The consensus is the nation’s mental health has taken a battering during the pandemic. People of all ages are struggling with anxiety, depression, grief both for loved ones and a life lost, workplace stress, family and relationship issues and conflict, health worries, concerns about children and how they’re coping, Christmas plans etc. The list goes on.
For some people, the relentlessness will have tipped the balance and they will be contemplating seeking professional support possibly for the very first time. But how do you know when you need professional help? Is it obvious? It’s often said that if you accept there’s an issue you’re halfway there, so for those who haven’t yet come to that realisation, the process can be long and arduous. Here’s Martha’s story…
I had just given birth to my third child and life was great, but very hectic and I was juggling madly. During and after that pregnancy I had supported my best friend who was having an awful bout of post-natal depression which also amounted to extreme health anxieties. Essentially she got better, and I got ill.
My first panic attack
It started with pains in my arms and blurred vision. With three very young children I was tired of course, but I found the pains and vision issues deeply disturbing and I couldn’t shake off the worry as to what it might be. I didn’t mention it to anyone.
One evening I was out with a small group of friends. My arm went numb and I was trying to focus on something someone was saying but inside I was freaking out thinking ‘what is this’ and telling myself to just ignore it; I was discreetly hitting my arm to try and bring back some sensation but then I had a massive panic attack. I was struggling for breath, my heart was racing and I was sweating profusely. I’d witnessed my friend having panic attacks but experiencing it myself, it was terrifying. I didn’t know what it was at the time which seems odd to me now especially as I knew of them. An initial thought was it was a small heart attack. It was the first of many attacks in the coming weeks. They came at random times day and night and often they were in public places like a supermarket queue or the hairdressers.
Extreme health anxieties
Despite supporting my friend, who by the way, I was very clear that she needed some mental health treatment – for some reason I seemed to think what was happening to me was different. I didn’t see any correlation and I thought I was ill, physically ill, not mentally.
My GP did a lot of tests but could find nothing wrong. I had an MRI scan to check for multiple sclerosis as I’d heard a sufferer of the condition talking on the radio that the disease in her had started with blurred vision and limb numbness, but the scans when I eventually had them were clear.
Interestingly, there was an opportunity to grasp this was a mental health issue when talking to a friend about someone she knew who had lived with multiple sclerosis and she told me that she only knew her friend was struggling when she wore her neck brace to support her stiff neck.
At the time I had the foresight to resist searching my symptoms online as I knew it would be alarming – possibly the only rational thought I had at the time – and I didn’t know all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. But half an hour after my friend told me this I developed a really stiff neck. I should have known then that something was going on. That my mind was tricking me. But no, I pushed on with the belief that I had an undetected illness. You name it I thought I had it…all types of cancer, thyroid problems, glandular fever, Bell’s palsy, a face numbing condition was a common one and obviously MS. I was going to the doctors every week. Something I’d never done before.
Acknowledging the problem
During all of this, a few friends, including the one I’d supported, had suggested that this was anxiety. Either I couldn’t hear them or they were being too subtle for me to notice in my fog. I didn’t know then that ‘anxiety’ was even a thing let alone believe that it was related to my body behaving in the way it was. As far as I was concerned, feeling anxious and feeling worried were the same thing and could be used interchangeably.
On one of my GP visits, she changed tack. Kindly but firmly she told me ‘this’ was something else. She asked me to tell her about my family history. I talked to her for 45 minutes about my family (unbelievable that she let me sit there for that time…there was quite a full waiting room when I came out!) and she was completely clear that I needed to see a therapist.
My mum had died of cancer when I was young. We were all so traumatised by the death and the loss that we never talked about it. We just carried on. That’s not what I said to the doctor, that’s what I know now.
When the GP suggested I needed talking therapy, even at that point I doubted her and I STILL BELIEVED I had an undetected illness. But the anxiety, the mental energy I was using to self diagnose, the panic attacks, the stress of all of it…I wanted it to end, so I said I’d do anything to make it stop. Talking therapy appealed over medication. I wanted to understand what was happening and take charge of it, tame it and send it on its way.
Getting to the root cause of my anxiety took some time
It always feels good to make positive steps. I was open to the concept that talking therapy was the answer, but it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the anxiety and the symptoms with it were an indication of something more deep seated emotionally and not a sign that I had a terminal illness. That’s not to mention the enormous sense of indulgence I had to overcome that therapy was necessary at all. Spending an hour a week talking about my feelings seemed outrageous to me when I had so many things to do.
Once I’d acknowledged I had to stop and look back in order to move forward, we were able to start working through my unresolved grief, the loss of my mum and the fallout it had created, the fear of death and of dying whilst I had my own young children.
Eighteen months of therapy were life changing
Therapy changed everything for me. It opened my mind to the complexities of life. It made me a kinder more forgiving individual, but most importantly it set me free. I don’t mean the panic and anxiety stopped, which incidentally, it did almost immediately, I mean I was re-defined. My dad was very sad that his wife had died so my siblings and I put a brave face on, for him. As a child, I was always perplexed by other people’s reactions to my mum’s death so, unconsciously I developed a script to make them feel better. I said ‘I was ok’ so many times I believed it myself, and on lots of levels I was ok. But those buried emotions came back in the end when I was least expecting it, when I was vulnerable with a young family of my own, but therapy enabled me to take back the control.