Rikki May gives his own insights into overcoming mental ill health in this moving memoir of his experiences of anxiety.
I used to want to get away from the word ‘anxiety’ – to run from it and to even avoid it. In so doing, I denied a serious issue in myself that I needed to tackle head on. For almost as long as I can recall, I have struggled with severe anxiety. Anxiety was a defining part of my teen years, my early adolescence. Accompanied by major depression, like the chicken and the egg, I often wondered what came first: the anxiety or the depression?
At my lowest, I couldn’t even visit the supermarket due to regular panic attacks, and took an unplanned 9 months off work, though of course I didn’t know it would be nine months at the start. I was a recluse who barely left the house. My relationships suffered and I was stuck in a downward spiral of mental illness that I thought would never end. This is the story of how I overcame anxiety, putting it in the past and moving on with my life – a life in recovery.
In my early teens, aged 13-14, I couldn’t even put a name to it. I was playing sport actively, stuck between county and national level competition. As I got older, I went along to more tournaments and seemed to take on a little more pressure. Before practises on the weekends and leagues on week nights, I started to experience a strong, persistent nausea. I initially thought it was a stomach acid problem given that it happened mostly in the mornings. I didn’t talk to anyone around me at school, I spoke to nobody really besides my mother. We visited the doctor’s surgery several times, clueless as to what was causing these symptoms and rising occurrences of physical sickness. One day, a doctor mentioned the idea of anxiety. I had no idea to what it was. I was offered anti-depressants at an extremely young age. My mother declined the doctor’s suggestion.
I grew out of competition at 15. I’d achieved what I’d wanted to and wanted to spend time doing other things, like working out. I had an itch to begin weight training as soon as I turned 16, counting down the days until my birthday that December. Besides, it’d be cool to spend weekends seeing friends, rather than travelling and going to practise. But beneath my plans for weight-lifting, I was convincing myself that I needed to get out. I couldn’t handle this ‘anxiety’ and I wanted to get as far away from it as possible. Without my realising it, these feelings had branched out, attacking many aspects of my life every single day.
My last year of school was a bit of a blur. I prayed for it to fly by. During lessons, I started to experience random bouts of real panic, I’d sweat profusely and feel extremely nauseous, often going to the toilets to be sick. I couldn’t control it, let alone shake it off. During a GCSE Science exam, I started to dry heave, but fortunately made it to the toilet. I was one of 275 in the exam hall and after that, my desk was moved to the very back of the room, in case I needed to conveniently slip outside to throw up. I got an E in the exam, by far my worst GCSE result. I never liked Science a whole lot anyway.
As school ended, college began and I loved my two years at college. The struggle with anxiety though, continued. I’d start sweating at most social interactions and I’d be physically sick at home before I left every day and at times, sick at college if anything in my daily routine changed (i.e. – today we’ll be teaching a few children from a local school or have an assessment of some kind). I felt I wasn’t as advanced as some people were. Other people seemed to get through life effortlessly, seeing new friends out of college, getting girlfriends, generally excelling. By contrast, my own personal development filled me with worry. I didn’t want isolation, I desperately wanted to live a ‘normal’ life.
Despite regular set-backs, I continued to fight. Through my GP I accessed cognitive behavioural therapy for my anxiety. Although I gained an insight as to how thoughts, behaviours and feelings interlinked, I struggled to put the techniques I was shown into effect. I became so drained, but I prayed for change and I wasn’t giving up on achieving it.
I’ve always viewed myself as an optimist: I believe there is good in everything and everyone. There have been times over the years where I’ve lost my faith in recovery entirely; times when the light at the end of the tunnel barely shone. Despite this, my faith and optimism took me back to my GP when I was 18. I’d been working for the University of Portsmouth for around 3 months. I was struggling with the physical sickness of anxiety and sweating so badly that it was affecting me every day. I couldn’t go to work without vomiting beforehand (I hated the later shifts in the day where the nerves built up), nor could I get through a shift without sweating profusely when I arrived until I’d manage to calm myself down 30 minutes later. I let my colleagues believe my symptoms were the result of an intense cycle to work, when in reality I took my time with a 15 minute journey and turned it into a 25 minute one. Nobody else around me knew what I was really dealing with.
I told my GP I was doing everything I could to help myself. I wasn’t avoiding situations I feared too much, I was optimistic and I even kept a diary that documented the turmoil I was going through. I made a habit to often post two entries daily, one before leaving the house and going about daily life, and one after, when I felt better for not giving in to negative feelings. The cycle restarted every single day. I explained to my doctor that I was trying to exercise a lot, although I couldn’t really visit the gym when it was too busy. I told him I wasn’t looking to be signed off work, I was hoping for a medication that could help by taking the edge off – at least a little bit – so I could go to work without throwing up. I was prescribed Citalopram, which I didn’t know at the time is an anti-depressant.
Every drug has side effects, but I wasn’t prepared for how I’d plummet so quickly when taking citalopram. The doctor told me it’d take probably 6-8 weeks to have any affect. Being primarily positive about the future, I took it and hoped that from here the only way was up. I was wrong. Shortly after I began taking Citalopram, I became extremely numb, depressed. I recall sitting at my grandparents’ house with my family and I was lifeless. Nobody knew what to say to me. I didn’t know how to help myself. My grandma told me that my granddad had struggled with agoraphobia, a fear of leaving your home. I told myself I was down, not out, and I wouldn’t fall victim to this. I just couldn’t live life that way.
I had an unplanned 9 months off work on sick leave. Throughout the 9 months, I tried 3 different anti-depressant medications, alongside a beta blocker and an antipsychotic medication, often used to treat major depressive disorders as well as bipolar and schizophrenia. A combination of two medications helped, but though I may have needed the rest, sleeping 11-12 hours each night wasn’t the answer. I tried another medication, one called Aripiprazole. The doctor told me I may become a little restless on this medicine, but I’d rather that than feeling zombified the whole day anyway. Every new medication offered me a new hope. I saw it as a period of trial and improvement. I thought to myself, “I’ll get there, eventually.”
Within days of taking Aripiprazole, I noticed a massive change. I couldn’t sit still and I could barely sleep. I was so agitated that after being on the tablets a week, I discontinued them after being given a few small doses of valium to help me sleep. The medicine remained in my system for longer than I’d hoped, although the valium helped me sleep a few times per day for around 45 minutes to an hour at a time.
I’d reached an all-time low. I had some Quetiapine left over, the sedative medication I’d taken beforehand. I took every tablet I had, over ten times my daily dose, intending to end my life. I’d had enough of anxiety, enough of depression. I wanted out. Thankfully, I woke up the next morning, and I’m grateful now that I didn’t have more Quetiapine that evening because if I had, I don’t think I’d have woken up at all. Instead, I woke up with an extremely heavy head, feeling as though I’d been in a coma, yet somehow also feeling I had a clearer head.
I sat on the edge of my bed wondering what the hell I had just done. I felt selfish. I’d seen the devastation suicide leaves behind in my own family history. But when you’re deeply depressed, suicide is not an act of selfishness; in many ways it’s not a conscious act at all. To put it simply – people who attempt suicide are extremely unwell. Decision making isn’t rational, thinking patterns aren’t healthy. I needed medical care. Shortly after this incident, I started a second round of CBT. I told nobody about the suicide attempt. I just wanted to rebuild my life.
This time, with a little more self-awareness under my belt, the CBT slowly started to help me. I still worried a great deal about the symptoms of anxiety, predominantly the sweating and sickness, although these subsided. With the help of my therapist, I worked hard to break the cycle, putting myself in situations I feared as part of ‘exposure therapy’. This meant doing everything I could to not vomit before I left the house every day. I asked myself often: “what is the worst that could happen?” Despite sweating uncomfortably in daily situations, I had to continue to put myself in them. I could no longer avoid life. I’d already become a hermit and this was time to rebuild.
One day, as part of my therapy, my therapist and I sat in a restaurant, the back of our shirts covered with water, as though we’d been sweating heavily. My therapist tallied the amount of times people noticed, and if they did, he noted if they exhibited any kind of judgement. The results were surprising. People aren’t nearly as observant as you might think – most of us really are ‘in our own world.’
As time went on, I became more confident handling my anxiety. I stopped declining invites. I started gradually to move further from my comfort zone. My motto was taken from a song I love by Baz Luhrmann, and it was: ‘Do one thing every day that scares you’. I’d write little notes on my mobile, much like I’d done when writing a diary, offering a ‘before’ and ‘after’ perspective on the situations I was tackling. My medication was finally working. I worked hard to embrace my anxiety and to use it proactively, knowing I’d never totally get rid of it but I was learning to live with it. Some anxiety is healthy. It reminds us we’re alive.
With everything going well, I continued to feel optimistic about the future. I wanted to see friends again. I was desperate to do ‘normal’ things that somebody my age was doing. The main goal for me was to return to work. After months that seemed like years, the dark clouds parted and I made the call. I’ve always had excellent support in the workplace with my health issues. Honesty is the best policy, I believe. I didn’t have to share every little detail with my managers, but sharing my health concerns was a smart move. I told work that I needed to spend some time working on myself and I had their full support. In April 2010, I returned to work and my quality of life quickly began to improve.
Just a few months later, armed with newfound confidence in my ability to deal with anxiety, and the skills I’d acquired in 20 weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy, I had tools I hadn’t previously known or understood how to utilise. I did things that months before I’d doubted I ever would. I managed to stay at work. I rebuilt the strained relationships from the past year. Sickness and panic sweats were a thing of the past. I saw the inside of pubs and clubs for the first time. I went on dates. My life was entirely changed and I loved it.
Fast forward a few years and today I have new purpose. I want to help others experiencing mental health issues who are struggling with well-being. I’m now a freelance writer and public speaker on mental health. When I was unwell, I always told myself that one day I’d be able to help others as a result of my own experiences – and now I do.
I look back on my anxiety-filled years with a range of emotions. I could write for hours and still find it difficult to summarise how it feels to have made it through those years. I use one of my favourite words as an acronym to remind me of what I’ve learned in my own struggle to recovery:
If you’re struggling – please do seek help and have faith. Recovery is a reality for each of us – I’m living proof.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.