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A form of literary autobiography, the personal essay allows us to ruminate on truths from our own life experiences. Every Wednesday this month, the Irish Essayist series will see writers test the continually-expanding essay format to explore subjects as diverse as mental illness, gender, music, growing up, and more.
My Green Mile
by Aoife Ui Bhriann
I recently saw a Tweet from a woman experiencing an anxiety attack. She had pulled her car over to the side of the road and was waiting for it to pass. I wanted to send her a private message to say that I understood what she was experiencing, and that I would get in my car and go to her, but I was afraid she might think I was a stalker. This prompted me to start to write about my own anxiety. I have never opened up to anyone about it, my experience, any of it. The reasons will become apparent as you continue to read. I decided, when I saw that this woman was only given four public replies of support, that I would be the fifth. This essay is for all the people that have had to pull over in their lives, at any stage, to deal with anxiety.
When it first started, I wasn’t really sure what it was. A cold sweat, a sense of foreboding, nausea, general discomfort. You know that feeling when you’ve done something wrong, and as you walk home you meet your brother, and he says
“You are so dead – Mam knows you lied about eating the chocolate bars”, and that walk home feels like the Green Mile? Only, I know I haven’t done anything wrong, and I don’t have a Green Mile… This is just happening, but it does feel like a death sentence.
It gradually got worse. It started to physically hurt. I was in real physical pain. It was so bad I was worried about driving. So I stopped going out unless I had to go to work or do important stuff. In my head this seemed logical, but that only made things worse. Now, when I thought about going out, it would start, just at the thought of it. I hadn’t really thought it through… I wasn’t really thinking. My world was falling apart. To make matters worse, I’m a mental health nurse. I was convinced that I should know how to fix myself, but I didn’t even understand what was happening to me.
Then the depersonalisation started. It did, and still does, scare the living shit out of me. You know when people tell you about how they nearly died and had an out of body experience? Well I had that, but I wasn’t being operated on. I would just suddenly feel like I was looking down at me, at the people I was sitting with. It got so bad that I would have to touch things and say I am not up there, I am in the garage, on the couch…wherever… Even writing this makes me feel sick. I tried to get the train home on one occasion and stood in Heuston Station looking at the train that I was supposed to board, and everything around me started moving in fast forward. I stood there choking, terrified, tears streaming down my face. I needed to get home, to my safe space, but I couldn’t get on the train.
I believed I was having a full-blown breakdown, or a psychotic episode. If a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, then I was a weapon of mass destruction. I, more than anyone, knew what a diagnosis of psychosis entailed. More importantly, I knew what it meant in the long term. I knew my stuff – I had worked with people in the grip of psychosis – the massive doses of medication, the inability to communicate, the repeated admissions, the way staff would talk about them, and what a pity it was, and their poor families. Mourning the death of the pre-diagnosed person. The colouring books, the lack of being treated with equality, not being trusted to do the things that feed my soul. I knew this because I lived this.
I also work in, and for, an institution. Make no mistake: I was signalling the death knell of my career if I spoke to my line manager about just how bad things were; how distressed I was. I work with many forward-thinking healthcare professionals in extremely stressful environments, with a lack of counselling available and a predominantly medical model of care accepted as the norm. I have only once met a mental health professional that has openly admitted to having a mental health issue, and he was chastised for oversharing. I once asked why, if a client said they had a sore back and that the pain relief made them nauseous, I could share my experience of the same, but if they talked about the side effects of their anti-depressants and I said that I too had experienced this, it would be deemed unprofessional? I was advised not to stir things. This advice came from another mental health nurse. Oh, stigma! Come let me warm you in this close embrace, shackled by those who are trained in mental healthcare, its complexities and treatments… One in ten… but not one in ten of us. The othering lives on.
I had started to sleep on my couch at this stage. I was afraid to go to bed as lying there in the dark made the racing thoughts worse. The palpitations were so bad that I thought I was having a heart attack, crawling to the light switch. Then stumbling down the stairs, opening the back door, gasping for breath, crying at my hopeless life, at my hopeless future, at my pathetic inability to fix myself.
Things became so bad that I started to have suicidal thoughts. I had often heard it said that suicide is the most selfish act, but I firmly believed that I was doing the right thing. I could not condemn those who cared about me to a life of repeated admissions to mental health units, to my unpredictable behaviour. My inability to leave my house, to get a train, to contribute to life as I had before all this started. More importantly, I couldn’t live with the physical and mental pain I was experiencing, the lack of sleep, the racing thoughts, the ongoing sense of impending doom, the fearfulness of the next depersonalisation episode. I was exactly like a frightened rabbit. My life terrified me. I felt hunted, hunted by myself, by my broken mind. Can you imagine what it is like to live with a constant fear of yourself, to feel utterly worthless, to believe that there is nothing in your life that you take pleasure from?
I went to my GP and I cried. I mean cried – great waves of pain. She was worried – very worried – and she called the local community psychiatric nurse as I sat in her office. I was immediately taken to see a psychiatrist. Here was the start of it. I couldn’t be admitted – I worked there – not professional. Can you imagine what it is like to sit with a colleague and discuss your history? Sexual abuse, suicide attempts, family relationships, sex life, contraception, alcohol and drug intake? Trying to be honest, because I so desperately wanted to get better, but so ashamed. Ashamed for being unwell. Ashamed for being afraid of myself. Ashamed because I knew that some would gossip, that it would stay on my record. That any chance of a promotion was gone, that they would never hold me in regard. That they would surreptitiously watch everything I did after that. Not because they cared about me, but because they were afraid I would mess up and that they would get the blame.
A diagnosis of anxiety, arising from PTSD.
I am dumbfounded. Anxiety? This can’t be right. This is psychosis, or bipolar, or something. Anxiety? Anxiety doesn’t physically hurt, doesn’t make you want to kill yourself, doesn’t make you afraid of just being alive.
But it does.
I never had any comprehension of what anxiety entails although I had worked with clients who had anxiety. I realised that I had never asked, never listened to their experience of anxiety. I just assumed it was nerves – a bit jittery – a bit stressed. I knew the ins and outs of symptoms, causes and treatments of schizophrenia, bipolar, mania, self-harm, eating disorders… but anxiety? No. I will admit, and now I am truly ashamed, that I never knew or understood how crippling anxiety can be. How it eats away at your self-worth. How it erodes your entire belief system and constructs a reality so painful, that you can no longer bear to draw breath.
I’m on meds now – a story for later – a fair whack of them, and I don’t like them. I’ve put on weight, I’m slow in the way I think, my mouth is always dry, I feel like when I speak I sound drunk. On the other hand, I don’t have any choice, because they work for me. They make me able to go to counselling, to be calm enough to be on my own and not live in fear twenty four hours a day that the Green Mile, as I call it, will appear. It does appear, but I am learning what triggers it, and I am learning to surf it when it does. I know it will pass, although it is still dreadful when it happens. I am trying to learn to love myself. I think that is the hardest part. At this stage I don’t see a point that I will ever love myself as I see others do, but it is something I desperately wish for. The funny thing is that I am also afraid of it happening. Maybe when I get there my Green Mile won’t vanish. Then what? Do you see what I am doing? “Catastrophising” is what it’s called. At least now I know what I am doing, so I can try to change my thinking, but sometimes the thinking is so entrenched that I don’t get that pause to stand back and reflect. I continue to struggle but it’s a struggle I enjoy – the small victories seem more and more often like heroic Trojan battles won from inside my Green Mile.
Anxiety is utterly misunderstood. If someone tells you that they have anxiety or are having an anxiety attack, be kind. Don’t dismiss them. It’s not trendy, or cool, or an easy out. It arises from serious emotional and mental trauma, and it hurts. So much so, that at times it seems easier not to live at all, than to have to live with it.
But then, who ever said life was easy?