The most common illness to have in conjunction with depression is anxiety; it’s a chicken and egg scenario – often it’s very difficult to say for sure which came along first. Anxiety, as a constant feature of one’s thinking, wears one down to a state of depression. How can it not, when your internal monologue is telling you that you are being a nuisance, that people don’t like you, don’t want you around, that you’re not interesting enough or entertaining enough to bother with? Why are you doing things that way? Is this right? What if it’s wrong? And if it is wrong then [insert bad thing here] will happen! Anxiety punishes everyone who has it. On the other hand, depression can turn anyone from a vibrant, out-going person, a leader, into some one who second guesses every decision and worries about the consequences of every thing they say and do. A king will become a puppet if they can’t or won’t trust their own judgement.
As it happens though, I have a pretty good idea about which came first with me. The seeds of anxiety can be traced back well into childhood – as a musician, performance perfection was drilled into me and I was entered into many county competitions. So I had plenty of opportunities to fail and disappoint. (I also did ballet and figure skating, two other arts that require dedication and perfectionism.) The fact that I obviously hated these competitions was poo-pooed by my parents (read ‘my mother’) because I often did well in them. I think this in itself isn’t uncommon, parents choose to overlook the wishes of a child if the child is either following in the parent’s footsteps – my mother was a professional singer – or if the parent is living vicariously through the child’s talent. In some cases this early exposure to competition is considered advantageous; I saw perfection as some thing I could achieve if I worked hard enough, but in me it also seemed to foster a worsening fear of being a soloist.
Continuing through my childhood, there were numerous other factors that stood out as helping to germinate depression and anxiety: I was bullied in primary school (for being little miss perfect), the high academic standards of an English private secondary school, and a social shyness that meant whilst I made a couple of close friends, they were often not in my class, but in the year below because they happened to share the same musical interests. I never felt like I fit in properly any where. I drifted around different groups of friends on the periphery, never fully settling. I knew I wasn’t popular enough to bother with and I certainly wasn’t perfect, no matter how hard I tried, so what was I worth? I knew I was different and I worried. I felt bad and I didn’t know how to stop feeling bad, and eventually I fell into bad coping strategies – an undiagnosed ED and self harm followed. All of this meaning that I moved into adulthood with no tools to understand what was wrong with me and no healthy way to deal with stress.
Eventually it was this inability to deal with stress that ‘did me in’ as far as a normal work life is concerned. I survived well enough until an abnormal situation arose with a manager, where I was aware that he was stealing thousands of pounds from the company for which I worked. My position meant that I had to notify H.O. and provide the proof. The stress caused my depression to worsen to the point where it couldn’t be ignored any more. I was harming again. Anti-depressants and CBT made their first appearance into my life. The situation at work was semi-resolved by the CEOs selling the company, ie they washed their hands of us. The manager was left in place and I was left feeling invalidated and powerless to stop this continuing situation. Ultimately I became so stressed I was suicidal. Therefore, despite the financial pressure this would entail, I had to quit for my health.
To some extent it worked: I clawed myself back to my current state, where I am able to work again, but only as my own boss. But unfortunately I have also been left with a further emotional legacy, where I am totally unable to deal with stress. It’s like my brain flat-lines and the simplest things completely overwhelm me to a state of mental paralysis. The most obvious way in which this incapacity manifests itself is if something ‘unexpected’ happens. It can be the most innocuous occurrence and it will drown me in stress. For me, the easiest way to get myself up and functioning through the day is to have a plan. The Plan is key. Before I go to bed each night I have a list of chores to do/ places I’ll go / people to see the next day. It’s not necessarily in order, (that will be cemented the next morning when I’ve woken up) but by knowing what I need to do, I can follow the plan and achieve usefulness. If I get all the way through the plan, so much the better. However, the obvious flaw with The Plan is the ‘unexpected’, which life likes to throw at you with gleeful abandon: For example: the car breaks down whilst my husband’s returning from friends 100 miles away and I’ve gone into labour. That was a big one, but in some ways the bigger things are easier to deal with, because it’s natural to be stressed over them – ie, I was in labour, therefore I was entitled to be an incoherent mess and consequently handled things way better than expected. My most pressing need was what was physically happening to me, right in that moment, not whether my husband was on the breakdown truck or not. He could worry about that, I had to stay focused on my body. And it all turned out ok.
What actually makes me so frustrated, most often because it’s over something so trivial in retrospect, is my reactions to small changes. The best way to explain this is with another example: I was driving (solo) to my friend’s house one evening for a meal with our small group of mutual friends. I was already wound up about the situation because
- I hate driving in the dark
- I hate driving places I don’t know and I’d only been there once before
- It was at a busy on the roads at the time I would be driving
- the text I had sent confirming our plans had not been replied to and I could not reach her by either of her numbers.
I had already cycled through the usual “maybe they don’t want me there-what if something’s happened” brain-mare and had accepted that I would not have been invited in the first place and that if something had happened someone else would have let me know. So I was going along regardless of the lack of communication. I had dressed up, put on my make up and had sorted out my responsibilities for my daughter that evening. I was just waiting for my husband to return from a work errand with the (new) car. He was half an hour late, with no warning, and I was very anxious by the time he got home. As he walked through the door he said in a rush, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get petrol, you’ll need to do it”.
That was it. That was all it took to make my brain overload. The unexpected chore of filling up the car. I would have to alter my carefully planned route to include the gas station, in rush hour. I would have to have an argument with the tank cap (we have an on-going feud). I would be even later… if I even got there… if I was even wanted… if I haven’t ruined their evening… and I’m crying. Over petrol.
I hate that it is so ridiculous. Anxiety is often so illogical that my husband, a beacon of reason, simply can’t fathom the way that I come to the conclusions that I do. Sometimes neither can I. Which serves only to alienate me further. If I hadn’t have been driving I could have alleviated some of the stress chemically with my diazepam, but that was obviously out of the question, so my cushion for when lucidity evades me wasn’t there either.
Of course, once I had calmed down enough to get going, the night went just fine, thank you. The traffic wasn’t hideously bad, the petrol station was practically empty and the reason my friend hadn’t replied was that she had left her phone in a signal-dead area of her house. When she retrieved it, messages from all of us arrived at once. Nothing awful happened. I went home afterwards feeling a mixture of relief, stupidity and pride all at the same time. I had survived. But I also felt sad that my head puts me through this. Why?
I do understand that it makes me difficult to work with (and around) sometimes. Whilst on holiday it irritated my husband no end that there was a lack of spontaneity missing from our outings. After a certain point I couldn’t cope with anymore ‘new’ and had to return to our base. I could only apologise and feel guilty, but the rising panic could only be alleviated by his compliance to my wishes and he new he couldn’t deal with me having a meltdown in a foreign country.
So how do I go forward with this? My next step would be to get another round of CBT. The NHS seems unwilling to do anything else until I’ve done it. Again. I’ve done it so many times I could probably teach it, but when panic strikes, I can never remember a thing. People say you should always expect the unexpected – but when the unexpected sends me spiralling down into a quivering muddled mess… well I can’t live my whole life in that state. It’s just too scary. Therefore I can’t ‘expect’ the unexpected, just cope with it as best as I can. And although when I am stressed or depressed I don’t deal with it well at all, I can at least accept the unexpected for what it is – a challenge of rational thinking. Once I have conquered that phase, I might just be able to take on the unexpected without crumbling.