So, this is a very personal and also rather long post (please keep going!). But a really important one as it explains a bit about how I ended up getting to where I am, diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Why did I go from feeling probably the fittest I had ever been (which to be fair wasn’t that fit!), to literally collapsing, my body unable to function properly?
By sharing this I’m not after sympathy, what I’m discovering is that, after bottling things up for my whole life, and hiding my real self, opening up about the real me is incredibly therapeutic. It’s like a weight off my chest to publicly say “I’m not perfect and I’m ok with that.” I’ve also realised that doing something that might make a positive difference to others also feels really, really good.
So this is for anyone who finds themselves feeling a bit too stressed, too often, who feels like they’re always tired or overwhelmed. Or just knows in their heart that they aren’t looking after their own needs properly, are bottling up feelings and emotions. I really want you to read this so that you don’t end up where I am.
Looking back I’ve always been a worrier, a bit anxious about things. When I was little it was going to school, being scared of the dark. As I grew older it was sleepless nights before exams. And I always worried about what people thought of me, never feeling I was good enough (whatever that is), pretty enough, talented enough and that I didn’t really fit in with the cool kids. I also learnt pretty early on in life to bottle emotions up when things were so overwhelming that I just didn’t know how on earth to deal with them.
I then got Glandular Fever while studying for my A Levels and after that was diagnosed with Post-Viral Fatigue… the GP simply told me it would gradually get better (I’ve only recently discovered it’s the same thing as CFS). So I would go to school then literally walk in the front door and lie on the lounge floor, exhausted. After about six months I was pretty much back to ‘normal’. But in hindsight I’d say I’ve never been quite the same since.
I’ve always struggled with energy levels, always the first to go home early from a night out – or cancelled plans at the last minute due to sheer exhaustion at the thought of going out – I seemed to catch every bug going and lived with a constant state of stress. I was so used to being stressed that I could barely recognise how stressed I was.
Over the last few years I’ve had a couple of panic attacks, both related to health scares (what were minor issues that in my head became huge – each time I blew them completely out of proportion). They were awful and I was aware I was starting to have an escalating problem, but of course I just buried it.
Then after a couple of years of being unable to exercise (not that I’ve ever been sporty or a gym bunny) due to a bad back, I finally took my physio’s advice and took up swimming and cycling. I hated both so I needed something to motivate me and signed up to a triathlon that some friends had done before and were doing again. Given I was terrified of even putting my face in the water to do front crawl, I thought I was crazy and had no chance, but gradually I faced my fears and got more comfortable with swimming.
Our fab group of ‘Mighty Tri’ friends would meet up to swim and cycle every week. I loved it, and they were brilliantly supportive, although I still felt constantly aware of how much better the other girls were than me. I was WAY out of my comfort zone and unhelpfully I was comparing myself to a group of very fit athletes and coming up short.
Eventually I had to face a massive fear – practicising open water swimming in a lake. I was beyond terrified. The water was really deep and green – you couldn’t see a thing. Obviously there was a mass-murdering monster down there about to drag me to my death. But, with massive encouragement from the Mighty Tri girls, I did it and although it was also hard work because of my lack of fitness, it gradually became less scary. I even started to enjoy it – the lake was beautiful and serene and it felt like food for the soul to be literally in the midst of nature, swimming past the moorhens. I had faced my fears, was proud of myself and it felt good.
So after a really relaxing summer spent again immersed in nature in the Alps, I was all set for a new, more relaxed me. But it was back to reality with a bump with the ‘back to school’ stresses of feeling like I was always running from pillar to post to get everything done. Including a crazy after-school activities schedule with the kids. Almost immediately I started feeling tired and run down, I could tell I was coming down with something, my glands ached, but knowing I had a triathlon to train for I kept going. Determined? Yes. Driven by fear of failure? Yes to that too. As much as I tried to tell myself it was just for fun and to just enjoy it, it meant the world to me to achieve something like that, which I would never have thought myself capable of.
Then, a week before the triathlon we had a pretty awful health scare in the family. It hit me very hard for many reasons that go back a long way, and I found myself really struggling with anxiety – I wasn’t sleeping or eating much. The night before the triathlon I was so anxious that I barely ate or slept and could barely get any food in me in the morning. By the time I was getting my wetsuit on I was close to hyperventilating. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I guess at this point I should have made the sensible decision that it wasn’t worth doing the triathlon feeling like that. But I desperately wanted to do it – and yes, have to admit I also didn’t want to look like I’d chickened out or wasn’t capable. I didn’t want to look like a failure.
I did it. I also really pushed myself. I desperately wanted to do well, I would have been mortified if I’d been last.
So I made it, I finished. And actually did pretty well. Despite everything that’s happened since, I don’t think I would change it. But afterwards I started to feel faint and shaky. My legs were gone. My heart felt achy, which really scared me. After being checked over by the first aid team I was given the all clear and told I just needed to go home, eat and sleep.
I stayed in bed the rest of the weekend, exhausted. Monday morning I got up and took the kids to school as normal. Chatting to one of my friends in the car park though I gradually started feeling dizzy again and like my legs wouldn’t hold me up. Each day I felt worse, more exhausted and more anxious. My chest was tight and I couldn’t breathe properly. My heart still felt like it hurt. I started having panic attacks (they’re hideous, I really don’t recommend them!). I went to my GP, who checked me over and found a heart murmur. Marvellous, just what I needed. He referred me to a cardiologist. Cue anxiety up another huge notch! I went through loads of tests and by this time, other than being driven to appointments, I was bed-bound, so tired I could barely walk, and regularly having panic attacks.
Eventually I was given the all-clear on my heart but told that blood tests showed I had a virus. So I assumed now that I knew I was ok, the anxiety would go and the fatigue would get better, it was just a virus taking its time to go.
I started back doing close to my normal life. I was still feeling some anxiety and couldn’t even wear a bra as it felt like a vice was crushing my chest. Although my legs felt so weak, I thought trying to get out for a short walk each day would help. It didn’t, it clearly made me worse.
I started to suspect Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and my GP agreed, having done numerous blood tests that all came back ‘normal’. I was so tired I couldn’t read a book, watch TV, even lift my head from the pillow. I had lost a lot of weight and the anxiety was escalating big time.
Then the juggernaut hit. I woke up in the dark of night in the middle of a huge panic attack – this time so bad I couldn’t even rationalise that it was a panic attack, it felt like I was dying, my throat felt completely closed up, my head was spinning and I just had this awful feeling of utter fear and dread. None of which even begins to get across what it was like to endure. I can only liken it to what JK Rowling’s dementor’s kiss must have felt like. I ended up barely able to get out of bed for the next six weeks.
It was terrifying. All I could think was “am I ever going to get better?”. I read about people having CFS and being in bed for five years or more. I was scared, lonely as I was on my own in bed so much, and felt so ashamed – I felt weak and pathetic. I felt guilty that I everyone was having to do everything for me. But mostly it was the terror of not knowing when the next panic attack would hit, and longer term, when on earth would I get better?
The anxiety was becoming unbearable. But the next two things I did were what set me on my current path towards (I hope!) recovery. Luckily for me I had a fantastic friend who had suffered with anxiety, who took matters into her own hands and got me a psychiatrist appointment. At the same time I also happened to find online the Optimum Health Clinic, which specialises in helping people recover from CFS/M.E and Fibromyalgia.
I was finally taking positive steps, which in itself helped me mentally feel I was doing something to help myself, and that I might just find a way to get better.
I’ll go into more detail another time about how both of those those things have been helping me, but they have included the three Ms – medication (something I initially fought against), meditation and, as cheesy as it sounds, finding myself. Oh and nutrition (I couldn’t find an M word for that – suggestions in the comments please?)
I guess the main point I want to end on for now is that looking back there were so many warning signs over the years that I just ignored. I never stopped to relax, constantly put other people’s needs before my own, and was really struggling with self-esteem and pushing myself to prove my worth. Looking back, it was a disaster waiting to happen – three things came together at the same time: a virus, heightened anxiety and pushing myself to my limit physically in the triathlon. All against the back-drop of fear of failure and what other people thought of me.
It took my body to literally stop me by making me unable to do anything. And finally it got my attention. Please don’t do what I did. Listen to your body when it’s trying to tell you something. Notice the warnings it’s trying to give you and make changes in your life. Don’t wait until you hit rock bottom – it’s a much longer way up from there. But, as they say, once you’re at rock bottom, the only way is up. Hold onto that.
“The struggle you’re in today is giving you the strength you need for tomorrow. Don’t give up.” Buddha’s Teaching
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