September 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
I lost two whole working days this week. In the early hours of Monday morning I was awoken by the first symptoms of food poisoning, which lasted well into the afternoon. (Don’t eat raw sausage meat, children. There may be dire consequences.)
Today I was also off sick for a rather different ailment, but I found the parallels interesting.
It began as I got into bed last night. A very close friend was going into hospital for a procedure that had some serious risks, and I was more than worried. I was scared. And my elder daughter, who’s 18, was planning to do something today that’s slightly outside of my comfort zone, but perfectly acceptable for her age and stage in life. It’s nothing crazy, I must emphasise. It’s a perfectly ordinary thing, but it freaked me out more than I expected it to; far more than it should have.
And that’s when I switched from worry – a pretty normal state for me – to anxiety. I felt that familiar boulder drop into its spot behind my sternum, the racing heart, the dry mouth, a million dark moths bumping into the inner walls of my stomach.
I barely slept. At almost 1am I was still awake, alternating between sobbing into my pillow and writing Facebook posts to distract myself. I read, I watched silly videos of cute babies, I joined Twitter conversations – cheery, sassy on the outside as tears rolled down my face.
I finally dropped off and woke with a jolt at 4.30am, tired but wired, unable to sleep another wink, the moths still beating their familiar refrain. In this condition, eating isn’t really possible, nor is sleeping. Nor is thinking – certainly not thinking straight. Oh you can overthink, and think yourself down the most dark and twisted pathways, till even the Big Bad Wolf seems like a knight in shining armour, but thinking well enough to work, to function, to do the simplest mundane tasks, seems impossible.
So my day today looked much like my day with food poisoning on Monday. I spent a lot off it on my bed. I napped when I was able to, but not in a restful way. The dishes remained unwashed, the curtains drawn. I treated the food poisoning with fluids, and just allowing it to run its course; I treated the anxiety much the same way. And by 5pm, just as most of the food poisoning had worked its way out of my system on Monday, so had most of the anxiety today. But I had lost another day – a day in which I planned to be very productive.
Tonight I will slowly set my home to rights – control is the flip side of anxiety – and then I will catch up on some work so that I don’t arrive in the office in a state of panic tomorrow. And I’ll probably be fine.
I tell you all of this, because I’m one of the lucky ones. We use the words ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably, but really, they’re very different. I’m lucky because I only have severe (for me) anxiety attacks like this every now and then. Others life with this every day. I’m lucky because I’m self-employed and can give myself a day off if my slate is not so full, although there have been times when I’ve just had to grit my teeth and push through, even though it makes the day a gruelling obstacle course and I don’t produce much of value. For others, the latter scenario is a daily struggle.
I’m especially lucky because I don’t have to explain myself to an office full of colleagues that sometimes, nothing in particular has triggered my anxiety, but I feel as if I’m choking. I don’t have anyone telling me to stop worrying, or to toughen up, or that anxiety is not a good reason to have a day of sick leave, when I know that it’s every bit as debilitating as waiting for your body to expel a vicious gastric bug.
So I will be fine. I am fine. But there may be people in your life who aren’t. Perhaps they suffer from anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, or some other kind of mental illness. We tend to separate mental illnesses from physical illness, the head from the body, but I’m here to remind you that the head is a part of the body. The brain is just one of your organs – and just as susceptible to illnesses, which are just as physical and chemical as any other illness.
It’s time to stop making that distinction, and to treat those with mental illness, whether acute or chronic, with the same compassion you’d spare for those with so-called physical illnesses. That’ll help to remove the stigma, which should never have arisen in the first place, if you think about it logically.
If we can do that, more people might seek help and set themselves back on the way to mental health. And that’s beneficial for all of us, and for society as a whole.