About 12 months ago I lay awake. It was night time so I shouldn’t have been awake. But I was awake. And I didn’t know why. I thought I must’ve been stressed about something. So I started cycling through the Rolodex of things going on in my life.
I worked in a high pressure job, so I wondered if that was the problem. But I couldn’t think of anything specific. It paid well and I largely enjoyed it. My wife and I get on great, so it wasn’t to do with her. Our finances weren’t amazing but we were doing fine so that wasn’t it either.
It was nothing.
And yet as the minutes turned to hours, and the hours turned into a whole night I got no sleep. Why did it feel like there was a metal rod running through my stomach spinning, spinning, spinning?
I’ve had bouts like this before. Nights where I’d really struggle to get to sleep for no apparent reason. But that was only a struggle. Eventually I’d sleep. Not sleeping through an entire night was new. And it worried me.
Worry is a funny thing. It begets worry doesn’t it? You don’t go to sleep, so you worry that you’re not sleeping, that causes you to stay awake longer which in turn worries you that you might not get any sleep at all, which means you worry about being rubbish the next day, all of which means you worry yourself awake.
And then it started spilling into the day.
They’re a shit of a thing. I’d had one. One. In my entire life. I’d been at university and was swamped with work. Suddenly I became convinced I was going to die. I wasn’t sure how, or why, I just knew: death was on its way that night.
Clearly I didn’t die. But I started getting panic attacks during the day. For no reason. Nothing would seem to be the flashpoint. I even got a panic attack during a game of indoor netball. What the hell brain?
So I went to my GP. She gave me some pills to help me sleep and recommended I talk to a cognitive behavioural therapist. I didn’t know what this was. I suspected it might be witch doctor mumbo jumbo. Like homeopathy. So I did some reading and it sounded legit. By this stage I was also quite prepared to try witch doctor mumbo jumbo anyway. So I made an appointment.
The CBT was great. We didn’t really focus on what was causing me to have anxiety. Rather we focused on what I could do when I started feeling anxious. We talked about mindfulness. It’s a useful technique. Focus on the externalities. Gets you out of your head. And my head was a confusing place by this stage. I’d started doubting myself. I’d never doubted myself.
In the nearly three decades I’ve been kicking around I’ve been a ball of pure unadulterated self-confidence. Arrogance even. I never thought I’d fail at anything because I was convinced I was the dog’s bollocks. Now I was second guessing myself at all sorts of things. And my performance at work started to suffer. And much like the worrying at night, this begat more poor performances. Until I’m getting performance managed at work because I’m being a bit shit really. So then the job became the scapegoat.
“It must be the job’s fault,” I thought. The stress, the pressure, the unwavering commitment to getting everything perfect was killing me. It was messing with my head.
And then the CBT nailed it. She called me out on being a perfectionist. I have incredibly high standards of myself. And if I don’t meet those high standards for any reason then it affects me in a way that is considerably more extreme than most people.
I had no room for error. If I erred, then it messed with me. So don’t fuck up right? Yeah. That’s unlikely.
In an effort to try and make myself better I find a new job. One that is marginally less stressful. Shortly thereafter I ‘graduate’ from CBT. I’m sleeping better – not perfectly, but better – and my anxiety attacks are fewer and farther between. I’m still taking the odd sleeping pill here and there (oh Zopiclone I love you), but I seem better. I think. The new job means I’m better right?
And then for no reason at all it comes back with a vengeance.
Which makes no sense. Because I have a new job. That should have fixed it. So I go back to the GP. Pale faced. Rings under my eyes. Haggard and awful. This time we talk about the possibility of going on anti-depressants to try and curb this. We agree to see how I am over the next three weeks and if it doesn’t subside then I’ll go on antis.
I spoke to my family and close friends. It’s funny the attitudes to anti-depressants. Jane Barber wrote extensively on this in an earlier piece. People seem to think you should try and avoid anti-depressants. My parents were all “oh no Lord Sutch, you should try and avoid anti-depressants if you can.”
I would say “if I had renal failure and needed to take a pill every day to save my kidneys would you tell me I should avoid them?”
They didn’t really have an answer to that.
Three weeks later and I am better. But not enough to satisfy me. So I go back to my GP and we agree to put me on anti-depressants and see how that plays out. I know that the first wee while of antis can be tough and that often it can take three weeks for anything to happen.
It’s been a while now. And I’m good. I’m very very good. In fact I’m so markedly better that I realise how miserable I’ve been for the last 12 months. I didn’t know. I thought I was just bad when the anxiety was hitting me, but there’d been a grey cloud hanging over me. I didn’t see it. Now I recognise it.
Why am I saying all this? Because if you’re unwell you don’t have to be. I know it doesn’t work the same for everyone but you should get help. And it might get better quickly or it might not. But it will help in some measure. I hope. We shouldn’t live like this. We don’t have to live like this. We can be happy.
(Image: insomnia – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licensed photo by robotbrainz)