Come on, you can do this. Just keep it together. You’ve been practicing all night, you’ll be fine. Why haven’t they arrived yet? This room is too small. Oh God, it’s happening again. Heart is racing and chest is tight. Why can’t I move my arms properly? I won’t be able to speak, I’ll faint. I’m going to make a fool of myself. I have to get out of here now.
This is the day I walked out of a job interview, moments before it began. I say “walked,” but it was more “frantic run.” I really wanted this job. But, instead of getting the job, what I got was a panic attack, the worst one of my life.
I screamed in the confused H.R. woman’s face that I had the “Norovirus and needed to leave at once!” Not a bad off-the-cuff excuse, considering my brain was in pieces. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “at once” before… or since. I seem to morph into Jane Austin when in dramatic situations!
Was the incident a shock? No. I knew before I went in that something bad was going to happen. I’d known when I got up in the morning, when I was travelling to the interview and when I drank my coffee. The dread was there and I knew, but I just didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t.
The next two weeks were a blur, filled with hysteria, emotional outbursts, and constant panic, which made the ability to think rationally impossible. What was happening to me? Something that had been happening to me for years, and something that happens to millions of people, all across the world.
The term “anxiety” was first used in reference to me when I was fourteen, although personally I think I’ve had it from an early age. As a child, I dreaded big family gatherings. My favourite thing to do was hang out with my grandma in the kitchen. She’d get drunk, chain smoke significant amounts of cigarettes and tell me stories. To be honest, not much has changed in that area, the only difference being that I can now join her in the drinking!
I struggled at secondary school and blushed violently whenever anyone spoke to me. I avoided most interactions and constantly worried about being asked a question in class. Think of me as a smoke alarm, primed to go out at the slightest indication of danger.
So I did what every “sensible” adolescent would do: I ignored it. This always works, right? I thought this was the right way to deal with it, by refusing to let it control my life. As hard as it was, I didn’t let it stop me from achieving my degree, getting my dream job in publishing or making friends. It was something that I simply endured. Alcohol helped a lot during my university years, but more about that later.
In 2012 I accepted a job in publishing, one that I worked really hard to get. It’s not easy for a working class, non-London based girl to get a job in publishing, or in the media for that matter. Experience is required and, when you live three hundred miles away, it isn’t easily obtained.
I moved from my hometown of the quaint suburb of Bolton to London on a sunny day in March. Did I know anybody there? No. Had I spent much time in London previously? Not really. Was I comfortable moving away from the safety of the nest to share a house with two complete strangers for £680 a month? Fuck no.
At the time, people would tell me how brave and fearless I was, but I didn’t really consider this. Why? Simple, I was in complete denial about the enormous thing I was doing. It was too much to process, so I simply jumped right in at the deep end and swam ferociously.
It all started out well enough. The housemates were nice, I eventually worked out how to use the underground, and I had a Starbucks coffee on my way to work every day, just like in the films. (For a small town girl, this was the coolest thing ever.) I even found myself a boyfriend six weeks after my arrival — someone who didn’t know anything about my past, and I intended to keep it that way. I was officially living the dream! All those bad times were behind me, I was a new person now.
Six months after my arrival, I started to notice some changes. I felt unhappy, irritable and lethargic four working days out of five. The department I worked in at the time was full of loud and dominant characters, which made me feel uneasy and tense. An extrovert personality seemed vital to get noticed, whereas I’m more of an introvert. There were so many publicity events that I was expected to attend and, like those family parties of my past, I dreaded each one, but there was no chain-smoking grandma to save me this time. Instead, I was on my own in a sea of bright lights and strange faces. I remember a Sales Manager saying to me at one particular event, “You’re actually going to have to talk to people tonight, Claire.” I was gobsmacked because I always tried my best. I won’t say her name, but I never forgot the harsh comment.
As I mentioned earlier, at university I discovered this magical substance that suppressed all of my anxiety and made me feel super confident. Naturally I’m talking about alcohol. It was a miracle, finally I had found my cure! After a few drinks of “liquid courage” I was a different person: I could talk to strangers, relax and be “normal” for a few hours. So I, once again, turned to this curative elixir to get me through work events. If only that was the end of the story huh? My bottle of wine and I frequently rode off into the sunset together. Alas, while alcohol provides short term relief from anxiety, it is not a long term solution. I became reliant on it to help me get through social events and even started having a drink in the staff lavatory or before I went out. I knew deep down that this was very wrong, but what could I do? I could not abandon my saviour. Even when the hangovers became worse and worse, I still clung to the promise it gave.
I became obsessed with what people thought of me and how I presented myself. I even analysed how I walked down a corridor, and it became a phobia. Should I smile at people? Should I look at the floor? WHAT? WHAT! By the time the person actually walked past me, I was having facial spasms! Lifts were another problem; I couldn’t bear the thought of stunted conversation with a colleague. So I ended up walking seven flights of stairs every day. Great for exercise, bad for sweat! The staff kitchen was a mine-field too; you never knew who would be in there. What if I couldn’t think of anything to talk about? So, again, I avoided it.There was just so much to avoid in the world!
Then the physical symptoms started. The blushing, rapid heartbeat, breathlessness and insomnia. On occasions when I actually fell asleep I would wake up hours later with a start, covered in sweat and gasping for air. Worst of all were the tremors. At one point my hands would shake so regularly that I was afraid to pass items to my colleagues in case they noticed.
Eventually, in a fit of tears, I asked myself – was I even happy anymore? Why couldn’t I concentrate on anything? What’s wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be normal for once in my life?
Did I tell anyone? Of course not, I was the brave girl living the dream! The idea of admitting that I was struggling filled me with shame. It was better to keep on pretending.
Looking back, it’s obvious that all those niggling thoughts were setting the stage for my panic attacks. Constantly fighting my anxiety put both my brain and body under immense strain that it ultimately couldn’t cope with. After ten years I had finally pushed myself too far.
After the interview incident or “Interviewgate,” as I called it, I had what they tell me was a nervous breakdown and I was forced to take a leave of absence from work by my doctor. This devastated me at first, as I had always kept my condition private and my absence would require an explanation. Then everyone would know and I was tortured by the prospect of office gossip. What would my colleagues think? Would I get fired? However, in time, I realised that taking some time out was the right thing to do. I needed time to heal. My employer surprised me with their support and although I was absent due to illness, they paid me in full and sent messages of comfort.
I’d been fighting and hiding this all my life, but now there it was written in plain English on my doctor’s note: “acute social anxiety disorder.” In a way I was relieved because “it” finally had a name, but, on the other hand, I was terrified because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know where to start. I was convinced that I was going to lose everything that I had worked so hard to get.
So what happened next? Well, I’ll be honest: it was really, really, really shit for a while. You can’t cure ten years’ worth of damage in a few days.
However, the most important thing to highlight is, I did recover and the girl who could barely hold a conversation without trembling and blushing can now give presentations in front of hundreds of people. Unbelievable, right?
Here’s my first and most important piece of advice: YOU NEED TO ACCEPT THAT YOU HAVE A MENTAL CONDITION. You can’t heal if you don’t accept it, that’s just the way it is.
Things started to get better as I went down the traditional route in terms of treatment. SSRI medication (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and exercise really helped. I was initially reluctant to take anti-depressants, but I learned to accept that my brain simply didn’t produce enough Serotonin, a vital chemical that helps the brain and nervous system function. The best analogy I heard was that of a car lacking in fuel: eventually it will start to backfire and jolt, and this is true of the brain when Serotonin levels are depleted.
CBT helped me to finally tackle those irrational thoughts that circulated through my brain and drag them into the cold light of reality. I learned simple exercises that would help me challenge thoughts rather than merely accepting them.
I also did what’s called “Exposure Therapy,” which involves facing something that makes you feel anxious a little at a time. For me, this was crucial as it allowed me to experience panic attacks in smaller dosages, thereby desensitizing myself to them. It helped me to conquer my fear of public speaking, or rather running off the stage screaming like a maniac!
I began writing my blog in 2014, We’re All Mad Here. It was partly for therapeutic reasons and partly because I wanted to help others realise that anxiety is more common than you think.
I’d be lying if I said I was completely cured. During periods of stress my anxiety can rear its ugly head, (normally with a mouth full of sharp teeth)! The urge to return to bad habits is strong and alcohol consumption in particular is something that I still keep an eye on. Why would I go for a run when I can snuggle up with a bottle of wine? The difference is, I now accept that the benefits of exercise last longer and it keeps my adrenalin levels down.
Anxiety is something that will probably follow me around for the rest of my life, but I don’t fear its shadow anymore, because I know how to turn on the lights.
“We’re all mad here, I am, you are.
But I’ll tell you a secret… all the best people are.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein
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- We’re All Mad Here: Claire Eastham & Anxiety Recovery - September 28, 2016