I saw the hashtag #growingupwithanxiety was trending on Twitter the other day and had a look through, and what I saw brought back so many memories and it inspired me to write about it.
The things I remember most vividly about my school years was the panic.
I can remember being about 7 years old, my mum would drop me off in the school playground at 9am in the morning and disappear inside to the staff room (she worked as a teaching assistant there). I’d feel panic, although at that age I didn’t know that’s what it was, rise up inside of me and I’d burst into tears. I felt sick, terrified, my mind flooded with ‘what ifs’. What if mum forgets me and goes home without me? What if I get lost leaving the classroom and somehow don’t make it out to meet her by the gates? Considering we lived a short walk of about two minutes from the school in a perfectly safe little village, all of these thoughts were totally irrational.
I can remember feigning sickness so many times in school to excuse my crying and shaking. At Brownie camp (yep, Brownie camp, I kid you not!) within a day and a half I was in tears, my heart rate seemed to increase, I felt sick and sweaty and it washed over me in waves. One minute I’d be ok, the next I’d be crying. I was home sick to the extreme and my parents picked me up on day two of the five day excursion because I couldn’t handle it anymore, and five phone calls home in tears was enough.
The first time I was left home alone I was around 8 years old. Mum left the house for about twenty minutes to walk down the road to pick my brother up from Scouts. It was dark outside, I stayed calm for the first five minutes or so but after that it felt like hours and the panic attacks started again. I can remember racing outside and banging hastily on our next door neighbours front door, by the time she answered I was crying, panicking, “Mum went out and she’s not back yet!”. It seems silly now, but at the time it was terrifying.
A similar thing happened aged 11, I went on holiday with a friend and her family during the Christmas holidays, she’d decided she wanted to take a friend to visit her grandma on the Isles of Scilly and so I went with. The first night I was shivering uncontrollably, it was freezing cold in the shabby little house but that’s not really why I was shaking. Those same feelings of sickness, the weird feeling in my tummy like I was on a roller coaster, the sweating and shaking and thinking of home was coming over me in waves yet again and then the crying started. It pissed my friend off, I felt guilty and they seemed to get increasingly annoyed with me but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know at the time, and nor did anyone else I suspect, but I was suffering with anxiety.
I couldn’t tell you why I was affected with it from such a young age, there is no particular reason that stands out in my mind. At 6 years old my Grandma died and because we had been living with her in her house we had to sell up and move away. My parents decided on a change of scenery and we moved several hours away. It was a completely new environment, a new school and a new set of faces. Perhaps that’s what made me slightly more fragile than most kids of that age? I’ve really no idea. I had a great childhood, nothing traumatic happened to me, I can’t think of any good reason for it, perhaps I was just unlucky.
With the anxiety came shyness and with shyness came bullying. I didn’t have a huge amount of friends, I kept myself to myself and was incredibly socially awkward. In a lot of ways, I still am. I was a tomboy, and had my hair cut very short at a young age and I wore boyish clothes and played boyish games. As a result I got called names for being different and as I grew older the bullying grew with me and I just became this universal easy target for people across the whole school, whether they knew me or not. I don’t think I did anything wrong, I don’t think I said or did anything to encourage the nastiness apart from being myself and having short hair and being a little bit chubby.
I had a very small handful of close friends in school, especially in the first few years of secondary school. My best friend, Heather, was pretty much the only person I hung out with and if she wasn’t there I’d feel lost and scared. One morning she didn’t turn up to the bus stop, she was at home ill. Immediately I started to panic about what I’d do at break time, how would I cope being on my own with no one to talk to? That day I ended up eating my lunch in the toilet. Gross, I know. I shut myself in a cubicle and ate my lunch quietly so that I didn’t have to be seen sitting alone in the canteen.
The next big knock back was when I was about 13. This is when my fear of public speaking, which by the way NO ONE takes seriously, first began. I used to play the piano, I used to be quite good at it actually and I was taking part in a talent show. I’d performed in front of small crowds before and although I’d get a few nerves it was nothing major and it never got in the way of my playing. As I sat down at the piano this time though I saw them, right there in the front row. Three girls in the year above me had taken it upon themselves to make my life a misery for some reason (it’s the easy target thing I’m sure it is!) they’d been at it for about a year at this point, following me around, shoving me through doors and calling me names. They’d even got hold of my phone number and started sending me texts outside of school to make me feel extra intimidated. Two of them were sat right in the front row, right opposite me and the first panic attack that I’d had in years suddenly washed over me. I froze, my neck stiffened and I could barely move. I was trembling visibly all over, sweating and hot and I felt sick. My vision blurred and in my panic I played a piss easy piece and humiliated myself in front of them; I could have shown them what I could do, that would have shut them up, but instead I shied away, let the panic take over, messed up and made myself look even more pathetic. Which, of course, they loved.
A year later I began to notice I was developing a crippling fear of public speaking. The same thing would happen; I’d freeze and be unable to move, I’d tremble all over and have horrible panic attacks. In the lead up to any presentation at school I would go into fight or flight mode and I’d concoct ridiculous escape plans to get out of it, all the while the panic would get worse. This continued throughout university, although I turned to alcohol by that time and used that to calm my nerves, no stranger to drinking wine at 8am before a big presentation! Not good, I know, but that’s a whole other story.
It went on through uni and I still do struggle with it now although I am now capable of standing up in front of an audience and speaking without having a panic attack, which believe me is a huge achievement after over 7 years of crippling fear and anxiety! No one gets the public speaking fear, they often say ‘well I get nervous too but you just have to get on with it!’ brilliant, thanks, great advice…as if I hadn’t tried to ‘just get on with it’ before. Luckily I seem to have overcome my fears these days and I’ve grown in confidence a lot since I graduated uni, but that’s not to say it’s been easy!
Anxiety is a nasty beast, it affects people differently and generally you’ll struggle to find someone who understands what you’re going through fully. It can be frustrating, but don’t let it get in your way. It is possible to overcome it, it takes time and unfortunately it takes a few slip ups too but you will get there. There is light at the end of the tunnel, your struggle isn’t for nothing 🙂