I will never forget my first panic attack. One morning, aged ten, I was being particularly difficult and simply refused to ‘ruin’ my Weetabix with milk. My mum brought out the big guns, and said: “If you don’t drink milk now, you’ll get osteoporosis. That’s a nasty disease that breaks all your bones.”
Now sobbing, Mum desperately tried to calm me down – “don’t worry darling, that won’t be until you’re really old” – but the damage was done. We settled for drinking calcium orange juice and didn’t think anything more of it. I was just a fussy child having a tantrum.
Years later, I read about a young boy who had died of meningitis. I felt my heart thump as my eyes glossed over the symptoms. Light sensitivity. Rashes. Headaches. In the following weeks, I was suddenly and constantly complaining to my teachers and parents that I had a headache and had to go to the doctor. I began inspecting every bruise, bump and itch, convinced I had somehow caught the disease through the newspaper. Again, my parents never thought anything of it. I was just a silly teenager overreacting.
As I grew older and more aware of my body – and the things that could go wrong with it – these intrusive thoughts blossomed into something much deeper. I was going to the opticians twice a week, convinced I was going blind and not believing anyone who assured me otherwise. I was frequenting the doctors, panicking about every funny-looking mole or my throat closing up. Friends would get irritated at constantly having to answer my questions: “do you have spots on your nipples? Is it breast cancer?” Google would tell me that I’ve got gangrene and my entire leg would fall off, just because my toenail hurt (although in most cases my brain had already reached that conclusion by itself).
“Every update, every new confirmed case, feels like a punch to the stomach.”
When I finally visited a GP and was handed a health anxiety diagnosis leaflet, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. I wasn’t crazy! Or I was, but it was justified. And although my diagnosis didn’t quash my neuroses, it was a step toward finally understanding that most of my ‘symptoms’ were actually in my head.
In the years since, my anxiety has fluctuated between non-existent and unconquerable. Hypochondria is on the OCD spectrum, so to contain your obsessive thoughts you have to accept where they come from and understand that you can’t take them as fact. This is easier said than done, and I would love to say that the anxiety has improved with time.
However, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, newspaper headlines have done nothing but warn of impending doom. Everyone is rightly worried to some extent – but for someone with my condition, it’s something that preoccupies your mind 24 hours a day.
Every update, every new confirmed case, feels like a punch to the stomach. I’ve reached the point where I have muted the word ‘coronavirus’ on my Twitter feed, unfollowed all news sources, and asked everyone I know not to mention it in an effort to stop myself from thinking about it. This isn’t a realistic solution, as you can’t control other people. I hear my colleagues joking about it, or someone I know comes back from holiday and they don’t seem worried. Someone on Twitter spells coronavirus wrong and you’re right back to square one.
So I have turned to preventative measures: I no longer take the tube, where the germs (or the thought of them) can be suffocating. Instead I spend an hour longer commuting on the bus, where at least I only have to share personal space with whoever sits next to me.
I don’t breathe when people walk past me, as if their aura can infect me. I’m scared to see my best friend, who works in a hospital – she says she comes across similar viruses every day, so how can I spend time with her now, without worrying what she may have picked up?
“I don’t want to be so anxious and I don’t want to overreact. This is mental illness: would you tell someone with depression to just stop being so down?”
This isn’t unique to coronavirus; I went through something similar with swine flu, and then ebola. But this time it seems more real – because everybody is talking about it, all the time. I can’t slip in the old “please don’t talk about coronavirus around me because it will cause me great discomfort” every time. It’s almost always received with judgement or “don’t be ridiculous,” which rings true to reactions I’ve received my whole life. What they don’t understand is that I don’t want to be so anxious and I don’t want to overreact. This is mental illness: would you tell someone with depression to just stop being so down?
It was only when I had a panic attack in the middle of London after accidentally glancing at an article about it at work that I realised: wow, I really should get help. I’ve considered finding a therapist before, but life gets in the way and it never seems like the right time. Mainly because I’m completely and utterly afraid to not be so afraid of coronavirus or any illness. Because if I’m not conscious of the symptoms, or how to protect myself, then couldn’t I miss something potentially life-threatening? If I get better, will I get worse?
If you’re reading this and think it sounds like you, then please know that you are not alone. If you’re reading this and perhaps finally understanding this is a real illness that can’t be brushed off with a ‘just don’t worry about it,’ then my work here is done. If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself ‘get over it’? Well, then you’re lucky – and most probably right.
There’s no use crying over spilt milk (on your Weetabix), after all.
Phoebe Brown is a TV PR manager living in London. Follow her on Twitter at @PhoebeBrown37.
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