Confessions of a Compulsive Hoarder

6th August 2017.

Since I was a young child I’ve always had a very strong sense of sentimentality. I’ve forever placed a, perhaps, unhealthily-intense focus on memories, no matter how seemingly insignificant or painful they may be. I’ve written before that I suffer from a rarely-discussed phobia known as Athazagoraphobia. This deep-seated fear is defined by two distinct feelings, the first of which I have previously always levelled a heightened focus – the fear of being forgotten or ignored (passive), or the fear of actively forgetting. It is perhaps this very conscious act of needing to have a tangible link to times past which has contributed to the mental health condition that forms the basis of my latest piece.

In recent weeks I have been forced to admit that I have a severe problem with hoarding. I’ve purposely used the word “confessions” in the title of this piece because it is probably, out of the various conditions with which I suffer, the one I feel most conscious – embarrassed – about. Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, although a recognised condition, is still rarely discussed, with the causes largely unknown and difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the links to depression and anxiety are clear. Over the past few days I’ve been looking into potential reasons why certain people hoard, what causes heightened susceptibility and why “hoarding” is markedly different from “collecting.”

To deal with that final point from the outset, people who collect will present their items in an orderly fashion – they tend to be displayed neatly, proudly and have a common theme. If not on show for public consumption, then collections are easily accessible and stored securely and tend to have significant monetary or sentimental value, or signify a passion or interest. With hoarding, however, the categorising of amassed items is either impossible, or not a priority; there is no aesthetic value and they resemble “clutter.” Their monetary value tends to be low and the sheer quantity of items gathered is potentially hazardous as they increasingly overtake and commandeer floor and surface space. For more details of signs and symptoms of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, please visit the NHS website.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on mental health you will be aware that, when able, I am always keen on writing from a very personal perspective. I’m very much aware of the importance, and such a firm advocate, of “putting a face to the illness.” Indeed, since I first began publicly discussing mental health it was clear to me that the only way we are ever going to break down this still-present stigma directed at mental illness, and those of us who suffer with such, is if the rather fluid notion of “mental health” takes on a more tangible form. To that end I, for the first time, will admit to some of the things that I have amassed over the years, the majority of which I haven’t yet fully been able to dispose of.

Probably the most obvious thing you will notice if you enter my bedroom (and this is definitely a point of the hypothetical form as no one has been allowed past the threshold in about fifteen years) is the prevalence of old newspapers. This is actually one of the things I now find easiest to dispose of – I probably gather four or five small piles’ worth before I take a deep breath and hurriedly throw them in the recycling bin before defiantly slamming the lid down. What you won’t see, however, is the masses of Radio Times that dominate a good proportion of my wardrobe. I may have stopped buying them a couple of years ago, but still can’t bring myself to throw any I’d previously bought away. Judging by the size of the stacks, I’d guess that there may be two-and-a-half years’ worth of weekly editions, some in bulging boxfiles, most precariously balanced on top of each other. About a year ago I had, what some may call, a “breakdown” rooted in frustration at being unable to easily cross from one side of my room to another. The most obvious factor in preventing easy navigation was the scores of plastic bags that littered the floor. In my fury I was aggressively determined to rid my room of each-and-every bag that I had accumulated. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that around 500 plastic bags were removed. Sadly, since I reached that zero mark, as I look around today I see that the numbers have slowly started to rise once more. You, too, cannot cast your eye around my room without noticing that it is strewn with pens. hoarder-4.jpg

My desk playing host to a scattering of around one hundred is the proverbial tip of the iceberg! In preparation for this piece, and to settle my natural curiosity, I wanted to count just how many I actually owned – some still in bulk-boxes unused, some expensive (most not), highlighters, ballpoints, markers – pens of any make, colour, style. I gave up counting after I got to 1,247, having unearthed two shoeboxes-full of pen lids (yes, just the lids) in the process. The final significant element to my obsessive hoarding takes the form of drawers of blank VHS tapes (showing how far back this issue goes!) and spindles upon spindles of recordable DVDs. For a period of about five years, possibly (and in hindsight) when I was at my worst, I would routinely record hours upon hours of rolling news and TV news bulletins, the majority of which never watched again, but stored away. I have, though, conquered some of my past hoardings; I no longer hold on to empty deodorant cans, used batteries or shop catalogues! Nevertheless, with my wardrobe and drawers filled-to-bursting with masses of the aforementioned items it means that my safe space, what should be my sanctuary, is full of chaos – having my clothes (functional items), for instance, displaced from their natural home – draped over chairs, still in their shopping bags, neatly folded into piles in the corner – has to be detrimental, or at the very least, unsettling, to my general wellbeing.

The vast majority of my hoarding takes place in the home, away from where people can see it. Despite knowing that it is a recognised condition, one linked strongly with other mental illnesses, I still feel a lot of shame and embarrassment. I hope very much that “coming out” about it and talking honestly will, in time, enable me to progress and gradually dispose of my accumulations. I also hope that it will help others who may be suffering and help to increase, as far as possible, the understanding of the condition. I earlier said that I have allowed no one in my room for around fifteen years – I’m adamant that nobody can see the extent of my hoarding, even as a young child I remember feeling uncomfortable having friends around; I didn’t like them entering my personal, safe space. In hindsight, this has continued into my twenties. Again, socially, I have missed out – I can’t entertain, I can’t have people round for dinner or drinks. Hoarder 3Sometimes, however, my hoarding unavoidably leaks out to where people can notice it. Firstly, my wallet is frequently the subject of ridicule. I don’t blame people for noticing, and commenting on, it – it’s hard to ignore! But it does make me very conscious when out in public and is a constant reminder that I’m perhaps not as well, or stable, as I would like to be. Admittedly, loose change is partly to blame for its cumbersome nature, but I can’t deny that I find it rather difficult to comfortably throw away receipts, train tickets or appointment cards. Secondly, in recent weeks my hoarding has become noticed, and commented on, by people at work. I’ve been able to squirrel things away until now – hiding them where others wouldn’t have need to go. But my desk slowly, but surely, began to reveal signs of my issue;  the stacks of paper got higher, the drawers became increasingly harder to close, the various seemingly redundant “bits-and-bobs” appeared to multiply exponentially. I was called on it. My reaction caused therefrom caught me by surprise – when my manager (who happens to be a very good friend) exasperatingly snapped and forced me to “sort it out,” I shut down. Fighting back the tears I furiously threw everything into a box (including a supportive note he’d written me that I’d looked at every day for encouragement), labelled it “Desk” and stored it in another part of the building. I get defensive, almost angry, when people question me about it – maybe I react in such a way to mask, or suppress, the anxiety. I now knew, however, that not talking about it, not admitting my problem was unavoidable.

I’ve dedicated some time in recent days to exploring the reasons that have perhaps led to the point at which I now find myself. I’ve written before about the intense loneliness that I feel, and the realisation that something important was lacking from my childhood.  I can only deduce that I’m physically filling up the gaps around me in a subconscious, albeit futile, effort to fill the emptiness, to fill some form of void…to inundate the space that should be filled by something that’s missing. It’s always been somewhat comforting to be surrounded by “things.” Am I trying to replicate what’s lacking in the emotional by over-compensating the material? I can only imagine that I’ve placed certain emotional value on these possessions – the idea of ridding myself of them makes me incredibly anxious. But I know I need to. Maybe now I’ve admitted not only to you as readers, but also to myself, that this is something that desperately needs to be addressed I can begin to move on. I turned twenty-seven last month and I am so painfully far from where I want, and need, to be. It shouldn’t be this difficult. Maybe one day it won’t be.

 

Confessions of a Compulsive Hoarder

My London Pride 2017

9th July 2017.

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Trafalgar Square, 4:30pm as the Parade comes to an end.

Like many other LGBT people in this country, the annual London Pride is a very important event in the calendar for me that resonates incredibly strongly. Last year I wrote about its continued importance and its value in 2016 and whether or not it still has a place. It shan’t come as a surprise when I conclude, and staunchly affirm, that its presence is still very much needed and indeed positively feeds other vital aspects of society – the acceptance and embracing of others, unity and collaboration, and education through discourse. This year’s celebrations culminated in the capital yesterday with annual Pride Parade featuring more than 26,000 marchers supported and cheered by around 1 million spectators. With 2017 marking fifty years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the U.K it’s no surprise that this year’s festivities were the biggest in the event’s history. It is perhaps unavoidable not to enter into the realm of the cliché when describing the atmosphere in Central London yesterday – one really did need to experience it in person to fully appreciate the incredible amount of camaraderie, admiration and celebration displayed by all in attendance, regardless of sexuality, race or nationality. Many of the city’s retailers and food outlets showed their support by adorning their storefronts with rainbow flags, balloons and banners, along with signs proudly proclaiming this year’s official slogan “Love Happens Here” and the Pride in London logo. Following the spate of horrendous terrorist attacks that have targeted the U.K in recent months, it was even more pertinent for the city, the country, to stand together, proclaim our unity and to not be cowed by fear and persecution. Such an overt demonstration of solidarity transcended sexuality more than ever this year, resonating with the wider society. The sense of “togetherness” was truly wonderful.

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Chris Holliday and Emma Goswell from the LGBT radio station Gaydio commentated on the Parade from Piccadilly Circus.

From a personal perspective, my annual trip to London Pride allows me to fully embrace my sexuality – something that I don’t feel I can do when I’m at home in Hampshire. There isn’t a “gay scene” where I live, and while I’ve only ever experienced mild overt homophobia where I live, there is a definite sense of an underlying lack of acceptance. I am open to the fact that this could solely be my interpretation, not shared by other LGBT people in my area. Being the only openly gay person out of my friends to whom I live near, and therefore see more often, is sometimes difficult. The experiences my local friends and I bring to each other are, of course, not at all limited to our sexuality, but being the only gay man does limit how much I can profit (if that’s the correct term) from our social interactions. I often feel, through no fault of their own, a little excluded and markedly different from the friends I see on a regular basis. Sometimes I need to be surrounded “by my own kind.” Admittedly, I’m only an hour away from the capital and visit London relatively frequently (on average once or twice a month), nevertheless when I do make the journey it is imperative that I fully immerse myself in “city living” and take full advantage of the surroundings, the diversity and the freedom the place gives me. I also need to spend as much time with those friends I’ve made in London over the years. I feel fuelled when in their presence, taking positive memories home with me and taking the encouragement that I may just be worthy. I never feel as safe as when in Soho, an area that I utterly adore, and I still get excited when a visit here draws near. This may be due to the fact that I don’t live this life everyday, so on the occasions when I do get that opportunity I relish the chance to soak up the wonderful atmosphere and the vibrancy of the environment and learn from, and enjoy, the company of my LGBT peers.

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Crowds fill the streets of Soho. Old Compton Street.

Now, obviously during Pride, everything is heightened, the scenes over this particular Summer weekend do not represent the true norm – the crowds are larger, the music is louder and everything seems that bit more intensified; it is somewhat of a one-off. Yesterday proved to me that despite the overwhelming positives, such a boost in the physical viewpoint can have a negative effect on my frame of mind. Pride is about people: people coming together, people celebrating with friends, people supporting each other and sharing an experience. It can be incredibly upsetting, therefore, if you find yourself without people with which to share such an experience. During an interview on depression with American singer/songwriter Judy Collins, Bill Moyers from PBS refers to “the boy starving at the feast.” This quote has stuck with me ever since I watched this interview many years ago, and perfectly encapsulates an unfortunate sentiment I brought home with me when travelling home late last night and one that I cannot shake.

I have been privileged to have met some truly exceptional people in recent years – people who I feel safe with, who I laugh with and who I am always very keen to see more of – and, yes, people who I am letting myself call “friends.” I’m concerned though. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just rather pathetically clinging on to their coattails by my fingernails frantically hoping to be dragged along and included and live a life which I crave, even for just a little bit. Never having been in a relationship only exacerbates that feeling I have of never being someone’s priority. More and more I have in the back of my mind that thought that people wished my seat were filled by someone else. 

I first wrote the above last year when writing a piece about the profound loneliness I often feel. Over the past twelve months such feelings have become less intense, but on the occasions when they re-emerge they can still be so exceptionally debilitating. I’d been looking forward to attending Pride for months, and as the day drew closer, I was keen to make arrangements to ensure I could meet up with four or five key people who, even if the feeling isn’t reciprocated, mean a great deal to me and who I greatly miss. I earlier hinted that the beautiful nature of any Pride event, and the fun resulting therefrom, is best, and therefore fully, experienced when it is shared with loved ones. Until late afternoon I was lucky enough to be accompanied by a dear friend, who lives in the city, and the event couldn’t have been any more enjoyable. We managed to get a good view of a good portion of the Parade as it travelled along Regent Street.

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Crowds gathering to watch the 2017 London Pride Parade as it passes along Regent Street.

When we were later separated and once I was ultimately destined to spend the entire evening alone, longstanding feelings of isolation revealed themselves; my confidence was all-but-eradicated. I stayed in the city until my last train home departed shortly before midnight, spending the preceding six-and-a-half hours largely alone, with an occasional brief chat with a stranger, clinging onto any slither of hope that I might see someone I knew – I didn’t, or that someone would make contact with me and invite me to join – no one did. In each bar I went into I ordered two drinks in a vain attempt to convince the bar staff I had company. I’m sure they didn’t actually even care! In each bar I entered, I was the prime target to be pushed out of the queue, an easy entity to remove if the small area in which I’d found to stand was desired by a group; it’s easier to pick off one lone person than a group. I felt physically safe, yet emotionally very vulnerable. I was an intruder, someone once again “pathetically clinging on.” Confidence sapped, I felt unable to dance, to sing, to celebrate. At home I am not “out” to my mum (I had to hide my London Pride T-shirt and any traces of glitter!) and my dad won’t even discuss the fact I’m gay – I overheard him drunkenly telling a friend mine, “Nathan says he’s gay, but he can’t be. And if he is, he’s not fully gay.” So, the chance to be as “loud and proud” as I’d like was so exciting – to fully live that life for just one day. It saddens me that I couldn’t even do that.  The stark contrast between groups of friends, and the big group photos that were beginning to appear on social media (some from those known to me) and me, stood awkwardly alone looking on was so very painful. All I wanted was that group photo, that sense of togetherness, that sense of truly belonging. I’m not ashamed to say that I sobbed throughout the journey home. Everyone had their own plans, their own groups of friends to celebrate with. I was no one’s priority and what right do I have to intrude? The answer. Evidently none at all.

Do I regret attending London Pride this year? Not at all.

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Pride events are not just about the outlandish costumes, the glitter, the rainbows…the partying. It’s about the LGBT community being visible. Historically marginalised, criminalised and killed because of our sexuality, it is incredibly empowering and a privilege to be able to join together at an event which celebrates, embraces and positively presents the LGBT society, a society of which I am so proud to be a member. Let’s not forget that it was only fifty years ago – that’s in my parents’ lifetimes some of my friends’ lifetimes – that homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. Being gay was still illegal in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland in 1982. In 2016 the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) published research showing that homosexuality is still illegal in seventy-four countries. Shockingly, in thirteen of these, being gay is punishable by death (Sudan, Pakistan and Mauritania for example). LGBT people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems – I’ve written previously on the link between homosexuality and mental illness link between homosexuality and mental illness –  and, the most recent study on such matters (Cambridge University’s The School Report, 2017), found that 45% of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are regularly bullied at school solely because of their sexuality. There’s no doubt that momentous steps have been made, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

London did itself so beautifully proud yesterday. Its residents, visitors, the countless heroic, inspiring LGBT charities and allied organisations were the perfect ambassadors of the capital and the country. The city truly was at its best. I’m both fortunate, and honoured, to call a country doing so much for the LGBT community home. The countdown to London Pride 2018 begins now! We attend to stand as one.

#LoveHappensHere

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Rainbow balloon arch welcoming people into Soho, Wardour Street. 
My London Pride 2017

Managing your social media and being aware of its effects on your mental health.

23rd June 2017.

No one can deny that social media is a prevalent, omnipresent and, indeed, intrinsic aspect of modern life. The world is so much smaller than it once was, so much more accessible. I recently wrote about the dangers of having such heightened access to information about tragic events that occur across the globe and how a constant, almost inescapable, stream of distressing details emerging in real-time can have detrimental impact on emotional wellbeing. Enhanced accessibility to resources, people and information does, of course, have many advantages. Communication is quicker – the physical distance between individuals no longer necessarily dictates the relationship; I can send an email to someone on the other side of the world and get a response within seconds for instance. For the purposes of this piece, however, I want to focus on that term that I mentioned in the opening sentence – “social media.”  What precisely does it mean? We can all give examples of social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – the list is ever-growing). In the simplest form, social media encapsulates all forms of electronic communication – the sharing of information online. I wish to expand a little and focus on the fundamental characteristic that it is dependent on user-generated content. This may seem obvious, but having focus on the “user” as an individual, crucially as an identity, invites noteworthy comment.

Drawing from my personal experiences of, and relationship with, social media it is evident that learning how to navigate the various platforms available is both crucial and something may not come easy for some people. Before you, as the user, produces and publishes (generates) subject matter (content) you need to consider who may see it, who has easy access to it, why you are posting it and, crucially for me, what response do you want to receive. Now, clearly, the fact that there is such a range of social media platforms available demonstrates that each have a slightly different purpose – I wouldn’t, for example, publish a blog on Snapchat! They all, however, are rooted in communication, relationship and receiving a form of response or feedback. In recent weeks I have become increasingly aware that I have fallen into the trap of almost exploiting social media in order to get affirmation, attention – some form of acknowledgement. The reasons for this are numerous; I’ve written previously about the desperate consequences of loneliness, for instance. Being part (or thinking that you are a part) of an online community can be very reassuring if you feel isolated from peers, or don’t feel able to communicate verbally, face-to-face. This poses a great risk. I wish to emphasise that I maintain that social media is an extremely effective tool, but it has to be used correctly; the consequences of generating your own (and indeed viewing others’) material need to be realised. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, it is perhaps best illustrated by some examples from my personal experience.

facebook likedThe extent to which you desire your audience to engage with your content (selfie, blog post, comment) is determined by how much importance you level on the platform you use and how much value the extent of engagement from others has. Put bluntly, does it matter if your filtered selfie on Facebook only gets ten “likes” and your friend’s have thirty? The answer will be different depending on to whom you talk, but I imagine for the vast majority of people they do secretly, or overtly, have concern over the popularity of their posts. We shouldn’t, but human nature dictates that we (to varying degrees) do have the tendency to compare our acceptance by others and draw conclusions therefrom. It is important to keep perspective of these conclusions. People (some friends, some strangers) not affirmatively acknowledging your content does not translate into them not liking you, as a person, in real life. This is something that I need to keep reminding myself. Does my best friend not “liking” my latest string of photos mean that our friendship is over? No. The very fact that I’m having to make this point perhaps demonstrates that our investment in social media, our prolific use thereof, and, sometimes, our dependence on it, can supersede interactions in real-life. I myself have no embarrassment in admitting that my confidence takes a knock when something I post online goes almost unnoticed. After all, surely we broadcast to entertain or inform our audience, don’t we? If there’s no obvious audience there, no one listening and no one seemingly interested, then have we wasted our time? Again, no. That being said, one thing that I do still struggle with is realising that my heartfelt, honest accounts of suffering with depression, or learning to cope with anxiety (written primarily to break down the stigma of the illness and to help others) gets considerably fewer comments, shares or affirmative interaction than someone who posts a funny gif, or a photo of them topless in the gym mirror. This, however, transfers into real-life. It upsets me that some close friends don’t read my posts, don’t support the “cause” by advertising the link to other friends, so I probably can’t “blame” social media alone for this (and I don’t). The way in which I suppose I will handle this is to focus more on why I am writing these pieces and for whom. If someone who needs help and is actively searching online for personal accounts of mental illness, then the chances are my blog may appear – the message will get through to the right people if I persevere. It is upsetting, however, that from my standpoint (and I am aware that this is tainted by underlying issues with self-esteem) the way to gain popularity, and to be noticed, on Twitter and Instagram is to be funny, attractive or use the latest popular words and phrases. It’s a constant battle to not cave in and “tow the line” in order to get noticed. I have to believe that my content does have worth and will be appreciated on its own merits.

Once you realise that the continued success of social media is based on, and rooted facebook photo guidein, the users thereof and the material they (we!) produce it is acknowledged that we hold the power – we determine our online persona. This has two broad consequences. Firstly, that we are able to play a role online, we can be a totally different person with a different identity than in real-life. There is a sense of anonymity where the “online you” doesn’t have to be “the real you.” People can choose to totally reinvent themselves, be an exaggerated version of who they really are, or conversely actually be themselves! This can be incredibly liberating – I’m thinking of people who, for varying reasons, aren’t able to come out as homosexual to their family, colleagues, classmates for instance. Having an online community where no one really knows who you are enables you to talk with people with the same interests, the same issues, the same sexuality. Secondly, we have the power to choose precisely what we do and don’t publish online. We can tailor our appearance (filtering a selfie, only posting “perfect” photos), we can cherry-pick the news about ourselves we share (racing to tell followers we’ve got a new job, but neglecting to mention we were fired from the last one) and we can choose to let people just what we’re up to (someone uploading countless photos of them quaffing champagne against a backdrop of a crystal clear sky and golden beach doesn’t mean that’s their norm). For the audience that can be extremely disconcerting. I constantly compare my life, job, activities, happiness levels to friends online. The rational Nathan is fully aware that false idylls are rife on social media – that many are only promoting a “perfect” lifestyle, but I do find myself comparing how dull and mundane my life is compared to those I follow online. Remembering that the user dictates what the audience sees is key. If social media usage plays a substantial role in your daily life, it is vital, for your emotional wellbeing, that you can make the distinction between the virtual (the online) and real-life. Don’t get tricked into a state of mind where online gratification replaces a hug from a friend, some verbal kind words or physical social interaction; don’t blur the line.  

Listen to Me Sign Person Tries to Get Attention in CrowdFinally, the aspect of social media specifically from the user’s point of view, and something that sadly has come to define my own online persona is the fact that I prolifically used (and the past tense usage there is very much deliberate) Twitter as a platform to cry out for attention when I was going through period of poor mental health. You can read about the background to my mental illness so I shan’t regurgitate that here, but a longstanding feeling or worthless (which, yes, does still exist to varying degrees) and an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation has resulted in me needing, far more regularly than normal, to be told that I’m okay – that I’m more than okay, that I’m important in someone’s life, loved, not always second best or the last resort. I suffer from Athazagoraphobia – a debilitating fear of being forgotten, ignored or replaced. I only actually realised a few weeks ago that growing up I only received a loving response, or affection, skin-on-skin contact, when I was injured. I often found myself sitting alone during my school years and would only be noticed (heard) when in tears – I never gained emotionally or socially on my own merits – I always excelled in education, but even when seventeen years of schooling culminated in getting a First Class degree at university, I still didn’t feel valued or worthy of respect. Desperately Tweeting statements like “I am nothing,” or “Why do I always end up alone?” only makes (and has made) people turn away. Desperation is a very unattractive trait and one that absolutely does not result in what I wanted – to be told that I matter. With all of us now having an audience, small or large, to broadcast ourselves to, it’s all-too-easy to throw out a cry for help, to grasp any slither of affirmation that may come from someone behind a computer screen. We need to be mindful of the value, and significance, of such. I have made some truly wonderful friends through social media and I need to believe that this has happened not due to them pitying me, or having to be nice to me in case I get upset, but because I play a positive role in their lives. 

How we portray ourselves online and the degree to which we immerse ourselves in social media has varying consequences, both for us as users and our audience. How we form relationships is evolving, how we interact with the wider world is shifting. As technology continues to develop and the role social media plays in society grows ever-larger, we need to remember this now more than ever and take precautions to enable us to use it wisely and prudently. 

Managing your social media and being aware of its effects on your mental health.

Safeguarding your mental health during times of tragedy, terror and national disaster.

20th June 2017.

Over the last three months this country has fallen victim to a succession of tragic events that have dominated the news agenda leading many of us to wonder just how much more we can all take. On the afternoon of the 22nd of March news was emerging of a terrorist attack that had taken place on Westminster Bridge resulting in four civilian deaths and the fatal stabbing of on-duty police officer Keith Palmer. Two months later a suicide bomber entered the foyer of the Manchester Arena where detonating his device killed twenty-three people, making it the worst UK terror attack since the London bombings on the 7th of July 2005. Less than two weeks passed before London was struck again; on the evening of June the 3rd eight people lost their lives as a van was purposely driven into pedestrians on London Bridge before the three attackers stabbed people in Borough Market. And then, just last week, the twenty-four storey Grenfell Tower block in West London was engulfed in flames (the cause yet unknown) – thirty people have been confirmed dead with many more still missing, presumed deceased. June article 1 June article 2June article 3 June article 4

The very nature of these events – their severity and relative rareness – ensure that they are given a large level of coverage in the media – put simply, their “newsworthiness” is great. With blanket coverage (be it on TV news, in print or on social media online) the accessibility to, and prevalence of, distressing first-hand accounts, shocking images and upsetting statistics is heightened – likewise is the potential for those not directly affected by the incident to be just that: affected. In the wake of these tragedies it seems pertinent, indeed necessary, to discuss the impact they can have on our mental health and emotional wellbeing. Anyone who has read any of my previous pieces will be aware of my personal reasons for writing from this angle, but in the days and weeks ahead, we all need to be aware and respectful of our emotional state. I wish to stress that this does not involve ignoring tragic events such as these, pretending they didn’t happen, or fooling yourself in to believing that because you may not have been personally touched you are not affected. Putting your head in the proverbial sand is far from a healthy approach. This was dramatically brought to my attention when I was, for the first time, personally affected by one of the tragedies we have witnessed in recent weeks. I lost a friend, Martyn and IMartyn Hett, in the attack on the Manchester Arena. This piece is not centred on grief per se, yet knowing someone who will now always have that label of “victim” has prompted many questions in recent weeks and forced me to analyse the importance of safeguarding your mental health in the aftermath of these events and how we do so amongst a deluge of distressing, upsetting coverage.

During, and in the immediate hours following, any distressing, life-threatening event focus is placed on establishing the facts and mitigating the long-term damage – be that identifying and rescuing survivors, protecting property or territory or neutralising the assailant(s). Emotions can take second place – it’s normal for there to be a state of panic and confusion as the details slowly emerge; priority is put on survival and gaining answers to some difficult, but necessary, questions.  Psychologist Rachel Eddins, working in Houston, Texas notes that “when we are in distress and lack feelings of safety, our thinking brain is hijacked by our emotional system and we move into primitive drives to fight or flight.” However, in the days that follow, as the picture becomes clearer and as the tragic ramifications reveal themselves we need to carefully manage how we respond emotionally. Personally, I have taken great comfort from the outpouring of love shown in memory of my friend Martyn, and the twenty-one others who were killed on that Monday evening in May. Countless uplifting stories were born out of that horrendous evening – be it hundreds of people across the city opening up their homes for those stranded (the hashtag #RoomForManchester was widely used on June article 6social media to spread the word to as many as possible), the ciy’s taxi drivers turning off their meters in order to get as many of the frightened people away from the area as possible, or unprecedented numbers of people queuing to donate blood. Indeed, in the days following the attack, Manchester proudly announced to the world that they were united – the city was one. The sense of community shone through, perhaps no more so than at the vigil held in St. Ann’s Square in the city a week after the attack and as the traditional symbol of the city – the worker bee – began to take on a new meaning. Traditionally representative of Manchester’s strong work ethic and industrious past this symbol has now become emblematic of unity, solidarity, hope and a city united, never divided. Tattoo artists across the country even began offering their services to permanently mark this symbol on anyone who desired, with all funds being donated to support the families of those who lost loved ones in the attack, further demonstrating the deep-rooted sense of togetherness that has come to define the city – a city defined not by fear and hate, but by strength and love.

Similar acts of kindness have followed in the days after the horrendous inferno which engulfed the Grenfell Tower block in West London. The Bishop of Kensington described one such as “absolutely amazing.” Speaking of a six-year-old boy who donated the entirety of his pocket money, totalling £70, to help those who had lost so much he said that “it is just a little sign of the incredible outpouring of compassion there has been in London as a result of this.” When rationalising our thoughts and monitoring our emotions in the wake of such tragedies it is vital that we take heart from responses like this – circumstance: horrendous, but the result, evidently representative of wider community: so very beautiful. If you currently find yourself lost in a cloud of deep despondency (and, owing to the past three months, no one would blame you), I urge you to seek out other such stories –  stories that will undoubtedly reaffirm your faith in mankind and reignite a sense of hope.

There are also some practical things you can do to limit how much the coverage of these kinds of tragedies permeates into your psyche – limiting the degree to which they dominate or dictate your emotional state. I wrote earlier that ignoring distress in the world is not the answer, but you can be informed and stay aware without being totally swamped by hopelessness. Historically we would receive our news at a certain point in the day via the regular TV and radio news bulletins, or the morning newspaper. Now, however, we have constant, continual access to feeds from all over the world. We can now virtually live an event in real-time through videos recorded on mobile phones, we can see and hear the pain and distress, we can read eye-witness accounts seconds after they have been posted on Twitter, we know details of a developing story as they unfold sometimes before the major news organisations. 

Or do we? Unverified reports often appear online, whereas traditional, reputable media will only diffuse facts that have been corroborated by reliable sources. We have access to incalculable levels of information on social media, with a notable proportion being opinion, not fact – conclusions are jumped to, maybe to facilitate one’s personal agenda or political stance, details could be exaggerated, rumour could be presented as fact. We need to be cautious, especially in times of tragedy and distress. If you are feeling particularly vulnerable, or are concerned about the effect that constant negative reporting may have on your mental wellbeing, choose wisely the sources to which you go for information. The prevalence of technology and the accompanying wealth of outlets in the modern day can be incredibly overwhelming. We need time to be able to digest what we have seen and to rationalise our emotional reactions. And we also need to realise that having such a wide range of sources means that we actually can hold the power to choose whether or not we are prepared to be overwhelmed by a slew of distressing images. I would question whether any of us are, or even should be. Think before you actively go searching for something you don’t really want, or need, to see – something you may not be prepared for.  Limiting access to technology and social media could alleviate the risk of heightened emotional instability.

Keeping a distinct sense of perspective is also vital. I’m not pretending that it is easy, especially with the frequency and severity of the events we’ve witnessed, and the fear or unease we’ve experienced over the past three months. If you are becoming aware that negative events in the news are having damaging effects on your emotional wellbeing – maybe you’re finding it increasingly difficult to leave the house, maybe you’re starting to fear and be distrustful of strangers, maybe you’ve become overwhelmed by a palpable sense of despondency – reaching out to others and sharing your feelings could help. Giving voice to your thoughts can help to rationalise, and hearing someone else’s point of view can help you re-think from a different angle – a friend may just be able to offer some reassurance or prompt you to acknowledge the many, many wonderful things this world has to offer.

For those many people who have been directly affected by these recent events emotions are still extremely raw. In time, this rawness will gradually ease. Even if your life hasn’t been personally impacted by a horrific news event, as a member of wider society – a member of that community I spoke of earlier –  you are entitled to worry, to hurt, to grieve – do not feel guilty for doing so. But tragedy cannot dictate our lives long-term. Once something has happened, we can’t turn the clock back and prevent it from happening. What we can do, however, is determine how we respond. And in order to respond positively, and proactively, we need to, yes, listen to our emotions, but also, practise a certain level of self-care.

 

“We are far more united than the things that divide us.”

– Jo Cox, M.P for Batley & Spen (1974-2016)

 

Safeguarding your mental health during times of tragedy, terror and national disaster.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2017. Never feel shamed into silence.

7th May 2017.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of 2017’s Mental Health Awareness Week. If you are at all familiar with my blog or follow me on social media you will know that, when able, I am very open about my mental health issues and frequently write about the challenges I am met with as a person living with mental illness. Some people, however, still don’t feel able to openly talk about their hidden disability and the inner turmoil they experience. And for a long time I was the same. This is largely due to a lack of understanding among society-at-large. The sad truth that there is a heightened, and disproportionate, level of support for those with a physical ailment remains. I’m not for a moment suggesting that mental illness should be considered any more important than physical illness, I’m affirming that they should be viewed as equal, with equal funding, equal provisions and equal respect. We would never make an insensitive joke about, nor belittle, someone suffering from cancer, for instance. But for a reason unknown, derogatory terms such as “crazy,” “mental” or “schizo” are still flippantly disseminated to either facilitate a joke or to demonise. I’ve written before about negative portrayals of the “mentally ill” in the media. Even this week we’ve seen Piers Morgan utilise his high-profile and position to publicly denounce “public soul-bearing” especially where men are concerned. Piers Morgan 2To add some context, his remarks were provoked by a candid interview Brad Pitt recently gave to GQ Magazine whereby he emotionally discussed his battle with alcoholism and the effect divorce has had on him. “I can’t remember a day since I got out of college,” he says, “when I wasn’t boozing or had a spliff, or something. Something. And you realise that a lot of it is…you know, pacifiers. And I’m running from feelings.” I, personally, congratulate Pitt for no longer running from feelings – this, surely is something to be admired and respected. 

Sadly, for many, it is not. 

I’m often asked why I “keep going on about my problems.” Firstly, I don’t (or, at least, not to the degree to which they insinuate), indeed I’m ever-aware of “relying” on my mental illness and it becoming the thing that defines me. I do, however, vocalise quite fervently, and, yes, quite often, my personal accounts of living with depression and anxiety, along with experiences regarding suicide, panic attacks and self-harm. And I do this for three main reasons. One, to make mental illness as an entity TANGIBLE – I’m very much of the belief that something can only be dealt with and aided when it takes a tactile form (be it verbal, written, or even pictorial). By adding my voice to the discussion, it can only cement mental health’s worth. Secondly, to reassure others who may be suffering from similar issues that they absolutely are not alone. If I can encourage just one person to ask for help because they’ve seen this guy Nathan talking, then it’s all worth it – I’d have “paid it forward.” I suffered in silence for years – it was instilled in me that “men don’t show their feelings” and that I simply “wasn’t tough enough.” In this new age where social media had the ability to dominate we have the responsibility to employ it for the good. It seems clear to me that, for a significant proportion of those people (young or old) who are yet to openly admit they’re struggling an individual in the public domain may be the only source of solace – “If someone like [insert celebrity name-of-choice here] is feeling like I am, then I can’t be the only one.” I, for instance, didn’t have any family that I felt comfortable talking to. Those of us who are able to openly talk about mental illness in a positive, hopeful and honest way (and I, of course, do not consider myself a celebrity!) have a duty to encourage those who may not be quite ready yet. The unfortunate counter to this is that if people in the public domain do the contrary by belittling, disregarding or overtly criticising those with a mental health problem those suffering alone will simply be pushed further and further back into the darkness. This MUST be avoided. I pointed Piers Morgan to a previous post where I described the crippling anxiety to which I am all too familiar, asking him during a particular event whether or not I should, or even could, have “manned up.” He neglected to comment. My fear where throwaway, ill-thought-out comments like this concern those more impressionable that myself – those who are ground down into believing that they’re just not strong enough. “Man up” is the flippant, out-dated, outmoded go-to reaction of the dominant male who, in a futile attempt to cement his dominance, positions those of the same gender who show any sign of emotion as weak and dismissible.

And to the third reason why I am so open about my problems: simply because it helps me. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of a dark period writing can prove to be incredibly cathartic – it helps focus my irrational (at times) and blurred, overpowering thoughts. If I spend an hour working towards the end of a blog post, then that could be an hour in which I very slowly come back from the brink. In periods of good health I find it very grounding to look back on the darker times – it can be difficult to coherently recall or remember what it’s like when I’m “in it.” Having a primary source as documentation is useful; it reminds me to never take good health for granted, and gives me encouragement that I can, will, and have come out of the darkness.

As I’ve mentioned the importance of me documenting experiences, it now seems pertinent to briefly describe my most recent period of ill health. It was probably the most intense, yet thankfully, short-lived period I’ve battled through in the past year. And I don’t use “battled” for dramatic effect. I woke up on a Thursday morning a little over two weeks ago now and the immediate feeling I can recall is that of panic. My heart was already racing, my hands were clammy and my vision was slightly blurred. I managed to sit up on the bed and I remember gripping the duvet, tightly, with both hands in an attempt to ground myself. Eventually I managed to control my breathing but I knew that today was a day that I simply could not do. The idea of using the phone to call in sick to work petrified me, and when I attempted to rehearse what I was going to say, no words emerged. I simply could not speak. My manager, who I am extremely lucky to be able to call a good friend and who knows about and respects my illness, was off that day so I sent him a text summarising the above – he could tell I was in a bad way, assured me that everything was okay, and told me that he would call in and let the rest of the team know. For the rest of the day I hardly left my bed. I didn’t eat, I barely moved, I was falling in and out of sleep and during the times of consciousness I was overcome with the guarantee that I was totally worthless, unloved, a failure – paranoia developed and every recent memory, every recent conversation was analysed to the point of complete insanity. The lethargy was almost too much – functioning simply was not possible. The end could not come soon enough. I emphasise that I was not suicidal at this point, I just wanted everything to go away. I sobbed and slept my way through the early evening and the next thing I knew it was morning again. By this point I hadn’t eaten a thing in over thirty-six hours, so I was physically weak. After forcing down a piece of dry toast I noticed the sun was shining. Suddenly my garden seemed quite inviting and the more I did – washing my face, putting some clothes on – the more things seemed to get a little easier. My anxiety was still high, but I forced myself to leave the house and buy something from the local shop. I couldn’t speak to the cashier, nor look him in the eye, I dropped my change and bumped into someone as I hurriedly left. But I’d done it. I spent the next hour sat by a nearby river watching the ducks before walking home and going back to bed. The following day I was due to see my best friend in London – I don’t get to see him much and every opportunity I can, I grasp with both hands. He has saved my life on many occasions over the years and truly is the love of my life. I felt excited – something I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I knew now that I was gradually coming back. The day was lovely, my friend was his usual wonderful self, but I came home empty. Normally, days in London (especially with this particular friend) fuel me, give me a boost, but this time I was devoid of all emotion, I could not empathise with, or relate to, anyone I met. I felt so out-of-place, convinced I was a burden who no one wanted around. Nothing mattered, I didn’t matter and I couldn’t make myself matter. That hadn’t happened before so intensely in this situation before. It not only scared me, but it also angered me – why hadn’t I FULLY taken positivity from the day? Why hadn’t I been able to enjoy it? I was so upset that I wouldn’t get to see him again for a long time. I punished myself – once again I was worthless.

By the Monday the panic had all-but-disappeared, now though I simply just did not care, I looked at myself in the mirror – I was grey, my eyes were emotionless, but at least I could function again. For the next three days I got up, went to work, came home – leading quite a solitary few days. I went through the motions and clung on. Then on the Thursday, something truly wonderful happened, which I see now was the turning point of this particular episode.  You may be aware that I dream of forging a career in TV News. A head anchor at Al Jazeera, based in Doha, and a former broadcast journalist at BBC News and CNN made contact with me after reading this piece detailing my career ambitions. This in itself was incredible – someone so busy and so successful had taken the time to email me.

Me Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera, London newsroom. The Shard.

I will not do him a disservice by divulging any specific personal details, but Adrian Finighan informed me that he too had had experience of depression. We’d connected. A few months later he was showing me around the London newsroom of Al Jazeera, I met the team in the gallery, sat in while a bulletin went out live, met some of the journalists – everyone was so lovely. I felt calm, yet excited. I felt at home and welcomed into this dream environment. Afterwards we had a talk and I truly felt that he respected me, had faith in me – we’d bonded. He told me that I would succeed and had the potential to go far – I don’t think anyone has said that to me before, certainly not with as much conviction and definitely not by anyone so experienced and successful in the industry. My purpose had been restored. When I published the photo I captioned it thus: “This man may never fully know just how much I needed today and what it truly meant to me.” I stand by that.

Me Al Jazeera Adrian
Adrian Finighan, Senior News Anchor with Al Jazeera.

There is still an awful lot of work to do in order to remove the stigma levelled at those of us who suffer from a mental illness, as well as increasing the understanding of such. Most hospitals across the United Kingdom are unable to provide mental health services around the clock with the chief executive of the mental charity Mind affirming just last year that there are “pressing and urgent needs, with very few people ever getting the right treatment at the right time.” A joint investigation between Mind and ITV News revealed that between 2010 and 2015 a staggering £85 million had been cut from mental health budgets for those under the age of 18. Much-needed money, money that has been promised is yet to trickle down to where it is needed. Deaths from suicide have increased 3.8% since 2014 in the UK, with female suicide rates at their highest in a decade. Suicides by men remain consistently higher than those by women – across the UK as a whole, three times higher. Sometimes “manning up” is not possible. Lack of investment in mental health services is a major issue, with many professionals on the frontline using terms such as “crisis point.” Creating parity between mental health services and those who support physical problems will never be possible while attitudes regarding mental illness are still so misjudged. Even this week20170507_102952 I came across this appalling suggestion on a list of fundraising ideas. Fundraising for mental health charities is vital, but this is certainly not an acceptable method. Great care and sensitivity need to be taken when publicising anything related to mental illness. We can all be triggered in different ways by varying things and we certainly need to reach a position where society realises that “depression” does not equal “sadness.” The use of the word “mood” suggests that we have control over it, that we can quickly shift from being happy to sad, and vice versa. This belittles the condition with which so many of us live, and battle, every day. I’m unable to reveal its source, but let it be known that my upset, anger and disbelief were verbalised strongly. 20170507_103021

So, I urge you – if you know someone who is, or you suspect is, suffering from poor mental health don’t judge or belittle their condition. Tactfully offer help and advice – let them know you’re there (and if you yourself don’t feel equipped enough to help, point them in the right direction). And if you’re reading this and YOU are struggling, NEVER be shamed into silence. It can, and will, get better.

If you have found this at all helpful, I’d love to hear from you. On Twitter: @NathanEChard and you can use the hashtag #MHAW17 to keep up-to-date with this week’s events.

ME MIND T-SHIRT

Mental Health Awareness Week 2017. Never feel shamed into silence.

When day-to-day living overwhelms.

23rd April 2017.

For the entirety of my adult life I have felt overwhelmed, to varying degrees, by day-to-day living. Even the smallest tasks can sometimes seem impossible, with a huge amount of energy having to be used in order to complete them, and merely “function.” In three months I shall turn twenty-seven, and for nearly a decade now I have stumbled, crawled and dragged myself through countless periods of intense ill health in any way possible just to be able to reach the end of another day, another year, clinging on to the hope that “it’ll be better tomorrow” – that one day it’ll all get easier. Put in the simplest of ways, I suppose that I can say living never came easily. The continual fight and managing the constant worry is exhausting and has, I can now say, been incredibly detrimental to my quality of life. I use that phrase perhaps not in its traditional sense – I’ve never gone hungry, I live in a pleasant rural area of the country, I was well-educated – but more often that not my “life” is merely an “existence” in which I feel a complete failure. Expending a heightened level of energy to solely stagger towards the end of each day has sapped my spirit, motivation and rendered me incredibly lonely and dissatisfied.

This is an ever-present feeling, but has been brought to the forefront due to me having to take a day off work ill last week. Even the staggering wasn’t possible, and that scared me. There is no doubt that I needed to allow myself time just to rest, but now on the eve of my return to work, I can’t stop replaying that day (and how I felt) over and over. I’m exceptionally anxious about going back tomorrow, even doing the ordinary now has me in a panic. Times like these only work to increase my self-doubt, emphasise my personal sense of failure and question whether or not I will ever be fully nourished and satisfied by life and living. 

I have written before about the loneliness I experience, yet simultaneously publicised highly and fervently the love and I have for, and the exceptional nature of, my friends, friends who I never take for granted. Socially, professionally and, even geographically, I have always been “behind” my friends; getting to where they are, in whatever aspect – graduating from university, learning to drive a car, going on holiday abroad with friends for the first time, has either come years later or, more often than not,  not at all. My life experiences are stunted, my personal reference points in conversations are limited and the disconnect I feel from peers is ever-increasing. I still haven’t started to learn to drive, which, logistically makes life harder. I’ve never been abroad, or travelled, with friends so my outlook on the wider world is hampered and my ability to play a role in normal social practice is doubted.

I have been privileged to have met some truly exceptional people in recent years – people who I feel safe with, who I laugh with and who I am always very keen to see more of – and, yes, people who I am letting myself call “friends.” I’m concerned though. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just rather pathetically clinging on to their coattails by my fingernails frantically hoping to be dragged along and included and live a life which I crave, even for just a little bit. Never having been in a relationship only exacerbates that feeling I have of never being someone’s priority. More and more I have in the back of my mind that thought that people wished my seat were filled by someone else.

The isolation and the embarrassment I feel is perhaps most palpable when friends ask me that dreaded question of “What’s new?” and I have nothing to reply with except for a rather distractionary “Well, I’m still here!!” There is nothing that would endear me to new people, so forming new bonds is difficult – my overarching sense of failure results in me relying on others to introduce me to new people, beginning the interaction by apologising or shifting focus immediately onto the other party. Mundaneness terrifies me, yet familiar surroundings reassure me. I’ve never moved out of home, never travelled further than Bath on my own, have taken the SAME bus to the nearest town to work in the SAME job every day for nearly nine years. I like coming home and feeling safe, and I love ending each day by popping in for a drink at a local pub with some really lovely people and good friends, but career opportunities locally are non-existent. I wrote about finally discovering my dream career last year, but with each passing day reaching here seems increasingly impossible. And if by some miracle I did manage to move on, I’m paralysed by the fear that I would be forgotten. If I leave, does that mean I’m burning my proverbial bridges?

Money, of course, isn’t everything, it is though a key factor in progressing one’s life. I am embarrassed by what little I earn and in order to get experience in a potential career I’d have to take unpaid time off work, pay for travel and accommodation. Working out whether this is not only possible, but viable, is daunting. Emotionally, physically and logistically I feel trapped. I am desperate for someone to grab me by the hand and pull me out. There is still a spark inside of me that tells me I’m not meant to merely “exist” – something that tells me I’m “special” – but this spark is becoming increasingly dampened, every day it is extinguished that little bit more. I always thrived when I achieved, when I was recognised and commended. I haven’t achieved in so long, the pathetic desperation is rising and I feel powerless to fight it.

When day-to-day living overwhelms.

Admitting my struggle with crippling anxiety. Moving forward.

12th February 2017.

Every one of us feels apprehensive or nervous, to varying degrees, at some point – this feeling is a natural human emotion. Indeed, a certain level of apprehension can be beneficial (some would argue essential) if, for instance, one has to perform, or compete. Listening to your body instinctively make you aware of the gravitas of a situation can help focus attention and encourage a heightened level of execution – better results. If you can control your nerves and harness their effects then over time, surely, resilience shall increase alongside your ability to raise the proverbial bar. But what happens when these nerves cannot be controlled and instead of encouraging you to push forward they drag you further and further back? If you know even a little about me, or have read any of my past pieces, you’ll know that I often speak about, and make no secret of, my depression. However I rarely discuss my anxiety, especially the level to which it interferes with my life. I hope to change this by writing about it today.

I have previously affirmed that I was a very shy child. Now, there isn’t one sole factor that I can put this down to. In hindsight, and after much deliberation, I am happy to accept the fact that having no siblings immediately restricted social interaction with my peers to weekday daytimes at school. I am also content to entertain the notion that the very fact I was my parents’ only child would make them more fearful of allowing me to explore, and push, boundaries (both physically and emotionally). As I have said before, I led a very sheltered existence until I was thirteen and discovered my father’s affair when I was encouraged blindly into a room and asked the question “Who do you want to live with?” That would unnerve any child. It was only during a counselling session in my early twenties did I realise I had repressed this memory for almost a decade – I had no memory of it until a stimulating question was posed. Everything I once took solace in, everything I had once retreated into to feel safe had suddenly, in one moment, disappeared forever. It subsequently became apparent that I lived out my teenage years without allowing myself to recall this. I had to immediately close down any potential of an emotional response.

After experiencing a particularly distressing anxiety attack a couple of weeks ago, I allowed myself to at least attempt to explore the roots of my heightened susceptibility to situations unknown. It has taken my some time to be able to compile this piece purely for the fact that the very nature of its subject matter has the risk of rendering me incapable of functioning properly, force me into retreat, and therefore prohibiting the formation a coherent article. Two very difficult, yet suddenly clear, memories have surfaced.

Until I was old enough to defiantly assert that I would rather stay at home alone it was the norm for me to spend time during breaks from school at my paternal Nan and Grandad’s. Less often I would spend the day with my Gran on my mum’s side. This was due to her health – she had had a car accident the month I was born and subsequently her leg was liable to give way without notice, she also had epilepsy and therefore didn’t feel comfortable straying too far from home or having too much responsibility. When I did spend time at her place we’d always have a good time, she’d cook (her vegetables remain the best I’ve ever tasted!) and I’d feel at home. On what would turn out to be the last time she looked after me I remember everything was as it always was. We’d been to the local shop and I’d chosen what I wanted for lunch – chicken breast, carrots, broccoli and potatoes – she’d cooked and we’d eaten together. I think she’d gone into the kitchen to start washing up and to make herself a cup of tea, I’d finished my food, took the plate in to join her and as I approached the sink she started shouting at me. All I remember is the anger on her face and the shouting. I couldn’t understand what was happening or what I’d done. Everything I said, which was minimal, seemed to enrage her further. I spent the next three-and-a-half hours paralysed with fear lying in a ball on the sofa, face in the cushions, pretending to be asleep. I was petrified to breathe – the relief came when I heard a knock at the door and knew that my mum had come to take me home to where I would feel safe again. I never told my parents – I never told anybody, and every time the idea of me seeing my Gran was mooted I feigned an excuse. Maybe my mum knew that something had happened that day because I was never interrogated too much, nor forced to visit. This must have happened twenty years ago now. She turns ninety next month and I have never seen her since; I know that I never will again.

I know that by the age of eleven I had developed a stammer that, although serious enough to be a cause of frustration, didn’t totally restrict verbal communication. Nevertheless, I still remember the embarrassment I felt when I couldn’t get the words out. The more I tried, the more difficult it came. And the more difficult it became the more isolated I felt. The staring and laughter from peers loudened, my face reddened, my breath shortened. Schoolchildren can be very cruel (this isn’t news!) and those unfortunate enough to be the subject of their taunts should be able to seek refuge with, and feel a semblance of protection from, teachers. And, for the most part, I could. The events of one morning – I remember it was overcast with a cold wind bringing rather foreboding clouds – changed that. I was sat alone in the playground when I was approached by my rather frantic Headmaster. At short notice, I was told, we were to have a guest speaker as the subject of a special assembly the next morning. Three students were required to stand at the front of the hall, read a few words, before the guest would continue to address the audience. So, without really realising what was happening, I found myself alongside two other reliable students in the hall rehearsing for the next morning’s proceedings. Reliable, that is, until public speaking was concerned. The hall was pretty empty; I only had my two classmates, the Headmaster, two other teachers and an older student setting out chairs for company. It was my turn to read what must have only been two or three sentences. Nothing would come. I could feel myself desperately grasping to latch on to the first word. Nothing. My breathing accelerated and I could feel myself getting redder and redder in the face. Eventually I managed a couple of words, mumbled and almost inaudible, when one of the teachers approached and mockingly imitated me. Suddenly, in the head, the six people present multiplied to sixty, six hundred. I was drowning. I tried reading the sentence again, lip trembling, to no avail. I was then scolded for not being able to speak and told to go back to class. I had never felt more alone. I had been used to being bullied, but this is my first memory of being utterly humiliated. I’d done nothing wrong, had I? I had no one.

Evidently I cannot blame any crippling anxiety I may experience solely on these two incidents. I feel that a degree of my sense of “uncomfortability” is somewhat in-built, yet is most certainly susceptible to, and affected by, outsider influences and life’s experiences. I alluded to the fact that nerves have detrimentally interfered with my life – I turn twenty-seven this year and I can say with certainty that I simply have not felt able to learn to swim, move out of home, make a phone call, learn to drive a car, enter into a relationship, ask for directions, make an appointment, change jobs or travel. This doesn’t only cause shame and embarrassment, but it’s also extremely sobering and isolating. The sense of being unable, incompetent…useless, is palpable and, I feel, works to heighten the loneliness and separation I feel on a daily basis. How can I possibly compete when I have experienced and achieved so little? For instance, the furthest I’ve travelled in the past twelve years is Bath – two hours on the train from Hampshire is all I have been able to muster. I’m unsettled by unfamiliar surroundings – a road sign in a different style to my local council, or a different bus company to that to which I am familiar can be enough to make my heart race. It is hard to distance myself from feeling nothing but pathetic.

Over the years I can happily say that things have started to get somewhat easier. I suppose as we reach adulthood, as we begin to form an individual identity, we naturally gain a sense of “self,” to varying degrees. I’ve reached the point where I’ve been able to accept that there are certain things I won’t be able to tackle straight away – it may take me a little while longer. This can, and does, raise issues whereby I am constantly comparing others’ progress and position in life to my own, and find myself craving their abilities, their job, their social skills. I always come out as the loser, the one who can’t quite match up. My anxiety renders me vulnerable to being intimidated by others – even close friends – which only damages my already-depleted self-esteem. People often wonder what it feels like when you’re overcome with anxiety. There is no single answer, and I imagine it varies from person to person. For me, everything suddenly seems exaggerated – a spoken voice sounds like shouting, people walking are suddenly running, colours are intensified – lights are brighter, almost blinding, the dark spots blacker, my heart pounds and I struggle to catch my breath. I either feel unable to move from the spot, or am compelled to race away. Sometimes I can tell when an attack is at risk of coming because I start to get very short with people, very intolerant. The façade is constructed quickly as I battle to prevent a complete onslaught. If I’m alone, I tend to message people questioning endlessly “are we okay? Are we still friends? Am I okay?” in some attempt to be reassured and comforted.

For eight-and-a-half years I have worked in a rather high-pressured environment where there is little time to decelerate and pause. Sometimes this can be exceptionally overwhelming. Up until relatively recently, to combat the feeling of powerlessness I have quietly slipped away , retreated to a quiet space, and gouged my arms and legs with a compass in an attempt to force my brain to focus on the physical pain rather than the panic which was multiplying within. I carried out a similar routine when I was building up to giving a presentation at university. Sometimes “faking it” and putting on a front just doesn’t work. Thankfully, I haven’t resorted to this practice for a while now – it could never have been a long-term solution, nor would I have wanted it to be. I still have to actively manage the anxiety I experience on a daily basis – my heart still races when I have to use a telephone, either as the recipient or caller, I still stammer when I have to interact with a stranger in a shop or a bank, I still shake when I’m waiting to be called in to see the doctor, dentist, or optician and I can still get a little dizzy when alone and surrounded by lots of people. Making eye contact remains a major issue for me, and I still cannot believe I am worthy of “holding the floor” in a conversation so will race through as quickly as possible to force someone else to speak. Now that I have allowed myself to discuss it and explore some potential causes, however, I am confident that merely existing will slowly get easier still.

I take medication, a beta blocker, to manage the physical effects (the racing heart, the shaking, the sweating), but to control my anxiety properly I feel this sound be used in conjunction with some other exercises. I’ve learnt that I need to focus on my breathing. Despite coming naturally to us all, sometimes it needs to be trained and controlled. Throughout the day I consciously stop and allow myself some time to regain composure, take note of how fast my heart is beating and adapt my breathing pattern accordingly. Each evening when I’m taking a bath I play music and allow myself to sing along as confidently as I feel able – the rhythm (of any song, it seems) relaxes me. Nothing beyond those four walls penetrates, it feels safe. The words come clearly and importantly, there is no trace of a stammer. I leave the bathroom, and end the day, with a sense of calmness and rejuvenation. I also take heart in the fact that, despite not always being able to believe it, I have indeed achieved some things in my life – I graduated with a First Class Degree, I appeared on television last year taking part in a debate on mental health and something I wrote is due to be published later this year. Being able to realise my accomplishments doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s an important factor in my recovery. I need to actively and repeatedly tell myself “you can.” This is by no means ideal, and uses up an incredible amount of energy, but there are ways to – at the very least – function, even if excelling may take a little while longer. The inability to excel is something that I struggle with deeply. Sometimes even the smallest step forward is okay if that’s all you can manage.

Me on Victoria Derbyshire
The Victoria Derbyshire Programme, BBC News, 20th July 2015.

 

There are still things I can’t do and things that are likely to paralyse me. I still get overwhelmed and panicked by things that you might not think could panic a person. All I can hope is that one day very soon the prospect of NOT doing something and missing out on an opportunity will be scarier than actually doing it.

I just ask that, when you suspect I’m at risk of losing control, please don’t flippantly tell me to “calm down.” A smile, a hug, some reassuring words can work wonders.

Admitting my struggle with crippling anxiety. Moving forward.