I think I had my first panic attacks when I was 5 years old. I don’t know what brought them on, but while laying in bed one night I felt that I was “gasping for air”. I couldn’t sleep and my panic worsened as the attack became more severe. I sought my mother, but she was just angry with me for having left my bed. I was given a spoonful of some medicine and sent back to bed with the threat of a smack. It didn’t help.
After many more similar nights like this, I found solace in my pocket calculator making fake calculations; anything to take my mind off of what I was feeling. It worked. I eventually just grew out of them.
By the time I reached forty, I had experienced a lot in my life. I tried to run a business, much to the dismay of my parents. It didn’t work out, and I ended up undertaking contract work. Eventually, I was offered a permanent position, and finally took the plunge and bought a house; although my father had always told me “Never a lender or a borrower be”, my parents had always criticised me for never having borrowed money to buy a house. That confused me.
Having a cynic for a father and an over-protective mother, I have always tried, although rarely succeeded, to please them. At last, I had done something they approved of and they frequently reminded me “You want to hold on to that job of yours, son” and “You’re lucky to have such a good job”. However, what they never understood (or perhaps cared) was that I had a dreadful job; the worst job of my life, where I was bullied and under-valued. Gradually, it was destroying me both mentally and physically.
I was overweight; I also drank too much alcohol. I had no social life, no time for anything other than work. I daren’t tell my parents if I took annual leave and it was the same if I were ever unwell – they seemed to think that if I took time off I would lose my job. On these occasions, I would drag myself out of my “sick bed”, into the car and drive somewhere, and call my mother, so she’d think I was on my way to work. What a life!
After three years of this, I nearly collapsed, was diagnosed with work related stress and chronic hypertension. My doctor refused to send me back to work until things had improved and I knew something had to change.
It was during this time that the curse of anxiety crept upon me and I began to suffer absurd and debilitating panic attacks. I could no longer go on long journeys; I was afraid of going into tall buildings and places such as restaurants or other people’s houses. Thus, I found my life severely curtailed.
When I spoke about leaving my job, my mother would worry that I would no longer be able to pay the mortgage. She would say in a whining voice: “What are you going to do?!” My father assured me “You won’t have a stroke if you go back, son”, and he did whatever he could to convince me that my doctor was wrong. It wasn’t really about the house, but the “permanent” job that they so desperately wanted me to have.
I eventually left the job that had caused me so much distress. I stopped drinking alcohol and eased myself back into work, by accepting short-term assignments near my home. I secured a succession of short-term contracts, and I began to feel better; I was no longer bullied; I made friends and made a new start. Things were improving; I had lost weight, my blood pressure was lower, I remained “on the wagon” and was able to do “normal” things, without much anxiety. However, before I knew it, I’d been headhunted by an agency, and offered a considerable wage increase and I decided that I was ready to move on. My mind, though, had entirely different plans!
The move from a workplace where I had felt so at ease to my new job meant that once again I started to panic. That night before I started my new job was awful. I couldn’t sleep. My mind was somersaulting, my anxiety and depression completely out of control. I telephoned The Samaritans at least three times, I even wrote down all the positive things that this contract offered me, but it was to no avail. By the morning, I was a mess! I rose early, somehow managed breakfast and set off to my new workplace.
I did the usual introductions and sat down to start learning the new job. It was a sultry and hot Summer’s day and, as I looked out of the window across the river, I just longed to be out in the lanes and fields of the distant countryside. I felt dreadful!
After another turbulent night, I could not bring myself to go in the next day. Instead, full of guilt and shame, I drove to one of my favourite places and soaked up the warm sunshine, breathed in the mild, country air and gazed at the fine views. I was completely alone and suddenly I found myself sobbing like a child. I felt broken, but also furious with myself. I telephoned my new manager and explained things to him, then I telephoned my mother, telling her the whole, sorry tale. Again, I became that small boy. She didn’t say “I told you so”, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was thinking it.
I secured an appointment to see a doctor; her sympathetic manner helped me considerably. She arranged for me to have some counselling and gave me some anti-depressants, although I believed that my “salvation” was not in chemicals, but in healing my mind by understanding my issues.
It is now a year on from that awful time and I have put some of my life back together. I do not say I am “cured”, but I do live a much less restrictive life than over the past few years. As I gain more strength and re-live the things I used to do, I am slowly beginning to forget. I know that by confronting my fears, they will no longer play a part in my life.
Anxiety is unique to all of its victims; it is a product of our past, intensifying fears that reinforce and exaggerate feelings that are totally irrational and previously inconsequential. It is like a memory; once you have suffered anxiety, you will worry in case you suffer another attack. It thus becomes self perpetuating.
My parents still try to project their anxieties on to me, although I have distanced myself from them and am more aware of what they are trying to do. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. Whereas my mother insisted that I telephone her every day, I now do so when I choose to. I tell her only as much as I feel is necessary. I also ensure my father, to whom I accept I will never be close, is only aware of the bare essentials of my life. They will never agree with many decisions I make and I know that I must reconcile within me the difficulties, sadness and tragedy of the years that have now gone.