The anniversary effect

Image from Unsplash

In the first episode of season two of Stranger Things, as Will experiences some pretty disturbing episodes, we hear about the ‘anniversary effect’: “[We] see this with soldiers,” the doctor says. “The anniversary of the event brings back traumatic memories, sort of opens up the neurological floodgates, so to speak.”

The Christmas lights are up in Brighton, Drummer Boy’s birthday has been and gone, and I’ve been unable to avoid thinking about where I was this time last year. You know the story almost as well as I do, but to recap: I was fumbling my way through the early weeks of a recently-acquired job, and not doing as well as I should have been due to a bout of severe anxiety. My new office was on a rather bleak industrial estate in a crap town, I was the only person in my department based at that site, and as soon as I stepped out into the dark each evening, I’d either dissolve into tears or blind panic. It was not the worst thing in the world, but at the time it felt fucking awful.

The festive season has long been my favourite time of year – the food! The champagne! The presents! The fairy lights! – but last year it was simply something to get through, white-knuckled, teeth gritted. I remember crying in Waterstones on the Monday before Christmas – I don’t make a habit of this; Waterstones is generally my happy place. Nothing triggered the tears; it was just a sudden rush of feeling overwhelmed, an involuntary welling-up. And a few weeks prior to that, on a night out to celebrate DB’s birthday, I remember sitting in a Brighton bar with friends, silently berating myself for not being able to make much in the way of conversation. I was just exhausted. Drained by invisible vampires that take blood and replace it with adrenaline and cortisol. The panic attacks, the sleeplessness, the nausea, the muscle tension. The constant hum of what-ifs, ringing on and on like tinnitus.

By some strange coincidence, a few of the friends who came down for that delayed celebration last year also visited us on the very same weekend this year. And what a difference twelve months has made. Last weekend was hectic, but joyously so, with friends and family coming and going. This time around, I was there too. Really there.

There was a time last winter when I couldn’t imagine ever feeling “normal” again. When it’s your own brain waging war on your body, flooding it with panic, it’s impossible to see a way through it. You can’t outrun a mind gone rogue – but there are ways you can tame it. Thoughts running riot can be reined in with medication and therapy. And so life is much, much better than it was a year ago. Things did not stay horrible. In fact, they started to improve pretty quickly once the meds kicked in – and reassuringly, with no loss of my usual emotional sensitivity. I still cry at The Supervet, sad adverts, and petty arguments at the wrong time of the month. And again, I work in an office on an industrial estate in a crap town, but my colleagues are lovely and (mostly) I know why I’m there.

Recently, the pharmacist at my GP surgery broached the subject of coming off the sertraline, but I demurred. It still feels like the internal chatter of panic has only recently been quelled; I’m not ready to rouse the voices yet. I’m revelling in the peace, basking in it like I would a warm bath. Being able to take joy in everyday things still feels like a privilege, even now. Fortunately my actual doctor is rather more blasé: “you’re only 27; there’s really no hurry to come off them”.

As befits this time of year, I should probably close with a message that’s wise, poignant, or empowering, or ideally an elegant combination of the three. But I can’t, because taking care of one’s mental health isn’t an occasional job; it’s ongoing. And I know only too well that mental health services vary wildly across the country, as does the quality of GP care. All I can say is that I’m lucky, incredibly lucky – to have an excellent doctor, an endlessly kind partner, the money to see a therapist, friends who aren’t scared to talk about mental health, parents whose door is always open, and incredibly patient and tolerant blog readers. All I can say to those who helped – by offering hugs, advice, or simply their presence – is thank you. And all I can say to those currently struggling is: you will not feel like this forever. Take things one step, one breath, one minute at a time, and you’ll get there.

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