I’ve read loads of examples of how people have coped and recovered from mental health issues. It occurred to me that I generally only tell my story face to face with people. I’ve been thinking it could help others who are going through something similar to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
c2004 or thereabouts (I find it a real struggle actually fixing when it was precisely) I was a bit overweight, did zero exercise, smoked, and had more than a passing fondness for red wine & cake, & was working long & stressful hours.
Looking back, I can make some sense of what happened next but at the time I was oblivious.
When my Director at work had to take extended leave due to ill health, the work & responsibilities piled on. One day I had what I now recognise was a panic attack. My breathing went funny, & I felt my face flushing & I had what I can only describe as a “shooshing” feeling throughout my body. I had to go home. I got a few of these over the coming weeks & didn’t for a moment associate them with stress at work. I went to the doctors and discovered my blood pressure was a bit high.
I decided that I definitely needed to give up smoking. I asked the doctor to prescribe me Zyban, a drug that very quickly puts you off smoking. Whilst it might be good for some people, I ignored the warnings about not taking it if you suffer from panic attacks, mainly because I hadn’t recognised that that’s what I was getting.
On the 7th day of taking the tablet I shortly after felt extremely unwell and thought I was going to collapse and have a heart attack. I had to phone family to come and look after me and NHS Direct, who put me in touch with a Doctor who told me I was having a panic attack.
The next 2 years, possibly more, were a living hell – whilst for the most part living a normal life (I only actually took 2 week off work during the whole experience), I also had consistent panic attacks, day in day out where I was convinced a heart attack was either moments away or was already happening. No amount of logic to the contrary convinced me otherwise.
On bad days this would happen literally 20 or 30 times – all I could do was go and lie on the bed obsessing over what was happening to my body. Oh I didn’t die this minute? Well I’ll be dying in the following minute then. And so on. It’s hard to express how this constant fear of death seeped into every aspect of my life so that even when on the outside I would meet with friends and family on the inside it would be dominating my thoughts.
I even recall sometimes driving to the hospital in the middle of the night thinking I was dying, and sitting outside crying in the car instead of going in, because part of me “knew” it wasn’t true but part of me was convinced it was.
This stayed with me on and off for 2 years or so, maybe longer. I often used to think how the future would be absolutely impossible like this – how could I be like this for another 1,5,15,20 years? No way! At the time I was convinced – I would always be this way, and what a depressing thought that was.
Anyway, I was referred to a counsellor to talk more about why I was focusing so much on death. I wondered if it stemmed from my father having a mini stroke when I was very young (he recovered) & no one really talking about it at the time.
I also started running, using the Couch25k method, in an effort to help my blood pressure. I found it very hard at first but soon became addicted. When that finished, I started running 10k 3 times a week.
Though in time my anxiety attacks were not as often as at their height, I still had quite a few each week, and when I got them they were just as bad. In particular, I would never have one whilst running but would inevitably have one the moment I finished - this was because whilst running there was so much going on I didn’t fixate on body signals, but when I finished and everything went silent I would think every little twitch or palpitation meant imminent death – I remember many occasions calling my boyfriend of the time so that I could talk and get distracted. I didn’t let it put me off running though – I was loving it, and it became a real focus of positivity for me.
Using running, a healthier lifestyle (for one year I tracked and weighed all food/portions, didn’t have a take away, and ate no chocolate – retraining myself as to what was reasonable eating), & coping techniques for panic attacks, very very gradually the panics became less frequent – 10 times a week became 5 times a week, once a week, once a month, once every few months, until they became once in a blue moon and not as bad as they had been in intensity. I still get them occasionally but manage to stop them developing into full blown meltdowns. To be totally honest I’m still fixated about sudden death etc but at least it doesn’t cause panics 😂
That might sound quite a straightforward progression but it took a LONG time. During that time there were times I felt in complete despair.
As for my running? Well, many people reading this will know how much I love it – it’s an amazing part of my life – apart from anything else, I feel running shakes the physical “tenseness” out of my body, and also allows me mental space to contemplate and think through many things about day to day life. 5k, 10k, halves, recently my 2nd full, and next year my first ultra. A few mates have even started calling me Forest Gump lol.
My reason for posting this? One is to give living proof that whatever you are going through, even if you can’t yet see it there IS a way out – retain that hope, because it’s true. Talk to friends about your problem (I didn’t do this much at the time!!!), see your doctor, ask for a counsellor, - whatever you need, do it. Even when things seem bleak in time they can get better. I didn’t believe it in my case but it was true.
Oh – and one massive thing – I changed that job. Stress from work is a killer. If your work is really getting you down, and you can’t find a solution, get out. Everyone needs a decent, liveable income of course, but that highly paid job is not worth it if it’s destroying you, whether that’s just too many hours, too much pressure, or a bullying manager (though if you have the strength then fight against it, don’t just accept it). Often that situation can creep up on you without you realising.
Another reason for bringing this up is to say that things can change immensely from one day to the next. One minute someone can be fine and the next they can experience acute mental anxiety - we should never presume that such things will never affect us personally. I had many years before and now quite a few years after this episode where thankfully I’ve been unaffected by mental health issues, yet it came out of the blue back then & into my life for that relatively short time and completely took over. It can happen, so don’t think negatively of those who have experienced problems as one day it really could be you.
But hopefully not of course 😀😀😀
Final thing is of course - running is amazing.