Mental Health Awareness Week 2023: Anxiety has informed my major life decisions - Gaby Soutar

Panic attack in public place. Pic: AdobePanic attack in public place. Pic: Adobe
Panic attack in public place. Pic: Adobe
I’ve always been highly skilled at concealing anxiety. I might go quiet, but you wouldn’t know that I’ve had the tell-tale hot flush at the back of my neck and am negotiating nausea and catastrophic thoughts.

However, it's pointless to be proud of keeping schtum, as this is Mental Health Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Week 2023.

The annual theme of the latter is anxiety, and they’ve been encouraging sufferers to tell their stories and what helps them to cope.

I’ve left it until the final hour to write anything.

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My husband persuaded me. According to him, these things shouldn’t be secret, and they don’t make you a weirdo. By sharing, you make it more acceptable, says the wannabe Sigmund Freud.

It’s true that all of us have mental health, and everyone gets anxious to some extent.

The adrenaline is what gets us to the bus stop on time and keeps me hitting these deadlines. When it gets out of control, it’s a bit less useful. And once you’ve had it for a while, it seems to wear grooves that result in repetitive thoughts and avoidance of certain situations.

Mine only turned into chronic GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) when I was in my late teens.

Everything was fine, then it blindsided me and stuck.

The last neurosis-free thing I remember doing was taking a holiday to New York with my then boyfriend. We saw Quentin Crisp wandering the streets, twice, stayed in a magazine editor’s apartment, where there was a rabbit running wild and a swing hanging from the ceiling, visited CBGB and had a total ball.

I didn’t realise at the time that this was going to be my last feckless adventure. At least it was a humdinger.

If depression is the black dog that Winston Churchill described, severe anxiety is the neurotic stray cat that slips into your house when you leave the window ajar. It is a relentless pest. Once they know that you’re a soft-touch who keeps ham in the fridge, they’re never going to leave.

I started to get panicky and feel nauseous – sometimes actually physically sick – at the thought of travelling, social situations or being far from home.

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At first, I thought I had stomach problems, and it’s interesting that they now study the “gut-brain axis” that connects these two organs. I imagine that I can physically feel those links. The dread seems to brew somewhere deep in the belly, as if I’m an unhappy Buddha.

Sometimes I can’t tell what comes first – the thoughts, feelings or the queasiness.

While my sister and friends started travelling the world, sowing their wild oats and moving into flats, I stayed at home like Ronnie Corbett in Sorry! and didn’t go anywhere of note.

I needed Valium to get through my first day of college. I kept my new pals at arm’s length.

Anxiety is such a limiting thing and, after a while, it totally re-moulds your personality.

I don’t know who I’d be without it. It’s made all my major life decisions for me.

When I initially got symptoms, it was the Nineties.

The book Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel had come out, and everyone was talking about depression and that titular new wonder drug. Nobody said anything about anxiety. That’s despite the fact that both conditions go hand-in-hand. People rarely have one, without a touch of the other.

Back then, my parents, boyfriend and pals all seemed a bit bamboozled by my changing behaviour, so I stopped talking about it and reverted to socially acceptable excuses. I can’t go because of a headache/Norovirus/sprained ankle. I’m still the queen of obfuscation.

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My friend generously bought me a ticket for one of the first T in the Parks, and I froze on the platform and missed the train. I don’t think she spoke to me again.

My GP also seemed disinterested, although they did give me the diagnosis. In my experience, they have a much better understanding these days.

“Have you tried Rescue Remedy?” others would ask, whenever you told them about it. That’d be a bit like tickling a lynx to death with a buttercup, but you do it anyway.

I now know the things that do help, a bit, and it’s the boring sensible stuff.

Regular exercise, routine, taking iron tablets – if you’re anaemic, like me – managing sleep and pushing yourself through the things that scare you, rather than constantly avoiding them. If you have a panic attack, try to accept it and float. It may feel like time is standing still, but they always pass.

In my early twenties, I read an article that said that GAD tends to dissipate in middle age.

However, though there’s been many peaks and troughs, it’s going nowhere.

In fact, the peri-menopause years make it more complicated and unpredictable. The familiar triggers have become more random and, thus, harder to manage. I know that some people have their first panic attacks during this life stage. That must be scary.

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Strangely, it vanished for a short period after my dad died. It’s as if the grief trumped it.

But then it returned, like that bloody cat.

I realise that there are those who have it WAY worse. There’s plenty that I can manage, while others can’t function when they’re in the grip of phobias, anxiety and depression.

To be honest, you wouldn’t even know I have it, though I plan to get better at sharing the truth.

If I tell you I’ve got a stomach bug, there's still a chance it’s something else.

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