SMALL STEPS ARE MASSIVE

Agoraphobia is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood anxiety disorders; with many people assuming it simply means ‘being afraid to leave the house’. However, agoraphobia can be better defined as an intense fear of being in a situation where an escape is not easy. For me, this has included using cash machines because of the length of time you’re stuck waiting for your money and can’t leave; it has included being in elevators, cars, trains, cinemas, using pedestrian crossings; not being able to stand still because of the need to keep running; being unable to cross the road because there’s too much traffic, and a million other small and complex things that would take me way too long to list; but equally impacted my life beyond belief. The result of all of these things was what left me housebound. It wasn’t that the outside world was a scary place to me, it was that my disorder had gradually dictated all the things that I couldn’t escape from and the only option I had left was to remain inside. Leaving the house for the first time isn’t the end of agoraphobia, it’s merely the start, the first step; because agoraphobia is all of those things. Agoraphobia is being too scared to cross a bridge and it’s feeling like you’re going to faint when you’re waiting in a queue. Agoraphobia is being feeling suffocated when crammed in a small room and feeling lost and vulnerable in an open space. Agoraphobia is most definitely not simply ‘being afraid to leave the house’. But by adding together each small step, things can and do get better. Because small steps are massive.

 

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‘No, nothing was wrong with my food. Something was wrong with me.’

Sometimes when I feel as though everything’s getting too much, I like to remind myself of how far I’ve come in my past.

I mean the big achievements. The big things that I’ve overcome already in my life.

The things that at the time felt impossible.The things that I was sure would kill me, but that I eventually wiped out myself before they had the chance.

Anxiety feels impossible to manage all the bloody time and sometimes (a lot of the time!) any hope I have to overcome it drains from me so quickly. I just want to give up and admit that this is it, this is my life.

But strangely, I’m in a unique position – and advantaged in some ways – because I’ve overcome another anxiety disorder already in my life.

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In the summer of 2009, I was seventeen and quickly becoming incredibly ill.

Out of absolutely nowhere, I’d developed a fear of choking.

By the time I turned eighteen four months later, I was just a skeleton of the person I was before. I dropped a couple of stone in weight and developed an eating disorder because my anxiety prevented me from eating anything solid.

I was so scared every single day to eat anything. I remember a friend of mine trying to force a biscuit down me because I hadn’t eaten anything for a long time, but I couldn’t do it.

Everywhere I went I got comments on how ill I looked making me feel even more anxious and self-conscious about my problem. Even from waiters in restaurants that would take away my food and say something along the lines of ‘was something wrong with your food?’ or ‘maybe a children’s portion for you next time, hey!’.

Everyone and everything was drawing attention to it.

My brain stopped functioning and it affected my ability to drive my car safely. I’d completely forget how to break and my reactions were slow.

My BMI was 15.2 and at 5 ft 7 I looked like I could fall over at any moment. My skin looked pale and my cheek bones were harsh. My body looked like that of a young girl, with every curve disappearing.

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I really thought this was my life forever. I thought I was destined to live in fear and bad health until it inevitably sometime soon would take my life.

But then, I packed up my bags in the February and moved to Canada…

I didn’t really know why I was going or what to expect. I went to live with family that I didn’t even know. But it was the best thing I ever did.

From almost the minute I landed in Toronto my big Greek family were trying to fatten me up.

I left Canada six months later after having gained two and a half stone, and I’ve never felt that intense anxiety about eating again.

It’s still there under the surface. When I order food in restaurants I analyse the menu for what I consider a threat, and my stomach has never returned to the size it once was. I eat my food incredibly slowly now, and I still get self-conscious in restaurants when I don’t finish my food; placing a napkin over my plate to avoid the comments.

But other than that, I’m fine. I eat a normal amount every day and have no real issues with food or anxiety relating to it.

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I overcame it. I overcame something that seemed impossible and was taking my life away from me.

And that’s amazing!

Occasionally it’s nice to remind myself of that and keep moving forward. It’s good to recognise that my agoraphobia really doesn’t stand a chance against me.

I’m here!

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I know yesterday I said I was confident that I was going to make it into work today, but this morning I definitely was not. Confident is probably the most fitting antonym I could have used.

When I woke up I instantly felt dread, and when I left the house I said ‘see you a minute’ to my boyfriend.

But here I am. I’ve been here for forty minutes and I still don’t exactly feel comfortable, but I am here.

I made it.

Like a child

It’s so strange isn’t it, how anxiety can make you feel like a little girl again with the flick of a switch.

As most of you know, my mum has been with me this weekend. She came to visit on Friday and left just this morning.

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Just a random photo of mum, my brother and I – because I’m feeling the family love today.

It’s fair to say that I haven’t had an easy weekend whilst she’s been here. I’ve been in a constant state of nervousness that’s made me randomly panic throughout. I’ve probably had ten panic attacks in four days. I’ve not gone much further than the end of my street or really done anything. I’ve panicked inside and I’ve panicked outside.

It’s generally just been a bit shitty. Of course other than the fact that I’ve had my lovely mum with me.

So today, when it came to her leaving, I reverted back to being a child. I got scared and upset, and was hyperventilating in tears for the last half an hour of her being here, all whilst being tucked up in bed watching Beauty and the Beast trying to calm down.

She did offer to stay until my boyfriend gets home off holiday tonight, but it’s ridiculous. She had a train to catch and it’s not like I can now be scared of being without my mum – she lives four hours away and I’m a 23-year-old woman!

So she left, and four hours later I am still here and I am OK.

But it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’ll never be too old to need my mumma. She’s the best.

Panic x6

Yesterday was a stressful day for me. Me and my mum went for a walk (something which wouldn’t have been a trigger for me just two weeks ago), and yet now that’s all it is – one big, fat, annoying trigger – just to be outside.

From the first panic attack onwards, I was in a constant state of nervousness the whole day; a couple of seconds off losing my shit again.

All in all, I had around six panic attacks yesterday. Mostly outside, but then one again after I got home before bed.

Everything was a struggle. The easiest things were impossible.

I would be walking around managing it perfectly, or sitting down having an in-depth conversation; when it would just strike again too fast and too powerful for me to bring it back down.

But also something amazing happened so I have to hold onto that as well. I stayed out.

I was given the option to come home which would have inevitably reduced my nervous energy after the first panic attack, and again after the second (and so on), but instead, I chose to stay out, which is something I’ve never done before.

I’ve never before chosen to stay in a situation which causes me to panic. Yes, I may have walked away from certain areas (or skipped to be precise, leaving my mum walking half a mile behind me), but I did stay outside which was a trigger in itself.

So that’s cool, right?

What makes us scared of some things and not of others?

I’m confident. I share my experiences with you people. Everyone I know has access to my blog and my inner deepest thoughts. I grab opportunities with both hands. I’m writing a book without even contemplating if it might fail, I work and have meetings with new people every week and I’ve recently started an online PR internship from a magazine when I have all these other issues going on in my life.

So why am I scared to walk out of my front door? The most simple and least scary thing on that list.

What in our brains determines a threat and what determines safety?

Guest Post by Faisal Ali – My Mind Marathon

I’ve decided recently to feature some guests here on my blog to showcase some other people’s troubles with mental health. Here we have Faisal Ali who talks about his journey with OCD diagnosis & treatment. Unfortunately, since writing this introductory post in 2013, Faisal hasn’t continued with his blog, but you can follow him on twitter by clicking here

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C.D.O (2014) – By Lauren Hayley

My life has been a little bit like a seesaw fluctuating though happy times and sad times. The seesaw keeps going from one side to the other but doesn’t seem to have a good balance in between, which I guess is something that we all want and yearn for.

One of my saddest life events began 4 years ago at the tender age of 18. I had just finished college and had my birthday in France with some amazing friends of mine and I was really looking forward to going to university. To others I looked happy and seemed happy. However deep down I knew I was suffering but I was really confused because I had never felt anything as painful as this before. I was struggling with intrusive thoughts about harming myself and harming others and I was really frightened and worried.

Taking the first step and admitting to yourself you have a problem is hard. Anyone who has had a mental health issue will be able to vouch for this. One thing I did realise though was that in order to get better and possibly find a way past this was to take the first step and admit to myself I had a problem however hard it may be. I found it really difficult to accept this, as many people with OCD (what I have) will tell you the nature of the thoughts are against their personality and the person they truly are deep down.

I knew I had to make an appointment with my GP to try to find a breakthrough and to find a diagnosis. Plucking up the courage to do so can be very difficult due to the stigma that constantly seems to surround those who have any form of mental health issue. The stigma made me weary and I was aware that people can be very judgemental so for me sitting in the doctors preparing to talk about it for the first time made me feel very anxious, like I knew I didn’t want to be there but it was something that I had to do. Talking about it takes lots of courage and inner strength and that is something which I really felt I had.

The first time at the GP I don’t really feel like I got the point across as clearly and effectively as I wanted to mainly due to anxiety and the naivety of an 18-year-old boy. One of my life morals though is that if at first you don’t succeed, try again and keep trying. I went again and by this time the intrusive thoughts had been with me for about  3 weeks now and I still didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere or any closer to finding out why they were there. This time I really felt the doctor who I spoke to (different to previous one) listened and I felt comforted by the fact she was trying her best to help me. OCD can make a person feel like they are in a constant bubble, but they want that bubble to burst and be set free. By now this is how I was feeling.

The doctor referred me to my local CMHT (Community Mental Health Team) so I could see for myself what services I could use once an official diagnosis was put in place. It was here that I was analysed by another doctor and it was confirmed that I had OCD. I kind of felt a bit relieved to get a diagnosis as it was the first time since I started getting intrusive thoughts that I felt I wasn’t going insane.

It was at this point where I began to realise the seriousness of OCD and what it entails. Like most other people, I always thought OCD was something only associated with hand washing and germs. How wrong was I! The reality is that OCD just isn’t about germs or hand washing. There is so much more to it than that. There are many types of OCD including Pure O (Intrusive thoughts) Religious OCD, Hoarding and checking. The reality is that OCD is an anxiety disorder that can have an effect on a person’s daily life and make them think they are something they are not (own definition).

Once the diagnosis came through I was referred for CBT.

Those of you that have been through it before know that CBT can be one of the most emotionally draining processes that a person could ever wish to go through. I always see talking about your emotions as a good thing though because it shows a true representation of who the person really is and how they really feel.

The therapist I saw was called Denise and from that first session she made me feel very comfortable. I felt like I could talk to her freely about the depressing, despairing and agonising thoughts that were engulfing my mind on a daily basis knowing she wouldn’t judge. From the first sessions I told her about my thoughts and the nature of them because I knew in order for myself to receive the best help and treatment I had to be honest about how I felt at the time.

In total I was allowed 18 sessions and I really felt these sessions taught me a lot in terms of how to control my OCD and let it have as little control over me as possible. CBT for me was about finding ways and methods of me controlling my OCD rather than the other way round, and to a certain extent I think I managed to achieve that.

One of the most important techniques that Denise taught me was that I could lessen my anxiety whilst having a thought itself. I was told to trigger an intrusive thought. I was worried and anxious about that at the time as I had to think about it full on for 2-3 mins. Those 2 -3 mins seemed like a lifetime and at first I wanted to break the cycle and not think about the thought. However the more I thought about the thoughts in those 2-3 mins the more I realised they were not actually happening, and thoughts were all they were.

For me, this is how it is.

There are so many times that people with anxiety hear:

there’s nothing to be scared of

or

can’t you just keep doing it and eventually you won’t feel scared anymore?

And of course the ones saying these things are completely right: there is nothing to be scared of, and the more times I face my fears, the less I will fear them.

But unless you have an anxiety disorder yourself you have absolutely no idea how difficult it can be, and how little your rational thinking comes into play when panic strikes.

A panic attack is not the feeling of being nervous.

It’s not butterflies in your stomach and feeling a little bit sick – much like the average person before making a speech or going on a first date.

It’s so much more terrifying and crippling than that.

For me, this is how it is.

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At first I feel like the world is spinning, like you know those nights where you’ve had way too much to drink and you can’t focus; your head hits the pillow but everything keeps going round and round, making you feel unbelievably sick.

And then my heart starts beating like it’s trying to escape my chest. Over and over again, each beat harder and faster than the one before. And somehow my heart ends up in my head, beating its way through my skull as well.

It keeps going and going and going and everything is still spinning and spinning and spinning.

My mouth then goes dry to the point in which I can’t swallow. This is where I always lose it and feel an excruciating need to escape. My natural reflexes stop functioning and it feels as though I can’t breathe.

Feeling as though you can’t breathe isn’t one of those feelings you get used to. I know it’s a trick. I know I can breathe. But when you feel as though you can’t, it’s so difficult to ignore it and think rationally.

I know it can’t hurt me. I honestly do know that. But no matter how many times you have a panic attack, they all feel just as bad as the last, and they never become less scary.

The level of fear overcomes me so much that I feel like I’m floating. You know like in one of those films where someone dies and floats across the room to heaven – or wherever else they’re going.

My legs have just about as much feeling as a person with paralysis in that moment; I’m moving – or running – but I have no idea how. I can’t feel it.

All I can feel is the strongest urge I’ve ever felt, pulling me away from wherever I am. Wanting me to leave and not feel like I’m dying anymore.

Little steps are still steps

So today, I took some steps towards ridding myself of my anxiety (quite literally!).

I had a phone appointment with the doctor this morning, to which he told me I needed to go in and see him – useful, so I’m going to do that on Monday when my mum’s here to visit.

Yes, I still need my mum.

I’m really not looking forward to it. In fact I would rather do anything else. I don’t feel particually comfortable talking to doctors about my mental health anyway because there have been so many times that I’ve been pushed out of the door with no understanding whatsoever, and with another useless medication that does nothing.

My personal favourite quote from a doctor to this day still has to be ‘ everyone your age feels ups and downs sometimes so I wouldn’t worry‘… Just the type of reassuring statement one needs to hear whilst crying and shaking.

But hey, it needs to be done! Hopefully this time they’ll be able to come up with at least a slightly practical and beneficial plan of action.

As well as this, I also downloaded Google Fit to my phone. I keep saying I need to get out of the house and walk about to try and stop this agoraphobia from entirely taking away my freedom, but it’s hard to keep a track of it and monitor how far I’ve gone.

Anyway, Google Fit automatically sets itself to an initial goal of 6,000 steps per day so that is my new aim. I’ve just now got back from my 5,790 step walk so I’m happy with that for today. It’s nice to have something to work towards (and you have permission to give me a virtual slap if I don’t keep it up).

That’s about all for my update – as my posts about ‘me’ recently haven’t been all that positive I thought I should just let you guys know how I’m getting on!