I’ve now been in therapy and on medication for anxiety for about 7 months. In honour of ‘Time to Talk‘ day, I thought it was a good time to write again, not least because I have something very positive to say.
If I think of those moments of grace I mentioned previously as momentary breakouts of sunlight from behind the clouds, in the last two months, it’s as if those clouds have actually dissipated and I’ve been able to bask almost daily in a pure joy I could never have dreamed would ever shine down on me. I love my life lately, and I’m not sure I have ever really felt like that. The contrast from the crisis point in the middle of last year, when I was so stressed and hopeless I (carelessly) said to my partner that I wanted to die, is staggering.
Just the other night my daughter woke at 3am with a highly active mind, desperate to chat, and I simply went and got a book for her – and enjoyed, even savoured, some precious moments looking through the book with her and discussing what was in the pages, before she could settle down again. A small example that I think epitomises how I’ve been able to approach life in this last wee while.
I’m not sure how much of the change is due to therapy, medication, or even just an inevitable personal development. But the therapy has certainly been helpful, much more so than the previous two occasions when I’ve had any. (The 16-month wait was not, though. I only wish I had asked for help earlier.)
I’ve learnt some useful things about myself. One observation is that it takes me a long time to feel confident about my ability to do anything. As an example: I passed the driving test after 6 months of lessons in 2011, but for years afterwards, every time I drove a car without incident, it felt like I’d simply been lucky and got away with it. It took a lot of time and experience to change that.
And it’s been sort of a crucial observation, since the aspects of my personality underpinning the slow development of confidence are also the aspects that set me up for anxiety disorders:
- Being realistic about my limitations, but also biased to magnify threats and challenges ( => pessimistic about my ability to manage)
- Control-seeking: I can’t be confident until I have everything mapped out and my ability proven in every aspect or every situation that might possibly come up ( => perfectionism)
- Very little tolerance for pain or discomfort of any kind, mental struggle, physical effort, etc.; also relevant here is my complete lack of early experience of succeeding at anything through working hard, and the unhelpful sense I developed that ability equates to never finding things hard.
My anxiety, by the way, is often expressed as rage; or even despair when I’m more battered down by it. It’s felt useful to be able to identify that.
I’ve certainly reflected before on how some of these personality traits underlie my health anxiety and vomiting phobia. But it’s now a much fuller picture, sort of a unifying framework for understanding pretty much all my major struggles in life.
How it affects my experience of motherhood is fairly clear from other posts. It’s frequently pushed me to the limits of what I feel I can handle, particularly in terms of sleep deprivation and illness.
How it’s affected me at work is something I can now see more clearly than before. I did have a spell of psychotherapy at the start of my PhD to address work-related struggles, but I didn’t really piece it all together. I have taken on some fairly big challenges over the years; I have consequently spent a lot of time anxious and miserable. I haven’t thrived often and I’ve struggled to understand why.
I’ve often felt guilty for wanting to run away from positions that I’ve been privileged to have; I’ve been so disappointed with myself, considering the hardships others are able to tolerate at work. I’ve felt the same regarding motherhood: ashamed of how much harder I seem to find things than other people.
But after this spell of therapy, I feel more at peace with this reality. I guess it’s partly just being labelled with an anxiety disorder. Labels are powerful – in this case legitimising the difficulties I’ve had. But it’s also the thrilling experience of being able to improve things for myself, through the CBT methods I’ve been shown. (The day I found myself laughing at someone vomiting on YouTube, after watching vomit videos on repeat for several days, was the day I had to restrain myself from dancing down the corridor into work.)
I may have basic personality elements that predispose me to problematic anxiety, but there are ways to manage that; it doesn’t mean I am pathetic, nor does it have to ruin my life. It can even add depth to my life as I learn to overcome these challenges. Because the flip side is, when I do eventually find my confidence, I am unstoppable.
If you ever feel as bad as I did, know that you are not alone, and that there is hope. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.