Anxiety is something I’ve kept hidden from my writing for a very long time. I’ve been afraid of judgement and nervous that writing about some of my mental health issues would lead to people treating me differently. I was afraid of appearing like a nut job and so I’ve been keeping a significant part of my life a secret.
After briefly mentioning my battles with anxiety on my About Me page and receiving such an overwhelmingly positive response, I decided to write about my struggles in more detail. This is a hugely personal post for me and my hope is that fellow anxiety sufferers will be able to relate to my story, as well as receive reassurance and hope that things can get better. My story has a happy ending, after all.
I was 16 years old when I had my first panic attack.
“Oh my god. I… I think there’s something seriously wrong with me…”
I sat by the side of the road with a friend, my head in my hands, gulping down air and gasping as if I were drowning.
“Help me. Something’s wrong. I… I feel so sick. I’m so scared.”
As sweat dripped from my forehead into my eyes, I began to contemplate my impending doom. I was shivering and trembling violently. Waves of nausea were washing over me. I couldn’t breathe, I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my lungs as I hyperventilated frantically. I had chest pains, shooting pains up and down my left arm. I had pins and needles throughout my entire body, mostly focused in my eyeballs. My vision was blurry. I felt hot and cold and dizzy.
Right then, I knew I was going to die. Was it a heart attack? A stroke? A brain hemorrhage? An aneurism?
What the hell was wrong with me?
I, obviously, wasn’t dying, but I had just experienced my first panic attack — an event that changed my life forever.
I remember running home to my parents, bursting into tears, grabbing at them, telling them over and over how much I loved them and then collapsing on the floor and waiting to die.
I never really overcame that panic attack, or at least not for a long time. I eventually calmed down, of course, and was able to function but I didn’t truly feel right. I became psychosomatic, wrapped up in my terror, consumed by the fear that I’d have another panic attack — it was all I could ever think about.
For the next seven or so years, there wasn’t a single day where I didn’t feel unwell.
My obsession with my health and how I was feeling escalated until I was so preoccupied with every ache and pain and twinge that I couldn’t remember what it used to feel like to be me. I persistently felt light-headed, dizzy and nauseated — every single day for seven years. I was convinced that it was because there was something seriously wrong with me.
My mum bought a medical dictionary at some point and discovering it was one of the worst things to have happened to my anxiety, because every single disease I read about matched my symptoms entirely.
I started going to the doctor on a near-weekly basis, 100% convinced that I had a terminal illness. I had blood tests for anaemia, diabetes, overactive and underactive thyroid issues. I thought that I had a stomach ulcer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, an aneurism in my stomach, IBS, arthritis, leukemia, a tapeworm, angina, mad cow disease, scarlet fever, liver disease… it goes on…
It sounds ridiculous now, but to genuinely 100% believe that you have a disease and that you only have weeks to live, only to be told you don’t and have your symptoms disappear overnight is exhausting, traumatising, frustrating and demoralising.
I was obsessed with trying to find out what was wrong with me.
By this stage, my life was already a mess but it was soon about to spiral out of control.
At age 18, I was having debilitating panic attacks multiple times a day, every single day. I became so frightened I’d have one in public that I stopped going outside. This then developed into agoraphobia and social anxiety, with me too afraid to step outside of my room. I remember living in halls at University and hiding in my room until every one of my flatmates left the kitchen so that I could make my dinner and not have to interact with anyone. I was worried I’d have a panic attack in front of my friends and they’d think I was insane. I stopped going to lectures, not bothering to try and catch up on what I’d missed.
Over the space of a year, I lost my boyfriend, my friends and my job. I grew distant from my family as they struggled to understand what I was going through and watched my grades drop from an average of 95% to 40%.
I had well and truly lost control of my life.
I then attempted to re-gain control by altering one of the few things that was still within my power to change.
That was how I developed an eating disorder.
I didn’t stop eating because I wanted to be thin — I already was thin and was 100% happy with how my body looked, I always have been. It’s hard to explain but I stopped eating so that I’d have one tiny aspect of my life that I was in control of.
You see, I wanted to eat but there was a mental barrier preventing me from doing so.
I wanted to eat more than anything in the world but every time I put food in my mouth, I’d begin gagging and retching until I spat it out. No matter what I tried I couldn’t physically swallow food. And I tried everything.
Over the space of a year, I lived on nothing but apples and pears, weighing under 40kg at my lowest point. I would make protein shakes and buy vitamin tonics to try and get vital nutrients but when it came to actual food I had a complete mental block.
I could not physically swallow anything but fruit.
I turned my life around when I ruined my sister’s birthday.
We celebrated the day at her favourite restaurant in town. As soon as I sat down, I felt the familiar nerves take hold of my body. I ordered just a bowl of fries so I wouldn’t cause a fuss — so that I would have something to pick at. They arrived and I put one in my mouth, immediately retching loudly and violently until I had to spit it out on the plate. I tried again and again, tears streaming down my face until I had to give up. I was so hungry but the sight of food on the table turned my stomach until I could no longer sit with my family and had to go outside.
“Thanks for ruining my birthday”, my sister mumbled as we walked to the car.
During the drive home my parents yelled and cried, telling me that I needed to make a change, that I needed to get control of my life and soon. If I didn’t, they were going to take me to a doctor.
I decided to make a change.
Conquering my anxiety was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Throughout my multi-year battle with anxiety I didn’t see a doctor or a therapist about it and I didn’t take any medication. At the time, I was scared. With a personality that’s extremely prone to addiction I didn’t want to end up taking pills for my anxiety — I knew I’d never stop taking them. I didn’t want to see a doctor or a therapist because I didn’t want to admit that anything was wrong with me. These may have been foolish decisions to make but I’m so proud and so glad that I managed to conquer my anxiety either way.
I started with food.
I bought a diary and each day recorded exactly what I ate, making sure that every single day I increased the amount I ate.
Day one: an apple and a french fry.
Day two: an apple and two french fries.
Day three: an apple and three french fries.
Baby steps, right?
As I started to build a healthy relationship with food, I began to focus on other areas of my life. I forced myself to go outside once a week, even if it was just to walk around the block. I made myself occasionally say yes to invitations when they came my way, which was, by this point, admittedly rare. I deliberately chose to go to a college where I knew not a single person so that I could start afresh — where nobody would know who I was. I threw away the medical dictionary and learned not to Google every ache and pain. I practiced meditation, breathing exercises and coping mechanisms to talk myself down when I felt a panic attack coming on. Once a month, I forced myself to do something that petrified me so that I could prove that stepping outside wouldn’t cause me to die.
I can’t begin to describe just how hard conquering anxiety was, but it’s turned me into an incredibly strong person. Knowing that I was able to completely turn my life around — that ten years ago I wasn’t able even step outside of my room and now I’m travelling the world, and have been happily doing so for nearly three years, blows my mind.
It shows me that I can do anything I set my mind to.
I was always meant to travel the world with my boyfriend. I’d spent years and years saving money, planning routes, itineraries and activities and couldn’t wait to start this new chapter of my life.
And then we broke up and I cancelled my trip.
I couldn’t travel alone.
I had no life experience and I still had panic attacks on a monthly basis. I still had a somewhat challenging relationship with food and wasn’t really sure how to make friends anymore. I believed I didn’t have any of the skills required to be a successful traveller. When you add in the fact that many of my friends seemed to think I was making a bad decision and took great delight in telling me I was going to die — well, I just didn’t think I was cut out for travel.
What would I do if I experienced an enormous panic attack abroad? What would happen if I freaked out while in an unfamiliar country where I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak the language? What if I couldn’t find any food I liked and ended up not eating for days — would that cause me to relapse? What if I relapsed and wouldn’t be able to function enough to get back home?
After much soul searching, I decided to find out.
Ultimately, travel has helped my anxiety.
My average of one panic attack a month soon dropped to something like five panic attacks over the 30-odd months I’ve been travelling.
I think having complete control of my situation has been the main reason why I’m now mostly anxiety-free. I can go where I want when I want and with who I want. As a freelancer, I can work as much as I feel able to, or spend the day in bed because I feel overwhelmed. I can spend time with the people I like, the people who calm me down and make me happy. Having control over every single aspect of my life has been so healing for me.
In addition, I have been incredibly fortunate to have met a guy who, despite having never seen anyone have a panic attack before meeting me, is so brilliantly supportive and understanding. Dave will give me cuddles or give me space, will allow me to ramble on for three hours about how I feel as I try to calm myself down and will allow me to go off for stints of solo travel when I need to be alone. And, of course, I can’t not mention my family, who have been amazing in helping me break free from the shackles of anxiety, as well as being only too happy to Skype with me at 3am to calm me down when I’m freaking out.
I guess, then, what I’m trying to say is that travel and a supportive network of family and friends has helped my mental health in more ways than I can count. It’s been years since I last diagnosed myself with a terminal illness and I can’t remember the last time I freaked out at the food on my plate. Most of my panic attacks these days have been brought on by drinking too much alcohol, so I’ve now cut that out of my life.
I’ve thought long and hard about what I want the message of this post to be. Mental health issues, such as anxiety, are rarely spoken about publicly and I’m fairly certain that most people who have read my site up until now had very little idea of the battles I’ve faced. I’ve always given the impression that I simply decided to travel, bought a one-way ticket and happily hopped on a plane to start my new life.
To those of you who suffer from anxiety, I want to say that life can get better. That it’s possible to completely turn your life around and not have your every waking thought revolve around panic and worry.
And to those of you who struggle with anxiety and are thinking about travelling, I want to say that you should give it a go. I can’t tell you the amount of times I nearly cancelled my trip because I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it — I spent my last night in England hysterical because I thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life. Travel has healed and helped me in so many ways, so don’t let your fear of the unknown prevent you from trying it, too.
At age 18, I had lost control of my life.
But at age 23, I grabbed life by the goddamn balls, bought a one way ticket out of England and fulfilled a dream.
I used to be a girl who was simply existing — who couldn’t eat more than an apple a day, who couldn’t step outside her door — but I’ve now done more amazing things than I ever thought possible. I’ve visited 45 countries across five continents. I’ve walked on the Great Wall of China and explored the ruins of Angkor Wat, camped under the stars in the Sahara Desert and hiked across a glacier in New Zealand. I’ve eaten duck tongue in Taiwan, lizard in Vietnam, kangaroo in Australia, brains in Mexico and cockroaches in Laos. I learned to surf in Bali, rode a camel in Morocco, flew in a hot air balloon over Slovenia and sailed a yacht around the coast of Turkey.
I’ve turned my life around and I’ve never been happier.