I’ve been part of that 40% for large parts of my life, but I’m now going to join the growing number of voices sharing their own mental health stories in an attempt to encourage others to do the same.
So, in the words of the great philosopher of my generation, Super Mario, ‘Here-a we go!’
I had my first panic attack when I was 8 years old.
I remember it vividly. My family and I had just moved from Northampton (home of the mighty Cobblers) to Bracknell (home of the mighty…Coral Reef Waterworld…) and it was a tough time, which manifested itself in different ways for all of us.
Moving obviously meant starting a new school which I entered at year 4, already making things difficult as people had formed strong friendships over the previous 4 years together.
I remember was sat in class one day, and I simply wanted to go home. I’m not entirely sure why – I think it might have had something to do with wanting to see my mum who I knew was struggling at home – but I complained to the teacher of having a stomach ache, which I didn’t, and promptly got sent to see the nurse.
She phoned Mum to come and pick me up and so I sat in the treatment room waiting. I don’t remember how long the next sequence of events took to play out but it’s not hyperbole to say they changed my life forever.
I needed to use the toilet. I walked across the corridor to ask the nurse if I could go, she said yes, so I walked through the adjacent assembly hall to the nearest loo. The hall itself was one of those ‘old-school’ ones with horrifically uncomfortable brown wooden flooring and a random badminton court marked out on it, despite that school having a lovely separate sports hall. There was some sort of class taking place in the hall itself, so I skirted round the edge to avoid disrupting anything. I used the nearest toilet and walked back to the nurse’s office. Job done.
But no. After a few minutes sat in the nurse’s office a thought struck my very simple 8-year-old brain. It went something like ‘I’ve just been to the toilet, but what if I need to go again now and the nurse doesn’t let me?‘.
BOOM. Enter 22 years of mental health issues, all in a single moment.
This thought ran away with me – something I would have to get used to happening – until it became a full-blown panic attack and I was convinced I was going to wet myself. Which, to my 8-year-old self, was literally the worst thing that could happen. My panic prompted me to return to the nurse and ask if I could use the loo again. She was a bit surprised but said ‘of course’.
Cue my second life-changing thought, ‘What if the students in the assembly hall think I’m weird for walking back through again? Will they know I’m using the loo so soon after last time?‘. I specifically remember trying to be all cool and casual about it, making it seem as if this behaviour was totally normal as I once again skirted around the edge of the hall.
But I already felt this time was different. I felt my peers were looking at me and wondering what the odd new kid was doing walking through the hall again.
This got worse the 3rd and 4th time I went to the toilet before Mum picked me up. I gave up with the casual approach the 3rd time, opting for a more ‘I’m very busy and important’ walk, checking my watch as I marched past the group. (Is it normal for 8 year olds to wear watches?). By the 4th time, I gave up with all attempts to cover myself and had accepted my new role as the weird kid at school.
Mum picked me up and the nurse mentioned that I’d been to the toilet several times since being sent to her. This was to be the beginning of one of the most difficult periods of my life, with panic attacks occurring regularly during school, church and when out shopping (basically anywhere that wasn’t home).
I don’t remember how long this initial period lasted. I do remember going to see a counsellor a few times which helped a bit. She introduced me to the term ‘panic attack’ and told me lots of people suffer from them. I was advised to try the usual strategies when feeling anxious – deep breaths, calm thoughts, to picture an ‘escape strategy’ in my head – but whilst these helped with dealing with each attack, they didn’t help with the underlying fear that what I was feeling was perfectly logical.
It seemed so logical, in fact, that I was reluctant to speak to anyone else about it, for fear that I’d create some sort of panic-attack epidemic that would bring civilisation as we know it to its knees. ‘Good grief!’, people would cry, ‘The boy’s really onto something!’, and then everyone would be suffering from panic attacks; ergo I kept schtum.
22 years later and the scars from that time are still very much with me. The panic attacks themselves have subsided, having made a very unwelcome and quite savage return for around 6 months in 2005 (also when we moved house – not a coincidence I’m sure), but more general anxiety and bouts of depression are still a big part of me and my life.
As is the whole ‘not-talking-to-people-about-how-I’m-feeling’ thing. I have found other ways to express myself, chiefly through music and writing, but actually opening up to those close to me one-to-one is something I still struggle with.
But I’m working on it, hence writing this blog.
Something I’ve often asked myself is if I could go back to that day in 1994 (yes, I’m really old), and stop my 8 year old self having that first thought, would I? And there isn’t a single bit of me that would.
Because whilst suffering from this mental health issue has been difficult at times – and still causes me serious self-confidence issues – it’s also turned me into the person I am today; someone who’s kind, supportive and above all, empathic.
Knowing what it’s like to feel as if the world is swallowing you up in what may seem to be the most ‘everyday’ situations means in all my relationships with people I strive to make sure the other person/people is/are feeling comfortable and supported, and I think people really appreciate that.