Written by ECBC contributor Clare. #AtAnyAge is a campaign created by ECBC Manchester to raise awareness that we can live with a mental illness at any stage during our lives and always deserve support.
With the obvious benefit of hindsight, I can see now that I have always suffered from anxiety and nerves. When I was a child, I developed a series of nervous tics which included constant sniffing, nailbiting and picking at my eyelashes (the latter continues to this day). The problem back then was twofold; as a child growing up in the 1970s, discussions of ‘mental health’ were confined to those who had committed terrible crimes due to psychopathy or sorry individuals locked up in institutions being given outdated and terrifying treatments, and my parents had little (if any) understanding of what was happening.
My father’s solution was to address me with sarcasm; I remember quite distinctly him telling me that other people were looking at me thinking, “what’s wrong with her? Why can’t she just behave normally?”, whilst my mother became angry and aggressive when I tried to talk to her about how I was feeling. Later on, in my early twenties, I suffered my first serious bout of anxiety which led to me having to take time off work. My mother told me that my only option was to ‘get another job’ and when I tried to carefully explain that I didn’t think this was the solution, she became so frustrated that she threw her lunch on the floor. When I picked it up and offered it back to her, she smacked it out of my hand.
It was at this point, I think, that I made a subconscious decision that it was best to keep the way I was feeling to myself.
I became the mistress of the cover- up: the life and soul of the party, the person on whom you could always rely to be the one cheering everyone else up. For years I covered my anxiety with a stainless steel coating of shame and a thin veneer of joie de vivre – all comfortably medicated with alcohol.
Eventually, however, my brain gave up. I had a very public episode of hysteria which led to my being signed off from work. This was the thing I had been most frightened of and was the best thing that could have happened to me. I didn’t have to pretend any more – the relief was so intense that I took to my bed and slept for days; not anxiety- fuelled exhaustion or alcohol induced sedation, but deep, dreamless healing sleep. When I emerged, it was into a new world: one where I could look people in the eye and tell them the truth. And you know what? All I was met with (and continue to be met with) was love, compassion and empathy. If it sounds trite to say I felt ‘reborn’, then I make no apologies for that. In fact, there are far fewer things I make apologies for!
I’m a work in progress, I have good days and bad days.
What I do know is that, at 45, I finally know what I am (and am not). Do I wish I’d realized this years ago? No, not necessarily. What I’ve gone through has made me a better friend, teacher and advocate for mental health than I might otherwise have been. I care less about insignificant things. I sleep well, eat well, spend time with those people I know are good for my mind and my soul. I forgive myself for my flaws and embrace myself for the person that I know I am.