My first instinct during my first ever panic attack was textbook: I fled. Only rather than flee from my panic into blind nothingness, I wanted to run to someone. I wanted comfort, for someone to take away the impending sense of blackness, help me off the precipice that jutted out over a sea of panic.
I was 14. And I was entirely alone at home. But, fortunately, my aunt and uncle lived next door, so I rushed over to theirs in a bid for help. My aunt managed to mollify me enough to get me to sleep, and to convince me that I should go to school the following day. I didn’t want to, though; from that very first attack, I wanted to crawl into a safe room and lock myself away from the world.
I wish I could say that the next day I woke up and birds were chirping and sun shone in through my window and everything was okay, but we both know that wasn’t the case. That morning when I climbed into the car of my friend’s dad, who was giving me a lift to school, I was vigilant, scanning my body for signs of illness, scanning the roads for a potentially dangerous driver, scanning the horizon of my life for unknown danger. That vigilance became my MO. And it was an exhausting way to live.
Sitting in my favourite English Literature class, I would be focussing on my breathing rather than on the plot twists of Duchess of Malfi or getting excited about Maggie’s defiance in Hobson’s Choice. I would think about breathing correctly, deeply enough, until I was convinced my lungs weren’t filling enough. I would count the in breath – one, two, three, four – and the out – five, six, seven, eight – and fixate upon getting the numbers precisely right, lest I miss a count and along with it some of the vital oxygen I needed to keep me alive. I was convinced that at any minute I might become physically ill, unaware that I was in fact falling into a mental illness that would hold me in its grip for years.
Two things threw me a figurative rope during that time – first, music and novels. Like many teenagers before me and doubtless many to come, I found worlds within the two, letting Austen and Elvis and Wilde and Michael Jackson and those glorious Mitfords sweep me up in melody and in the pitter patter of perfectly formed sentences.
But neither worked when I was already in the eye of the panic. Then, it was conversation that helped me. I would talk about my panic, about my fear that I’d be sick, on the phone to my friend Lucy’s mum, who’d been a nurse and was immensely kind, letting me pour my fears into her ear at 11pm on school nights, and my friend Heta on the coach home, who’d sit with me despite my being intensely gawky and in the year below her.
When I say those conversations helped me, I think I should be clear. It didn’t relieve the panic entirely – it simply jolted me slightly when I’d fall into the groove of a few bad seconds. My experience of panic in its most terrifying moments is akin to the lapping of waves – intense, less intense, terrifying, less terrifying, back and forth and back and forth, until it – or I, it is so hard to divide the two – ran out of steam. When engaged in a conversation with someone else, it was as if there were a sand bank of sorts, stopping the waves from making their way so far up onto the shores of my mind. It did not silence the sea.
After a few months, it became abundantly clear that whatever respite those people could provide wouldn’t solve what was happening to me. I went to my doctor. He looked at me with a furrowed brow, and prescribed an anti-emetic called Stemetil for my nausea, and beta blockers for my panic attacks. To be taken ‘when needed.’ I remain thankful to this day that I have always been wary of western medicine, because had I taken those ‘when needed’, I’d have walked around in a stupor for most of my teenage years.
That’s not to say I didn’t rely heavily on them as a talisman; knowing they were there was often enough to help, and I earned a reputation as an eccentric for the choices I made so as not to be parted from my precious glass bottle of Stemetil. I’d horse ride because I truly loved it and felt it worth the risk, but made our teacher Mr Silverman pocket my bottle so that I’d never be more than a couple of minutes from a glug, should I need one. The Duke of Edinburgh scheme in which all my friends enrolled to bulk up their CVs was out the question – they stipulated that I’d have to camp sans bottle. Equally, I stopped all swimming competitions because the idea of being underwater and so far from the potential vomit-inhibiting medicine was untenable.
I am aware of how mad that all sounds, but it is sadly true. And, sadly, when I eventually mustered up the confidence to go to a teacher and ask for help because I realised that my panic was making my path deviate wildly from those of my peers and I desperately wanted a more normal experience of a life free of the terrors of anxiety, I was given it in the form of a disappointing counsellor who prescribed moderate exercise and breathing ‘with awareness.’ Ha! I tried to explain that I breathed with maximum bloody awareness and was trying to dial that down a notch, but she brushed my interjections aside.
I charged on with my own plan – medication on standby, fight or flight mode almost constantly triggered. Mental health awareness was then in its infancy, you see, and I didn’t realise until several years later that psychiatry could be an absolutely wonderful thing and that finding the right person for me would eventually if not cure me, then certainly arm me with the self knowledge and tools with which to unlace the ties of panic that were constricting me from living a normal life.
That was the late-90s, when the idea of having a psychiatrist seemed an American indulgence, or the preserve of the enormously wealthy. I still remember being teased when telling me friends I was going to see a psychiatrist for my anxiety at 18 – the general consensus was that it seemed a trifle absurd because I was an educated, (physically) healthy woman with a roof over my head and a future that looked fairly bright: what on earth did I have to be stressed about?
Thank goodness we have, as a whole, moved on from such absurd beliefs now. Thank goodness I am one of many who is open about seeking advice on how to manage the demands of daily life and maintain my mental health simultaneously. And, this week, thank goodness the world has listened to Prince Harry commit himself to tape in an interview with The Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon talking about mental health. In it, he revealed that he too needed help, that the concept of a stiff upper lip was absurdly outdated and dangerous and unhelpful.
His call to others to ‘have that conversation, rather than [waiting] a week or 20 years… what could’ve been something small can grow into a beast you can’t dislodge, that’s going to cost you a shedload of money and a lot of heartache.’ He went on to bash another common misconception to smithereens: mental (un)health is hideously fair, praying on the rich, the celebrated, the beautiful, the gifted, and – as Harry proved – the royal. ‘It doesn’t matter who you are – mental health relates to every one of us’
The Heads Together charity spearheaded by Harry, Kate and William posits that conversation is a great starting point – and outlet – for mental health issues. My experiences make me inclined to agree – both when suffering from a panic attack and over the long term with the guidance of a good psychiatrist, conversation has been an invaluable tool in overcoming my panic disorder. And it’s also been a key tool in maintaining my good mental health – I am under no illusion that I’ve fought my last battle, and I therefore continue to talk about wobbles openly and constructively, here, with friends, and with a brilliant psychiatrist who continues to unpick my erroneous beliefs.
Were it not for conversation, I wouldn’t be at the stage where I can go into work every day to do a fast-paced and enormously demanding job I love. Nor would I be able to travel. And, most importantly, I wouldn’t have the guts to write this all down, send it out into the world, and hope that my experiences will join with the other far more important and grand voices that have sung out on the subject of mental health this week to change the conversation. Or just start it.