“It seems that you gravitate towards some quite anxiety-driven thought patterns and behaviours,” Fiona tells me gently, with the air of someone breaking huge news.
“Can you think of when that first became a problem?”
Fiona is my counsellor, my second one actually. She’s Glaswegian and soft-sturdy sounding.
I’ve never seen her but I imagine her with comfortingly chubby arms and a crew cut.
As she speaks, I hold the phone to my ear and let my mind scroll through the years as if I’m stalking my own mental Instagram.
I see myself at 23 shaking outside the door to my office and gulping deep breaths of freezing midwinter air into my aching lungs.
I’ve been on the job two months and I’m still making mistakes. I’m certain that soon everyone will realise I’m not clever enough to be here and I’ll be fired.
When the cleaner passes, I smile and make a joke about a cheeky fag break. She doesn’t know I don’t smoke.
I see myself at 16, not eating breakfast for months on end while friendship dramas and bambi-legged romances and looming exams results swirl around me, all changing my life at rapid speed. I struggle to keep up, I have motion sickness all the time.
“No thanks,” I say as my clothes hang off me. “If I eat, I’ll be sick.”
I see myself at five years old, hands clasped around my grandmother’s red, cut-glass rosary beads as she tucks me in to bed.
She says we should pray God watches over mummy and daddy and papa through the night.
After she turns off the light and closes the door, I lie awake counting everyone I know. My classmates, my teachers, the leotarded girls at dance. Blind Mary next door. Her dogs Lady and Tara.
I can’t forget anyone, or God won’t watch them and then what?
Favouring good mental health over anxiety is a full-time job
In my bedroom, in 2022, I answer Fiona wearily: “I don’t remember.”
“Well that’s OK. The real question is what are we going to do about it?” she says, so infuriatingly gently that I want to reach through the phone and shake her.
Isn’t this what I’m doing about it?
Isn’t this supposed to fix it? Wasn’t it supposed to fix it the first time?
Of course, I know that’s not how it works. I know that unlike a sore throat, or a UTI, mental health isn’t something that can be fixed with a GP appointment and a single trip to the chemist.
I just wish it was. Because the alternative is so much work.
As I write this, the day before my 28th birthday and on Mental Health Awareness Week 2023, I’m in a much better place than I’ve ever been mentally.
In the six months since that conversation with Fiona, I’ve done it all – counselling, journaling, yoga, sleep tracking – you name it, I’ve tried it.
I’ve quit coffee, quit booze (mostly), quit social media on my phone, quit news on the weekends. I’ve started exercising regularly and changed my contraception.
Every day, I go outside, even just to take the bins out. Even when I know it won’t change the greyscale of the day, I do it anyway.
I swallow seven vitamins each morning, and one at night. I set reminders on my phone. My friends call and I answer them.
The most annoying thing about all of this? It works.
I’m furious about that.
‘I’d have been OK if I could have – right?’
Firstly, I’m furious because when anxiety had one claw in my stomach and another around my throat, I swore to all the health freaks that it was part of me, that I couldn’t ‘just stop worrying’ by taking a walk or eating a meal.
If it was that simple, I’d have done it, wouldn’t I?
I wouldn’t have spent so long suffering tension headaches from clenching my jaw in my sleep, or crying in cupboards of customer service jobs.
I’d have been OK if I could have – right?
Secondly, I’m furious because, since it works, that means I have to keep doing it. All of it. And it’s boring.
There is so much maintenance required to have good mental health, so much discipline in being happy.
But I’ll keep at it – as Wendy Cope says in one of my favourite poems on the subject, ‘You have to try’.
— NotAnandamide (@NotAnandamide) October 8, 2015
I’m not looking for a parade or a gold star for simply accepting that my mental wellness is my own responsibility.
I’m just saying that what seems like an obvious solution to a mental health crisis is so not obvious to the person whose brain is on fire.
Please have patience, with yourself or those you love.
It’s taken me 28 years to name, address, and get a handle on my anxiety. I am lucky; for me, medication hasn’t been necessary yet, and if it was, I’d get it for free.
As it is, this morning I took my vitamins, I took a walk, I took a photo of my breakfast.
I’m trying. It’s working. I’m raging.