I am one of the lucky ones.
That’s funny to say, now. I wouldn’t have considered myself lucky a few years ago, when I thought I’d never be free of anxiety. I never thought there would be a day when I wasn’t plagued by thoughts of harming myself or just ending it all, or when I’d go to bed without having to call someone so the anxiety would finally dissipate enough for me to sleep.
For years I kept this tightrope balancing act going without really making anyone fully aware, besides my girlfriend and online strangers. My teachers, family and the (few) friends were unaware the extent to which anxiety consumed me. I kept my grades high so no one would notice; it was the only thing I had going for me, anyway.
But that came at a price. By the time I went to university, I had panic attacks every time I sat down to work because of the pressure I’d increasingly put on myself to do well. I needed constant support and reassurance from others just to function. This was especially bad with romantic partners; I made constant pro/con lists, had endless conversations with people to try and get away from whatever made me anxious, some lasting hours where I would be paralysed with indecision about just attending a social event. I couldn’t eat and was up for hours sometimes circling the drain. I couldn’t seem to talk about anything else. I just desperately wanted the feelings to go.
I wasn’t on meds, but I was trying to get counselling from any service I could, eventually doing CBT online and later having talking therapy. I knew about CBT already from my desperate attempts to manage my mental health. It’s become a kind of catch all treatment for a lot of mental health conditions. For me, however — I used CBT as a compulsion. Obsessively labelling thoughts, writing them down and judging them as “distorted”. ‘But I’m doing so much work!’ I kept saying. ‘Why aren’t I better?’ Ironically, I didn’t understand how the considerable effort I was putting into trying to control anxiety was making things worse.
Then my girlfriend broke up with me in 2016 and all hell broke loose.
Losing someone that important to me seemed to finally jam it into my head that things needed to change. I started to do more research, unable to understand why I just couldn’t seem to turn the anxiety ‘off’. I always asked myself why I couldn’t just be ‘better’, as though I was deliberately choosing to be this way. I discovered a subreddit about Relationship OCD by accident, and things started to click into place.
I knew I’d had anxiety, for sure, but OCD had felt like something ‘extreme’ and dare I say, untouchable. ‘I couldn’t possibly have OCD, I don’t wash my hands obsessively/having counting compulsions/other stereotypical compulsion here’. Regardless of whether I was developing OCD or not in the past — I was never officially diagnosed, and personally I think I caught it before things got to that point — I investigated its treatment. I learned about ERP; I learned about ACT, and received private therapy from an ACT-based therapist. I found books and videos about it, discovering that everyone does compulsions sometimes albeit some to extremes. I could apply the techniques from ERP and ACT to act according to my values, while feeling whatever I was feeling at the time.
It changed everything. I stopped trying so hard. I stopped feeling ashamed of myself for having anxiety. I stopped seeing anxiety as something I needed to be rid of.
I still feel it — I still have a way to go in living how I’d want to — but I am not ruled by it, anymore. At the very least I’m willing to go out and embrace it instead of running from it.
One of my aims in life now, is to promote awareness of how to have good mental health. Right now all we focus on is preventing bad mental health, and they’re not the same thing. Things were bad for me but I’ve read enough stories and met enough people with various conditions to know it could have been so much worse. I am aware that me being able to get help when I did is largely a matter of luck, timing, and resources — but I also didn’t have those things early on in my life.
We know what bad physical health leads to, and we are aware what a healthier physical lifestyle looks like. But most people have no idea how to cultivate good mental health. I am lucky that I caught it early enough.
But others aren’t so lucky.