It's not nice.
We all experience it now and then, it's a part of life, a survival instinct that has served humanity well. But what happens when the fear never goes away? That was my life until a few short months ago, living with chronic anxiety. In situations where any random person would be scared, I was terrified and I didn't have a clue that it wasn't normal. Oh I knew, but I thought other people were just better at disguising it; or they were emotionally empty.
I had no idea how ill I was, and to be frank I feel let down by the system which has spent 20 years dishing out medication for my symptoms. My medication is great, I should add. The physical manifestations of panic are pretty debilitating and I don't miss the sweats and arrhythmia one bit. But it doesn't deal with the underlying issues, and I've not found any form of talking therapy helpful - though I'm ready to re-examine that position.
My first memory of anxiety was at junior school, aged around seven. One lunchtime I was convinced I was going to die unless I kept taking sips of water. The school called my mum and she came and took me home. And then it began. I worried that the air would run out, that we were going to be bombed by Russia any second, that I'd drown one day when liquid went down the wrong tube.
I still have occasional flashbacks to that scenario when drinking a cup of tea or coffee and find myself unable to swallow. It passes, but it's ironic that one of the side-effects of the beta blockers is occasionally producing too much saliva can cause a little spasm of the tongue, flicking liquid down the trachea and being unable to breathe as the throat closes to stop any more liquid entering. Try that when you're hyper-anxious, sometimes I don't know how I coped!
It was decided that I was badly behaved after a few doctors’ visits, we didn't talk about the violent, alcoholic father who saw me as a sissy. Real men could fix a nuclear power plant - he was a navy engineer officer - real men didn't annoy their fathers, they learned how to fix stuff and if their nagging wives and ungrateful kids didn't like him coming home drunk, then who were we to judge him?
And then the Falklands happened and I watched the TV and saw my dad's ship get hit by an Exocet and bombed. He survived, but came home more of a drunk and a bully. If he saw me, he would kick out or sneer at me. He used to take me running along the seafront because I was unfit, kicking me every now and then to force me along. A woman once followed us home and threatened to call social services - she was sent away, and if she called them, I certainly didn't notice. I was ten.
At eleven, I was sent to a military boarding school and the depression began. I disappeared into books to escape the bullying and didn't re-appear until a few months ago. During the intervening near thirty years since I left school, broken but defiant, I have had no life. I am unable to form healthy relationships and the longest I've held on to a girlfriend was around eight months. And that was only because she lived in the same block as me and I couldn't avoid her! And that's what it comes down to. I avoided life.
Every so often the Jobcentre would find me work and I'd try and do it to the best of my abilities, but as I was unable to look anybody in the eye and have a serious aversion to micro-management, especially when loyalty is expected in return for £7.50 an hour of being talked down to, I walk. Anything to end the sleepless nights and constant dread.
I just wanted to be left alone, interaction of any kind became hellish and I applied for ESA. Thus began the worst period of my life. I'm pretty erudite, I'm very well read and apart from the odd lurch into psychosis now and then, I have no cognitive impairment and recognise intrusive thoughts and scenarios. It's no less exhausting, but I'm generally aware. Atos didn't give me a chance. I described my life and received zero points on the assessment.
Convinced that I'd made a mistake and really must be fine, the 'doctor's’ report said there was nothing wrong with me, I re-joined the workforce. Naturally that didn't last, and after speaking to my doctor, she signed me off and advised me to apply for ESA again. I got zero points. This time I was angry. I couldn't function, only left the flat a couple of times a week and was sleeping for twenty hours then staying up for two days reading until I crashed again.
I decided to appeal and went to the local MIND. To be frank, they were less than helpful. They explained that as I was appealing a decision against ESA and wasn't in receipt of the benefit, they couldn't really help. This made me really angry, but it also focused me, and I was able to set out my appeal based on the verifiable untruths and contradictions within the report. The judge was appalled and granted me Work Related ESA, but offered me ESA on the Support Group rate if I wanted.
I was actually feeling positive after eleven months of constant, crippling anxiety and had decided to commit suicide if my appeal was turned down. That being the case I was incredibly happy and decided that I'd like to be in the Work Related group as apparently there would be supported and tailored help to return to the workforce, about which, more in a while. A month after the appeal win, I received a recall to Atos. They gave me a new assessment, and I got zero points.
I appealed with the help of my doctor, who was pretty angry and after waiting another seven months sat in front of a judge and retired psychiatrist, who after reading my paperwork was outraged on my behalf, and reprimanded Atos and the DWP in the judgement, ruling that an appeal win is equivalent to a medical assessment and to be called a month after the event was a breach of my rights.
I really ought to have looked into compensation, but he ordered that I not be assessed for at least a year from the date of the order. Shortly after that, life began looking up again. I was on more effective medication, and so when I was called in to take part on a government scheme to help people back to work I went along anxious, but excited. If I could just get a job which understood I would probably have a few days off each month with a boss who oversaw, but didn't intervene unless there was an issue seemed difficult, but not unobtainable. I'd had that before.
Unfortunately I did so well I was promoted and worked under a disrespectful corporate type with no empathy or brains. But that's another story. It was a nightmare. The scheme was a one size fits all monstrosity. I literally had to sit there filling out job applications and going to classes on how to fill out a CV. This wasn't support tailored to my needs. This was government abrogating their responsibilities so their corporate mates could make a few quid while they claimed to be dealing with the situation.
One day I couldn't face it, so I phoned them to say that I was unwell and hadn't slept, and so wouldn't be going. They told me I would be sanctioned if I didn't go. So I emailed my trainer and told her that due to illness, I would be unable to make our session later that day. I apologised, but reminded her that it was the nature of my illness. She phoned me up and said she had recommended I be sanctioned. When I laughed at her down the phone, she was confused. I explained she couldn't sanction me as I was on ESA and was unable to attend due to the condition for which I was receiving ESA. I had apologised and sent my excuses at the first available moment, and she didn't have a leg to stand on. In that spirit, I complained to management that their staff were badly trained, authoritarian and were not qualified to work with people on ESA.
They tried to sanction me, the DWP were unable (though I suspect not unwilling) to sanction me, and I sent them a formal letter saying that I was withdrawing from their course due to my mental health issues being exacerbated by their lack of professionalism. I heard nothing more from them. So back to work I went. It didn't work out, my medication kept going up, and it still does. I chop and change as it becomes less effective, my doctor recognises that I have insight and we've experimented with various combinations and doses of meds. I'm currently on beta blockers and Sertreline. It's supposed to make me less anxious, which it does without being too numbing, but it only keeps me stable when things are regular. Abrupt changes to my routine, being in large social groups or just visiting friends will set me off, making me just want to go home and isolate. It's my default and safety net and I suspect it always will be.
Eventually I had to re-apply for ESA. This time it was Maximus and a trained assessor liased properly with my doctor and concluded I had chronic lifelong anxiety. I'm still on ESA, it gives me a chance to minimise my exposure to people and anxious situations and has given me a secure platform from which to fight this. And things were getting better. I got a dog. He has his own issues, but together we have become calmer and stronger.
You can't lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself when the dog needs to go out. As I don't have a garden, then I have to take him walkies. He's quite highly strung, due to socialisation issues before I got him, so we've had to work on calmness and patience between us, with the help of a superb trainer at our classes.
I've lost a bunch of weight, and I'm fitter than I've been for decades.
But the anxiety, the fear. It was always there.
Then one day a friend of mine changed my life. I was sitting in her front room, twitching and unable to sit still and feeling uncomfortable, even though it was just me going round for a coffee. She gave me a drop of CBD and within a minute I felt something inside myself go away. The dread, it just went. Just like that. Oh there was and still is anxiety. But this stuff truly is miraculous.
I can look people in the eyes, I can read body language and I'm not walking round in a constant terror of the slightest little thing. This brings its own issues, I'm dealing with a lot of anger and buried memories and it's actually quite difficult to deal with which is why I'm open to talking therapy again. But some central part of myself is back. Sometimes it's tenuous, sometimes it's confusing, but I feel happiness without the terror that it will be torn away from me any second and I didn't realise life could be like that.
My penname is REMF! I sit on the sidelines and bitch!!!