This will be, for the moment, the last in our mental health series. We’re interrupting it to have a daily advent calendar, from 1 December on, with recipes, flash fiction, and random outbursts of art. Hope you’ll enjoy it!
Now over to Chloe Hammond, who tells us about life with anxiety, and how creativity helps her to pull through.
I have had periods throughout my life when my anxiety levels have been high. It was a huge relief when I realised that these feelings of stress weren’t logical, and were just my body’s reaction to too much cortisol over too long a period. I realised I didn’t have to take my worries at these times seriously; I learnt how to challenge them and learnt how much daily gratitude and reframing all my thoughts into the positive helped my mood. For example I would concentrate on what I did want to achieve rather than what I wanted to avoid. I also found that herbal remedies like valerian and 5htp helped me sleep, so the cycle would be broken and I’d get back on my feet in no time. Very few people were aware I had a problem at all, and as I got better and better at recognising the warning signs, I was able to help myself sooner and I knew enough to ignore or challenge the negative thoughts. I bought a hypnotism CD and used the relaxation tracks on that to soothe and relax me any time I felt my stress levels rising. In my lines of work you have to accept that stress is par for the course.
However, last year was abnormally stressful in both roles. It was consistently and persistently horrible in a wide array of ways. I felt my stress levels rising, and tried my usual techniques to calm myself, but I didn’t have long enough between each blow to recover. I found myself having extreme physical stress reactions to something as small as going into a shop. I remember one time in particular standing there in the middle of the entry way to the shop unable to decide whether I needed a trolley or a basket. Everything seemed too loud, too big, too close. The whole word was tilting and splintering off at crazy angles. I tried to remember what I was there for, but my brain just felt like a cold, lifeless lump of clay that wouldn’t respond to my desperate attempts to activate it to save me. My chest felt like it had been torn into a huge vacuum so I would never be able to get enough air, and without enough air, I was going to float away. The feeling only lasted a few minutes, but it was horrible, and from that point in May, until December when I finally sought out help, I didn’t feel like myself again.
I was absolutely exhausted, desperate for a good healing sleep so I could start a day at zero, instead of already exhausted and overwhelmed when I woke up. Every time I fell asleep I’d be woken up by terrifying dreams that were so vivid and realistic they shook my sense of self, as they decimated everything I held dear. Then I started hearing things in the middle of the night. Several times I got up and ran downstairs to let the police in in the middle of the night (not uncommon in my world), only for there to be no one there. I heard my phone alarm go off, or my phone ring. I heard the door bell, and people knocking on my bedroom door. All were just aural hallucinations. All woke me up with my heart pounding. It would happen several times a night, every time I fell into a deep sleep. It was like my brain was so used to frequent crises it was creating them before they happened, as though it was trying to take control in a very twisted way.
I tried all the things that normally worked for me, but instead of helping, they seemed to actually make things worse. It was as though as I relaxed and dropped my defences a twisted voice would come forward from inside me and whisper horrible things to me, that were utterly illogical, but shook me too my core. It was terrifying. I couldn’t trust my own head anymore. I tried giving it more time to see if I would get better on my own, but lack of sleep was impacting every area of my life. I had started bumbling my words, I’d think I was saying one thing, but something entirely different would come out of my mouth, or I would type something completely different from what I was supposed to be composing.
Finally I went to the doctors. I hate going to the doctors. I always expect them to treat me like I’m making a fuss over nothing- which was what happened when I went for my tests to diagnose Glandular Fever and Toxoplasmosis. This was very different though. As soon as I started telling the doctor what was happening to me I received his full and undivided attention. Which was scary! Then he asked me the suicide question. No! That was all wrong. I’m the one who asks that! I denied ever feeling suicidal. Which was of course untrue. I didn’t have any specific plan or anything, but I had been so miserable and exhausted for so long that death had started to appear like a more attractive option than life, if this is what the rest of my life was going to be like. I just wanted a rest.
The doctor immediately diagnosed anxiety and depression, and prescribed some antidepressants. I went and got into the car with my husband, crying too hard to even fill my prescription. I was supposed to be going straight to work, but once I had started crying it was impossible to stop. Eventually my boss told me to stay home for the day and my husband got my tablets and tucked me up in bed. The tablets were complete knock out drops. I had to take a week off work to try to learn how to function on them, but I couldn’t. I described my difficulties to my sister who explained she knew someone who had had the same problems, and suggested the name of one that she felt would be better for me. And indeed they were.
I still get bad days, sometimes I can’t sleep, sometimes I feel very low, but I’ve learned to just give myself a break on those days and ‘roll with it’. I’ll feel better in a day or so. One of the best decisions I made was to be completely open with everyone about what was happening to me. This is not my normal style, I’m normally a very closed book, and I only share information about myself carefully. However I have enough experience of supporting others with depression to know that depression likes to segregate it’s victims off, and I was determined that was not going to happen to me. The result has been suprising. When I’m open to others, they have responded by being open about their own experiences, and this has helped me feel less alone.
Ultimately I am grateful for this experience of hitting rock bottom. It has made me reassess my life, and concentrate on what is important to me, rather than trying to twist and contort myself to please others. The vivid dreams have presented me with a story to pursue- I dreamt several of the key scenes in Darkly Dreaming.
I dreamt the scenes and wrote them up because I felt compelled to. I had always planned to be an author. I just had a problem believing in myself enough to make the leap from one day to today. Feeling so low had left me at a point where I felt I had nothing to lose anyway, so I may as well have a go. I had a lot of extra time as well, seeing as I couldn’t sleep. I wrote up the back story to the scenes I’d dreamt, so that they would make sense, and I wrote a very basic plan of where I expected the novel to go.
Then I completely disregarded the plan and got hauled through the novel by the characters. It was such a relief to have something else to think about. I realised that the only times I slept well were when I wrote. If I had an idea for part of the story, but wasn’t sure how to get the characters there (stubborn so and sos!) I’d go and lie in the bath and picture them at the point I’d left them, and then imagine how they could end up where I needed them to be. Sometimes I’d manage to get them there, but just as often they’d demand a different course of action. Either way I felt hopeful again as I felt the story take place. I hadn’t told anyone I was writing. It was still a step too far to expose my secret hope. Most people knew I had always wanted to write, but I wasn’t going to tell them, in case I failed.
When I had written my first few chapters, I was having a self-doubting day, wondering if anyone would be interested in what I was writing. It was still a secret at this stage. No one at all knew I was even thinking about writing a book, never mind that I had started. I was at my hairdressers getting my hair done when I overheard a conversation between one of the other customers and her hairdresser; she was talking excitedly about her favourite vampire book, and I closed my eyes and imagined I was listening to her talking about my book. I imagined she was this excited about going home to read something I had written. The thought of giving someone so much uncomplicated pleasure kept me going anytime I doubted what I was doing.
I’ve been amazed by the help and support I received from both expected, and unexpected quarters. One thing I have learned from the whole experience is that I need to write. It is essential to my wellbeing to be creative.
Born in Liverpool in 1975, she grew up in West Wales. She studied Behavioural Sciences at the University of Glamorgan, but pestered her lecturers to allow her some modules of Creative Writing. Married, she now lives by the sea, just outside Cardiff, with two bonkers dogs and a suitably lazy cat. Diagnosed with anxiety and depression, she finally made time to write, finding writing a stimulation to help her through every crisis. She recently published her first novel, Darkly Dreaming.