Sometimes we need to hear words of comfort and the words of the title of this blog have been the most welcomed words said to me several weeks ago. We are conditioned, us Brits, to soldier on and get on with things no matter what we are faced with but actually, that doesn’t always help us and can in fact delay the healing process.
As I’ve said before, I truly believe that positivity and positive mindset is key in any situation where you are suffering. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our low days, it doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to feel totally and utterly annoyed (replace this word with any expletive you wish) at the situation we are in, we have to go through all of those emotions and days to learn how to manage them and keep moving forward. Everyone of us have pivotal moments in our lives that send us on a different course and change our outlooks on life. We can live and learn from these moments, never regret them because they form who we are as a person and we should never apologise for that. Every challenging experience gives us invisible scars, they make us stronger and more empathetic and that can only be a good thing in my eyes.
When I was younger I spent endless hours at White Oaks swimming pool doing swimming lessons and eventually a lifeguarding course. Dad would always be sat up in the viewing area with his coffee and the paper and on the journey home would laugh at how he’d enjoyed watching me “save” my partner. Coiling up the rope and shouting, “Don’t panic! I’m here to help, keep your head above the water and your arms under the water.” Don’t panic. Two little words that hold so much relevance in my life now.
It’s seven years ago this week that I started jury service at The Old Bailey in London. It’s an experience that I will never forget as it changed me as a person forever. I was very excited to be doing my duty and naively looked forward to taking part in any trial as I loved crime dramas and solving mysetries. But it turns out that real life is much harder hitting and scarier than anything I could have imagined. I ended up sitting on a twelve week murder trial that involved visiting a crime scene and seeing and hearing evidence that beggared belief. During the trial your feelings, thoughts and emotions are suppressed as you can’t discuss the case, even with your fellow jurors as it has to be kept until deliberation. I was aware I was feeling nervous and whilst out in a club for a friends birthday during the twelve weeks, I had my first panic attack even though I didn’t know that was what it was at the time.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after the trial that the real trauma of it took hold and I could no longer hide how it was effecting me. ‘Post traumatic stress’ was later what the doctor said I had, something that our school counsellor had warned me about before I even started jury service and laughed at at the time, I so was not the type of person to be affected by something like this! I had been feeling quite edgy and not sleeping for more than an hour or so a night. When I did sleep I was having the most haunting nightmares which in turn made me scared to go to sleep. I was dreading leaving the house and being in large crowds of people, I didn’t want to be around anyone who was drunk and I personally didn’t want to drink because as soon as I took a sip I felt like I was no longer in control of any situation that could possibly arise. I didn’t want to go anywhere alone or go anywhere where I wasn’t driving because then I couldn’t get away if I needed to, even going to work became a daily battle.
At this point I was in fight mode; I was still trying to go out and do things which ended in full blown panic attacks. I would already be teetering on the edge as I waited to leave, monitoring my breathing, convincing myself that everything would be fine, checking my bag for the essentials – Bachs Rescue Remedy, polo mints and my inhaler! Friends would comment on how they could see the colour draining from my face and notice a change in my breathing. Again, it’s such a difficult feeling to describe, something tiny would set me off like a plate being dropped in a cafe or someone shouting at their dog and that would be it, random, unjustified thoughts – there’s going to be a fight, they are carrying a weapon, they are going to hurt me or my family and friends. I would be planning my exit route as soon as I got anywhere and for the majority of any outing would be willing the end to come so I could get home to my ‘safe place.’
I felt so ridiculous and weak but mainly so angry at the situation. Before jury service I loved going out, dancing, having a drink and socialising. The dark, crowds and noise never bothered me. The final straw was a family holiday to Turkey, I was petrified to leave my hotel room every morning, I was so aware that I was far away from my normal ‘safe place’ so I made my hotel room my surrogate. I knew that I was withdrawing from my family and the fun activities, I wasn’t being myself but it was taking all I had to even be outside my room. The flight home was one of the worst experiences I have ever had, the anxiety was unbearable and uncontrollable. I was so hot that we got a cup of ice at the airport and I just had to get the air hostesses to keep filling it up so I could rub it on my pressure points the whole way home. That was the flight that meant flying now became a real issue for me – I was not only trapped in my own body but trapped physically somewhere that I couldn’t get away from, couldn’t control.
After that holiday I went to see my GP who prescribed me some sleeping tablets, initially they didn’t work but finally I tried some that worked for me but although I was getting sleep I wasn’t in control and couldn’t wake up from the nightmares I was having, on several occasions I woke up with bruises on my arms where I had obviously been either trying to wake myself up or being totally involved in the nightmare. This is when the doctor suggested I might see a counsellor and try some CBT therapy.
For some people admitting to seeing a counsellor is embarrassing, a sign of weakness but I never saw it like that, I am a true advocate for doing whatever you need to do to help yourself. I was blessed with the fact that the counsellor I saw was simply amazing. Kind, calm, understanding, challenging and brilliant at helping me find my way through the maze I was stuck in. CBT therapy (cognitive behaviour therapy) helps people to understand the thoughts and feelings that influence their learnt behaviours. It helps you learn to identify and change thought patterns that have a negative impact on your life.
We spent weeks going back and discussing parts of the trial that had stuck with me and effected me the most. I am a very imaginative person so having been to the murder scene, being privy to photos, CCTV footage, recorded phone calls and holding evidence in my hands, I therefore had all the makings of that night going round and round in my head. It had opened my eyes to things that I had never considered before, it made me question every youth I walked past in the street and whether they were carrying a knife or not. The worst part was making me question my own values – having going through the process, what would I now do if I was ever in a situation where someone required my help? Could I face being back in a court room as a witness? Would I be brave enough to help or would I now turn my back rather than getting involved?
It took me years to be able to manage my anxiety and panic attacks and they are something that I now accept I will always be part of my life and who I am. Wherever I go now, I make my safe place – a place I know I can get back to and feel better. I can now take the majority of flights without needing to take diazepam to get me sorted and I am happy, most of the time, to be in busier places at night. But that’s only because I talked about what I was going through. Anxiety is another hidden illness that is a taboo subject. It’s scary, it’s debilitating and it totally alters who you are as a person. Again, having friends and family around who didn’t question how I was and learnt about it with me was my saviour. I still to this day make sure I have my little anxiety pack with me wherever I go – I asked my counsellor why polos had such a calming effect on me and she said that most people who experience panic attacks need something sensory to take their minds of the here and now. So by sucking on a polo my brain is taken away from other thoughts to focus on the taste and the smell of the mint – bizarre I know but it worked/works for me!
I have learnt that it’s fine to switch on flight mode. You have to do what you have to do to make sure you survive, forcing yourself to face things sometimes isn’t what’s needed. We have to be kind to ourselves and learn that we can be our priority, that’s okay, we have to come first sometimes. I know I love a quote and a song lyric – (friends will remind me of a flight I took that was delayed and I had to stay awake but diazepam kicked in, apparently I was asking anyone and everyone to, “give me a word and I’ll tell you a song!” – they’ll omit the part that I was actually pretty damn good at it!) but in the words of Kelly Clarkson, I do believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It never feels like it at the time and you probably only want to hear the words when you are ready to say them because someone else saying it you at the wrong time can result in you wanting to punch them in the face!
I never in a million years thought I would ever be able to move out of home, move and live abroad, travel the world but I have. At the moment it feels like all of that progress has been ripped away from me as I feel like the anxiety has crept sneakily back in but for different reasons. But you know what, it’s okay to not be okay for now, I can live with that because I know that over time (please not years again!) things will improve. Having had a ‘hidden illness’ in anxiety before and learning to live with it has given me the encouragement to know I have the strength to conquer CFS and alopecia this time.
My main point for this blog is that you should never apologise for who you are and how you’re dealing with something. As long as you are doing all that you can to help yourself then there’s no problem. We are often told to be kind to others but it’s so easy to forget that we need to be kind to ourselves. There’s no right or wrong way to go about things – one of my lovely ladies helped me by giving me various Bachs remedies to drink in water depending on how I was feeling from week to week when I was in the depth of my anxiety; some may think it’s all rubbish but I found it helped me so what does it matter what others think?
It’s the year for understanding remember, everyone is fighting their own little battle but we will all come out the other side because life, as they say in that terribly annoying quote on every single talent or reality show – “is a journey, a real rollercoaster!”