Anxiety is something that’s garnered a lot of attention lately. In some ways that’s a good thing. People now feel less strange for struggling with these irrational feelings. And in some ways it’s a bad thing. With the rise of technological advances and social media has come a rise in self-diagnosis: girls on tumblr feigning severe mental health issues for attention, for likes. People writing poetic, flowery and contrived lines about what it is to struggle with anxiety. A kind of community has formed, a community whose initial intention was perhaps to create open dialogue about mental health and has now turned into an enabling force. I was slightly involved in this community when it was coming into fruition. Not in a big way, I mean I didn’t have many followers on tumblr, but I did consume this kind of content. I did post pictures of myself looking lonely, dark and upset because those were the ones that got likes. This mental ill-health aesthetic is one which was, and still is, very popular. But in contrast to the trend of self-diagnosing, I did actually seek professional help when I struggled with anxiety.
It was when I was 14 that things got really bad. For me it was this idea that everyone was staring at me, judging me and thinking I was strange. I also had this conceived notion that a middle-aged man was stalking me. I seemed to see him everywhere. The first time was when I was walking home with a friend. We were almost doubled-over laughing, when I saw this man sitting on a wall on the other side of the road. He had sunglasses on but I was certain that he was looking at me, staring at me. And in a predatory way, like he was attracted to me. I tried to ignore him but there was something about him that captivated me and stirred in me an uncomfortable feeling. Somewhere between desire and fear – a mix that made me feel sick. After that I found out what kind of vehicle he drove – a silver transit van – and for months after that, every time I saw a silver van my heart clenched. It was particularly horrible when I would see that vehicle pull up at the petrol station I worked in at the time, which was a lot. It was like my fight or flight response went into overdrive and I’d run to the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to serve him. And then one sunny day, when my mother and I were sitting out the front of the house, the bin van drove up and he came out. “Now he knows where I live”, I thought. It was horrible. I spent so much of those months feeling afraid and nervous – suffering.
In addition to this belief that I was being stalked, even simple things liked walking past a busy road or getting on a bus were a nightmare for me. All the people in all the cars, especially men, were staring at me, I thought. I felt this seething hatred and fear towards men. They were all dogs, they were all disgusting and they all were sexually-attracted to 14 year old girls – this was my subconscious. I remember I even stopped going to karate partly because I was scared the instructor was sexually attracted to me. It was not from an overwhelming confidence in my appearance that these beliefs came, it was from a deep-seated fear that a grown man would sexually possess me. I now know this stems from the enmeshed relationship I had with my father, something I’ll go into more in another post. I also hated going anywhere on my own. I didn’t want to be seen alone, it would only confirm everyone’s belief that I was too weird to have friends. Getting a bus into town on my own was so upsetting. I hated the moment of getting on the bus when everyone would look up to see who it was. I missed so many buses, I’d see them coming up the road and I’d leave the bus stop and start walking home again, detesting myself. This quickly turned into a fear of going outside – agoraphobia. It wasn’t as bad as what some people deal with. I didn’t go weeks without leaving the house or anything, I was still stable enough to be able to force myself most of the time. The medication I was prescribed – beta-blockers – didn’t work so I sought counselling. I didn’t like the first counsellor I had, she treated me like a child – too young to have real problems. But my next counsellor – the one I ended up having on and off for years – was great. Although I was unaware of it at the time, I received cognitive behavioural therapy. It’s a fantastic mechanism of breaking down feelings of anxiety into tangible ideas or root beliefs that you have about yourself. When you can understand the beliefs that are causing the anxiety, you can start to help yourself. For me the beliefs were pretty dark. I learned that I thought everyone was staring at me because I was weird; and if I was weird then no one would want to be my friend or be around me; if this was the case I would be alone; if I was weird and alone, I would be nothing; and if I was nothing, then I should no longer be alive. Learning this was both upsetting and enlightening. So where did I go from there? How did I go from caring so much what people thought, and feeling vaguely suicidal, to being confident and carefree?
Realising that the power that everyone had over me was their judgement, I started to use it myself. What made everyone around me so perfect that they were in a place to judge me? What did everyone else have that I didn’t? “What makes you so great?” was my mantra. This was so liberating for me! Whilst judging other people isn’t necessarily a healthy way to navigate your life, for me it was a necessary coping mechanism to free myself from the anxiety. I told my counsellor about this new attitude I had adopted, feeling a bit guilty for thinking in this way but she said to me: “Does it work?” I said that it did and she said I shouldn’t feel guilty, then. It was a dramatic hold that other people had over me, I needed to do something dramatic to turn the situation around. This complete flip in perspective was the catalyst to my healing from anxiety and becoming confident. The way I walked down the street started to change, the way I walked on a bus started to change. My demeanour started to change. When people stared at me at school because of what I was wearing, I’d meet their gaze, feeling powerful finally. If you act like you don’t care, if you act like you’re confident, other people will believe it and then the power is back in your hands. You do not have to apologise for taking up space in this world. You do not have to shrink yourself to make room for others who you deem more important. You do not need to be submissive. I started to believe all this. Over the years, I needed this coping mechanism less and less and started to more closely resemble the sweet-natured child I used to be, before all the suffering. Except this time I was not submissive, I was confident. This time I was not a victim, I was in control. Confidence doesn’t need to be cold. Kindness doesn’t need to be submissive. There was a time when I disliked the judgemental and bitter attitude I used to have but I now see that it was part of my journey. When the pendulum is so off-centre it needs to swing as far back the other way before it can finally return to balance. That’s what happened to my mental state. But that’s not to say that I’m perfect now – if I was, I wouldn’t have a blog about self-esteem!
I wanted to write this to show people that anxiety doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Things can and will improve if you seek help. I’m aware that I’m lucky in that anxiety was a relatively temporary thing for me – I got CBT and I don’t suffer from it anymore. For some people, it’s more ingrained into their psyche and they have an increased susceptibility to it – like I do with depression. But that doesn’t mean you can’t alleviate your suffering in some way. Don’t settle for less with your mental health, you deserve better.
Thanks so much for reading!
– SMUT ❤ xxxx