It’s an irony that when I am not having a bout of anxiety, it’s hard to recall and write about exactly how anxiety affects me (in a similar way to how you can remember that a tattoo hurts but you can’t recall the exact pain itself) but when I am in the midst of an episode I can barely string two sentences together. Thus it’s taken me several weeks to write this post, in between bouts feeling fine (occasionally even awesome) and feeling like flinging my laptop into the Thames and watching it sink. Then jumping in myself. I need to grab those “fine” moments and write in those, because when I am feeling awesome the last thing I want to do is pick up my laptop and write about the times I felt like crawling under my bed and staying there for ever, but when I am in my “fine” moments it’s hard to explain what having an anxiety episode feels like.
I have suffered from Anxiety for much of my life. I was a “sensitive” child – although I would perhaps have been annoyed at being called that. Being, y’know, sensitive. I vividly recall having a panic attack when I was 11, and feeling like the world was ending and nothing would ever be ok again. I’ve previously pondered over whether my anxiety was directly related to my past heavy drinking – as a cause, rather than a consequence.
It strikes me, when I have a bad bout of anxiety, that “mental illness” is somewhat of a misnomer. Most of my worst symptoms are intensely physical; for example jaw clenching, head pain, IBS. Jaw clenching and teeth grinding gives me pain in my face and causes tension headaches. Migraines often lead me to having to lie very still in a dark room with a cold flannel on my face and neck. Joint pain can make doing anything difficult – back and shoulder pain mean sitting and sleeping is painful. Wrist and hand pain can make holding a book or typing near impossible. Let’s not talk about stomach churning nausea and IBS too much. Other people have reported similar physical symptoms of depression and anxiety as twitching muscles, dizzy spells, blurred vision or twitching eyes, racing heartbeat/pulse, vomiting, sweating, rashes or hives, sore throat – the list goes on.
And yet, this is called a mental illness.
When you hear the phrase mental illness, if you’ve never suffered one, or had a loved one suffer, perhaps you would assume that it mean the illness is all in the mind. That you can think yourself better. Or perhaps you think that the illness only affects your mental state, and if you can snap out of it you’ll be better.
The thing is, after many years of therapy and hard work, I’m excellent at managing the mental symptoms. I am great at recognising the early warning signs of a panic attack, and of taking self-care steps during an extended bout of bad anxiety to make sure I can at least appear to be operating like a functional human, and I’ve got really good at being able to rationally deal with the weird paranoia business. But no amount of mental homework, self care, self kindness, rest or applying of coping strategies have any effect whatsoever on the physical symptoms of anxiety. And even being as good as I am at coping with the mental symptoms, and even knowing that it’s some sort of faulty wiring and that there’s nothing I actually need to panic about, that it’s “just” anxiety doesn’t make the physical pain stop. Because a “mental” illness is not “just” a mental illness.
When you have a “mental” illness you hear “just” a lot. Things like,
“Maybe if you just went outside for a bit?”
“You should just cheer up, other people have it worse you know!”
“Why don’t you just go for a walk or do some exercise?”
“Just calm down, you’re not dying”
“You should just eat more vegetables”
“Couldn’t you just…”
No. I can’t just. THAT’S THE POINT.
This is really frustrating to someone who is experiencing all the physical baggage of a condition like anxiety or depression because there’s no “just” about it. You wouldn’t “just” a person with a broken leg and expect that to make it better. No one would suggest to someone with a broken leg that they “just walk it off”. No one questions the impact – physical and emotional – that having a broken leg can have on someone. So why do we find it so hard to accept that a condition that affects our emotional state also affects us physically? That “mental” illnesses are real illnesses, with painful physical symptoms, that can’t be necessarily thought or willed away?
I sometimes wonder whether the categorisation of some illnesses or conditions as “mental” actually leads them to be not taken as seriously as, say, a broken leg. But mental illnesses or conditions can be fatal.
For me, when I have a bad panic attack, all I really need is for someone to sit near me and go “hey, I am here. When you’re ok, I’ll still be sitting right here.” And then I’ll calm right down. It’s like magic. The physical symptoms aren’t as easy to deal with.
If you know someone with an anxiety condition, or depression, or a mental illness, please don’t “just” them. And remember that it really isn’t all “in their minds”. It might be called a “mental” illness, but the causes and symptoms can be anything but.