Superstitious maybe but, when I was awakened in the early hours of New Year’s Day not by revellers but by an incapacitating migraine that lasted for days, the writing was on the wall. I spent the first month of 2013 as a regular at my GP’s surgery hoping futilely for some indication as to what was causing my, by now almost permanent, headaches. January 2013 also brought my first brush with anxiety although I was able to shake it off and emerge from its fetters relatively unscathed.
The rest of the year seemed destined to be defined by other people’s tragedies. I lost two cousins, both only in their 50s and many of my friends seemed to be navigating their own similarly choppy waters. A popular refrain became, “I can’t wait for this crappy year to be over.” Little did I know though what was still ahead.
I have struggled with various menopausal health problems all year and tried lots of alternative therapies, most notably acupuncture, to keep them at bay. However, in October everything came crashing down about my head when I found myself consumed by debilitating anxiety. Unable to function, I became a sleep deprived zombie, losing two stone in weight in a matter of weeks (sadly I could derive no pleasure from it!). Eventually, a dear friend stepped in and pointed out the obvious – I needed help.
Despite my inability to function I knew I needed to find myself a good GP, one who wouldn’t dismiss me with the premise that the ages of 50 to 55 are a bit of a minefield for women. Luckily my new GP turned out to be great and prescribed anti-depressants, explaining that anxiety is a common symptom of the menopause as the adrenal gland is regulated by hormones. It was a rocky road to feeling half way human again, however, as the medication took about six weeks to start to work and initially made me feel infinitely worse.
So why am I telling you all this you may be wondering and, the truth is, I’m not sure. Mostly, I think it is in the hope that my own experience might strike a chord with somebody else in the same situation. During my own stormy weather, I have been overwhelmed by people’s kindness and it has taken me by surprise just how many people are afflicted by anxiety and depression.
The problem is, until it happens to you, you have absolutely no idea how horrific it is. Pre-anxiety, I was, I hope, always sympathetic to people with mental health problems but my advice would be of the pull yourself together variety. I have never suffered from depression and, although I’m sure it’s equally as debilitating as anxiety, they are very different conditions. When people would assume that I just needed cheering up they had no idea that I didn’t feel down or hopeless just consumed by irrational and relentless terror. The world felt as if it had inexplicably shifted while I wasn’t looking and, without warning, became a place that was both dangerous and threatening. Other people suddenly seemed incredibly vulnerable and it was incomprehensible to me how they could be blithely living their lives without any sense of impending doom. The form that anxiety takes is sort of irrelevant because the feelings are the same but mine was centred around health. I became obsessed and irrational, even the health of complete strangers would cause me to lie awake at night consumed by sheer terror.
The thing is, whilst I was in the eye of the storm, so many people came forward to offer me lots of great advice. Some people swore by exercise, others meditation and one friend urged me to socialise my way out of the mire. Lots of different techniques work for different people and now I’m feeling better I plan to resume exercising and give meditation a try whilst dipping my toe back into the world of socialising. The truth of the matter is though, the only way I was able to survive the last three months was by mostly lying on my bed in the foetal position – if I lay very still the anxiety didn’t seem quite so fierce. I would leave my bed twice a week to go to work, promptly returning to it once the work day was over. Now I realise that this probably sounds downright weird but, my point is, anybody who is suffering from some sort of crisis needs to find their own survival technique and shouldn’t feel weak or ashamed for opting out of the world for a while, if that’s what it takes.
I’m quite aware that there will probably be people reading this, sneering at my lack of resilience and wondering how I’d cope in the face of a real problem. Maybe a year ago I might have thought the same. All I can say now though is that I wouldn’t wish the last three months on my worst enemy.
In the midst of all the madness a close friend told me that it would be like child birth and, once I was through it, I’d no longer remember how bad it really felt. As the horror recedes, I’m starting to think that she may well be right. As I look forward to a new year and a new start, I have to ask myself was 2013 a complete write off? It wasn’t great but there were some good things that came out of it. Mostly it made me realise that I have a wonderful family and some amazing friends. Despite disappearing from twitter, there were two twitter friends in particular (and they know who they are) who came up trumps, by sending me regular emails which helped me feel connected to the wider world. They didn’t have to, after all they’ve never met me and, once I was no longer part of the twitter community, I had nothing to offer in return. And so my friends, that’s been the greatest gift of 2013, the realisation that when you are down on your luck and lower than a snake’s belly, most people’s default setting is kindness.