Anxiety can feel like a tightness in your chest, like a constricting in your throat. Your mind races and goes blank at the same time. You feel transparent and wobbly, like you are melting in slow motion. It passes but before it does it leaves you hollow like a wafer-thin husk of who you were before. It makes you tired but you can’t sleep. You don’t want to move because you are scared of breaking or that your heart will slip out of you. Your heart beats a million miles an hour and you suck in deep gulps of air to try and stay calm. It makes you uncertain. Your bones feel heavy like they aren’t meant to be there. Your skin ripples with unease. You battle through daily tasks with uncontrollable shudders. You’re not a you that you recognise. You feel small in the shadow of something enormous. A cloud that somehow hides itself when you turn around to check it’s there. It’s hard to pin down, hard to name and define. Sometimes it’s only the sound, the gentle but persistent lap of the water against your chest. Enough that you know it’s there but not enough that you know where it’s coming from. It tricks you and toys with you but somehow it still is you. How can you tame such a feeling? How to remind yourself of your humanity and worth for a moment. STOP. Take stock. Write it down, let words be your healers. Win the battle with patience. Perspective. See what you are dealing with. Stay in touch with the beast so it becomes your companion rather than your secret shame. Go outside and breathe slow and deep. Sit with the experience. Allow it to pass and face it. Edge your comfort zone inch by inch, until suddenly you are outside it and still alive.
I’ve wanted to write a post about anxiety for a little while now but I have had a mixture of feelings about doing it and fear has been a big one. I wasn’t sure for myself if I was ready yet to talk about mental health, especially not when I was in the middle of a busy university year (a time that is, as many of us will appreciate, not well known for fostering calm behaviour and balanced decision making)
I was/am also slightly reticent to share my own feelings and experiences with mental health on the internet because it’s so easy from behind a screen for people to roll their eyes and think ‘oh god she’s exaggerating’ or ‘I didn’t know that about her so it can’t have been that bad’. So staggeringly easy in fact that I have to confess I’m guilty of doing it myself. I didn’t want to define myself by mental health either, every single day I continue exist alongside anxiety and am still able to be a capable and functioning member of society and some days I even feel like I am able exist outside of it altogether (WIN!).
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that all the reasons that I’m scared to share are probably the reasons why it’s important to share. To make sure that no one feels like sharing a story about their mental health is anything less than a credit to their own power and healing. To show that talking about mental health does not bind you to a certain category for life and that mental health is a spectrum and everyone exists somewhere along the wobbly line.
It’s not a massively New Zealand characteristic to sit down and have a chin wag about your feelings. We don’t love hearing about the vulnerability of others, or rather we don’t really know what to do with it when we do.
However, in 2017 I was encouraged by people and their stories. People who have shared their experiences, people who have had the courage to articulate what can be a terrifying feeling to try and adequately put into words. People who show that mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. Whenever I’ve wavered I’ve looked to those who have shared themselves and put their experiences on the line, and they have given me strength. In 2017, I had more conversations about mental health with my friends than ever before and as it turns out, everyone has a story. Whether it be something they’ve battled with their whole life, something that they’ve experienced during the pressures of university, something that rears its head every now and again or even something that they’ve experienced second hand through family and friends. For me it was a big year for mental health visibility and whether that coincided with the fact that I was really listening, I’m not sure.
As I’ve slowly started to learn about my own experience of mental health and anxiety I became scared that I would have to carry it with me in secret too. I didn’t want people to see me differently, or for it to define me. I could see the horrible words of ‘attention seeker’ flutter in front of me at the very thought of trying to share what I was experiencing with others.
But every time I felt those things I would talk to someone or read something in which another person had decided to ignore those voices and share their story without fear of judgement. In the hopes that what they’ve been through could help someone else put a name to their feelings. As I tried to understand what was happening to me, it gave me hope that I wasn’t the only one who was experiencing mental health issues. Which sounds absurd because the statistics are overwhelmingly clear about the fact that we have a huge mental health issue in New Zealand, especially in our young people but nevertheless when you’re in the thick of it, life can feel very lonely.
In the past few years of working with youth I have learned the power of openness, of frankness, of giving kids a language with which to talk about how they are feeling. Just like you cannot learn speak French without first knowing the language, you cannot ask a young person to adequately describe their emotions without empowering them with some kind of vocabulary.
So slowly but surely I started to practice what I preached and I started to write down what I was going through.
I found that as I wrote, I learnt the power of naming my anxiety, of looking at it in the eye like a cartoon princess to a great dragon in a storybook and shouting I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE! When I do sometimes the feeling goes quiet, like a timid monster, sometimes it grows three sizes and bellows I’M BIGGER THAN YOU. But either way talking about it and writing down my experience has helped me so much over the past 18 months to make sense of what I was experiencing and I know that the more we continue to foster discussions of mental health the more we will feel the strength and power of the community.
The saying goes that ‘there’s always a calm before the storm’ but when you’re living with mental health issues just doing life can feel like the storm. So I look for the moments of calm, they might not come in the form of Ecoya candles or Harry Potter Marathons. It might just be a day when you don’t even think about mental health once. Those days are the calm after the storm and the more we learn about mental health and the more support we offer to each other, the more likely it is that those days stick around.
At times living life can feel like swimming against one of those water jet things that fancy pools have. No matter how hard you swim you’re only just surviving and if you stop you’ll get sent shooting back to the beginning. Whether you’ve experienced mental health issues or not, I’m sure you know the feeling of relentlessly trying to make slow progress.
The biggest revelation I had for myself was to get out the pool, to stop fighting the feeling of trying to keep up. I built my own place of sanctuary both physically in my environment but also within myself so that when inevitably things start to get too much I’m protected by the own world I’ve created for myself. I know the things I like to do that calm me down. I have people in my life who understand what I need when I’m having a bad time with my anxiety. I mostly like to surround myself with positive people who lift me up rather than bring me down. I know now that exercise, a better diet and sleep REALLY DO HELP! It’s so empowering to feel like you understand what to do when things get bad.
It’s really nerve wracking to share our experiences, especially if you’re too close to them to see them clearly. It’s taken me a long time to come to this level of understanding and sometimes telling someone about it can feel like showing them a precious house of cards. But the way I see it, each time you talk to someone and continue to figure out what you are experiencing you are taking away one of those cards and replacing it with a brick and little by little you can build yourself a strong foundation that will protect you during the inevitable bad days.
So that’s my little story, it’s only the tip of iceberg but I hope that for a least one other person the feeling resonates. Even if it’s just to say that yes mental health does exist and perhaps you really needed to hear that today. I’ve included in this blog post a playlist too. For me, music is a huge help to my anxiety and listening to favourites that calm me down and take me away from the moment I’m in is really important. So feel free to check that out if Wilson Phillips is ur happy place too 😉
Kia Kaha friends, let’s continue the conversation