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When I was 18, I struggled with anxiety so badly that I was having between two to six panic attacks a day. It left me, a usually independent young woman, completely unable to be left alone and displaced whenever I left the house. Unfortunately, for many people, this is incredibly common. Fortunately, we live in a world where destigmatising mental wellbeing is a huge priority, and I wanted to share the experiences I had during this period and some ways in which I was able to overcome this to try and help other people that may be going through the same thing.
The six months after my 18th birthday were some of the worst months of my life. Everything seemed to be going well; I was playing the lead in a short film that was heading to Cannes, I was at the final audition stages to play Annalise in Hollyoaks, and everything was going well. The director for the film found out I was auditioning for Hollyoaks and didn’t want me to continue—it was this or the film. It was the hardest decision of my career so far, but I decided to cancel Hollyoaks. The night of my 18th birthday, my mum found out and was so angry that she packed me in a car the next night and drove me all the way to Liverpool to complete my audition. The director of the film dropped me instantly and called Hollyoaks to say I was under contract and couldn’t take the part. In less than 24 hours I lost two of the biggest career opportunities I’ve ever had. One month after this, one of my closest friends committed suicide, leaving all of us confused, heartbroken and entirely lost.
In the span of two month’s my life felt like it was crumbling around me; I was trying to complete my A levels but I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. I felt so out of my body, like I was watching my life through a camera instead of actually experiencing it. I started to feel this awful sensation in my chest that would spread out across every part of me. I couldn’t breathe and I started to feel this icy panic before bursting into tears. I had never suffered from panic attacks before this, and the feeling was unbearable. I started to suffer from these whenever I left the house or whenever I knew I was going to be on my own. At one stage these were happening up to four times a day, and I felt physically exhausted. I felt like every nerve ending in my body was frazzled and I tried so hard to deal with this—breathing, counting down to ten, talking through why I was anxious to myself—but I never truly opened up to anyone about how I was feeling because I felt like it was a weakness.
It got to a stage where I felt like I would never feel like myself again. I had this deep-set sadness that never really left me, and I still feel this when I have moments to myself even today. I wake up in tears some days and never really understand why.
There would be occasions where I would run from my home and just keep running. I ran for three miles in the pouring rain one night without having a clue where I was (and for those who know me, three miles is saying something!). I was completely out of my body, and I called my drama teacher, Miss Wendy, who took me in for the night. I was spiraling out of control and I felt so disconnected from myself and the world around me.
This situation reached its climax when I found myself alone for a weekend—my mum was away and there was no one I could really call. I began to feel the panic come on and I tried so hard to fight it. I was tired of feeling like this and for the first time in my life, I considered the possibility of not being here anymore. The moment I thought this, a handbag that had been sitting on the opposite sofa for the whole week fell off. There was no window open, there was nothing that could have caused this to happen (call me crazy—I probably was at the time), but I felt that this was my friend who had passed telling me to stop. I then felt the most surreal feeling of someone having their arm around me even though no one was there. The feeling made me jump out of my skin and it cancelled out all the panic I was feeling (I’m not spiritual AT ALL by the way).
From that moment on I decided that enough was enough. I went straight to the doctor and told them how I was feeling. They put me on a course of 100mg beta-prograne, which stopped the panic attacks. Every time I took a tablet, within 20 minutes I felt this wave of calm come over me, so much so that my English teacher asked if I was on drugs during one of her classes. “Yes madam, yes I am. And it feels… wonderful."
I stayed on these tablets for about six months, and it was the best I had ever felt. Slowly but surely, I began to come back to me. I feel like I never really got back to who I really was until around 23 or 24 years old. The next few years were a struggle, but bit by bit I got there with the help of my family and my incredible boyfriend who has stood by me through all my crazy.
I began to realise the things I couldn’t change in life. I began to accept that crying on random occasions was fine and to just be kinder to myself. I became harder, more forthright and more unforgiving as a result of this process; I replaced anxiety with the need to succeed, but it helped me to build this insatiable will to just keep going.
I hope that this brings some comfort to those who may be struggling to open up and seek help in friends or charities like Samaritans. You are never alone, there is always someone (probably in the most unlikely of places) there to listen and to guide you through.
Keep breathing and you will get there. xx
My top tips for battling crippling anxiety:
- Breathing and counting
- Mediation, Headspace and Calm are great apps to help you deal with stress
- Writing down the problems you are facing, rationally thinking about how you can solve these and identifying what is in/out of your control
- Open up to someone. The relief you will feel is incredible—or if talking to someone is hard, write a blog!
- Walk, run, jog… physical exercise is an incredible way of resetting the brain
- Speak to a doctor. I felt so embarrassed to do this, but taking those tablets was the best thing I could have done in my situation (just don’t drink on them… I learned that the hard way)
- Take the time you need. Whether that means having a few days off work or shutting your phone off, do it. It’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it will give you the time you need to yourself.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself, you are doing incredibly well at the hard task of surviving, so keep going.