It all started innocuously enough on New Year’s Eve when I was struck down by a hideous migraine. Bad as that was I didn’t expect the repercussions of it to drag on and on and on. However, the headaches continued and I was compelled to make my first trip to the GP in about twenty years. I had blood tests, which showed nothing, and was prescribed beta blockers which lowered my blood pressure and pulse too much, consequently making me feel worse. As time went on my preoccupation with and fear of ill health became almost debilitating.
The thing that really struck me was the lack of anything even remotely reassuring about visiting the GP. I had no idea what a
ridiculous system we have where everything, from getting an appointment (I had to wait 9 days for mine) to the doctor’s approach (“What do you think it is?” seemed to be his stock phrase which, given I have no medical training whatsoever, did not inspire me with confidence) and ending with the fact that the doctor failed to make any notes on my visits so that each one felt like groundhog day, was a complete shambles. I thought maybe I got shoddy treatment because the GP knew that there was nothing wrong with me but no, having shared my experiences, it seems they are mirrored by almost everyone, including people who have subsequently turned out to have very serious illnesses.
Eventually, I consulted with an acupuncturist, who advertised herself as a ‘headache specialist’. I have had two sessions so far and, although I still have the headaches, I’ve somehow stumbled upon the real catalyst for my health decline. Stress – so immense it has pushed me over to the dark side. It came to me in something of a flash, as I lay on the acupuncturist’s couch like a human pin cushion. I am obsessing about my health to avoid dealing with my real anxieties which are rooted firmly in the workplace. Finally, after five months of misery, I am calling time and terminating my contract at Easter. Part of me feels like a quitter, not seeing it through until summer, but the self-preservation part is screaming – stop! The next step after all could be the local lunatic asylum.
Those of you who have read my previous posts will know that I am not one to suffer in silence; I like to share my pain around. The moment I realised I had suffered some sort of mental collapse, I felt duty bound to share it with whoever would listen. And, my God, it was like unleashing a flood of stories from friends and strangers alike. People who I have known for years suddenly began to share horror stories of mental anguish that I had no idea they had even endured.
One friend, who I had always thought had a flair for jaunty hats, confided that her stress levels are so bad she has alopecia. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me they are on anti-depressants just to be able to function. One colleague, as soon as she gets home from work, takes to her bed fully clothed unable to move until the next morning even though she barely sleeps. All the while these people are putting on a brave face and throwing themselves into the fray day in and day out.
When then did life become so stressful? I know it’s something of a cliché to look back on times gone by with a rosy glow but it hasn’t always been like this. As a society why have we made life so difficult for ourselves? Jobs which have always been demanding have now become unendurable mostly down to bureaucratic nonsense and a constant drive to meet unrealistic targets. Jobs which should be relatively stress free, given they pay minimum wage, don’t fare any better. One woman, who works in a shop, told me how stressful her job has become with sales targets, ‘secret shoppers’ purposefully trying to expose poor performance and staff reductions which leave one person trying to do the job previously done by a team. Imagine being hauled in front of a manager and given an official warning because you didn’t give the customer enough eye contact! The world has truly gone mad.
It’s not even just the stress and strains of working life that are waiting to do you in, it seems mental illness is constantly lurking and can grab you by the throat at any moment. Since turning fifty this year, I have been privy to many women’s tales of woe at the hands of the menopause. I was hundreds of miles away at the time, enjoying my own carefree, youthful life, but my mother recently told me how she had to see a psychiatrist during her own menopause so extreme was her depression. Even more alarming, her sister tried to put her head in the gas oven during hers. So many women with so many stories to tell and yet it is all somehow kept hidden like a shameful secret. That is until you inadvertently tumble headlong into the abyss and then people will whisper their experiences to you, safe now that you are also suffering that you won’t judge them for their own vulnerability.
My only previous brush with anxiety was when my father was dying and that was understandable. This time around, what really blindsided me was the fact that there was nothing tangible to pin my fears onto. It truly felt as if I was going mad, consumed by terror when my life was problem free. It also seemed rather self-obsessed and ridiculous when there were other people with real,
tangible problems. A bit of work stress seems incomparable to bereavement or illness. All I can say is that it felt very real at the time and it has given me a new insight into how pervasive mental illness can be. I, like most people, have been guilty of thinking that sufferers of anxiety or depression should just shake themselves out of it. Maybe it was karma, paying me back for my lack of
compassion. What I didn’t know, until it happened to me, is that there are so many people silently struggling with their own personal hell.
Every cloud, or so they say, has a silver lining and my black cloud was no different. It has forced me to stop and take stock of my life. I already knew that I needed to simplify it and embrace a gentler more stress free path but my brush with lunacy forced my hand. I have completely overhauled my diet, eliminating anything that might agitate my nervous system. That meant getting rid of coffee, alcohol and sugar, which were my primary sources of nutrition. To be honest, it wasn’t even hard as I felt so bad that anything I associated with health became a comfort. I have grown to like peppermint and chamomile tea which would have previously left me gagging with horror. I don’t want to speak too soon but my gentle lifestyle suits me and, once I have put my job behind me, I will pursue it completely. Another plus side is it’s very economical which means I have inadvertently met all of my New Year’s resolutions to improve my lifestyle. I’m currently healthier, trying to be more frugal and spending much less time on social networking. Going mad, let me tell you, is a full time job! I didn’t have time for anything else and, with a bit of luck, new
healthier habits have now been formed.
Finally, if you are reading this whilst in the grip of your own mental wobble, I would say don’t be fooled into thinking that life around you is going on without a care. All around you there will be people in a similar fix, keeping it to themselves for fear of being derided or thought weak. The best life advice anybody has ever given me is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and sooner or later you will be in a different place. I urge you to do the same.