I can pinpoint when it all started – August 2013 – my sister was visiting from Yorkshire and for a bit of fun, we lit Chinese lanterns in the garden and let them off. One landed in next door’s garden and set their bin alight, the other two landed in the copse near our house. It was sheer panic for me. I made my sister spend half an hour up in the copse with me looking for said lanterns. We found 1 – no damage done, but couldn’t find the other.
The runaway train
Whereas the rational-thinking members of my family could see from our house there was no sign of fire – I could not get the idea out of my mind that the lantern was going to set the copse alight… then it was going to set people’s houses on fire… then it was going to kill people… I would have blood on my hands… I’ll be sent to prison… what will happen to my kids… I didn’t sleep a wink all night. I kept looking out of the window to check, I got up first thing in the morning to check the local news and make sure there hadn’t been a fire – it was a totally disproportionate reaction to the event. Like a runaway train that was picking up speed and momentum with no way of stopping, faster and faster and faster until the only way to stop is to crash with devastating consequences.
And so it went from there, anxiety attacks building and building until they were everyday and eventually every minute of everyday. I was in a constant state of high alert – adrenaline and cortisol a constant assault on my body. I spent my days with my head lurching from one anxious thought to the next.
Was that pothole I just ran over, or a child in the road? Ok let’s drive back around and look – which I did many, many times.
Did I let my kids walk too close to the road – I don’t think so but let’s run that scenario over in my head a million times so it’s so skewed and confused that I can’t remember anymore and now it just gives me another reason to panic.
Did I put that hard drive back in the safe at work? If I didn’t someone might steal it, commit industrial espionage, the company will go under, everyone will lose their jobs, I’ll be responsible, I’ll go to prison – being incarcerated seemed to be a common theme in my darkest hours ….and so it went on.
Rumination and catastrophising
Everything seemed huge. I catastrophised about everything and when I wasn’t catastrophising about what was going to happen (always something bad!) I was analysing everything over and over, ruminating about what I’d said, done, not done, thought – picking over the bones of my life, putting a negative spin on every situation, event, conversation.
I was literally driving myself mad. I wasn’t eating properly as my stomach was in knots, I wasn’t sleeping properly as sleep provided no relief. I had dark dreams about my children being snatched, my husband dying, something terrible happening to me. I would wake up in cold terror and just want to close my eyes and disappear. I was exhausted.
It was a living hell.
Small steps to taking back control
I struggled on and by Christmas I knew I had to do something. I remember having a glass of prosecco with my Christmas dinner and that once, warm, relaxing feeling I got from the occasional glass of wine, turned into panic that I didn’t feel in control, something terrible might happen and I won’t be 100% on it. It was like the glass of prosecco was a magnifying glass zooming in on my anxiety and amplifying it by 1000%. So Christmas 2013 was my last alcoholic drink – I never was much of a drinker so it was no big deal on that front, but that first small act was a step towards taking back control of my life. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but with hindsight, I see that now.
By February 2014 I went to see the doctor – the second step to me taking back control.
Introduction to MBCT
I sobbed and sobbed. The doctor was brilliant. We did a questionnaire to see if I was depressed and unsurprisingly I was off the scale. He suggested anti depressants – which I refused for a long time (too anxious to take them), and put me on the waiting list for an MBCT course – Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
In brief, MBCT is a treatment originally created and used as a tool to present relapses in depression. At its heart, learning how to let go of negative thinking and behaviour patterns.
Due to NHS wait times I didn’t get to see anyone until April of that year. The longest 3 months of my life! I did everything the doctor suggested whilst I waited – gave up caffeine, started running everyday, googled best foods to eat – more steps to try and take back control. And I waited and waited for my appointment, pinning all my hopes on this treatment, hoping it would cure me.
I had no idea what to expect, I’d done some reading on mindfulness and was heartened by the research but I was sceptical that it was going to help me.
My first session was to try some breathing exercises and ‘stay present’. I came away thinking, what the hell is this? How on earth is this going to get me out of the hole I’m in. I however, week on week, diligently did my homework, practised the exercises Tom (my therapist) set for me.
The light through the trees
It wasn’t overnight – for weeks I would sit with Tom, crying, desperate, coming away feeling worse after some sessions as I didn’t feel I was making progress – I was supposed to have 6 sessions, he ended up extending it to 16 – I was clearly in a bad way!
And sure enough slowly but surely I started to see small chinks of light through the trees. I had, by this time, also been persuaded by the doctor to take the antidepressants. It was a very low dose but just gave me that boost I needed to kick-start the right chemicals working in my body again. This combined with intensive MBCT started to see results.
How mindfulness practice saved me
And the more results I saw, the more momentum it gained. I practised my exercises every night. I used the techniques given to me to self-sooth and calm those panicky feelings. I listened to guided mindful meditations that focused on my breathing and my body, bringing me back to the present, breaking that autopilot of rumination and catastrophising. And each time my jumpy cricket mind jumped off down a pathway to doom, I gently told myself it was ok and brought my mind back to my body or my breath.
My breath was my anchor, my saviour.
Eventually and after months of consistent practice, the chinks opened up to wide open fields, filled with warmth and light. I dared to believe I could open myself up again to love and to trust that I was a good person. For so long I’d shut myself down as I was scared of my own feelings and where they would take me.
Talking mental health
After 3 years of private practice, a very personal journey, I decided to be brave and talk about my experiences and share what I had learnt. By being ashamed of what had happened to me, I was contributing to the stigma. I had suffered from a mental health problem and I was going to talk about it. So in June last year I opened a Facebook group called My Little Place of Calm.
It started with a few of my closest friends and people I knew had an interest in mindfulness but month on month has now grown to over 150 people with new members joining every week. It came as a surprise to many of my friends that I had even suffered from a mental health issue. I was like a swan, seemingly serene and together above the surface and paddling like a mad woman to keep afloat below the waterline. And in true British style, I didn’t discuss it, kept it private, stiff upper lip and all that.
I am now training to teach mindfulness to kids as I am passionate that we equip our next generation with the tools to manage their emotions and in April this year I have been accepted on a course to teach MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) to adults, who just like me and many millions of us out there, are trying to get through life dealing with the stresses and strains as best we can.
So if any of this resonates in any way – be brave, recognise it, seek professional help – it is out there, don’t suffer in silence – talk to your loved ones and start taking the control back. You have it within you to live your life to the full and be the best you can possibly be.