It was July of 2017 or thereabouts. London was melting in another heatwave and the office air conditioning had broken, which wasn’t helping anything. I was eight months into my dream internship in the music industry and it was even more ridiculous than I could ever have imagined. I had all manner of stories to tell from the past year, from running around the corner shops of Maida Vale trying to find Fiji water for a band who wouldn’t drink anything else, to sitting next to Oli Sykes in a cinema while eating a quinoa salad and drinking free whiskey. To anyone else, it sounded like I was having the time of my life.
But my every day reality was 127 unread emails, 13 missed calls on my personal phone, a desk covered in pink post-it notes that said things like ‘URGENT’, ‘CALL MANAGER’ and ‘SEND BEFORE 3PM TODAY’, and no concept of what a lunch break looked like. On this particular afternoon, I’d just been asked to do the impossible yet again: find a room for twelve people for a meeting in half an hour’s time (when all of the rooms in the building were already booked and no meetings could be moved). Compared to other things I’d been tasked with before, this was not an outrageous request – but it was one thing too many for my brain to handle that day. I couldn’t feel my face and my heart was hammering so hard against my ribcage that it felt like somebody was punching me repeatedly from the inside. ‘Feels’ was playing on the radio for the fifth time that day and it was clashing horribly with some indie electronic noises coming from the A&R room. I couldn’t pick one single coherent thought out of my head, couldn’t remember what day it was, and before I knew it I had walked out of the building, past Whole Foods on Kensington High Street and into a sweltering Hyde Park.
I laid down under a tree and stared at the cloudless blue sky. Anxiety had no business bothering me when the weather was this lovely. I rolled over onto my stomach and picked at the grass, imagining I was plucking the bad stuff out of my head. All I ended up doing was making myself sneeze. I must have done this for a while, because when I got back to the office my fingers were green and dirty. I remember scrubbing my hands in the sink until they were red raw. I don’t remember anything else from this day. I have probably blocked it out of my memory, because I imagine it didn’t end very well, considering I bailed mid-task. The next thing from this month that I remember is sitting in my GP’s office, with a cheap fan wafting hot air over my sticky thighs. She made lots of sympathetic “hmmm” noises and signed me off work for two weeks.
I felt like a failure. I spent the fortnight pottering around the garden at my parents’ house, baking raisin flapjacks and re-reading old books outside in the sunshine feeling shame. Everyone working in music is stressed and stretched beyond their limits; I had no reason to be hyperventilating in the work toilets and dissociating in label meetings. I was doing a job that thousands of people would have killed for, and things were going well for me. As everyone kept saying.
I returned to work gradually, on reduced hours. It was awkward and painful. People hovered by my desk silently when they wanted to ask me something. My phone stopped ringing. Nobody asked me anything that wasn’t strictly work related. I wasn’t involved in office jokes any more. I sloped around taking promo CDs to the post room and processing invoices from festival season wishing I’d just stayed away.
I was acutely aware I hadn’t handled things very well. I should have spoken up earlier, asked people not to call me on my personal phone after 7pm, or said that I needed time to walk around the block at lunch time each day. But firstly, I was at the bottom of the food chain in a very big, very fast-paced and very loud industry – I’d signed up for stress. I had no right to ask for peace and order. Secondly, this bout of anxiety was not something I saw coming. Mental health problems, in my experience, are not as simple as spraining your ankle, looking down and realising that it’s purple and puffy and concluding that you should ask to work from home for a few days. I was aware that I was under pressure, but the anxiety symptoms crept up on me so quietly that they’d dug their claws well into my skin before I felt any pain. By the time I realised that I had checked into room 303 at The Iffy Place, I was far too scrambled to handle anything in the proper way. I just had to get out of the chaos.
It shouldn’t have been uncomfortable to talk to my family and friends about this. I had taken an extended trip to The Iffy Place’s sister resort, The (Very) Bad Place, in 2013, when I had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, which almost resulted in me dropping out of university. This was no secret, and I’d always been open about my mental health from that point onwards. But it was the very fact that I’d had a bad bout of anxiety and depression before that made this time round so much harder to explain. I felt ashamed and silly. Hadn’t I beaten it? Wasn’t I stronger now?
Some people who have nervous breakdowns may have treatment, recover, and may never be visited by a mental health problem again in their lifetime. And good for them. But that wasn’t the case for me, and isn’t for a lot of people. I have an anxious brain. Sometimes it gnaws at me for days on end. Sometimes it doesn’t. I am not fixed, but I am not broken either.
I’ve shared my own writings about my anxious brain several times before, and every time I’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback. People have told me I’m brave and strong and an inspiration. And that’s very kind and nice of them to say. Really it is. But nobody called me brave when I cancelled dinner plans because I didn’t feel present in my own body. Nobody called me strong when I left halfway through a gig without saying goodbye because I felt the walls closing in on me. Nobody called me inspirational when I dug my nails so hard into my arm that it started bleeding.
Everybody wanted a reason for my for my anxiety, and more often than not I didn’t have one. I don’t have a list of triggers. I don’t particularly like big crowds or noisy clubs, but they don’t always make me have a panic attack. And on that, panic attacks don’t take the same form on every person, and not everyone with anxiety has panic attacks. (Some people have anxiety attacks, which are different to panic attacks, and can last for days or months). Anxiety is a big, umbrella term which encompasses several disorders, including Panic Disorder, OCD and PTSD among others. Anxiety is not just feeling worried, just as depression is not just feeling sad. I have been diagnosed with both anxiety and depression, but I don’t actually feel worried or sad that much, which often makes me feel like the things I experience aren’t valid. For me, the symptoms that affect me the most are:
- Depersonalisation and derealisation (I have depersonalisation constantly – it is a matter of how much or little I notice it)
- Brain fog
- Emotional detachment
- Intrusive thoughts
- Health anxiety
- Memory blanks
- Tingling fingers
- Numb face
- Heavy head feeling
- Heartbeat that feels too hard and too fast
The same mental illness can be experienced differently by everyone who is diagnosed with it, and there is no one treatment or way of helping someone that works in every case. Medication didn’t help me – it only exacerbated some of my symptoms – but I have friends who’ve really benefitted from it. I’ve seen some people be very comforted by a hug during a panic attack, but I personally don’t like anyone coming within a metre radius of me because it makes me feel trapped, no matter how well-meaning their intentions are. If five people sprain their knee playing football, you can be pretty sure they’ll all respond well to the RICE method, and recover at about the same rate. Mental health is as important as physical health, but it’s a completely different field to navigate. You can’t RICE someone’s brain.
The conversation around mental health is slowly improving, but we are well behind where we should be. Mental Health Awareness Week/Month/Day is great, but it’s not enough. Congratulate people for sharing their mental health struggles and successes this month by all means, but remember to check in on them next month too. Try to understand and offer support if someone cancels plans on you – I can guarantee they aren’t happy about doing it. Feel how you’re feeling and let others do the same. The bad and strange feelings will barge their way into your brain one way or another; it takes more energy to force them out. There isn’t always an obvious reason for feeling a certain way and there doesn’t have to be. You can feel sad watching your favourite band play at a festival with a beer in your hand. You can feel worried sunbathing on the most beautiful beach in Barbados. You can feel irritated sitting on a plush lounger at a spa in a fluffy white robe.
I won’t end this by saying that everything is fantastic now and that I have no iffy feelings at all. That’s the narrative everybody wants, but it isn’t real. I do mostly hang out in The Good Place. I’ve been spending most of my time there this year, after deciding to hold the door open to my life and let some good things walk in and some other bad things walk out. But sometimes things get sticky. I have been to The Bad Place and The Iffy Place, and I may visit there again. This is the way of life. Things happen. Brains are wonderful and complicated. I won’t always be fine. And that doesn’t make me a failure, it just makes me human.