Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much, But some people are not going to be able to do that. - Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig
Last year, I started to suffer from anxiety. And I'll be totally honest with you about this. It bloody shit me right up.
The only reason I'm telling you about this is because I've just read a short but magnificent book called Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, which is all about his experiences with the aforementioned bastard blighter. I used to think the whole idea of coming out of the mental health closet was an embarrassing and self-congratulatory thing where everyone gave each other pitying strokes on the arm - partly because I didn't think it was something I might have to ever consider doing. But Matt Haig's book has made me see things differently.
It made me realise that talking about mental health is a bit like refusing to call Voldemort You-Know-Who. Suddenly something absolutely pant-wettingly terrifying becomes normal and everyday and unremarkable. Because probably the most helpful thing when you become a walking shit show of torture, doubt, terror and pain, is finding out that you have never been and never will be the only person on the earth who feels like this.
If I told you why I think my anxiety came about it would be so intimate and personal it would be like forcing you to hold my boob in your hand whilst I make direct eye contact with you for ten seconds without speaking. But the main thing is, I've always been outgoing, optimistic and un-embarrassed by things, with a chin that's taken so many things it's basically got iron reinforcements. The fact that my mental health might one day go south was never even a consideration for me.
So the first time that I had a panic attack, other than the fact I knew that obviously I was definitely dying, I had a strange out of body experience, where some other detached and unscathed self said, 'Really? You're having a panic attack? But this sort of thing never happens to someone like you! You're joking around yeah? Oh. No. You're actually hyperventilating. Sorry.'
And then I started to wonder why this didn't happen to me at other times in my life, which were also pretty high on the trauma richter scale. Like when I worked in retail, or I had a gigantic needle stuck in my hip bone, or when my boyfriend dumped me on our anniversary, or when I was forced to read out a poem about my invisible pet gerbil in the year two leavers assembly. Why now, just because one of my mates has sent me a Whatsapp message asking what I've been up to?
But you don't realise what a luxury just being is until you can't do it any more. Do you remember that time when you could just sit and eat a sandwich and look out of the window and possibly walk across the room and pick up an old newspaper and absentmindedly turn the pages? In hindsight, weren't those times the absolute nuts? Because there's absolutely no chance you'll be doing that any more sunshine.
Naturally, after several weeks of thinking that I might fall out of my own stomach, I quickly accepted the fact that I was never ever going to be normal again and that was the end of the matter. I thought to myself that it was a bit of a shame because I'd worked quite hard these past twenty-four years to learn about things and talk to people and build relationships and have interests and passions, and now I was going to have to forget about all of that and either be sectioned or at the very least never leave my house ever again. I looked at around at everyone else and wondered how it was that they managed to be normal, even though it was only the other day that I myself had too been normal.
I always thought that if I was ever going to gain back the person I used to be, it would happen in tiny little increments - but one day she was suddenly just there. And although the ever-present fear that these invisible world-tilting sicknesses might come back lurks there all the time, at least now I know that not only was my small but joyful life salvageable, other people salvage theirs all the time too, and that's like having someone give you a box full of courage with a bow on it.
Through all of this, one of the best things I've learnt is a rule that I think I always knew but was scared to live by, until Matt Haig wrote it down and put it in a book - work out the things that make you feel happy and do them as much as you can. For me, I like a strange place called the theatre where you sit in the dark with people you don't know. I like conversations with people I don't see as often as I'd like to. I like swimming. I like reading on the train. And I really really like getting lost in words.
Likewise, another very important rule is if you know there are things that make you unhappy, definitely avoid doing them. For example, I don't really like sleeping in tents. I don't like going for drinks with guys I don't really fancy. And I really don't like going to Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.
Who would have thought that through this vortex of seasickness and jeopardy, you could actually learn more about who you are and what you want to do and be, and all that bottomless sadness and worry and pain would make all those things become so much richer? If anyone had said that to me at the time, I'd have told them to take a long hard look at themselves. But it's true - it does. Like I told you, it was absolutely wank and I'm terrified of going through it again. But as Matt Haig says, 'if it's the price of feeling life, it's always a price worth paying.'