I’ve blogged a little bit about my mental health problems over the last couple of years, but always somewhat hesitantly as it feels very personal, and I always worry about seeming whingey. However, I’m not sure that either my best interests, or wider awareness of mental health problems, are best served by a writerly stiff upper lip. The attitudes to mental health are so odd. I have a chronic physical illness – ankylosing spondylitis (AS), and I understand that it is something I have to live with rather than cure. That there are strategies and behaviours to help manage it, and triggers which will make it worse. I understand that a bad flare-up may be painful and debilitating at the time, but it will eventually pass, and if I am having a hard time during that flare-up I feel perfectly free to moan about it and ask for help. I don’t think it is my ‘fault’ when I get ill, and I don’t feel guilty about recurring episodes.
Intellectually I accept that things are no different with a mental health issue like anxiety. And when talking to someone else struggling with their mental health it would never cross my mind that it was something they could control or should feel guilty about. But I still slightly struggle to make that emotional adjustment regarding my own mental health.
Late summer and autumn last year was a very difficult time for me mentally. The worst manifestations of PTSD following Sophia’s difficult birth had passed, after the therapy I had, but I had been left with horrible anxiety, particularly health anxiety. An overwhelming fear of dying and leaving my girls when I love them so much and their need of me is so great saw me over-analysing every last twinge, twitch and niggling ache. Dr Google is definitely not your friend in these circumstances. And the real bitch about anxiety is that it creates physical symptoms – nausea, erratic heart beat, tense muscles, twitches – all of which re-enforce the conviction that something is badly wrong and create a vicious circle.
Sometimes the focus of my anxiety would switch, and I would panic about a symptom one of the children was exhibiting instead. Here the responsibility felt quite literally mind-boggling. It is my job to spot if there is a problem with one of my children and act accordingly. For me, campaigns like the ones to spot the signs of sepsis or various childhood cancers, although excellently intentioned and no doubt very valuable for many families, actually send me into a tailspin of panic. So often we are told as parents to ‘trust our instincts’ but my instincts are stuck on permanent red alert.
I felt ashamed that after spending a lot of money seeing a private psychologist to have my PTSD treated I was still unwell. Again, would I have felt this if my AS flared up again after an apparently successful treatment? Of course not. Some blunt common sense from my husband and a good friend persuaded me to make a GP appointment. I was referred to see a counsellor for a course of CBT, and I’ve been having this therapy since late autumn.
It had really started to help. From around Christmas onwards I was feeling much better. As I felt better mentally the physical symptoms receded too, and hey presto a virtuous circle was born. I started to feel happy with a happiness I could rely on, rather than as a tentative feeling I suspected might be washed away on a tide of fear at any moment. My success was in taking life one day at a time, beginning to accept that this moment right now is all any of us ever have, and it behoves us to make the most of it rather than courting or dreading the fickle Goddess of the Future. The trap I fell into was starting to think of myself as better, or cured, when in reality I suspect that, like AS, anxiety isn’t really something that can ever be totally cured, it is a case of living alongside and managing the symptoms.
The last couple of weeks have been a bit tiring and stressful. Anna had a throat infection, which mysteriously triggered a severe outbreak of eczema, which is not a problem she’s really had before. Sophia has blocked sinuses, and has needed regular steaming sessions to try and unblock them, and which have caused a hideous night-time cough, making her distressed and keeping us both awake for hours at night, leading to tired and grumpy days. Even the cat has got in on the act with dental problems leading to the need for a special diet and a request from the vet to get a urine sample from him (yes, really), so that his kidney function can be tested and the appropriate painkillers prescribed. Worry about what was actually wrong with my furry and non-furry dependents, and the additional work of looking after them, not to mention the darker imaginings of what hideous illnesses these symptoms might actually signify have taken their toll, and my anxiety levels have rocketed. This in turn sets off physical symptoms which begin to convince me that there is something horribly wrong with me.
I have felt deeply disappointed in myself for relapsing. I am struggling to teach myself to stop thinking of recovery as linear, or of there being an end-state of ‘better’, but to understand that it will be up and down, and there will always be times when I struggle more. And I am learning strategies to calm myself down – mini mindfulness exercises when I try and force my brain to focus on the here and now, not trying to suppress anxious or difficult thoughts but to acknowledge them and move on, recognising how physical symptoms are the treacherous bitch anxiety tricking my mind into tricking my body.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Even in the last couple of difficult weeks there have been some fun times when my anxiety has receded, and I’ve been able to enjoy a dinner with friends or watching Anna playing a Munchkin in her school’s Wizard of Oz production. The lesson it seems I must learn and re-learn is to take the rough with the smooth. To make lemonade with the lemons, and to dance in the rain. I mustn’t wait to reach the Sugarcandy Mountain where my whole family is always healthy and an anxious thought never crosses my mind, before allowing myself to be happy.