Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘social anxiety’

It’s time to talk

Today, the 6th February 2014, is “time to talk” day. This is run by the charity Time To Change, which is led by both Mind and ReThink (mental health organisations). The idea behind today is to open up and be honest about mental health, to start a conversation and to help break down stigma. This is my contribution.

I’ve had mental health problems almost all my life. As a child I self-harmed and binged; I’ve had depression since my early teens. My current diagnoses are cyclothymia with underlying depression,and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). But what does this actually mean?

Cyclothymia is a mild form of bipolar disorder. Where most people’s mood averages out as a straight line with occasional fluctuations up or down, this is what my unmedicated moods look like:
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The psychiatrist who diagnosed me explained that cyclothymia often requires treatment with mood stabilisers as the hypomania (the highs) can be pretty disruptive. But because I have the peculiar combination of cyclothymia and depression, my base line is lower than most people’s. For example, at the moment I am a bit hypomanic. But instead of displaying the usual symptoms of hypomania I am what most people would consider to be normal. I’m enjoying playing with my children. I’m getting the housework done, I’m singing along to the radio and I’m able to talk to other parents in the school playground. I still find it hard to sit still without fiddling or fidgeting, my thoughts race and I constantly have new (usually impractical) ideas about what I want to do next. But for the most part I am “normal”.

Of course unfortunately this means that my low moods are lower than the average. When I’m in a trough I struggle to get out of bed, I struggle to interact with anyone and playing with the children is an almost unbearable ordeal. But this is also a kind of normal for me; this is what I’m like when I’m unmedicated and the depression strikes.

Cyclothymia isn’t just having hypomanic highs and depressed lows, though; there’s a reason it’s also known as “rapid cycling bipolar”. Although moods can last for days or even weeks, they can also change in the blink of an eye. Some days I can cover the full mood spectrum in a matter of hours, never knowing how I’m going to feel from one moment to the next. This isn’t in response to anything – I can be having a really good day and suddenly plunge into the depths of depression. It’s unsettling, not just for me but also my family.

Then there’s the anxiety. Mostly my anxiety focuses on my family – I live in perpetual terror that someone I love is in danger or about to die. If DH is late back from the shops he must have been run over. If the phone rings it’s obviously going to be DD’s school telling me she’s had a serious accident. At night I wake up repeatedly to check that 2yo DS is still breathing, and his recent surgery was almost more than I could bear.

The minor focus of my anxiety is quite common: I often struggle with social situations and talking to strangers, which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that I worked in the civil service for 6 years and used to present at high-level meetings and international conferences! But for now that’s how it is at the moment. I recently had to describe my social anxiety to a friend:

“Chatting to people at playgroups, in cafes, even the school run can be torture. When I have to speak to someone unfamiliar in a social situation my heartrate increases and my breathing gets shallow. My mouth goes dry and I feel as though my throat is closing up. If I can’t escape then I usually end up having a full-blown panic attack”.

Obviously this causes problems when it comes to having a social life of any kind! Although I sometimes manage to meet people for a casual coffee, in the last year I’ve only managed to go out with a group of friends once. Just once, to a local restaurant, and even then I could only stay for about an hour and a half before getting overwhelmed and having to leave.

So there you go. That’s me. Mood zipping around like a demented pinball and perpetually anxious. 🙂 I’m happy to answer any questions or comments that you may have, both here and in person if you know me. So come on – let’s talk.

Is it me?

I’ve had mental health issues for as long as I can remember, from compulsive binge-eating and self-harming at the age of 7 to depression which began in my early teens and my current diagnoses of cyclothymia, generalised anxiety disorder and binge-eating disorder. Despite my mental peaks and troughs I’ve always been able to function, hold down a good job and socialise with friends.

Until recently. The birth of my daughter, four and a half years ago, plunged me into a pit from which I’m still struggling to escape. Not because I didn’t want her or love her, but my postnatal depression (PND) was so absolute that it seems to have altered my mental state almost permanently. After a couple of years and several therapies I felt pretty recovered, only to succumb to antenatal depression (AND) while I was pregnant with my son. Unsurprisingly after his birth I was once again plunged into depths of PND. Once that was resolved I was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as having cyclothymia (or rapid cycling bipolar disorder) as well as anxiety issues.

At the time of writing I am fairly functional most days thanks to medication and a heightened awareness of my mood state. I do however really struggle with social situations and talking to strangers, which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that I was in the civil service for 6 years! But for how that’s how it is at the moment. I recently had to describe my social anxiety to a friend:

“Chatting to people at playgroups, in cafes, even the school run can be torture. When I have to speak to someone unfamiliar in a social situation my heartrate increases and my breathing gets shallow. My mouth goes dry and I feel as though my throat is closing up. If I can’t escape then I usually end up having a full-blown panic attack”.

Obviously this causes problems when it comes to having a social life of any kind! In the last year I’ve managed to go out with friends once. Just one time, to a local Thai restaurant, and even then I could only stay for about an hour and a half before getting overwhelmed and having to leave.

My current state seems to be hard for friends to cope with. Over the last few years I seem to have misplaced quite a few peripheral friends but also 2 very dear, loved and trusted friends. These friends knew everything about me, about my struggles with mental illness, and encouraged me to be open with them. But in the end the burden of my problems became too much for them to deal with on top of their own lives, and they disappeared. Now I may be losing another good friend, someone I’ve been friends with for over 20 years, because of my mental ill health.

There are only so many times DH can tell me that these losses are not my fault but theirs, before it starts to ring hollow. If it’s not my fault then why does it keep happening? Maybe I don’t try hard enough – I’ve been told in the past that I wallow in my depression instead of fighting it. Or maybe I’m too truthful, I’ve been told that by being honest about my struggles I’m making others miserable and overwhelmed. I wonder whether it would be the same if I had a long-term physical illness? Would friends still drift away or would they cope? Am I the problem? Am I asking too much of my friends? Am I too needy, too confiding, too overwhelming? Because to be blunt, it’s pretty bloody overwhelming being trapped inside my mind day in and day out. At times the despair (will I ever recover?), the self-loathing (I’m so pathetic!) and the constant self-examination (is that a rational thought or is it my illness talking?) are so overwhelming that I would do almost anything for just a few minutes peace. Even my nights aren’t restful, thanks to frequent and vivid nightmares.

Whatever the reason may be, with a couple of notable exceptions I’ve stopped confiding in friends now, and even with those exceptions I’m careful about what I say and how much I reveal. I have a couple of trusted family members and of course I’m completely honest with DH, but as I explained in my last post he has his own issues to deal with at the moment. My only other real solace is Twitter, where hundreds of people who barely know me are kind and supportive. How odd, that I can be so open with virtual strangers yet have to be so wary around friends.

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