Anxiety has played a large part in my life from my late teens onwards, and in particular during the last 10 years or so. I didn’t realise what it was until my first proper ‘breakdown’; I hadn’t seen any literature, any online articles (the internet wasn’t really a thing for me until University really) or any programmes about it. No-one had said “hey, that’s not a bizarre recurring sickness or bowel problem, that’s anxiety manifesting itself”. There just didn’t seem to be much of a focus on mental health at the time, and no Twitter to help.
About two and a half years into my first ‘proper’ long-term relationship, we had recently moved into a new flat, our second place together. A few weeks after we had moved, we decided to get a kitten. A colleague at work had one to give away so, after buying the requisite supplies, I picked up the kitten and brought it home. My family came to see the new arrival, and we spent the day watching the kitten dash back and forth across the living room. We decided on shutting her out in the kitchen/hallway overnight. Thus followed hours of the kitten crying, so we opened the door and let her roam around the house before deciding that shutting her out again was the best option. I did not sleep at all during this night due to concern for the kitten and her crying.
The next morning I felt sick and anxious. I veered between wanting to stay in bed or go outside gasping for fresh air. I spent ages hunched over the toilet, dry-retching. After a discussion with Mum and the other half, none of us could really fathom what was going on. My brain had started saying ‘get rid of the kitten, return things to their normal state’. There was a real ping-pong in my mind between supposed rejection of the kitten, and thinking ‘it’s fine, I’ll be ok in a minute’. I took the next day off work, still feeling sick and brain still pogoing between the two states. Later that day, my girlfriend and I had a long, emotional discussion that ended in our separation.
I drove to my parents’ house, quite frankly in a bit of a state. They were leaving to go on holiday the next day, so my sisters arranged to spend a few days with me until whatever it was passed. The next day, I made an appointment to see the doctor and tried to go to work despite the fact that my ex would be there. I spent most of the day going into a private office and crying, and eventually went home, picking up my eldest sister from the station on the way. She talked about dinner but I had no appetite, feeling sick after starting to eat anything. We grabbed some of my stuff and stayed at my parents’ house because I just couldn’t face being in my own house, full of reminders of the broken relationship.
The doctor seemed fairly disinterested and diagnosed the problem as stress, and prescribed Citalopram. There was no further insight into what caused this, and no follow up. The first week of taking the drugs I couldn’t keep food down. I remained on the sofa for most of this time, watching television that didn’t make me feel anxious. In the second week, my other sister visited. The drugs had entered the system, I started to eat more, and the anxiety lifted slightly. After a few weeks, I felt much better and stopped taking the drugs but the events of the night we had the kitten still baffled me, for months afterwards.
A few years later, when living with my future wife, we decided to get a puppy. The memory of what happened with the kitten occasionally nagged, but I thought that, being in a much better mental state (only having had some mild anxiety prior which, after a course of Fluoxetine prescribed by another disinterested doctor, I felt ‘cured’ from), it would be fine.
We picked up the dog and, that first night, she was crying in the room where we had left her. So again, a sleepless night, and the anxiety started to creep back in. I had the same ‘get rid of the dog, make things the way there were’ see-saw thoughts. Over the next few days, I was feeling sick, retching, not sleeping and after being prescribed Fluoxetine again, the initial period where the drugs ‘bed in’ to your system led to the symptoms becoming worse, with more sickness, sleepless nights, and uncontrollable sobbing fits, as well as some fairly frightening suicidal thoughts. The most helpful element this time was finally seeing a doctor at the GP surgery who had a keen interest in mental health issues. They described / diagnosed what was happening to me – a chemical imbalance, i.e. a very low serotonin level, was causing a part of my brain to act irrationally; a part that the rest of the brain was reliant upon for logical, rational decision-making. He asked to see me for follow-up appointments and prescribed other medication to help with nausea and those very low, suicidal moments. I was trying to work while this was going on, commuting from Wales to Bristol, and after a while, between medication and work, I returned to a more even keel again. I’ve had one or two ‘moments’ since getting the dog but have been building up a stronger resistance using resources such as breathing exercises and literature about mindfulness and meditation. Counselling has since established that the arrivals of the cat and dog were ‘triggers’ for anxiety attacks during times where there were aspects of my life that were causing that low serotonin level in my brain.
Recently, my wife and I decided to try for children, and once she confirmed she was pregnant, I was immensely happy. But there was still that nagging about whether I would have another breakdown – that somehow the responsibility of this new life, the sleepless nights etc would cause an upset in the balance I’d achieved in the past couple of years. Other doubts concerned whether my children might inherit any of my mental health issues? The doctor had suggested it could have been a genetic predisposition to lower serotonin levels.
The pregnancy was possibly the smoothest it could have been for the majority of the term. My wife was the archetypal blossoming pregnant woman, there was no morning sickness, and only a few hormonally emotional moments occurred. The most difficult part at this point was my poor wife going through five days of continuous contractions – between 2 to 10 minutes apart for the duration – neither of us slept for this five days, and travelling to the midwife-led unit we’d opted for was even more difficult. We somehow endured this, and ended up being admitted to the birthing unit at the main hospital in Newport because they had intended to induce her. As it happened, upon examination the midwife decided that she was dilated enough to be sent up to the birthing unit. We felt relieved that she was finally in labour, and that a baby might be with us soon after almost a week of such hard work for my wife.
After 14 hours of labour, the midwife decided that labour wasn’t working. She arranged for us to be sent downstairs to be examined and to discuss the options. At this point, my wife was delirious after all the gas and air, exhausted from contractions over almost a week, and I was so sleep-deprived I’d entered a bizarre, twitching limbo state between falling asleep and staying awake. When they started plugging my wife in, putting needles into her, I became overwhelmed. We called for her parents to come down to the hospital. After trying drugs to expedite the contractions, and an epidural, still nothing had happened, so the decision was made to have an emergency C-section.
During the C-section, they discovered that the baby was absolutely wedged where he shouldn’t have been, and would never had been born through contractions and pushing because of just how far he was wedged in. My wife lost a huge amount of blood, which they had to collect and gradually give back to her over the next day or so. Our boy was finally born 7 days after the contractions started. The elation completely overcame any stress or sleep deprivation we had felt. She was in recovery and the subsequent maternity ward for almost three days, while I was going back and forth between the house and the hospital to bring her stuff and make sure the house was in order for their return.
When we brought him home, the job of doing everything to keep things ticking over and look after my wife and baby began. There was no time for any thoughts about myself, and any anxious thoughts were long forgotten. There was no see-saw of ‘take it back, make things normal again’ – and frankly, there’s no way to take a baby back but this didn’t worry me. I’m still amazed to this day that the experience, while far worse for my wife (she’s far stronger than I am), didn’t bring me to another breakdown. I can only attribute it to the fact that I’d made so much effort to build up a resistance to any anxiety beforehand, that my wife’s wellbeing was my main priority, and that subsequently, parental instincts took hold as soon as he was born. There have still been very mild moments where I’ve daydreamed about escaping it all, but I know within myself that I’d never have acted upon these very fleeting impulses. From talking to friends who have babies, those are perfectly natural thoughts to feel at the most challenging times.
Nowadays, the dog is fantastic for my mental health and fitness. The baby gets cuter with every new noise and smile, and while at times the constant care and attention can be tiring, I wouldn’t be without him. I can’t wait to see him grow up, to see what kind of man he will become. Do I worry about anxiety being part of his life? Of course, but I will do everything I can to read any potential signs, and support him in every way I can.
Joe Purse @Joetele