It’s a familiar phrase, but worth repeating. It really is okay to NOT be okay.
I don’t tend to post much really personal stuff in public, either here or on my open socials (Instagram, etc). I’m aiming to change that, though, so that people can see ME. I know how I appear to others may be the happy, confident (😳), positive Sez… and I am those things! Or at least, I act on BE-ing those things. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not MY whole story.
I’ve had a few struggles with my mental health recently and I want to share what that means for me. Not for attention. Not because it’s ‘cool’ to TMI-overshare (yeah, nah). But because, even in the year 20-freaking-20, there’s such a stigma about mental health even though it affects literally everyone. Either personally themselves, or someone they know.
TW: Discussion of depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
A GP diagnosed me with depression (and some separation anxiety) 15 or so years ago. I was on medication and it was basically “under control”… as much as depression can be? But in 2008, I suffered debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I truly don’t even know, to this day, what set them off. They were bad enough I couldn’t hop on a train/bus for 30-40 mins to get to work in the city. It took me over six months – of hard work, constantly pushing myself and my limits – to get to a point where I could get back to work, even part-time. I saw a psychiatrist, tried different types of medication and, gradually, began to feel more like my old self.
Over the years, my medication dose has been tinkered with a little but on the whole I’m on what I call a ‘maintenance’ dose – it keeps my emotions/anxiety pretty level so I don’t feel jittery or anxious, like my skin is the only thing keeping me from flying apart.
There have been the occasional flare ups, generally when my work (or personal) life get pretty stressful but I’ve been able to manage them… mostly. The times that I couldn’t? Well, I removed myself from the equation. Which I don’t see as ‘quitting’. I simply see it as ‘my health is more important than fighting (for) this thing I don’t really want’.
One of my most favourite and dearest bosses said to me, many years ago, “Sarah, no job is worth your health.” That has 100% stuck with me. There is no job in the world that is worth keeping if it makes you feel sick with dread, or ratchets your stress levels up to Everest levels. It’s not worth it if it impacts other areas of your life.
My recent struggles are mostly work-related – not so much COVID-related, though I daresay this year as a whole hasn’t helped! I’ve had mini-meltdowns when working from home, been in tears, cursing up a storm, feeling snappy and irritable. My migraines and headaches have increased in frequency; I’ve found it really hard to focus or stay motivated. And my sleep has seriously suffered the last six to eight months.
It all came to a head last Friday when I called in sick – I hadn’t slept well and woke up with a shocking headache. (More often than not, these days, they morph into blinding migraines if I’m not careful.) By mid-morning I’d taken enough painkillers to stop an elephant but I still felt a panic attack starting.
My stress levels have been elevated but this came on suddenly, out of nowhere. I didn’t even realise what was happening until I was having to force myself to slow my breathing.
What it’s like
For those who’ve never had a panic attack (lucky you, seriously), it can be a little different for everyone but here’s what I felt that day.
- Tight chest, like someone was squeezing me or sitting on my chest.
- It was hard to breathe – I felt like I had to deliberately take deeper breaths.
- My heart started pounding.
- My hands got shaky because my adrenaline was spiking.
- The one that shocked me this time (I haven’t had it happen in AGES) was an all-over prickle of heat, like I was about to break out in a full body sweat.
HELLO fight or flight response! 🙅♀️
It’s not at all pleasant (duh) and feels even worse when you’re in the middle of a full blown attack. Thankfully (?!) that prickle of heat was the thing that made me realise just how close to the edge I was. I closed my (home) office door, chucked my earbuds in, and loaded up a 15 minute guided meditation specifically for dealing with anxiety.
I know there will be some reading this who are like “Dude, you lost me at meditation 🙄” because they feel it’s a bit ‘woo woo’ or whatever. Full disclosure? I used to be one of you. Meditation was NEVER my thing. But y’know what? IT ACTUALLY WORKS. It works for me, anyway. And that’s good enough in my book.
The guided meditation basically takes you through the breathing techniques to help ground you and get you back to a state of near-calm (or calmER, at least). When you’ve been near-hyperventilating, trying to breathe and your chest feels like it’s being squished? All you feel is out of control. Having a calm voice in your ear to talk you through it and get you breathing normally is… priceless. And incredibly reassuring.
The almost-panic attack was a big wake up call – it made me very aware my current elevated stress levels are NOT under control, can’t continue, and won’t improve unless I do something about them.
So I’m making some changes in my life, particularly my work life. As I see it, I can either keep on doing what I’ve been doing – which is obviously not working! – or I can make changes in the hopes it improves my health.
I can’t say too much more until discussions are had, but I’m hopeful. Watch this space!
Questions? Comments? Similar stories? Hit the comments below.
If anything mentioned above has affected you personally, please reach out to support services in your local area/country:
Lifeline Australia – 13 11 44
Beyondblue (AU) – 1300 22 46 36