It was mental health awareness week recently. What a great thing. Like so many people, I have mental health challenges – about six years ago I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder after an 11-day panic attack that my therapist later described as a ‘near total nervous breakdown’.
I was put on medication – a drug called Lexapro – and began a very slow process of recovery from one of the most distressing experiences of my life.
Mental health issues are rarely cured. Rather they are treated. And they require a lifetime of vigilance and care. Mostly, with the help of drugs and lifestyle modifications, I no longer have anxiety day to day. But occasionally I do. This hasn’t been a great year for my anxiety. And I think it’s important to be honest about that.
The medication I take isn’t a cure-all. Sometimes, due to hormones or events in my life or the world more generally (Trump’s little hands near the nuclear codes for example), my anxiety will poke its nasty head through my carefully maintained buffer zone and curl up in the pit of my stomach like an irritated ball of barbed wire.
Anxiety can be hard to describe. It’s different from stress. It’s different from feeling overwhelmed although those things can play a part sometimes. And it’s different for everyone who experiences it. Each of us will have a unique experience even though many of the physical symptoms and the runaway thoughts are common. We will all use different words to describe it if we describe it at all which we probably won’t because you probably won’t ask and we’re unlikely to volunteer that we’re experiencing anxiety. Because there is still shame and stigma attached and also because it usually takes all our strength to try and wrestle our anxiety into submission as we go about our daily lives and we don’t have any strength left to talk about it. We’re too preoccupied with the wrestling.
I have what’s known as high-functioning anxiety. It’s more common than I ever suspected until I first wrote about it publicly a few years ago and was overwhelmed by the number of people who, ever since that day, have reached out to me to say “me too”. Being high-functioning means you would never know when you met me that I had it. The truth is that most days I don’t have it. But on the days I do, you still wouldn’t know.