I’ve a feeling I’m going to regret this…

 

Much has been made of the heroism and courage of the Chilean miners, finally rescued after 69 days underground. We humans have a remarkable capacity to cope with horrific situations.

I’ve been wondering how I’d have coped, shut underground in the dark for days on end, not knowing if help would ever reach me. I think I would have died from sheer terror on day one. As for being in that tiny rescue tube for 20 minutes at the end– oh my! I’m not even sure I would have fitted without having my boobs squashed.

In reality, I think I would have somehow found the strength to manage and to make it through. What other choice is there?

I wrote the blog that follows here a couple of months ago, but have not had the courage to publish it. I feared you’d think less of me, think I was whiney, and egotistical, and rubbish, and weak. Probably because that’s what I thought of myself. Still do, sometimes.

Some of you may still judge me harshly once you’ve read this – but I know I am not alone. We women are liable to end up in some right states, particularly as middle age hormones kick in!

So be nice to us, you less needy females! And you boys, be understanding. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, especially one this brilliant.

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The fear still comes occasionally. Mostly, though, it stays at bay. Mostly I realise how far I’ve come, and I can’t imagine ever being there again. Sometimes it pulls me up short and reminds me it is still there, lurking.

I thought I’d grown up pretty fearless. I was a bit of a daredevil, loved to try new things, was a tomboy, climbed trees, played footy, rode rollercoasters, raced round on my bike. My childhood was easy-going and trauma free.

But there must have been a scared part of me, for I also remember vividly lying in bed in the dead of night, waiting anxiously for my parents to return home from a night out dancing. I must have been about 10. They were late.

I watched the bedroom clock tick slowly round, each tick tock increasing my anxiety. Then somehow I knew. They weren’t going to make it home. Something unspoken but terrible had  befallen them. I quite literally cried myself to sleep that night, having already worked my way through the funeral and decided who I was going to live with.

Of course, they were there when I woke up. But my fertile imagination had made this scary scenario an absolute reality. I doubt I would have felt any worse if it had been real.

This capacity for terrifying myself with mere thinking came and went but stayed with me into adulthood. I think I had so little to be scared of in the real world that I would create terror all of my own.

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Two years ago, life was looking sweet. I was juggling being a mostly stay at home mum, with a two year old and a six year old; starting up my own small PR company; trying to create a perfect home and mould myself into a perfect housewife and mother – in other words, trying to have it all. I was struggling to do any of it particularly well, and felt disorganised, hassled and stressed.

One afternoon, while working at a hospital trust, I suddenly came over all queer. I felt suddenly breathless, and hot, and a bit dizzy. My skin was clammy, I felt sick and thought I might fall over. After a glass of water and a sit down, I decided I was coming down with some horrid bug and really should get home. I managed to get through a 10 minute presentation, before stumbling to my car.

The hour drive home was the worst car journey of my life. I twice pulled over on the hard shoulder to get myself together, and contemplated waiting there for the police. I was convinced I was about to collapse, have a stroke, or maybe a heart attack. My phone battery was dead, so I couldn’t reach my husband or anybody else. But even though I felt physically dreadful, I knew that what I was experiencing was psychological.

I somehow got home safely and ran into the house, letting out huge sobs of anguish as soon as I’d shut the door. The experience left me completely shell-shocked.

For the next three weeks I couldn’t work out if I was coming or going. All I could think about was what was going on in my head. I spent desperate hours analysing my every thought and was convinced I was having some sort of breakdown that would end with me being sectioned. I couldn’t make a simple decision without agonising over it, I was barely sleeping, and my weight plummeted – it was a pretty dreadful time. Coincidentally, it was around the time of my 40th birthday.

My GP suggested taking medication to calm my body down. I refused. Then I tried it. It was brill. Then I threw it away.

Anyway, thanks to having a very level-headed and supportive hubby, and a fantastic mum and dad, I made it through those horrid days, but I still bore the scars. Or should that be the scares?

I accepted I had been overdoing it.  I realised that all the demands I was making of myself (combined with going to bed late and eating badly) had created a classic recipe for disaster. Then, when my pre-menstrual hormones kicked in, it was like a bomb going off.

Anyway, soon I was definitely feeling better and began planning for a three week holiday in France in earnest.

The adult “coper” within me longed to get away somewhere calm and relaxing, but the so recently terror-stricken, frightened little girl part of me really just wanted to curl up in a ball at home.

The run-up to the holiday departure, in a borrowed campervan, was frenetic, so by the time we reached Portsmouth for our night sailing to St Malo in Brittany we were all exhausted.

As we boarded, a wave of terror suddenly washed over me. I had a horrible feeling that we were all making a terrible mistake, that we should not be on this boat, that we should just all get home as quickly as possible.

I tried desperately to quell the fear, to calm the rising terror, but the panic was filling up my mouth, my head, my entire body. Everything was telling me to make a run for it. I rationalised my fears – then very calmly announced to my hubby that I would just get off and get a train back home while they went on and had a lovely holiday.

Hubby said he thought this sounded like a good plan – while suggesting I look out of the window. We were already out of the port. There was no turning back.

It is hard to explain to someone who has never had a panic attack what it is like. You know that feeling you get when you’re anxious, nervous, filled with trepidation about doing something incredibly important, or about stepping into the unknown? Well, a panic attack seems to involve taking that feeling, ramping it up tenfold and taking away all the good, exciting bits, leaving you in a state of abject terror. Your body starts acting accordingly – heart racing, eyes dancing about wildly, tummy turning somersaults, head dizzy, mind throbbing with disparate thoughts.

Struggling to breathe, I let out a pathetic little noise. Like a deflating balloon. Like a whimpering, injured cat on a roadside.

I’ll skip the next few hours. Suffice to say I padded around the ship like a loon, smiling manically and exchanging small talk with fellow passengers, trying desperately to keep my brain occupied and keep the panic at bay, before finally succumbing to sleep.

The first night of the holiday was hell. Lying tense, wide awake, exhausted and terrified in a tent in the pitch black while your family snooze gently beside you, is not a place I’d like to return to. I eventually dropped off at about 4.30am.

Over the next couple of days I settled into the holiday and, as I chilled out, the sense of panic and impending doom receded. Incredibly, it turned into the best family vacation we have probably ever had.

Two years on I can look back to those horrible days and weeks and months with a wry smile. I definitely made things worse for myself. I refused to accept the help offered to me because I was determined I could beat this all by myself. Big mistake. It was my ego that had landed me in that mess, and my ego was keeping me there.

I eventually got “proper” help. A cognitive behaviour therapist man with lots of initials after his name helped me understand the nature of panic attacks, and hormonal imbalances, and chemical stuff, and taught me how to address and beat fear.

One of his early suggestions was that I stand at the edge of a cliff five nights on the trot for half an hour at a time to understand the nature of true fear (I’m scared of heights). The first night I did it I clung onto a tree root five feet from the edge and did not move, convinced I might accidentally throw myself off. By the fifth night I was sat, feet dangling over the edge, humming happily and peering over at a bird’s nest 100 ft below. I did it. I understood.

My GP helped in the only way she knew how, in the useless 10 minutes allocated to me – by suggesting medication, but also by helping me understand the impact of hormonal changes, particularly for us biddies approaching the menopause.

But mostly I got help from my amazing parents, who never failed to come running when I needed them, and from my gorgeous husband, who never made me feel like a nutcase.

It’s not been an easy road to travel, but I’m kind of glad I have been there. It’s made me a much more understanding person. I used to judge people instantly – now I wonder what is going on in their heads when they are a bit abrupt, or behave oddly.

I still have my shitty moments and days, and don’t kid myself that it will always be plain sailing – but I’m no longer afraid of fear itself.

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Until I started this blog it was completely against my character to share my vulnerabilities in quite such a frank and open way.

I would always try to put up a wall of coping, of doing great, of being somehow better than everyone else. I probably still do this sometimes. It saddens me now to think that when I was going through my worst moments, I did not feel inclined to confide properly in a single one of my friends. It also saddens me that none of them seemed to notice! I must have been a fine actress – dying on the inside, laughing on the outside.

Maybe I didn’t think anyone would understand. Maybe I thought nobody I could turn to would actually want or be able to help. I felt pretty pathetic and was ashamed at being unable to cope, when on the outside my life must have looked so easy.But I think having a period of “losing it” has made me determined to do my bit to break down some of the stigma surrounding mental health – and I honestly think the more people admit to having had their own share of troubles, the better for everyone.

I’ve found it incredible that whenever I do share my experiences with anyone the floodgates open – and pretty much everyone I’ve confided in has ended up discussing their own personal crisis, or told me about their own battles with anxiety or depression or some other mental manifestation. The ones who seem the happiest and most strong are usually the first to breathe a sigh of relief and let it all come tumbling out.

Here’s to honesty. And to friends. And to staying strong.

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  1. Bravo, Jane! What’s to regret? We live, we learn, we move on – hopefully older, wiser and happier. PS I’ll tell you my ‘basketcase’ story one day x

    • Catherine
    • October 14th, 2010

    Jane, great blog and not once did I think you were pathetic or whiny! I have never had a panic attack myself but I have known several people who have suffered in very similar ways to you and it must be terrible. I admire so much how you managed to overcome this and move on, you obviously had a great deal of support. I think you are right that only by talking about this sort of thing will people become more sympathetic to those with menatl health issues, however big or small.
    Well done!!

    Catherine

  2. Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham. Bravo Jane! Hope you feel the catharsis from this blog as I did when I had my ‘terrified of dying’ moment of clarity over a picture of ducks on my blog. I’ve had panic attacks too but nothing like on the scale that you described. What Jarvis Cocker refers to as ‘the fear’ hits me quite often. My better half has suggested I see a doctor and get medication but to me that would be giving in. I am just a glass half empty person; my music taste is ‘downbeat’ and always has been until relatively recently when I discovered the euphoria of Northern Soul. I have a friend who suffers from ‘proper’ depression who recently tried to kill himself. Most of the time he is the happiest person I know – great job, lovely wife, etc – but sometimes he just goes. You can see it coming… You have conquered your panic attacks, I dabble but sometimes the bigger picture only serves to show me how lucky I am. Besides, I’ve always thought The Smiths were more funny than miserable

  3. PS. Just realized first comment is from Sof… We really need a get together. We could listen to ‘The Hurting’ and scream primally

    • Jacqui
    • October 14th, 2010

    Jane – don’t regret posting this.
    On a personal note – I did notice you weren’t yourself, but had absolutely no idea what was happening to you, or how to help. On another personal note, you have been a great source of comfort,strength and understanding to me as I have battled my own panic and anxiety. Thank you.

    Love me xx

    • Thank you lovely jac, my oldest chum. If I was going to spill to anyone it would have been you – but part of my problem is feeling unworthy of bothering peeps! And you were in the throes of preparing for the momentous upheaval of moving your family to Deutschland! I could def have made things easier for myself had I taken your far more open approach. That’s why I love you and know you will be strong and get through it – and you have lots of pals to call on for support and help. You can do it, you are string!

    • Gayle
    • October 15th, 2010

    It happens to lots of us. I see it as life is for real and not a dress rehearsal.
    We learn and it makes us wise.
    I’d like to think that I accept people for who they are and would like to be accepted in the same way. Everyone has a story, some are more sad than others but non the less real.
    We have to learn to cope with our own limitations and not judge ourselves on someone else’s standards- that way we can avoid falling down. Learning to say “No” because it’s too much and it might push us over the edge. Not “no” as a negative.
    Well done hun, it makes sense xxx

    • Thanks to all you lovely people who have responded to this. I’ve since had a couple of other local friends spill their guts to me about stuff they are going through – it seems I am not the only one who chooses to do the “brave face” thing, especially when it comes to head stuff. But we do live and learn, we do make mistakes, and we hopefully gain strength from them. Thanks Gayle, my problem has always been judging myself against impossible standards, and in this I know I’m also not alone. I am learning that no can be a very positive word (but it’s hard!) Love you all, shame I don’t see any of you enough (if at all!) xxxx

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