There’s an image most people have in their head of anxiety. It’s of someone – a woman, probably – breathing into a paper bag, crying, over-reacting to some ladylike stimulus. Like a mouse, or a dirty word. Her reactions are over-the-top, inexplicable to anyone outside her own head. I do pant, sometimes, gasp for breath and consider trying to ask for a paper bag. It’s not in my top five symptoms, though, if anyone’s keeping track.
My attacks aren’t neat, discrete units – there’s no clear beginning, middle or end. Sometimes, an attack will come to a head and I’ll realise that reactions I’ve had for the past few hours – reactions I thought were 100% reasonable – were a result of an imbalance in my brain chemistry.
I don’t set out to snap at the people I love, who were just trying to organise the towels or figure out if I want desert. I don’t plan to wind up standing in the middle of an art gallery, headphones blasting Vivaldi, right on the verge of terrified tears because a lady with a baby pushed me out of the way. In case anyone was passing through Green Park station a few weeks ago, silently judging a spectacled man who was clearly struggling with his weeping girlfriend’s nonsense, please don’t judge my Welshman too harshly.
This first post isn’t really about me, though. It’s about my family, my Welshman, my co-workers. The people around me who are baffled/saddened/irritated by the chronic illness I’m working through. It’s impossibly hard, dealing with your own mental health and all the ridiculous crap your brain throws at you, but it might be really intense, frustrating and miserable to watch someone you’re close to going through it.
Here’s the first thing to know: depression and anxiety are not taking the place of your loved one. At one point, my Welshman turned to me and said: ‘you’re not you when you’re like this.’ I replied: ‘it’s me. It’s me, and I’m suffering.’
Depressed people need space, often. Anxious people should not be left alone or judged. It’s a hard balance to strike, and it’s hard to figure out what someone needs when they might not know themselves. When you first start to deal with depression and anxiety, you might not realise either of those words apply to you. Their symptoms are insidious, and often don’t seem important to you or anyone watching you – so what, you don’t want to leave the house much anymore? You sometimes forget to wash your hair for a ridiculously long time? Join the club!
Even once you’ve worked out what’s happening to you, new symptoms can take you by surprise. I, for example, recently realised that my inability to form coherent sentences when I’m stressed is a form of panic attack.
I can only speak for myself, but here are 5 things I wish everyone dealing with a panic attack would try and do:
- Listen to what I’m saying. It might be nonsense, or it might come from somewhere deep and meaningful inside of me, but honestly, I don’t need you to work out which it is. I just need you to listen, when I’m ready to speak, and don’t judge me.
- Be patient. It might take a while. Settle in, breathe deeply, and try not to lose your patience. I know it’s hard. I know it can be boring. But if I’ve asked you to stay, know I need you, desperately, and I’m so grateful you’ve decided to keep me company.
- It’s embarrassing. I know it is. I’m the one weeping in public, totally unable to breathe or think of anything but the nonsensical pain and fear. The best thing you can do is get me somewhere safe, somewhere quiet, and act as though you don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.
- Feed me! I won’t want to eat, won’t be able to think of food, but it’s really hard to panic and eat at the same time. Peppermint tea and chocolate will help calm me down, if I’m not too far gone.
- Learn about what’s happening to me. I’ve always suffered from depression, but this – this anxiety, these mood swings – this is new. I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t recognise all my symptoms, or know what I need. If you want me to get better, I need your help.
And that’s the last thing I want to say. It’s unbelievably hard, impossibly humbling, to look someone in the eye and tell them that you can’t do this on your own. That what’s happening to you is too much for you to bear without help. If you’re suffering, right now, it might be that none of this is new information, but the past few months have been an incredibly steep learning curve for me and the people I love, and I wanted to tell you that you’re not alone.
I’m here. I’ll listen, if you want to speak. I may never know you, may never meet you, but we’re cut from the same messy, beautiful cloth.
With love, always,
Tea First, Panic Later.