Breathe: Anxiety and depression. My true story.
I may mention to people that I have anxiety, but how are they supposed to understand what that actually means? I've also said many times that if my anxiety is left unchecked it spirals down into depression. So, what are the differences? What does that look and feel like?
Now, this is all my view point, my experiences, my emotions, my feelings. Others may experience or feel things differently, but I can only share what I know.
My mental state is made up of 3 main stages:
1) Happy and content
My state tends to flow one from another and state changes are usually triggered by an event. The problem is that this can be a small event, so it can catch me unawares.
Happy and content
This is as you may expect. I find it easy to sleep, I have a sense of humour. Sarcastic comments are water off a ducks back. I always know what to wear. I'm chatty, warm and sociable.
If someone tuts at me in a supermarket because I'm in their way, I roll my eyes and carry on with my life. If I don't get invited to a party, or if someone comments on Facebook about difficult people, it washes over me. I'm emotionally stable. I'm happy with who I am and comfortable in my own skin.
I don't want to cause offence or pain to anyone, I don't want to create ripples, but I'm also aware that I can't be responsible for the well being of everyone around me. I'm entitled to my place in the world just as everyone else is.
The world feels balanced. I feel like I'm on a great roller coaster - there are ups and downs but I'm strapped in, I'm safe, I can absorb the ups and downs and still come out of it smiling.
So what happens? It maybe that I'm in a highly stressful situation. Or it might be nothing major. It's often a series of small, slightly difficult things that build up with no time to rebalance in between. Or maybe I've stopped paying attention to my self care routine and I've skipped the yoga and meditation. Maybe I've not left the house for a few days. Maybe a lot of people are making demands on my time and I feel thinly spread.
And then the Anxiety is back.
It starts as a low level niggle. I fall asleep easily but find myself waking up before the alarm goes off because I'm having odd dreams, I have a sense of humour, but somehow I don't find it anywhere near as funny as everyone else around me. Sarcastic comments feel like criticism. I take longer to decide what to wear. I'm chatty, but I'm having to work at it so it's a bit disjointed in places.
Then it grows. The longer I am anxious without managing it, the bigger it grows. It swells inside my head, my chest, my stomach and throat.
If someone tuts at me in a supermarket because I'm in their way, I spend the next 48 hours alternating between wondering what I did wrong and how I can find them to apologise, then thinking that actually they are really rude and what I bloody well should have said to them - how dare they tut at me! It will spin around in my head constantly even though I can rationally tell myself this person is of no consequence and they have already forgotten about me, I won't be able to shake it off.
If someone comments on Facebook about difficult people, I assume they mean me. Who else could they possibly mean? It must be about me. It must be something I've done. And I don't remember doing anything but I will feel guilty about whatever it was that I must have done to cause such offence anyway.
At it's very worst, I can't fall asleep because my mind is full of all the little things I've ever done wrong in my life but when I do eventually drop off to sleep I still find myself waking up before the alarm goes off because I'm having heart-racing panic-inducing dreams. I have no sense of humour, and I assume that if the people around me are enjoying themselves it must be at my expense or because I'm too stupid to understand. Sarcastic comments feel like a bitch slap to the face and it'll take me days to recover. I take an hour to decide what to wear then spend the rest of the day regretting my choices and kicking myself for not knowing how to dress myself - I'm an adult, for goodness sake - why can't I even choose the right clothes? I don't speak at all but then I realise that this is making others awkward so I over compensate and babble incessantly. Inevitably, I will say something stupid, which I will then spend a week beating myself up about.
All of this is accompanied by a constant internal monologue that seems to be running at a 1000 miles an hour and it's busy listing all the things that I could have done differently or better. Sometimes, this becomes an external monologue and I find myself ranting in the bathroom mirror, having a one-sided conversation saying all the things I wish I'd said to someone. My personal record is to rant at myself about the things I should have said to explain how I felt about a situation that happened 14 years ago. Yep.
Now, while I'm in the anxiety phase I'm still trying to put the face on. I'm trying to pretend to the rest of the world that I'm fine, no really... I'M FINE!!!!! But that swelling inside my head, my chest, my stomach and throat... it's getting worse. The head is whirling, every now and then my heart will go into a rapid beating pattern like it's trying to leap out of my chest, my stomach churns so that I feel sick, and the emotion just sits there in my throat so that I'm perpetually on the edge of tears. And I'm trying to hide all of that with a plastered on smile.
Everything is hard, but I can function. I feel brittle, fractured. I'm over-tired, over-emotional. I'm crying at adverts and running on fumes but I can't possibly ask for help because OH MY GOD - What would people think!?! Surely I should just be able to shake this off. Everyone else can cope so I should be able to too. So just keep going, try not to shatter into a thousand pieces, just keep holding it together.
And I keep spiralling, with the anxiety building and building and building, then suddenly, like a switch has been flicked...
I'm drained. There is nothing. I'm numb.
I can't think, move, remember. Decisions are impossible.
I don't cry because there is no emotion. I just have this water leaking down my face all the time.
I'm alone. And when you try to interact with me, I feel even more lonely.
I'm trapped at the bottom of a deep, dark well and when you try to shout down to me or wave from above, I can't see you or hear you - I'm just blinded by the bright light behind you and it just emphasises the darkness I'm sitting in. It hurts my senses. And I know you mean well, but just leave me here. I don't have the energy or the mental strength to climb out. I don't even understand how I'd start to climb those walls.
So yeah. It's bad. Everything is bad. But I get it... If you've never felt that, how can you possibly understand?
Well, think about grief. We all feel it when someone we care about dies, but it's a process. It hurts, but ultimately it's a healthy feeling and it will pass. Depression is nothing like that. It's not a sharp pain that hurts but heals, it's a dull ache that won't leave you. It's not a process to work through, it's a grey, intangible fug - you can't get hold of enough of it to process it.
And what does this look like? I'm constantly tired no matter how much I sleep. If I sleep for 10 hours I still feel exhausted, so moving becomes very hard work. I get glued to the sofa - standing up to go to the toilet can take a good 10 minutes of mental preparation. Having a shower and choosing clothes is the hardest thing any human being will ever have to do. I have no interest in food. Hobbies suddenly become an impossible torture that brings no joy and merely emphasises how heavy my limbs are. And because my limbs are so heavy I'm not doing any cleaning - either me or my home.
I'm not going to leave the house, I'm not going to answer your calls, emails or texts. I may text you to make up some excuse about why I'm not coming to your party or event - it's probably an upset stomach, because you can't argue with that - but when you call me or text me back to try to persuade me to come anyway, I'm not going to be responding to that. How can I? The phone is too heavy to lift up.
And I struggle to string together a coherent sentence, so how can I possibly speak to you?
But the other thing is, if I do speak to you how can I possibly find the words to explain how I feel? And what if you use the dreaded phrase "Come anyway - it'll help you snap out of it!". It won't. It'll feel like the well is even deeper.
So for me, anxiety is frenzied, sharp and brittle whereas depression is paralysis, numb and heavy. They are two distinct and different states and each state grows and swells if I leave it unchecked and unmanaged. This is how I've developed my toolkit over the years. The vast majority of the toolkit is based on keeping me happy and content, or, worst case scenario, in low level anxiety. As soon as that anxiety grows I need to take big steps because I cannot allow myself to cross over into depression. I just can't.
I've used my elements of my toolkit to pull myself out of the well of depression before now, other parts to deflate the anxiety when it swells out of control, and I use it most of it day in day out to keep my anxiety down to a dull roar.
So that's how my mind works and, for me, that's the difference between anxiety and depression that is often misunderstood. It's also why each condition needs to be treated very differently - I'm battling two different beasts.