Starting a Conversation About Mental Health
I remember the day it started. I had just arrived in Texas, having made the big move across the Atlantic from the United Kingdom with my family. My stepdad had a new job in the Houston branch of his engineering company and we’d been there for a few weeks, settling in, seeing the sights and attempting to acclimatize.
On the first day of school, something felt weird. Pushed into this invasive environment, with blue and orange halls housing what seemed like millions of aliens, I felt a haze begin to spread. I knew something was wrong straight away, but I just didn’t know what. I’d talk to people and be suddenly very acutely aware of everything around me. It was terrifying. I thought I’d lost the plot. I returned home that day feeling perturbed, especially as my twin brother – the only person I knew at the school – and I had been separated into different lunches and so I had spent most of the day alone with my thoughts. I shook my head hoping the fog would clear.
That night my family and I decided to go for a meal. We cruised down the concrete rink of suburbia to a steakhouse. We were celebrating. But I felt strange. The mist hadn’t folded. If anything it was growing, fed by my uncertainty of what was going on. Sitting down at the restaurant table, I looked at the menu. Suddenly, once again I felt acutely aware of everything around me. I edged out of the restaurant table, pushing past my brothers, to get to the bathroom.
In that moment, I was caught in flight or fight mode and reluctantly I chose flight. I was too weak to fight this weight pushing down on my shoulders. I sat in the toilet cubicle, head in my hands, mind racing and breath quickening. In retrospect, I can see I was having a panic attack. I’ve had plenty since. But right then, in that moment, I was going insane. The seams of my brain were folding in on themselves and my sense of reality was fleeting. I couldn’t stay in there. I pulled my mum outside with me into the humid air of the car park. As I began hyperventilating, she quickly began explaining to me about anxiety. Apparently it’s not a new thing in our family. And I did manage to calm down, eventually. But from that day on, something hasn’t been quite right.
Imagine you’re looking in front of you. You’re in a park, say. That’s a pleasant scene, isn’t it? Around the edges of your vision you see a somewhat dark outline. You have tunnel vision. Your periphery is shot from the overall strain of your anxiety. This is a weird sensation. Looking at what’s inside the box, perhaps the green overgrowth or the children’s playground you see, you feel like everything is cloud-like, as if you’re in a dream, or in a hazy state of reality. You look closely at things and it’s almost as if they’re not really there. Whereas before you would’ve not thought about what you were seeing, now you scrutinize every aspect. You wonder if you’re real; you wonder if what you’re seeing is real. Everything has changed.
It’s now been five years since that first day in Texas when I found myself in the tight grip of anxiety and of depersonalization. Recently, I sought out counseling on my campus, and for six weeks I sat and spoke with a lovely woman for an hour once a week. It allowed me to see that within all of this it is easy to feel alone and to retreat into yourself, which in turn, allows these problems to manifest even further and can make you feel even more isolated.
Since my counseling, I’ve made significant efforts to talk to my friends about how I’m feeling; I’ve made significant efforts to open up. It’s an everyday struggle for me, yet it’s invisible to others if I don’t let them in. The only way my friends and family can know what’s going on or help in any way is if I talk to them. Starting a conversation about mental health won’t necessarily fix things, but it WILL help, in some way, I promise.
Why am I writing this? Because I feel it’s a topic that is not adequately discussed. In the past few years I’ve encountered two people in my extended circle of friends who have had experiences with the exact same hyper-anxiety that I have (and there’s probably more). Yet, I never would’ve known about our common bond had we not accidentally stumbled upon the topic. It’s comforting to hear others’ stories to remember that you’re not alone. You most certainly are NOT alone.
One day I hope that I’ll be rid of my anxiety, but for now, I’m fighting my cloud by making it visible, and allowing the ones I love to sometimes be able to hold an umbrella over me. I hope you’ll do the same.