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Following on shortly from my last piece, I went in to see my counsellor. As I'm sure you will have got from S0202, I wasn't in the best of places. A mentally challenging weekend had left me mentally beaten, battered and bruised. I found myself feeling pretty lost and defeated, but still something separate from depressed. And yet somehow, I ended up leaving that session with my spirits lifted, vitality renewed and ready to get back on the wagon. After almost 5 years of varying treatment and talking therapies, I really feel like I'm making some progress. You name it, I've tried it. Hypnotherapy. Private counselling. Hypnotherapy again. More private counselling, as well as three rounds of NHS Talking Therapies on top. The worst bit is having to explain 16 years of anxiety to new people at the start of each course. Often it feels as if you are just talking to a labcoat - someone that is just marking your symptoms off a checklist and giving you the usual spiel on how to get better. My current therapist is different. He was very keen to explain from the start that he himself had experienced and suffered with anxiety for years. Not just anxiety, but almost exactly the same symptoms as myself. And he beat it. I kind of see him as my anxiety sherpa, leading the way to my own success. Despite the recent efforts towards increasing awareness of mental health and the surrounding issues, there are many out there that still feel unable, perhaps even unwilling, to seek help. Mental illnesses are still thought of as being a weakness, a character flaw, something to be ashamed of. That just isn't the case. If anything, the day to day struggles can strengthen your character, and help you see the world in a different light. Personally, I found that my anxiety made me a more considerate person and generally more understanding of others. It encourages you to be more kind in all pursuits, after all you simply don't know what's going on another person's head. They might just need a friendly smile from a stranger to conquer their own demons for that day. Be more kind. After half hour or so of explaining why I was feeling so down and beaten, he asked me a question I don't think I'll forget in a hurry. "Do you feel fulfilled with your life?" I mean, what do you even say to that... It caught me completely off-guard and really provoked some serious thinking. Do I feel fulfilled? My immediate answer was no, and let me explain why. I've been dealing with various forms of anxiety for most of my adult life. It started when I was 14. I'm just about to turn 32. Virtually every decision I've ever made about the direction of my life, has been made under the influence of anxiety. Why did I stop going on holidays abroad with friends and family? Anxiety. Why didn't I finish my studies at university? Anxiety. Why did I keep it a secret from my family for months after dropping out? Anxiety? Why didn't I learn to paraglide when I had the opportunity? Anxiety. Why have I never sat through a friends' wedding ceremony? Anxiety. I was filled with frustration and anger as to how I had become such a slave to my mental health. The weight of the weekend's events felt even heavier. But then I had a light-bulb moment. I do feel fulfilled. I am an extremely lucky person. Sure, anxiety definitely did shape some of the decisions I made, but it also helped shaped me into the person I am now. I might not have become a teacher of languages, but instead I'm a successful accountant. Social anxiety kept me bound for so long, yet somehow I managed to put it to one side and become a part of the Ember team as Community Manager. I met my long-suffering, long-caring fiancée. I felt everything fall into perspective, and it gave me the reassurances I needed to drag myself back out of the hole I'd found myself in, to get back on the wagon and to be answering back to my anxieties with 'F**k It' once more. The thing about Talking Therapies is, once you give voice to a thought, it becomes real. You hear it out loud and you really start to question it. The person you're speaking with hears it and questions it. You get new points of view that you hadn't even considered. To all those unsure of opening up, seeking help or just finding someone to talk to - talking about your mental health really does help. You got this. It gets better.
I've never been one to show emotion publicly, always erring on the side of some things are better kept personal. But ever since I started writing 'Thoughts of an Anxious Man,' I've found the whole process somewhat therapeutic, and really cannot recommend it enough. Writing is an excellent way of venting frustrating and sharing things you might otherwise find difficult putting into words. It's been a particularly trying couple of months for me. A rollercoaster of emotions that, for once, I have really been struggling to keep in check. Some will remember how we left at the end of Season 1 - verging on the edge of *radical acceptance* as a means of getting past anxious thoughts. To summarise - rather than fighting the anxiety every step of the way, the theory is that you just accept it. You accept that this is just the way you are, make your peace and live with it - the idea being that once you start to go with the flow, then there is less resistance and therefore less anxious thoughts. I started reading a couple of books which centre on this ideology. If you get chance, I would highly recommend checking out 'F**k It - The Ultimate Spiritual Way.' Things were going great, and I was finally happy with the progress I was seeing. But then, I hit a bit of a stumbling block. As some will know, I've had some health concerns over the past couple of months, been poked, prodded and examined and had been told that I have a condition that basically affects what and when I can eat. Food is my life. Being told that I should avoid all the things I actually enjoy, and eat all the things I don't like, was honestly a bit crushing. Alcohol isn't really allowed, which means my significant stash of beer/whiskey must now be given away! But I'm trying to take it in my stride, so we'll see how that goes. I was a nervous wreck for a long time, doing the one thing you should never do and Googling my symptoms. I woke up several times just thinking 'F**k. This is something really bad.' My anxiety skyrocketed and I didn't leave the house for a good couple of weeks except to go to the doctors. I found myself shaking like the metaphorical shitting dog, whilst I had to repeatedly go through all these consultations. One on one situations are one of the worst triggers for me mentally, so going to the docs over and over and over again...well it wasn't fun! Luckily for me, it ended up not being anything too serious, yet serious enough that I would have to make some lifestyle changes. Fair. My dim outlook suddenly got a whole lot brighter, and I began to make ground on my confidence again. AND THEN. And then. Right when I was finally feeling positive, I cracked a f**king tooth. Sitting in the dentist's chair is one of the worst situations I could possible ever find myself. It's a serious anxiety trigger and even as I write this I can feel my hands shaking. Last time I had to go to the dentist, I had to have a filling. Normally takes 20-30 minute procedure - nice and simple eh? Nope. Mine took one and a half hours, simply because I cannot sit still in the chair for longer than 5 minutes at a time. I mean no, it's not the end of the world. Some people might read this and laugh at my inane fears, but to each their own. I'll likely be sedated, embarrass myself in a drunken stupor, and laugh it off for the next couple of weeks. But if anything, this whole episode has served as a reminder that life is too short to worry about things you cannot control. I'm more determined than ever to crack on the road to recovery. Anxiety is, and likely will always be, a part of me. So what can we do? What can we say? 'F**k it.' We take small steps. We do the things that we want to do, with the people we want to do them with. F**k anxiety. It might seem like the biggest obstacle you will ever have to overcome, but don't ever let it get in the way of your physical health, or you enjoying life. No matter what your head tells you, whether its worrying that you're going to vomit in front of someone, that they'll laugh at you or that you will embarrass yourself. Just try saying 'f**k it.'
I'm back with a brand new rap. Well, it's not so much a rap, as a renewed sense of well-being. For the past two weeks, I've done a tremendous amount of soul searching, trying to figure out where I am, where I want to be and what I want to do. One of the few positives that comes with anxiety is that it gives you a unique perspective on yourself, those around you, and other anxiety sufferers. You begin to realise what makes anxious people tick and you can relate to them. You create a silent bond. For years, I felt alone and isolated. My triggers are quite specific and in all that time, I had never met anyone that suffered in the same way. And then one day, I spotted a post in the /r/anxiety subreddit. This person was going through exactly what I was going through ten years ago. Reading it was like looking into a time machine. I could see all the decisions they had made to lead up to that point, and all the decisions I had made thereafter. I felt I had to do something, I had to reach out to them and tell them not to keep treading the same beaten path. It felt good to finally connect with someone who knew what it felt like. It felt even better to be able to tell them where I went wrong and what I had learned from my (many) mistakes. It turns out I'm actually really good at sitting and listening to others, lending a helpful ear or shoulder to cry on when needed. So I'm planning on becoming a counsellor. Giving back to the therapy services that have given me so much. My DMs are always open to anyone needing to vent or chat. I'm also trying out a new method of dealing with my own anxieties - radical acceptance. That is, "about accepting experiences, beliefs, and perceptions, often without offering judgments or believing that things should be different than they are" (GoodTherapy, 2015). The idea is straightforward. Rather than seeing your anxieties as entities you want to be rid of, you simply stop fighting it. Anxieties thrive and feed on negative thoughts, so you simply accept that this is just the way things are now. No judgement. No self-criticism. No self-berating. Go with the flow and stop constantly trying to wrestle control back, because in the end, none of it matters. We are insignificant specks on a living rock, hurtling through time and space. Recently, I've been doing some dog-sitting for my parents. They have the most amazing view over the Blackmore Vale. One evening I was watering the plants and was struck by the thought of 'I wonder how many leaves are on this hedge. Thousands? Millions?' I looked up, seeing trees and fields for miles, and asked myself the same question - 'I wonder how many leaves are in my field of view right now? Billions? Trillions?' And this was only a miniscule proportion of the world. Existential ponderings do wonders for straightening a mind out. Now, whenever I feel my anxieties rising, I go back to that thought about leaves and remind myself that the worry, the need for control, is all so insignificant. None of it really matters. I could drop dead tomorrow. None of it matters. Why worry about something you cannot control... Of course, it is so much easier to write or read, than to put into actual practice. It's a hard step to take. Believe me. I've only been practising this theory of acceptance for the past week or so and it is incredibly hard to break such an ingrained routine. But I feel I'm on the right track. I finally feel like I can make some difference, to myself and to those around me.
Another week, another roller coaster ride... Let's start with the positive. Last week - my life changed indefinitely for the better. I became an uncle for the first time, to 'an absolute pounder' (his dad's words) of a nephew. I've never been one to get excited about newborns or young children - I've always felt a bit awkward and 'umm - now what' around them, but this time was certainly different. Archie, named long before the Royal Archie came along, was a bouncing bundle of joy and happiness, so it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. It was also weird seeing my parents, newly crowned as grandparents, interacting with him. My mum's reaction was that of being utterly smitten, as you might expect, but it was my dad's reaction, someone who has always kept his emotions close, that caught me off guard. So many smiles, photos and joy. It was weird to see, but enjoyable nonetheless. "One of the most frustrating things about having an anxiety disorder; knowing as you're freaking out that there's no reason to be freaked out, but lacking the ability to shut the emotion down." From the peak of happiness, came the conversation about christening young Archie, and the crushing realisation that I would likely be involved in some way, shape or form. I'm already a godfather to my cousin. An experience that many would accept with pleasure. Don't get me wrong, I'm honoured to have that role, but standing up in front of 50-60 of my close family and relatives was nothing short of a nightmare. Being centre of attention as I recited my lines, was an experience that continues to haunt me - even when I know there's no reason whatsoever to be feeling that way. So much so that the last christening I went to, even though I wasn't involved, I couldn't physically sit in the ceremony. It's the irrational fear of needing to get up and leave during the ceremony, having all eyes on me, just thinking about it starts my heart racing. It sounds so self-centred when I write it down. Me, me, me. But that's the difference between the rational and irrational, the 'being there for someone' and 'the fervent need to avoid a situation.' On one hand, I would love to become a godfather again, but on the other I just don't know if I can go through that situation again without utterly embarrassing myself. “You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” This week also brought another first - I've started a round of talking therapy with my new, friendly, neighbourhood Spiderman therapist, Jim. Starting anew has its ups and downs, but I like to think of it as a new opportunity to make some ground, and get that little bit closer to 'levelling out.' After a lengthy discussion sharing my history, triggers, worries and previous diagnoses, Jim was very quick to relate. It really is a breath of fresh air hearing someone on the other side say that they know exactly what you have been through. He pointed out that I , like himself, may have generalised anxiety disorder. We went through the symptoms for it. Panic attacks. Check. Phobias. Check. Social anxiety. Check. Huh - hello there! I had what I can only describe as a wave of relief at that point. It felt as if we had finally pinpointed my problem, and from there, there was hope that we could begin to try a few different techniques that had worked for Jim in the past. The next session should be fun, as we start to try rewind therapy. Who knows. Maybe we'll make some progress. The sun is shining, it's a beautiful day, and I'm finally feeling optimistic about regaining some element of control...