I was in two minds as to whether I should post this topic which has been gnawing at me for a while. It’s got all the right elements for controversy – mental illness, vitriol, and a rather scathing critique of how it’s all handled in the UK at the moment, both socially and medically – but fuck it, I may as well go all in. Rather than discuss the matter in a clinical generic style (or to put it another way, get all up my own arse about the situation) I shall start by telling you a story.
It is 3:27 am. The small hours of a Wednesday morning, and I cannot sleep. Insomniac for the third day in a row. I lie rigid and unmoving, eyes fixed on the ceiling as it ebbs and twists in the dark. I am utterly exhausted, and begging with my mind to please, please, for the love of god let me sleep.
But of course, my head never listens. The static buzzes in my ears and flows through my veins, pins and needles and nerves pulled taut, breathing shallow, rapid, heart hammering, obsessively replaying over and over and over and over in my head the events of the day, oh, of course they picked up on that tiny shift in my tone of voice, they must have heard my annoyance, they probably think that I hate them but I don’t I was just a bit tired at that point in time should I apologise or will they think that’s too much I can’t breathe my head’s too fast shut up shut up be quiet I don’t-
I get up and go downstairs.
If this sounds familiar, then congratulations, you very likely have an anxiety disorder.
I got diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder when I was around 15 years old, scoring 21/21 on the GAD-7 assessment, which essentially means I have the disorder and it is at the far end of the scale. This means that my particular brand of the unfortunately very common disorder is severe and at times utterly debilitating, and manifests itself via insomnia, panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Or to put it another way, most days the feelings of excessive worry, restlessness and stress are but a dull hum in the background, but at other times the hum rises in pitch and frequency to a guttural scream that I can’t shut out.
And it’s loud. Oh fuck, it’s loud. And when the really bad days come ( I call them the “Bad Yins”) the screaming often escalates to a point where I’m not sure if it’s my head or myself that’s screaming any more. To silence the shrieks, I tend to use any means necessary while in the grasp of a Bad Yin. I’ve destroyed things, hurt people, hurt myself, scratched, slashed, burned myself, the list goes on. Though one of the benefits is that I never get violent with others, the tendencies become exacerbated if there’s someone else around. At the last Bad Yin, my flatmate found me covered in my own blood after I’d cut myself so badly I needed stitches, giggling hysterically and repeating “Nobodycaresgoawaynobodycaresyouhatemeyouhatemegoaway” until my throat went raw. Or maybe it was the screaming that woke up the whole street that put my throat out that time. I don’t really remember much of what goes on during the Bad Yins.
Now I’m well aware that this account makes me sound like a frothing lunatic, but in all honesty episodes like that roll around once every few months, give or take a few triggers. April’s trigger was focused around my studies and my impending graduation from law school, and January’s trigger came about because I was sexually assaulted by a friend of mine (more on that later – consider it a teaser for a future blog post!). Aside from these quarterly bouts of madness that test my friendships and relationships alike, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assert that I’m moderately functional. Moderately.
I don’t exactly enjoy being on a sliding scale that varies from mildly to severely mentally ill. And I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who holds up their mental illness – be it depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, Aspergers Syndrome or any one of the multitude out there – as a badge of honour, like it’s something to be applauded because it somehow makes you different. Sorry, sunshine, the fact that you struggle to function in everyday life doesn’t make you a special little snowflake or unique, it makes you just like the other few billion of us who also suffer from a bit of faulty brain chemistry. It’s shit like that which causes mental illness to have such a stigma attached to it in the first place. If I had a biscuit for every time I got accused of “faking it” or “just doing for attention” or to “just calm down, you’re overreacting” or even “stop being such a drama queen” I’d be so fat I’d put Mr Creosote to shame (shout out to my fellow Monty Python fans).
A lot of my distaste with societal handling of mental illness probably comes from firsthand experience. I grew up in a very West Coast of Scotland, Glaswegian family that loathe talking about anything ever. When my grandfather was dying of alcoholism and drinking a pint of whiskey a day, he “just liked a wee drink”. My uncle’s second suicide attempt? “He’s a bit down at the moment”. My cousin’s autism? “She’s a wee bit awkward”. My grandmother’s depression and subsequent addiction to painkillers? “She’s a bit stressed at the moment”. All hushed voices and half-formed conversations that die as soon as the subject walks into the room. For me, it’s a nightmare – most of my family are on the louder side of subtle, and having to face their feigned innocence when I come back from the bathroom is maddening. Instead of blithely speculating about my state of mind as casually as one would discuss a Dulux paint chart, how about you go ahead and fucking ask me how I’m doing?
In all honesty, my experiences with the medical system haven’t been much better. Counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy were about as much use as a chocolate teapot, since it’s a simple case of copying behaviours and being able to tolerate condescension. Act optimistic and tell them you’ve taken up a hobby like, I don’t know, crocheting. Perhaps let out a placid sigh and tell them that it really calms you down. Smile shyly. Breathe in. Breathe out. Eye contact. One mississippi. Two mississippi. “It’s been hard, but I feel like I’m doing better this week.” Look away. Clouded expression. “It’s still just so hard though.” Look emotional when they nod in understanding and tell you how well you’re doing. Leave. Go home. Lock your door. And weep like nothing will ever be okay again, mortified at your own deceit. Anyone can act normal if they pay attention.
Medication was a pile of shite as well. All Ativan did was fill my head with cotton wool made out of silence, turning me into a zombie and leaving me unable to think. Not ideal when you have 26 law exams over the space of four years. Beta blockers were middling, they did a great job of limiting the physiological symptoms like the elevated heart rate and the hyperventilating, but did sweet fuck-all as far as the insomnia, restlessness and the white noise was concerned. As far as GAD symptoms are concerned, lucky me won the lottery and got the lot. When therapy didn’t work, they threw tablets at me and told me to come back when I wasn’t crazy any more. Give us a call when your mind is finally quiet. Maybe try calming down.
At the moment, though, I would say I’m doing alright. Having GAD is a nasty business and it affects pretty much every aspect of my life, but at 21, I feel like I’m slowly, slowly sloooooooowwwwwwllllyyyyy learning to live with it. Oddly enough, neither medication or therapy were my particular saviours, since I wouldn’t say that I’m “saved” yet, or if I ever will be. Learning to recognise when a Bad Yin is coming and adjusting my schedule accordingly so as to minimise collateral damage is a calming process in and of itself. Order and methodology calms me. Taking control, or at least trying to, calms me. More than crocheting, talking about my feelings or tablets ever could.
This is just my account of it, though, and I know it’s different for everyone. If you’ve got GAD like me, or anything else on the DSM-5 scale, then I wish you all the luck and love in the world. God knows us “crazies” need it.