I recently had a flash of inspiration about things I’ve managed to do despite being riddled with social anxiety. It’s par for the course that I’ll continually tell myself I can’t or have never done anything. My life will always be ruled by my fear of risk or rejection, and I’ll stay safe in my stagnant little bubble.
The things I’ve done probably aren’t that exciting. It’s always worth remembering your achievements, no matter how small. Although it probably isn’t healthy, I’ve definitely forced myself into some uncomfortable situations, and eventually dragged myself out relatively unscathed. Doing things like this reinforces how difficult it can be to live with anxiety and other mental health problems. I wouldn’t advocate forcing yourself to do things, but it’s lead to some experiences that perhaps I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Whether we force ourselves through or not, our unique brains can make life a struggle at times. Take some time to consider what you’ve done, even the smallest things, despite whatever goes on inside your head.
I don’t know how interesting this will be, but nevertheless it’s useful.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a seasoned traveller. I’ve been on city breaks and holidays around Europe. I went to Thailand for ten days with a couple of friends. The most anxiety-provoking travel I’ve done, though, is probably work trips to London on my own. I know, that doesn’t sound much. Getting to the place I’m supposed to be – the hotel, and then the office – has caused far more anxiety than has ever really been necessary. I can remember nervous train an tube journeys, butterfly-filled hotel breakfasts, and arriving too early at the London office. The lights weren’t even on.
This was, of course, coupled with the inevitable fear of meeting and interacting with different or new work colleagues as well. I think the main part, though, was travelling, staying, eating, whatever, on my own. I’d never done that before. It felt too abnormal, out of reach, adult. It took a good few trips before I was able to eat in a hotel restaurant of an evening rather than loading myself up with food to go from M&S and hiding out in my room.
Now I’ve had these experiences, I’m better at travelling, alone and otherwise. I’ve even flown (gasp!) on my own to see my friend in Dublin a couple of times this year.
Speaking of work trips, these were often necessitated by new staff needing to be trained on a programme where I managed compliance. Not only did I have to wade through the anxiety of travelling alone, I then often had to stand up alone for an entire day blathering on to people about work. When I first started doing this, I was assisting my manager until the point I could do it alone. At first, I hated it. The thought of people looking at me, listening, paying attention. Ugh. I’m sure many of you can recognise that feeling. Most people hate public speaking. I remember one morning going down to meet my manager for breakfast at the hotel, and bursting into tears.
It probably didn’t help that at the time I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil, but still. It was horrible. I pushed through every time. Eventually, I enrolled on a course through work to get certified as a ‘proper’ trainer. I carried on doing days, sometimes two, completely on my own in front of strangers.
Now, I can’t imagine doing that. I know I can do it, but it feels so odd to think about standing up in front of people like that. I even helped out training on other programmes I knew little about, just because I was experienced. It’s kind of sad to think that something I pushed myself so hard to do has fallen away, but I did do it, and maybe I could do it again. It’s not just the training, though. Even after losing my job due my poor mental health I pushed on and got another job. The termination of that job in exactly the same circumstances gave me pause, but I’ve been pushing on for years. It’s only now I’ve given myself a break, and despite earning very, very little I’m still constantly on the lookout for things to do.
I’ve mentioned this before but I didn’t start learning to drive until last year when I turned thirty. I’m now thirty-one and I still haven’t passed my test, but I’ve been pushing myself this whole time. I took my test a couple of weeks ago, and I failed in a spectacular manner. I’d been putting it off for so long, though. As a teenager I didn’t really need to learn how to drive, and as an adult I’ve lived in a city and haven’t really needed it either. Still, I felt it was time to get it out of the way. It took some determination, and it still does.
Frustratingly, anxiety takes a strange form when I’m driving. I can’t feel it. I don’t feel panicked, but there’s no doubt my slow reaction times and propensity for continuing to make mistakes after I’ve made one are down to the intricate webs weaved by my anxious brain. Naturally, I was upset and frustrated after I failed my test, but I’m getting back on that horse (not literally – I’m not learning to drive an eighteenth-century carriage).
Even just a couple of years ago there’s no way I’d have considered learning to drive. I could tell myself until I’m blue in the face it’s because I don’t need to, but the reality is, it’s scary. It’s a big responsibility, and someone like me isn’t going to take lightly even the smallest of mistakes.
Despite my disaster driving test, I know I’m a capable driver if I’m not worked up. I’ve never crashed, never even nearly crashed. I haven’t reversed into anything or anyone. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of mental energy, but is worthy of perseverance.
Admittedly, when I moved into a flat on my own, despite the emotional upset of a long-term breakup I hadn’t yet descended into the four-years-and-counting episode I’m currently trying to dig my way out of. Still, living alone is a nerve-wracking idea. What if I forgot to pay or set up certain bills? I’d never trusted myself to do that before, even when I lived with people. Living on my own forced me to confront things, like sorting my rent, tenancy agreement, energy bills, internet, etc. that I’d always just conveniently ignore before.
Of course, it was nowhere near as complicated or terrifying as I’d assumed. It was relatively straightforward and definitely gave me a sense of independence and confidence I’d been lacking. It didn’t last long as I descended merrily down the steps into depression, but it was there.
When you’re at you’re lowest, actually seeking help can be difficult. I wasn’t a stranger to discussing my mental health with medical professionals, but I hadn’t really engaged much. In 2010 I went to my GP for my anxiety and depression, but as soon as I found some counselling to go to I pretty much disengaged with my doctors. It was helpful, but a couple of years later I was back at square one.
I didn’t really acknowledge my worsening mental health until a significant self harm incident. After that, I promptly booked myself an appointment at my GP and I’ve been engaging ever since. Doing these things is horribly anxiety-provoking. I still get worked up before GP appointments and I’ve been going regularly for years. I had to push myself to do it, and I knew that if I didn’t my family would be hounding me to do so (rightly so, I may add).
It’s very hard, though, and I haven’t had an easy ride of it. Has anyone? I went to every single appointment or assessment I was sent to. I forced myself to every week of group therapy that I absolutely detested because I thought playing ball would get me access to some proper assistance. It didn’t. I got discharged, and when I returned to the unit for another assessment a couple of years later, I was told I should never have been let go.
Through all that time I relentlessly persisted seeking help. I was exhausted. I’d never felt worse. I was on one anti depressant, then another, then another, until finally finding something that worked. I waited months for something other than counselling. When I got it, it made me worse. I waited again to be referred to psychology. It took seven months for anything to come from that, and then it was a time-limited therapy programme with a trainee.
I went to every session. Finally, I got to the therapy I’m now in. It has taken years. Years of pushing, of complaints, of doing everything I could. Despite every fibre of me screaming to give up at times, I kept on going.
Anxiety plagued me the entire time. I’ve told my story to countless professionals and it’s never got any easier. We should never have to work this hard to get the help we need. If I’d given up, I wouldn’t be in therapy now. Not a chance. If we give up on ourselves, so does everyone else. When you need it most, there’s often nowhere to turn.
I’ve never considered myself resilient until it came to tackling access to mental health support. Now, I do. I pride myself on it. I’m still here, and I’m finally getting the help I need.
What kept me going?
Through all these things I’ve forced myself to do, I’m honestly not sure what’s kept me going. Am I stubborn? Perhaps. A lot of it is probably fear of letting people down, or people thinking I’m weak. I could give up driving any time. I won’t, though. Why? Am I that obsessed with getting my license? Probably not. It’s probably because I’d feel ashamed otherwise.
Getting through these things hasn’t been easy, and it doesn’t mean I’ve found useful ways to tackle my anxiety. Sometimes, you just have to push through. There’s definitely a determined streak in me somewhere. If there wasn’t, I’d have given up on a lot. It’s extremely hard to access, though, and I pull it out when nothing else works.
I don’t think you’re bad or useless if you’ve never done these things. I don’t think that pushing yourself is always the way. Sometimes, often, in fact, it can lead to burnout or worse. It worked for me because a lot of the time I give myself no choice. It took a long time for me to listen to myself and what I needed. I’ve done things, but not always to the benefit of my mental health.
My advice would be to push through if you need to – but give yourself time afterwards to decompress. I never really did that. Find the balance between pushing yourself and listening to your needs. I know it’s easier said than done.
It’s taken time, but now I’m in a place where I understand myself a little better. I think we’ll all get there eventually. If you need to get through anything, know that if I did it, you definitely can.