“What are you so stressed about?” pic.twitter.com/QqG7o7I18B
— The Gay Burn Book (@SouthernHomo) November 7, 2016
I like to think I know a little bit about mental illness. Not much, but a bit. About some of the more common ones, anyway, like depression and anxiety. But until this week, I had no idea mental distress could be so God-damn physical.
I spent most of October and November going slowly mad. It started with two horrendous weeks in October, peaking on the night of my stepfather’s fiftieth birthday party. I left the bar he’d booked at 10.30pm, got a taxi back to my parents’ empty house, and spent the next four hours literally pacing my bedroom, convinced panic would kill me. Eventually it died down, and right after that terrifying fortnight, I had five days of stomach problems – pain, indigestion, nausea (sorry. It’s not a sexy business, being permanently terrorised by the thoughts in your own head). Then I had a good week – no bellyache, no brain ache. But right at the end of October, it all kicked off again – a very unhappy digestive system, plus cramps and back pain and generally feeling under-the-weather. A mild infection was diagnosed, but I didn’t feel much better after completing a course of antibiotics. Further tests were done, which came back clear, and then came the talk of blood tests.
And that’s where it all went a bit… nuts.
Now, most people know that stomach issues are incredibly common side-effects of stress. When your body is spending most of its time in the ‘fight or flight’ response, digestion isn’t really high on the list of priorities. It’s practically a given that in rough times, people lose their appetites and get thin and start to feel a bit run-down. We talk of bad news making us “sick to our stomachs”.
When the GP booked me in for a blood test, I should have been relieved. At last, I might get some answers. But the fear about what those answers might be took hold alarmingly quickly. Within hours, I was obsessing over the idea that there might be something Really Awful wrong with me. And I mean properly obsessing. I resisted the urge to Google – I have been down that road before and it only ever ends with me making plans for my own funeral – but instead worried myself into a shaking, weeping mess. Drummer Boy ended up driving me home to my mum at the crack of dawn on Wednesday morning, and I spent the rest of the day in bed, alternating the shaking and weeping with old episodes of Mock The Week. No-one needs that much Micky Flanagan in their life, they really don’t.
Thank God for Mum – she went through something similar over twenty years ago, so she was brilliant. She made me tea, hot water bottles, dinner, and came out with fantastic lines like, “maybe you’re having a tiny breakdown. But come on, it’s Christmas!” and “it’s great, you lose so much weight when you’re stressed, just enjoy being skinny for a few days!”(I’d freaked out and become ever more convinced that I was dying when I tried on an old-ish pair of jeans and they felt really baggy. Shout-out to Drummer Boy for replying: “they don’t look that baggy” – ever the diplomat.)
To cut a long, joyless story short, I ended up in A&E, doing yet more shaking and weeping, and having a full battery of tests done by a doctor who really deserves to be made a saint. (I mean, all NHS staff deserve sainthoods, because they are amazing. They do not chuck nutters like me back out on the street and tell us to stop wasting their time; they take our concerns seriously and are calm and kind. They are heroes in the truest sense of the word.) The tests came back – everything was fine. I think the phrase may have been “textbook blood”, but I can’t be sure that’s not poetic licence on my part. So the upshot is, there’s apparently nothing physical causing the bellyache – it might well be all in my head.
As the wonderful doctor explained, being anxious is like being constantly wired. Panic’s a really hard drug. It’s like being followed 24/7 by an invisible gunman. It’s the act of repeatedly putting two and two together, and coming up with eleventy-billion every single time. When it reaches crisis levels, like it did for me this week, it takes any sense of perspective you may have had (and mine’s not great at the best of times, let’s be honest) and blows it to smithereens.
I went back to work on Friday, because another day of mining the comedy section of Netflix was not an appealing prospect. I’d booked a GP appointment for Friday evening weeks ago – I think with the intention of bringing up the anxiety thing and hopefully getting some help – and I was in two minds whether to cancel it, as in theory, knowing there’s nothing disastrously wrong with me should help to ease some of the terror. In the end I decided to go, as I still felt – and indeed, still feel – a bit all over the place. I left with a prescription for beta blockers, a place on an NHS Cognitive Behavioural Therapy waiting list, and the promise that the surgery’s private CBT therapist would give me a call so I could start make a start on recovering before an NHS place became available.
I’m still very much in the tunnel. I’m still alternating between low-level anxiety and floor-pacing, teeth-grinding panic. I still want to cry at literally everything. I’m still not excited about Christmas, despite it being my favourite time of year.
But maybe, after a year that’s involved three job changes and still has another flat move to come before December is out, a mental health wobble is understandable. Especially for someone who’s got a lot of previous when it comes to panic. When asked if I knew what my triggers were, by both my GP and a friend who’s a trainee psychiatrist, I said: “this might sound mad but right now, everything seems to be coming together. I finally have a job I really want, and I’m moving to a lovely new place soon. But I keep thinking that something will go wrong. That it just has to go wrong.” Neither of them hesitated to reply: “that’s quite normal. Lots of people feel like that”.
I’m luckier than anyone has a right to be, really, when it comes to the people I’ve got around me. Mum, Work Best Mate and Psychiatrist Friend (I need to think up a better nickname for her, because that really doesn’t do her justice).
So yeah, I’m still in the tunnel, and it’s still dark and full of monsters, but I’ve got excellent back-up, and a map for the way out.