I can’t remember the first time that I had a panic attack, I was too young. In my very first year of primary school, at the age of 5, I saw a child be sick during a lesson, another wet themselves in an assembly. These things bothered me tremendously and led to some obsessive behaviour, like making sure I went to the toilet before assembly every day. Whenever I saw someone be sick I would panic, and if I was sick myself I would be very frightened. My parents did not understand why I would get so worked up about it; they got annoyed at me and thought I was just having a tantrum. When I first started secondary school at the age of 11 things were very bad for the first several months. In some lessons I was so anxious and my hands tensed so tightly that I could barely hold a pen to write. I was confused and I was scared, I couldn’t understand what was wrong.
Some days I had no appetite, every time I ate I felt sick, my stomach was constantly churning, it felt like I had a lump in my throat all of the time. I asked other children at school if they’d ever felt similar, they hadn’t. I constantly asked my parents what was wrong, they said it was just nerves and that if they took me to the doctor he would say that it’s all in my head and send me off to get tested. Looking back, it’s obvious to me now that it was anxiety, but if I had been seen by a doctor and diagnosed then, perhaps I could have got help and things wouldn’t have been so bad years later.
But my parents couldn’t recognize the signs of anxiety. Eventually the daily panic subsided, but the panic attacks still happened occasionally. At the same time, throughout secondary school I became more uncomfortable socially. Lots of children could be very cruel and teased often; I became very sensitive and started to feel like the one at school whom nobody liked. This feeling continued into college, I felt more and more alienated from others, embarrassed about my own talents and interests.
It was towards the end of my first year of university, in 2011, that I developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I felt constantly anxious; I struggled to go out at times. After a couple of months of this I decided that I had to do something about it, but I didn’t know what I could do other than ask a doctor for medication. I was started on some tablets but my doctor was concerned also with my daily tension headaches so tried to gear the medication towards helping that. The first medication I tried didn’t work so I had to keep switching. I’m currently on the fourth medication attempt, Pregabalin. I also was referred for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy through the counseling service at my university.
I was surprised by how helpful everyone at the university was. I also spoke to my personal tutor about my problems and she said that if things were too difficult I would be able to take time off or apply for mitigating circumstances for marked work. Part of me thought that would be best for me, to take some time out. However, I was too ashamed to take that option, I thought that it was unfair on people who might struggle more than me with physical problems that I would get special treatment. My course of CBT was supposed to be 6 sessions, every other week. But I felt that in that time, I’d barely scratched the surface. I still didn’t understand how much work I was supposed to put in. I suppose I was holding on to the hope of a miracle cure or something that help quickly, rather than things taking a long time.
After finishing CBT things still seemed very bad so I had to ask for another 6 sessions. After that, things still hadn’t improved much, because I still didn’t understand what was expected of me. Things hadn’t really been made clear. Many of the appointments consisted of being given lots of print outs of help sheets, and although I read them I just didn’t know how to apply them. My attendance at university suffered a lot and I lost confidence with my work. I felt more socially anxious, refusing more and more invitations and keeping quieter in group conversations.
Luckily I had a boyfriend to take care of me, and I don’t know what I would have done without him. Last November – 2013 – I saw my doctor and said that I wasn’t sure how much the pregabalin was helping, I’d been taking it for a year but still felt anxious a lot. She suggested that I try stopping it, I halved the dose for a week and then stopped. The next week was one of the worst of my life, unfortunately it coincided with visiting my parents. So not only was I separated from my boyfriend, but also my parents still lacked understanding and didn’t know how to help me. After a week I had to go back to the doctors and ask to be put back on the medication.
The anxiety was completely permanent, I couldn’t sleep well, couldn’t calm down, couldn’t eat. I started another course of CBT, and tried to promise myself that I would try harder this time around. Things started well but when I got into exposure therapy, I found it so hard to push myself. I was discharged from CBT a few weeks ago. I had made a slight improvement but now I know what I need to do to take care of my own recovery. Most importantly I need to grasp that it will take time, it will be slow, and it has to be gradual. I have to find ways to increase my motivation and get things into gear. I’m going to try and implement the techniques that CBT has taught me, and try out advice that I have received from others. I need to start believing in myself more and start enjoying my life without anxiety.
Dev is a Masters student living in London. She writes blogs on the Anxiety United website (www.anxietyunited.co.uk) and is on Twitter @Dev_AU