Imagine you’ve found yourself in a Dark Room. Whilst you recognise it as a somewhere you’ve been before, the sheer size of it and the lack of light means you only have a passing acquaintance with its dimensions. You don’t know just how big it is, or whether a single step beyond what you’re used to will send you plummeting to your death, or whether something in the corner is lying in wait for you. You have every reason to suspect that there might be. After all, there are other people in this Dark Room, people whose faces are obscured, people who make unfriendly noises and whisper threats every single time you make a step. It’s not often they carry out their threats, but sometimes if you take a step too far, they’ll push you, shove you, hit you, just enough to give you an impression of their strength, not something you want to push to the limits judging by how it feels.
And each time they’ll sneer and mutter derisively about how you brought this upon yourself.
They could well be right – after all, you never planned to be here. But every so often you find yourself back here, through no planning and no foresight, with no expectation to arrive. You don’t even know you got back here, but back here you are, and it’s your fault. Surely, you have to find a way out?
Well, you are aware of a way out, and it’s the way you’ve used when you’ve been here before. A panelled door, with the slightest of lights from the outside world finding its way in. The door is not often in the same place, and often you’ll have to take drastic steps to find it, but it’s there. And you can see much friendlier faces on the other side, assuring you that stepping through the door is all you need to do.
It should be so inviting, so pleasant. But you fear the door almost as much as you fear the Dark Room.
Because the door is unpredictable, not only in its location, but also in its mechanism. Sometimes it will be harder to open than others, sometimes the process of allowing you through it will be marked with booby traps and hidden dangers that only allow you to leave once you are bleeding and shell-shocked. Sometimes it will be easy to open and you leave feeling rather foolish by how much it concerned you. But one day, you’re sure, based on what you’ve heard, that the door will just refuse to open, and the message will be clear: you have to stay in this Dark Room forever. Never again will you be on the other side in the light and with those you care about. In that situation, why not take many drastic steps you’re not used to, and allow the Dark Room to take you to your death?
For whatever reason, the people on the other side of the door don’t understand why you can’t just open it and join them, and still others scoff at the way you fear the Dark Room, thinking you’re just a coward. Generally speaking, this is from those who’ve never been in the Dark Room themselves. So far, you have left the Dark Room consistently, and among the pleasant warmth of the light and the friendlier faces, you have often begun to feel ashamed with the way you felt before. But of course, you’re fully aware you’ll be back in the Dark Room one day, possibly when you least expect it, and then you have to go through it all over again.
That passage above is my current best attempt at illustrating what it’s like to live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. I’m fully aware that my experience might not be exactly the same as everyone else’s, and yes, there were a few mixed metaphors in the description above, what with actual worry being used to illustrate worry, but you know, I’m still hoping that one day my writing will actually be better.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, I think it’s important that I share my experiences, just in case there are other people who need this kind of thing to help them through whatever they are currently experiencing. Whilst this is a fairly recent diagnosis, it doesn’t seem to be a recent incursion. These symptoms have been familiar to me for years.
So, what is GAD? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s characterised primarily by worry – and I know that everyone worries to some degree, but what makes GAD distinct is the nature of excessive worry, worry that comes to you virtually all the time, so much that you often can’t think of a single action taken even in the ordinariness of everyday life without worrying about something, even something tiny. Furthermore, there’s the nature of uncontrollable worry, that you often can’t dismiss the concerns outright without extensive research, or even just taking the plunge and doing the damn thing. Even worse is when you find yourself worrying about that which you have no control over, like the possibility of catching something contagious, or the ramifications of hawkish geopolitics on the other side of the world (thanks Trump, you fucking half-witted tool). And you’ll always get those people who’ll say, ‘Well, you can’t do anything about it, so you don’t need to worry.’
OK, come on, guys. I know you mean well, but this as about as helpful as saying to someone who has injured themselves rather badly, ‘you don’t need to bleed.’ Not needing to worry doesn’t stop us from doing it. Telling us to stop worrying is also about as helpful as telling an injured person to stop bleeding. If we had any control over it, we would have stopped by now.
Another notable point about GAD is the notion of irrational worry. We are fully aware that many of the things we worry about are so unlikely to happen that it would be reasonable to call them impossible, but we have those uncertain voices in our ears, the proverbial unfriendly people in the Dark Room whispering to us, ‘but what if…?’ ‘But you never know…’ ‘There’s always a first time…’ And this is often enough to stop me, at least, in my tracks.
So, if GAD causes, essentially, worrying all the time, then what’s the deal with this Dark Room? Surely a fitting analogy would be someone stuck in that room all the time? Well, not quite. Again, just talking about my own experiences here, but whilst I do worry all the time, there are often cases where I can sedate it with a ‘well, I’ll be able to sort it by doing this,’ in that the worry seems so distant, or hypothetical enough at the given time, that I can put it to the back of my mind in some situations, so it’s not directly affecting everything I do. However, this is equivalent, I would say, to constantly being in trepidation of being back in the Dark Room, because I always know it’s there, waiting, often catching me unawares, usually as the result of something unexpected happening to complicate my concerns. And that’s when everything begins, because when I lose all sense of rational thought. This unexpected something is insurmountable. It’s the my worst fears confirmed all in one event, because it can or will lead to this, and then this, and then this, and I can’t do anything about it, because this, and this, and no, I do need to worry about it, because this, and this, and no there’s no point in carrying because this, and this, and oh my fucking god, it’s over, what the fuck am I going to do?
This is when I become insufferable. My nearest and dearest are probably very familiar with that particular mindset, when I act as though the world is ending because of something that you’d probably dismiss as trivial, or problematic, but not hugely. Or at least, you wonder why I don’t just do the thing you suggest about it. Well, I’d love to. But then this might happen, and then this. Or my fears will go from hypothetical to absolutely certain, and I’ll be well and truly fucked. In the bizarre, masochistic tango I have with GAD, sometimes the uncertainty is helpful, because if I haven’t examined that glimmer of hope to discover it’s just an illusion, and maybe, just for a moment, I can entertain the possibility that everything still might be OK.
For those who have to deal with me in those cases, I want to apologise and thank those who are patient with me and recognise that these are things beyond my control.
So, what do I worry about? Well, as I said before, everything. But I’d say the two biggest things to steer me to the edge are the worries about my academic work (concerns I’m sure everyone gets), and probably the most severe, worries that the friends I care about and depend on are going to leave me.
Ridiculous, you might say. And yeah – I’m sure you’re right. My very closest friends would never do that, surely? They care about me too much. But still the doubts whisper, still any signs of no-contact for a certain number of days make me speculate on what could have happened, and I end up disgusted with myself for even daring to think like this. How can I doubt people who have been nothing but kind and loving to me? What have they done to deserve this treacherous mindset? Of course, it might not be their fault. Maybe they’ve died. Or maybe my messages to them haven’t got through. But if that’s the case, how will I stop them from thinking I’ve abandoned them? How else will I contact them? And what if my computer crashes and contact becomes impossible, even when I need them for next time I have a little breakdown?
And so it goes on. Sometimes, it’s even smaller things than that. The amount of times I’ve lost sleep over a noise in the house which means there’s an intruder, or that strange smell I came across before I went to bed means that there’s a noxious gas leak, or that the unfamiliar aches I’m feeling means my heart has failed. Or what about the time I was convinced that an incorrectly ordered reference in a bibliography essay meant I was going to fail my course? Or the many, many times when a strange blip happened on my PC meant that I could never do XYZ with it again? If I haven’t showed up to something I was invited to, chances are it’s not a reflection on you, it’s because I’ve been too worried about what might happen if I do. (Or I generally am just busy…)
If anyone’s reading this who hasn’t been diagnosed with GAD but recognises the major symptoms within themselves, I’d advise going making a doctor’s appointment, or potentially an appointment with a therapist who specialises in mental health. Knowing what it is that’s causing you so many problems is the first step on the road to making things better.
How has it worked with me? To be honest – not all that well. First, I went to a private therapist who most of the time ended up making me feel worse, not least because of the hefty prices I had to dish out following each session. Secondly, I went to an NHS service dealing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which managed to provide me with my diagnosis, and give me a few pointers on how to dissect the kind of worries I had, but otherwise didn’t seem to alleviate my particular concerns completely. With them of course I still had lingering worries, such as the concern that if I were late to a session for whatever reason, often by no fault of my own, they’d discontinue the sessions, and because I couldn’t contact them properly to let them know if I’d be late, I do remember one occasion being gripped by an anxiety attack, thanks to those who were supposed to be helping me relieve my anxiety.
Following that, my doctor prescribed me SSRIs, which, due to, yet again, worries I had (this time about the potential for long-lasting side-effects of the medication) prevented me from taking them for a while. Once I did, I didn’t experience any side-effects, but didn’t really experience much of anything. They certainly didn’t suppress my worries, just maybe occasionally dulled my reactions to them, which, whilst definitely helpful, didn’t leave me feeling much achieved.
The current situation is this – my doctor prescribed me some different SSRIs, which I’m currently too worried about the consequences of side effects to take, and I’ve been suggested looking for a slightly different CBT session to help me, but I’m too concerned about not finding that and not being able to do the dates they suggest to even take that step. And so, as is often the case, I’m avoiding the door to the Dark Room for fear of being let down by it, whilst simultaneously cursing myself for my cowardice.
You may be detecting a lot of resentment here, and it’s true. I hate the fact that I have to worry all the time, that there’s not a day that I can just take off from my worries. I hate the fact that all my attempts to keep them at bay have not worked, and in some cases have led to more worries. I hate the fact that I often can’t express why I feel so worried to people that might otherwise be able to help. I hate the fact that my family don’t always seem to recognise it as an illness and just dismiss it as something stupid I occasionally do. I hate the fact that I can’t always have the people who care about me and understand me the most by my side whenever I break down and need them the most. And, as pathetic as it sounds, I hate the fact that I don’t have a partner, i.e., someone whom I won’t feel guilty or invasive about sharing my innermost and deepest concerns with constantly, someone who can ensure me that even with my anxiety I’m still worth loving. And I seem to be incapable of getting one. What does that tell you?
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t to downplay the role my friends have played in making me feel important and consoling me when I need it, because you are so important in that and I love you more than can be accurately said. This is, I guess, one of the reasons I feel so guilty about off-loading everything onto you.
Virtually everyone, from my therapist, to my doctor, to many friends I’ve shared this with have told me that they’re sure I’ll defeat this some day. As grateful as I am for the optimism, I’m not sure I agree. Maybe it’s just that I can’t remember a time where I haven’t been a worrier, and so I can’t conceive of a time where that won’t be the case. So far, nothing seems to have helped, and my worries have just continued getting stronger. It may very well being the case that I’ll be like this for the rest of my life, going through a constant cycle or worry, panic, relief, then back to worry again. It’s a pretty bleak image, and yet the fact that it isn’t exclusively so does make me wonder. If amidst all this pain there are still times that I can feel calm, cared for, happy, even, then I don’t think it’s worth giving up. Not yet, anyway.
For all those who are struggling with mental health issues, please know that you’re not alone. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep about it necessarily getting better in the way you want, but I can tell you, without hesitation, that you’re not alone, and there are people out there who care for you, and will try and help you in every way you can.
That thought alone should be enough to make the Dark Room seem a little bit brighter.