I have a box of anti-depressants in my handbag. Citalopram to be precise. I’ve opened the box and read the leaflet but the foil is intact, the pills unswallowed. I picked them up after seeing my GP on Monday. They’ve been in my bag, and on my mind, ever since.
To my regular readers, the presence of these pills may come as a surprise. If I may be so bold as to quote myself, in a recent post I wrote:
“Three months on, however, and without taking any pills, I feel – dare I say it – happy. I feel content, hopeful and excited. I feel grateful and loving towards myself and my fellows. Yes, I feel good.
I have nothing against medication and know many people who’ve come through rough times with the help of anti-depressants. I can, however, be stubborn as a mule and insistent on doing things my way. This time, it appears to have worked.”
So what’s changed?
In one way, very little. I still feel quite content, hopeful and excited. I still feel grateful and loving towards myself and others.
I’m not suffering from depression – at least not according to the standard medical questionnaire. I have enthusiasm for life and positively love getting out of bed in the morning. I’m sleeping OK – although sometimes it does take me a while to switch off. I keep a reasonably tidy home, wash regularly, change my bed sheets at appropriate intervals and take pride in my appearance. I don’t under-eat or overeat, I take gentle exercise a few times a week and I adore sitting in the sunshine. I have hopes and dreams – to write a book, to publish more articles, to teach, to travel, to laugh, to dance, to marry and have children.
My issue is anxiety. Fear. Dread. Panic. An overactive, racing heart. I often feel on edge, even if there’s very little going on. Of course, it comes and goes but more often than not, I expect the worst of people and situations, can easily think others dislike me or are angry with me and sometimes, when walking the streets, I’m waiting to be attacked – literally.
When I look at my weekly schedule or my bank balance, I’m frequently gripped by fear. When I have to make phone calls I deem difficult – to employers about work or money – my heart beats so fast I think it’s going to burst out of my chest. And the prospect of a date or romantic liaison fills me with so much apprehension (I’m afraid of hurting and getting hurt) that cancelling seems the only sensible option.
It’s not a permanent state but it’s all too frequent. My panic is very easily triggered.
I’ve experienced this for a very long time but recently I’ve come to a new level of awareness. I always thought I was just highly strung, an over-sensitive perfectionist. But I now see, more clearly than ever before, how this fear, this dread, this panic and this expectation that the worst will happen is a learned behaviour from my childhood, a pattern that’s become so familiar it’s incredibly difficult to break.
This growing awareness is due, in part, to another talk I watched by the rather clever Paul Sunderland, who I wrote about in my ‘Waiting for my honeymoon’ post. It’s called Adoption and Addiction and if you have 50 minutes or so, it’s well worth a look:
This lecture really opened my eyes to so many of my behaviours and their root causes. I am not adopted – I’m the image of my Mum – but for one reason or another, I developed many of the characteristics of adoptees, which Paul describes so powerfully. They include a deeply rooted anxiety, a sense that neither the world nor the people in it are safe, a feeling of not being good enough, a pervasive sense of shame and an expectation that all will end in catastrophe so I’d better live on red alert.
I developed many of the behavioural patterns that adoptees do: compulsive behaviours to mask shame, numb anxiety and alter my mood, including substance abuse and an addiction to safety and security at all costs, to the detriment of my own wellbeing (in other words codependency). At the same time, and in apparent contradiction, I developed an addiction to high-adrenalin situations and a compulsion to create anxiety in my life because it felt familiar, and therefore, strangely comfortable and reassuring. It seems we’re so often drawn to what we know, even if it’s harmful.
So not only did catastrophic thinking become my modus operandi but I put myself in situations that were likely to lead to catastrophe, keeping my adrenalin levels at a height I was familiar with.
Take my rather reckless decision (alluded to in my posts ‘A Mexican memoir‘ and ‘Staying alive‘) to get into a taxi cab on the streets of Mexico City at 4 am when I was blind drunk, alone and well aware that street taxis often ambushed their passengers and stole all their wares. I was, unsurprisingly, ambushed by two men who jumped in at the traffic lights, held a gun to my chest and spoke to me in a way that I thought signalled the end.
Then a few months later, I hailed another Mexico City street taxi with a friend and found myself with a knife at my throat. I guess it’s no wonder, then, that when I walk the streets of London or to think of it, of any city, I imagine I’ll be attacked. I’ve experienced some bad stuff and I expect it to happen again. I don’t seek danger anymore, thank God, but past experiences still haunt me and I live on high alert.
I’ve created anxiety in other, less dramatic ways too: I’ve engineered drama, chaos and stress in relationships with others, particularly with men; I’ve postponed my work until the last minute so I’m always battling deadlines; I’ve jumped out of planes, off bridges and canoed down rapids and – with apologies to my friends – I’ve arrived perpetually late for appointments. About 10 minutes to be precise. I used to blame my tardiness on the eight years I spent in Latin America but I now see how it creates stress and causes me to rush – I drop stuff, forget things and end up in a tizz.
Of course, so much of this has changed and is still changing. I’m making a concerted effort to arrive on time, which can result in a rather odd sensation. Whenever I’m on time, I assume I’ve got the wrong meeting place or something terrible has happened to my friend! I’m working in a more organised and responsible fashion so assignments aren’t left until the last minute. And I’m trying to put down high-adrenalin sports for more calming activities like gentle swimming, yoga, pilates and meditation.
Despite these changes, Paul’s talk got me wondering how my adrenalin addiction and high-stress lifestyle have affected my brain chemicals, particularly my serotonin levels, over the years. Serotonin is a soothing chemical that helps to keep us calm and happy. It also, says Paul, helps manage shame.
I concluded that if I’ve been drawing so drastically on my serotonin for so much of my life – to calm my hyper anxiety and to help me survive the frightening situations I subjected myself to – then my levels of this happy drug could quite easily be depleted, they could be on the floor. And that’s why I ended up at the doctor on Monday – following a work phone call that set my heart racing and my brain wondering if my body could take much more.
So why are the pills still sitting in my handbag? Well, one answer is anxiety. I’m too anxious about taking the anti-anxiety pills to actually take the pills! But seriously, I have a busy few weeks – including motorbike training and driving tests that include a number of emergency stops – and I’m wary of being in a fog, less able to concentrate or sleepy when I need to be super alert.
Another reason is that I feel like I’m cheating. Yes, that’s right. Medication seems the easy way out and I have never, ever, taken the easy way out of anything – except using food, drink, men etc to soothe my pain, but you know what I mean. In my mind, life is about striving. If it’s easy, it means I haven’t tried hard enough. If there’s no blood, sweat or tears, it doesn’t count. It’s sad that I think that way.
My reticence is also down to the fact that after years of pumping my body with sugar, excess food, alcohol and other mood-altering substances, I like to know that what I’m feeling is actually what I’m feeling, even if it is pretty dreadful.
But the final reason those pills are still in their box, and the one that makes the most sense, is that I’m taking some time to pause and reflect and to question, once again, whether there isn’t another way.
After becoming aware of my heightened anxiety and catastrophic thinking this week, I spent some time self-soothing. I went to my bedroom early on several evenings, lit candles and an oil burner, prayed, meditated, hugged my cuddly dog to my chest (I’ll get a real one some day) and generally reassured myself that everything would be OK. It really helped.
I’ve also spent more time in Nature, sat in the sun and have exercised. And I made a few phone calls to friends to share my anxiety before having a difficult conversation about work and money. I’m pleased to say it’s paying off. My heart isn’t beating quite so fast.
Maybe, just maybe, I do have the tools to change my behavioural patterns, ward off the panic and counter the catastrophic thoughts. I might have a chemical imbalance, that’s always a possibility, but what if self-soothing really could work?
The other thing to mention is God. He shouldn’t really be an afterthought so apologies – to God – for putting Him at the bottom of the page. But as I’ve written before, the antidote to fear is faith.
As I lay in the bath on Monday night, my tears making dents in the bubbles, I asked God: “Does it really have to be this way? Should I make it easier for myself?”
The next morning, I came across a blog by my friend Flo, which felt like a tonic in itself. In Embracing Life, she shares feelings of sadness, emptiness and regret but also talks about healing, patience and trust.
Then, a little later, as I took ten minutes in the sun before entering my studio a Jehovah’s Witness approached me. Don’t worry, I’m not joining up, but she seemed a kind lady and she reminded me, to use her words, “that God loves women”.
Finally, I came across a book on my shelves late one night about the Psalms. It really spoke to me and brought tears to my eyes.
So, concluding this rather long post, I’m trusting – for today – that I’ll find my way. The box of pills is there as a backup. But I’m trying out some other tools: faith, self-soothing, retraining my brain to expect the best, not the worst, and some gentle exercise.
Before publishing this post, I asked myself whether it was wise to share so much of myself. So I paused and reflected and sat on this blog for a few days. But my conclusion was that I’ve been blogging from my heart for such a long time, speaking my truth and baring my soul – so why skirt around what’s really going on? And sharing in this way has been cathartic for me and, it seems, helpful for others.
We take a risk when we disclose our innermost thoughts – the first question that comes to mind for me is will I ever be employed again? But then if I can’t be employed as my authentic self, what’s the point? And I know, in shiny offices around the globe, there are tens of thousands of men and women who are taking pills to cope with life or using food, alcohol, drugs or sex to numb stress and to get by. Ironically, it’s often our high-adrenalin natures, our perfectionism, our all-or-nothing personalities that makes us so good at our jobs.
So this is my truth. And if it serves to lessen the stigma around mental health, addiction or anxiety disorders and helps one person feel less alone, then that has to be a good thing.