Today, I am five weeks medication free. After having gradually weaned off of Sertraline for about eight weeks or so, I'm now free of the stuff completely. If you've ever been on any form of long-term medication, particularly an anti-depressant or something similar, you are probably well aware of the strenuous journey of going on it and them coming off of it - it ain't easy.
When I first completely stopped Sertraline, my emetophobia started working overtime, and I had constant worries about how I would manage, questions about if I was ready for it, etc. At first, I felt okay, thanks to weaning off gradually. My sleep pattern was a bit all over the shop at times, but it was just about tolerable if I made sure I took lots of breaks and rested when I needed to. Plus, I had the incredible support of family and friends, who would help me celebrate my achievements with tea and cake! But about two/three weeks ago now, since being completely free of Sertraline, I have undoubtedly felt the difference. It's worth nothing that personal circumstances in my life have probably heightened my anxiety anyway, but these past few weeks have almost amazed me in how different my anxiety levels have been.
Every day over the past fortnight/three weeks I have experienced AT LEAST one full blown panic attack a day. I'm not talking an anxiety attack, I'm talking I-can't-breathe-my-hands-are-sweating-I'm-going-to-die-type panic attack. A lot of the time there's no trigger, which is probably the biggest factor that upsets me. If I can't identify the source, I can't try and work towards changing my attutude towards it, right? I can recognise factors that certainly have a small impact - changes to temperature (going from a cold to a hot classroom, for example), eating too much food/not the right stuff and not getting enough sleep certainly makes me more vulnerable, but sometimes, I can be sitting at my desk, or sitting in class, and WHAM! It's like this tidal wave of nausea and "impending doom" washing over me, making me feel as though I am losing touch with all of reality. I'm no longer "Kim" in that moment, I'm just a body of nervous energy. And all I can do is run - I run out of the class, or leave my desk, and the next thing I know, I'm curled up in a ball outside, sitting on the concrete in the freezing cold as it's the only way I can "snap" back to reality. And these crippling attacks can last anywhere from 10 - 30 minutes, with the after-effects writing me off for the rest of the day. Take yesterday for example - two big attacks before 1pm that were so bad I had to come home from college and I ended up kipping for four hours (I don't sleep in the day, not ever, so I must have needed it!).
I apologise for the depressing nature of this next bit, but it's important that I'm honest with myself - this crippling, debilitating, awful experience with anxiety has left me feeling like a bit of a shell of myself to be frank about it. I'm starting to lose weight as I'm too scared to eat. I can't commit to anything "just in case" I can't manage it.
Let me give you some stats (nothing official, but everyone loves figures I guess) - my resting heart rate is around about 70 beats a minute. During a panic attack, this, for me, goes up to around 90 on average. Bearing in mind I'm not doing any physical activity during an attack, that's a big leap for me (it'll be different for everyone). It's absolutely exhausting having this two to three times a day, especially as my heart rate won't return to normal for sometimes a good couple of hours.
The worst thing is that my anxiety now feeds off my anxiety. The anticipation of another panic attack is enough to kick-start one, and no matter how hard I try and reason with myself, there's a part of my mind that just won't listen and will have a little freak out regardless. And of course those living with anxiety will know how this can trigger a low mood. I feel tearful a lot, my self-esteem is pretty darn poor, and I'm struggling to keep up with everything. Despite this, when I do try to knuckle down, my concentration and focus has gone out the window and I procrastinate. Cue Angry Kimberley. It's a vicious circle.
"When will this end?"
"Why can't I just get on with it?"
"Why am I such a bad person?"
I now ask myself these questions all the time, particularly during or shortly after an attack. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing friend at college with me today though during my most recent attack, who made me realise that my anxiety is also making me extremely critical of myself. As my friend said, it's only been five weeks! I've been on medication for years and five weeks isn't long enough for my system to "restore" yet. I must give it time to recover. She's right, these things can't be rushed, and all I can hold on to is those moments in between attacks and give myself more praise for those little conquerings.
And do you know what? Following that conversation with her today, I had my shortest panic attack in the past couple of weeks. Even though I had to jump up and run out the classroom and touch walls (don't ask, it's the only thing that grounds me sometimes!), the whole thing lasted about 30 minutes. I then endured the rest of my Sociology class - that's just not even been possible for me recently following an attack. So today, I'm going to hold on to that. I'm going to accept that today, I did bloody well and no one can say anything to make me feel different.
Anxiety is hard. REALLY hard. I've learnt recently how it can devastate lives, how it can stop you from functioning, from living at all. It's so scary, and unless you've experienced it, you won't understand the amount of fear, shame and exhaustion that it entails.
But if you're reading this, and like me you feel as though sometimes you ARE your anxiety, and that there is nothing else to your life, then you're wrong, you are so wrong. There is hope. I'm not saying there's an overnight cure. For most of us with anxiety, it's deep-rooted in such a way that digging it all up means things have to get worse before they get better. But we must hold on to those things that seem so small, as they mean so much. Today, my one positive is that I only had one full blown panic attack and a couple of mild anxiety attacks. For some people, that's not progress, but to me, it means the absolute world.
Please, if you are suffering from the effects of anxiety, don't do it alone. There is help and support available to you, and you are not alone. Anxiety makes you feel as though the whole world is against you some days, as though you're the only one feeling this, the only one going through it, but you're not. There are millions of people who do, and we must fight this together.
Please, stay strong.
Further Information and Support
Mind - Anxiety and Panic Attacks
YoungMinds - Anxiety in Children and Young People