"The difficult thing with depression and anxiety is that even when we are not thinking about something, subconsciously we are and it is impacting on our bodies in ways we cannot understand."
The playwright “Lovers, Winners, Losers” by the late Brian Friel has the following quote:
“For every five minutes you laugh, you cry for ten”.
Studying this in secondary school at the age of 15, I remember thinking to myself that is ridiculous. Growing up, some teenagers are lucky enough to have few real worries.
We live in this little bubble that our parents have created for us whereby they do not tell us problems we do not need to know about. They try to shield us from the real world for as long as possible, allowing us to enjoy our youth and the carelessness associated with it.
Then the older we get, the protection afforded by the shield of that plastic bubble slowly erodes and the real world beckons, bringing with it many rude awakenings.
Ten years on, at the age of 25, I still do not think the quote is true in that most of us cry more than we laugh, but I no longer see it as so ridiculous or unfathomable.
As a child, insecurities are non-existent, you see the innocence in everything and do not lie awake at night contemplating your problematic life.
However the older you get, those features slowly creep into your life like an unwelcome guest at a party who nobody wants there because they spoil what should be a good time. Adulthood is like that.
The different responsibilities and problems that come with it rain on our parade. Why do we have to worry about finance for the rest of our lives, deal with the loss of loved ones, put on a brave face all the time and have shit happen to us we do not deserve?
That is where I think anxiety stems from, it is the constant battle with fearing what life is going to throw at us and sometimes we cannot handle it or contemplate it.
If you read the paper every day, how could one not be anxious? Thousands dying in war stricken countries, rape, murder, suicide, cancer. The list is endless.
The older you get, the more anxious you become.
I went through a phase of suffering panic attacks about four years ago. I had just changed course in college and went from studying PE and biology teaching to law. I was lying in bed at night and getting this tight feeling in my chest.
I did not know what it was at the time, I thought it was just one of those weird, unexplained things your body did now and again. But now I realise it was my anxiety and a panic attack waiting to happen.
I was thinking prominent thoughts of– have I made the right choice? Have I messed up my future? Was changing to law a mistake? All because I got the result of my first ever law assignment back and I wasn’t happy with it.
My biggest fear in life is being unsuccessful. Growing up, I was good academically and sportingly. I always had to be the best at everything I did, which transcended into me being ridiculously hard on myself when I was not. That is where a lot of my anxiety stems from and it is again related to the childhood to adulthood transition.
So at this point in life I feared not being successful and one day I was driving home on the M50 to Wexford with a friend when suddenly I got this unbearable tightness in my chest. I was in the middle lane and felt like I was having a heart attack, so I pulled over into the hard shoulder and got out of the car. The tightness got worse and I felt like I was going to die.
Pacing up and down the hard shoulder with my hands behind my head trying to breathe, I kept trying to think of calming thoughts, but all those nagging fears that spurred on my anxiety kept repeating themselves and popping into my brain like a jack in the box.
My mouth dried up like the Sahara Desert and all I wanted was my friend to hug me as I thought this was the end and I did not want to die alone.
She called an ambulance and made me breathe into a paper bag, reassuring me it would be okay. And thankfully, it was. The ambulance came, the nurse did an ECG on me and my reading was abnormal so I was checked into St Vincent’s Hospital for three days so the doctors could try and figure out what was wrong.
They did scans, took bloods and came to the conclusion that some of the muscle around my heart was inflamed and that is what caused this.
But even though I took anti-inflammatories, this tightness in my chest was not going away. This is because it wasn’t a physical problem, even though it felt that way. It was anxiety caused by the thoughts in my brain, not the muscles around my heart.
Now, the part I have not yet mentioned was that I had been out in D2 the night before and drank a substantial amount, which consequently heightened my sense of fear and probably was the ultimate reason the panic attack was so severe.
That is the thing about drink, it is actually a depressant and initiates our anxieties, but we still do it anyway because it is good craic! It is a bit of a catch 22 in that when we are drunk, we are probably at our most relaxed and forget about our worries. Then, when we are hungover, we face the other extreme.
I had about four more serious panic attacks after that one, all while driving as I feared what happened that day reoccurring. The first panic attack happened at the Dundrum exit and whenever I drove past it, I would be reminded of what happened that day and the tightness would return, as if it was marking the anniversary.
A couple of months later I was driving home alone and started to have a panic attack after the Dundrum turn off. I took the Cherrywood exit. My phone battery was dead and I pulled into a housing estate, knocked on a random door and said, “excuse me, but I’m having a panic attack, can you call my parents”.
This poor couple were in having a quiet night watching the X-Factor, but they sat me down, gave me water and talked to me to try calm me down.
It turns out both had also been on a J1 in San Francisco and Chicago in their younger days and discussing that immediately made me feel more at ease as I thought of times when I was carefree and deliriously happy.
My parents drove up from Wexford to collect me. I gave the couple a bottle of wine the week after to apologise for ruining their Saturday night and after that, I realised I needed to get a grip on my anxiety before it consumed my life.
The difficult thing with depression and anxiety is that even when we are not thinking about something, subconsciously we are and it is impacting on our bodies in ways we cannot understand. Our subconscious thoughts are like dormant volcanoes waiting to erupt.
There is no switch in our heads that we can magically press to make it go away. Disregarding the negativity in life is a difficult process and something which takes a lot of work.
I haven’t had a panic attack since that day in the random estate in Cherrywood. I don’t take any medication and I didn’t seek professional help. I started writing about what I was feeling and now opt to look at everything with a positive attitude.
I stopped associating driving with my panic attacks, and instead chose to remember how I love driving and the freedom it gives me.
I am now studying a masters in journalism and am probably the happiest I have ever been. It is somewhat ironic how I alluded to the news being a contributing factor to anxiety and now that I am studying to be a journalist, I am really happy!
So many people have wrote articles about their battles anxiety and in a way, I find this really comforting. You think you are the only person with these kind of problems, but you are not. We all worry about similar things and have to fight similar battles.
Ireland is a country renowned for its strong, silent type of people but it is great to see so many people openly discussing their struggle with anxiety.
Telling your story about how you overcame your battle with anxiety may inspire someone else to do the same.
Photo: Behrooz Nobakht/ Flickr