get help.
I was living in university accommodation, (and I arrived halfway through the semester, so I’d missed out on the opportunity to make friends there,) in a room on the top floor of a three-storied unit. The stairs up to my room were wooden planks with gaps in them.
I was ready to leave for class, (a terrifying prospect in itself, but I couldn’t let the money I’d spent on my university education to go to waste,) so I locked my door behind me and turned to face to stairs.
And the stairs rushed up at me.
Suddenly, I knew with complete certainty that if I tried to go down the stairs I’d fall and break my neck. The stairs that I’d gone down every day for the past few months. It didn’t matter. There I was, shaking and crying and clinging to the banister as though my life depended on it as the seconds ticked by, making me late for class.
The veil separating us from insanity is worryingly gossamer. If I hadn’t got help then, I might easily have become agoraphobic.
As it was, I made a decision.
It wasn’t normal to be like this.
And I shouldn’t have to be. I shouldn’t have to be miserable all the time.
I was sick of it.
I was sick of it.
So I gathered the last of my courage and went to the university health centre. They gave me anti-depression and anti-anxiety drugs – and sleeping pills – and booked me an appointment with a counsellor.
I only went to one counselling session, but the sleeping pills worked wonders. My head became so much clearer.
Knowing I had an illness – knowing it wasn’t my fault that I was like this – was a huge help. Knowing I wasn’t alone…
Still, I’d been relentlessly miserable for a long time – years, if I’m honest – and it would take a while for the medication to kick in.
Meanwhile, the university year was over. I’d never been so relieved to return to my parents’ house. One of our cats had just died, which was sad, but it meant that we could get a new kitten.
I spent that summer at home taking a daily dose of anti-depression and anti-anxiety pills, and endlessly playing Dragon Age: Origins with an adorable, purring kitten on my lap. By the time university started again, I felt as though I had a chance of coping with the world.
I was feeling so (comparatively) good when I returned to university, that I did something I’d never before had the courage to do: I joined a club. The university role-playing club. And on the very first night, I got talking to someone – and I knew what to say! The words came easily! AND it turned out he lived in the same building I did.
And he had a flatmate who would turn out to be the love of my life.
One day, a few months later, I suddenly realised that I wasn’t at all miserable or scared, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been.
A few months after that, I began to wean myself off the medication. (I’d stopped taking the sleeping pills as soon as I was able. I wasn’t stupid about it.) I was worried, when I stopped taking the medication entirely, that I’d relapse. I almost have a few times, but the love of my life is very understanding and his hugs are like a thousand happy pills.
I still get anxiety attacks from relatively minor things.
I still get nervous when I’m talking to people.
I’m still terrified of going back… there.
But I can usually recognise the signs in time to stop myself before I begin to spiral.
I still berate myself. I still battle feelings of inadequacy.
But I feel happiness too.
I haven’t had the courage to get back into performing, but I’ve been writing. And I’ve managed to open the portal again.
If you can see yourself in what I’ve just written, this is for you.
I won’t tell you it’s okay, because it’s not. But I will tell you this.
Force yourself to go outside every day. Walks are good.
Force yourself to see friends at least once a week. Friends are good.
Force yourself to ask for help.
(And maybe get a kitten.)
This ramble was brought to you by Abigail Simpson, a twenty-four-year-old nerd who lives in New Zealand and writes things. She was born in England, though. You can find out more about her and the things that she writes by visiting www.abigail-simpson.com.