I was about sixteen when it seemed a switch flicked in my brain. Something changed: I became an anxious person. I had just started sixth-form college and got my first part-time job in a supermarket. Although I’d been nervous about working in such a busy environment, things were okay until another member of staff remarked: “You’re very quiet, aren’t you?” I hated comments like this – it made me feel singled out and weird. I’d grown up receiving unwanted comments from strangers about my personality or appearance, and didn’t want this to continue as an adult.
At college, I was keen to impress my peers through fashion sense and playing the clown – I loved to make my friends laugh, and to buy new clothes, putting thought into the outfits I wore each day. I often received compliments from friends – little did they know I had bouts of painful self-consciousness and struggled with my body image. But I didn’t want to be that person; I wanted to be confident. So, I dressed up and I acted the clown.
This was fine for a time and I successfully hid my anxiety while at college. And my job wasn’t too much of a problem because some of my friends worked there, so there were people I could talk to.
University was the big problem. I had been somewhat reluctant to go – I didn’t want to be a number, swallowed up amongst thousands of students all filing through the same system. I’d grown up in a small market town and attended the local schools and sixth-form college. University, meanwhile, was the unknown – “out there”, big and scary. In the end I attended a university in a nearby large town and stayed living at home with my parents. I guess this was why I didn’t try too hard to make friends during Freshers Fortnight – I knew I could just drive home to my comfort zone when all the registration and paperwork was done.
I did try to force myself to get acquainted with my new university: I checked out the library and made myself go to a coffee shop on campus, which was very crowded, and I felt self-conscious that I seemed to be the only one sitting alone. I forced myself to drink my cappuccino and pretended to read, feeling the whole time that people were watching me. I know a degree of self-consciousness is normal in a new situation. Unfortunately, mine didn’t go away throughout university. I kept people at arm’s length and didn’t make friends. I spent my free periods hiding away in a quiet part of the library. I felt uncomfortable speaking up in seminars. Few students bothered with me after the Freshers period. A couple tried to talk to me, but I felt inadequate and didn’t reciprocate much.
The only thing that got me through my degree was the fact I absolutely loved my course (English Literature and Philosophy). It involved little group work and gave me a good excuse to hide in the library, reading and researching. Also, reading about troubled poets and writers was balm for the soul and made me feel that perhaps I was not so alone after all. Of course, hiding from my problems meant they never went away. I felt, deep down, there was something wrong with me, but I couldn’t face it. On the one hand, I didn’t see anyone who seemed to be struggling as I was, but then, I guess that’s easy to say when you’re comparing your own inner world to how people appear to be on the outside.
Another factor may have been that, at that time, in the late noughties, mental health wasn’t the hot topic it is now. There were stirrings – Stephen Fry bravely did his documentary ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive’ in 2006, which I watched with rapt attention. But his struggles were not quite mine. There was no label for the unease I was feeling.
After my graduation ceremony I went and stood outside, waiting for my parents
to come out of the hall. I remember how all the other students stood in groups, happily chatting. I stood to one side, painfully alone, waiting for my parents to come and rescue me. I didn’t even have the comfort of a shining first-class honours degree to justify my lack of a social life; I had fallen short of my predicted grade. It was a flat day for me.
I decided not to go on to study a Masters in English Literature, as I’d been originally considering, but to get a job instead. In time, I got an administration position with my local council. The stress of a new job and new work colleagues, who I had to share an open-plan office with, where they could see me, was difficult to handle. From day one I felt I had not made a good impression; the job was mundane and repetitive and I was probably quite obviously bored. I made frequent trips to the toilet, both to relieve the tedium and as a break from the tension I felt, sitting in an office with work colleagues who I believed did not like me. One morning I went to hide in the toilets to cry. My manager found me and kindly asked what was wrong. Finally, I opened up – I told her how I felt. She suggested I see my doctor, and that was the start of my journey to recovery. Up until that point, I think I was in denial about being mentally ill. But talking to someone else helped me be more objective.
My doctor referred me to a mental health professional, who talked with me about my experiences. She diagnosed me with social anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder. She gave me self-help resources to start with, and I also received counselling through my workplace, at the suggestion of my manager. Using cognitive behavioural techniques, I learned to deal with symptoms of my social anxiety quite quickly.
That was just the beginning for me of a long journey in self-knowledge and self-acceptance. But the most important things I have learned, and that I want to share, are: · YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are other people who share your experiences, who understand what you’re going through. The important thing is to GET HELP. · Lifestyle matters. You need to find the things that are contributing to your mental health problem and making you feel bad. For me, I needed to greatly reduce my caffeine intake, and identify and conquer unhelpful, addictive behaviours. · Find your coping strategies: the things that help me are journaling, confiding in a loved one, creative writing and blogging, exercise, getting plenty of sleep, and faith.
I hope my story has provided some comfort to those who may be going through similar problems. I’m in a much better place now, mentally, than I was back then.
I want those who are struggling to know that things get better. Perhaps the most important thing that anyone needs is for somebody to listen. If you’re struggling alone, don’t be afraid to approach a mental health professional, or to confide in someone you trust. Things can get better, believe me. I know. Bio: Nicola Sloan is a freelance writer and blogger based in Shropshire. Writing is her one true passion and she hopes, through it, to make the world a better place in her own small way. You can find more of her writing at: https://themorningstarblog.com/