It’s 10am on a Wednesday, I’m sat on the floor of a cupboard at work next to some routers and I’m weeping uncontrollably. I can’t breathe and I feel like nothing is more terrifying than the world outside this cupboard.
I have a wonderful job and I work with people I very genuinely call my friends. I’m just saying this to illustrate that there is absolutely nothing threatening to me in the office outside of the cupboard. But here I am, on the phone to my ex-boyfriend, who is the only person who knows about my cupboard location, he is in fact the person who suggested it as a destination and he is telling me to calm down and that there’s nothing to be scared of.
So how did I end up in a cupboard staring at the blinking lights of a router on a Wednesday morning? It has something to do with the night before Cupboard Day. I had a few drinks with friends, I drank a bit too much and on Cupboard Day I’m quite hungover. My colleagues and I have all had a good laugh about how one of my colleagues and I got so drunk on a Tuesday night (told you; genuine friends). So why is she sitting at her desk eating greasy food from the caff down the street, getting on with her job, like a normal hungover person and I’m crying in a cupboard? It’s because unlike her, unlike many people, my body – in addition to the physical misery of headaches and exhaustion that a normal hangover brings – goes into a mode of unrelenting panic attacks. The panic attacks aren’t really part of the hangover; I can have one drink, be completely sober and wake up the next day feeling just as anxious. This doesn’t always happen, in fact this has not happened for a very long time, but recently the post-drink anxiety has come back with a vengeance.
I spent all of Wednesday trying not to cry, trying to stop the way my stomach felt like a horrible creature was crawling around inside of it, trying to slow down my heart-beat, trying not to think about breathing because I would inevitably forget how to do it and end up hyper-ventilating. And doing everything in my power not to think about everything I did and said the night before.
I am not sure how I’ve ended up here. I have done things in my life that other people would be terrified of. I used to do stand-up comedy, by the time I was 15 I had travelled to Hong Kong all by myself and 2 months after I turned 18 I immigrated to the UK for an indefinite amount of time. I know when the first panic attacks started. I was back from my first year of university and in the final few weeks of the summer holidays I was starting to feel anxious, I couldn’t shake it. I felt very strongly that I had left behind a life where I had finally made friends, finally acclimatised, and now that life was on hold whilst I lived back with my parents for 3 months, where nothing seemed to have happened in a year’s time. My room was the same, my friends all lived in the same places; nothing major had changed. In contrast to this static world I had just completed a year in which everything had changed. I had acclimatised to a completely new country, made new friends, had finally figured out the purpose of baked beans. And the feeling terrified me. What if I went back and everyone had carried on being best of friends and I was left behind? What if I had to figure all of that stuff out again, because I’d been gone for 3 months? I started having panic attacks and a constant feeling of anxiety and although my parents (the only people who knew at the time) felt strongly that they couldn’t send me back to the UK the way I was, I felt it was the only thing that would cure me.
And it did for a short while. But then the panic attacks started happening as a sort of psychological hangover, one drink and the next day I was a panicked mess. So I stopped drinking for a year and a half. And then the panic attacks started happening even when I was sober. And I had no way of knowing when it’d happen, or why it was happening. I was referred for some counselling but after 6 sessions the counsellor ended my final session with ‘just don’t worry so much’. Thanks a lot.
I’d like to think that if you met me, you’d be surprised by all of the above. The things I listed before as things that I did before I was 19 and the anxiety started are all things I would still do today with no more than a normal dose of nerves. Also, I am Dutch, which makes me appear 50% more laid-back than any British person. But herein lies one of the main difficulties. I grew up in a country where people don’t beat around the bush when something is troubling them. Nor when they are experiencing any positive emotion. We just say whatever the hell is on our minds. And although that can be hurtful and very unpleasant, it is also clear. I moved to the UK and carried on as I was. I was very keen to integrate properly into British society. The whole reason for my moving to the UK is that I’ve always been quite the anglophile. And although the reserved nature of the British is a stereotype I was very much aware of, I hadn’t considered the practicalities of it. I knew the Dutch were blunt, and I was rejoiced by the British politeness until I started discovering that people around me were hurt and upset about lots of things that I had previously no knowledge of. I discovered all these pent up feelings, whether directed at me or others, it didn’t matter, I just realised that I had no way of telling whether I was upsetting the people I spoke to. I could happily go through my life thinking everything was fine, when in fact many people could be holding a deep resentment towards me.
And so suddenly social interactions became a minefield. Like everyone was playing a cruel game with me where I just had to place my bets that my good intentions meant I wasn’t upsetting anyone. I learnt to not be so direct. I learnt to cope.
But it puts me on edge, all the time. And when I’m drunk I don’t know what the cues are for grossly offending or upsetting someone; I let Dutch Sophie out. And then the next day anxious Sophie rears her head and is mortified and is convinced that no one will be her friend and that she’ll have to live in this bizarre country all on her own. Now, my normal day-to-day personality is such that I know that that is bullshit. But anxiety isn’t rational.
And anxiety is a boring problem to cope with. It’s scientifically dull; it’s just an overactive survival strategy. Adrenaline levels go up, you become hyper aware of your surroundings and your whole body gears up to make a fight or flight decision. But there are no mountain cats hunting for my bones, and I’m not going to engage in any fighting or fleeing at 10am on a Wednesday morning in an office building, so it’d be nice if I could just breathe and get my heartbeat under control like a normal human being.
At times the anxiety can take complete control over my life. There are mornings I wake up and I’m just frozen with anxiety. Mornings where I can’t get out of bed because it is too terrifying. And then I will be late for work and people will be annoyed and I cannot send a text to admit that I am going to be late because I can only stare at my phone and a million thoughts race through my head, but none of them fit in a text. I will get to the office and someone will ask me a simple question and I will just want to crawl under my desk and hide. It doesn’t happen often. But it happens.
As time progresses the anxiety is slowly taking control over my life. I do things to cope. For instance I create safe spaces for myself. At work we had to hot-desk for a while and it wasn’t good for anxiety. I need my own desk, with my own things on it. The ‘things’ are plastic dinosaurs that don’t really aid me in my work, but they calm me down when every muscle in my body is tensed up.
Most of the time, when I’m not at home, I wear a scarf. Even when it is slightly too hot for a scarf, I wear one. It is like a comfort blanket I can hide away in, or a constant embrace. I feel very vulnerable without it. As the Wu-Tang Clan said: ‘Protect ya neck’.
When life gets particularly out of control, I start focussing on all the mundane things that I can control. I start cleaning everything in my flat, I start eating healthy and exotic things, I get really into beauty products. I don’t really care about wearing make-up most of the time. It’s kind of a special occasions thing for me. But when I’m fighting anxiety I paint my nails, I read beauty blogs and buy all the crazy products they say are essential and I will wear them one weekend and then realise that I have no time in my morning routine to spend a lot of time on beauty products. But still, it’s something I can control. I can make myself look good by putting stuff on my face in a specific order. I can feel a sense of relief and control when I cross something off a to-do list. When I have cleaned the ridges on the embossing on the doors in the flat I feel like I’ve done something that was hanging over my head (even though before the struggle with anxiety I had never considered that these areas needed cleaning).
I’m aware that this micromanagement isn’t healthy either, it’s the way to OCD, which is just another form of anxiety. In the end, anxiety always wins.
But I refuse to give up. I refuse to just lie down and accept that this is who I am. I refuse to think of anxiety as something that is part of my personality; it feels very strongly as something outside of who I am. Something that creeps up on me when I’m not looking, rather than something that is just a part of who I am as a person. I refuse to spend the rest of my life having to keep the days after social engagements clear so I have enough time to freak out. But 6 years ago I started having issues with anxiety and on Wednesday I sat on the floor of a dark cupboard, trying to figure out how to deal with the world outside.
Often when people talk about issues like these they say they want open up the conversation about Mental Health and make sure that we start an open discourse about this. I’m not saying that’s not what I want, there should be more public discussion to dispel stigma, there’s no doubt about that. But I think the only way to start that discourse is to talk about ourselves. I want to be able to tell the people I know that today is a bad day and that I’m quiet not because they’re not interesting enough, but because I’m trying my hardest to keep breathing. Because saying that stuff out loud often gets me half the way to being ok. And I’d like to be able to talk about it without the fear of being perceived as ‘weak’ or ‘crazy’. Writing this article has taken me several months because each time I open this document on my laptop it induces the very symptoms I’m trying to describe. I am terrified that publishing this will make people think I am fragile and that they need to walk on eggshells around me. But the opposite is the case. I feel strong because I have to fight myself every single day to get where I am and I’ll be damned if I ever let anxiety win.