Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Self-propelled flowers

This is my submission to Project Semicolon's 'Share Your Story' initiative. I decided to share it because of the bravery of one of my friends in sharing her own story yesterday, and because I've been rather quiet on social media lately and this is why. I'm still struggling with some anxiety issues and retreating from social media has helped me some, for whatever reason. My story may end up being published in the Project's upcoming book but, if not, it'll be on here and if it might help even one person feel less alone then that's worth it. Please remember your story isn't over.

Getting this far has been a long journey, and it was only really over the last two years that I actually faced the crippling anxiety that would plague my day-to-day existence. Sitting at work one day, I realized my heart rate was above 120 bpm, that I could barely take a breath, and that without me realizing it someone had clearly sneaked into my office and placed a large boulder on my chest, making it impossible to breathe deeply and slow my heart down. Despite years of cyclical Depression and experience with some acute panic attacks, I for some reason decided I must have some terrible heart disease and that I needed to see a doctor before my chest exploded.

My chest didn't ever explode. I was diagnosed with chronic panic attacks (anxiety attacks that result in chest pain, shallow breathing, and a sense of asphyxiation over a prolonged period - sometimes for days at a time), and Panic Disorder. My doctor referred me to a fantastic psychiatrist, who in turn connected me with a wonderful therapist. Between some minimal medical intervention and a year's worth of therapy, I started to be able to face and live with 'Brian' - the misspelling of 'brain' I so frequently typed when chatting online with my best friend about the compulsive thoughts that attacked my mind whenever I wasn't consciously thinking about what a pointless person I was. Brian became shorthand for 'my brain is telling me lies and making me anxious', and between innumerable conversations with my closest friends and guidance from my therapist, Brian became someone I was no longer afraid to get to know.

My story hasn't ever really been told in its entirety, and I don't think it's actually possible to make accurate causal links between everything that could have led to me one day being unable to breathe while sat behind a desk doing nothing out of the ordinary. Genetics certainly could have predisposed me to struggling with mental health issues. I would guess that my early experiences and exposure would also play a part. I've been treated for Depression on and off since I was 17, but never for anxiety until recently. In 2011, I emigrated from England to the USA to be with a man who, not even two years later, broke my heart so thoroughly I thought I would never recover. And then the severe panic set in, the constant search for confirmation of what it is about me that is clearly so lacking, so repugnant, so unworthy.

But somehow all of that didn't destroy me. I stayed in the States. There were days that I couldn't face getting out of bed and weeks when the mere act of walking towards my office building where I had to pretend to be okay for eight hours straight had me in tears. While I never made any serious plans to hurt myself, the fact that driving my car into the lake by my house seemed more appealing than continuing to exist on more than one occasion certainly wasn't the thought of a mentally healthy person. I bawled. I raged. I forgot what it felt like to really laugh. I didn't care for myself. I collapsed from the sheer weight of the pain, literally and figuratively.

I remember the precise moment when I remembered I could laugh. I was sat with my best friend, who eventually became my roommate, and remains like a sister to me today. She and I had shared and been through so much - her story is not mine to tell, but it is connected to this one, and we got our tattoos together! - and there is no one that I trust more to know what it is like to have a Brian living in your head, and who will put up with the level of anxiety-fueled disordered rambling I tend towards, and somehow love me through it regardless. We had purchased giant wine glasses à la the TV show 'Cougar Town' (so essentially vases that we filled with wine), and as we were sat chatting at the dining table, she tipped hers up to take a sip. Her face, distorted by the bottom of the rounded vase and sloshing around in the wine, struck me as the funniest thing I had seen, and I began to uncontrollably ugly-donkey-guffaw laugh until my face was equally distorted in mirth. It took me a full half hour to calm down, because every time either of us picked up a glass, it started me off again. It was WONDERFUL to just laugh.

It was a silly moment, but it gave me hope. I am so lucky that my family and friends (in the USA and back home) have always given me and encouraged me to look for hope. My story was never over because of them. My psychiatrist tells me that that's because of me - that I have to take credit for surviving because however incredible my passengers are, I'm still the one driving. I love the metaphor, but I'm pretty sure that having people you can trust to drive when you can't made all the difference for me.

So why a butterfly with my semicolon? Why this butterfly? My parents, with the help of my sneaky best friend, paid me a surprise visit last August. While walking through a parking lot to the restaurant where we planned to have lunch, both Mum and Dad stopped suddenly at some small bushes, covered in Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. We stayed there for probably five whole minutes, admiring how beautiful they were, and taking photos. My boyfriend was highly amused because of how similar the three of us are, and it was in this moment that I consciously acknowledged all the things I was and am *as well as* my anxiety. I am their daughter. I am loved - so very loved, so very lucky. I am enough. And my story is not over.

"Butterflies are self-propelled flowers." -- Robert A. Heinlein

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