Hayley Westoby, WPP AUNZ experience & content director
Anxiety is an illness many people simply don’t understand. It’s an invisible illness and because people can’t see it like a cast on a broken leg, or a scar on the body people tend to assume everything is fine. Sadly, most people can’t fathom how difficult a single-day or a simple conversation can be to an anxiety sufferer and what they also don’t know is almost everyone will experience anxiety at some point in their life. It’s an epidemic of huge proportions.
The greatest outcome of 2020 and COVID-19 is mental health has taken its rightful place at the fore front of people’s minds and conversations and is now being more openly discussed. Most importantly the issue of mental health is slowly gaining acceptance in a society where traditionally it has been swept under the carpet.
Now, as we enter Mental Health Awareness Month, it is a good time to reflect on my own struggles with anxiety in a bid to help further educate, inform and uncover what it can be like for someone to live with anxiety and ultimately come out the other side.
Today I sit here acknowledging not that long ago I was feeling defeated. It was me against my anxiety. I am sharing this ‘open letter’ so people can try and understand whatan anxiety sufferer endures. I am sharing this to hopefully help someone suffering from anxiety; to normalise the conversation around mental health; and to try and help those who know or live with someone who is battling anxiety.
I actually wrote this letter five years ago. I never intended to share it publicly but now is not the time to be scared about sharing my story. I hope it helps people realise that living with anxiety is something many people do, and many people overcome, or learn to manage!
I now successfully manage the tangled mess of thoughts, doubts and fears that used to constantly plague every decision I made. I never thought I would ever say I HAVE THIS UNDER CONTROL. I have implemented strategies and solutions to help me fight and manage my anxiety and I am determined to help others with what I have learnt.
Here I go...
I want to start by saying I’m sorry. I’m sorry for lots of things. I’m sorry for the fact I find myself constantly analysing every word, every situation, every text and every sentence. I’m sorry I seem overwhelmed at the simplest requests. I am sorry that when I can’t articulate how I am feeling, I panic because I don’t want you to see this side of me. I’m sorry for snapping when I am not in a bad mood, I just don’t have the brain capacity to deal with another request – not whilst I am fighting the constant internal conversation. I’m sorry that sometimes I think your feelings have changed for me because you didn’t respond to a text in your normal manner. I’m sorry that I constantly sit in fear that someone will soon fill my place in your life and you’ll no longer want me. In those times - my bad days, I am sorry, please bear with me.
Part of my anxiety around having anxiety is that one day you’ll have enough of me and my anxiety and no longer want to be around me. My anxiety is something I cannot control, and I don’t know if it will ever be something I can manage. It’s something I’m still trying to accept as a part of my life, knowing I probably won’t ever have control over it. My anxiety means I doubt everything everyone says to me. Doubting their words when they have given me no reason in the world not to trust what they say. I frequently fear I’ve done something or said something that has upset those in my life and that will be the last straw for them. They will be gone. I am absolutely aware of how ridiculous this sounds.
My anxiety causes me to carefully consider every possibility in a situation until I feel like I have made the right decision. It’s more than just indecision; anxiety causes a small decision to evoke a debilitating fear of choosing the wrong thing. I’m sorry it’s not easy to be with me or around me sometimes. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry!
There is a word that occurs more commonly throughout the paragraphs above, have a look at the first lines. “I am sorry”. That’s me apologizing to you about something I can’t control. That is my anxiety. That is something that I manage on a daily basis, sometimes days or weeks fly past with no anxiety to be seen. I understand that there is no need to apologise. It’s OK that I can’t control this, I can’t control when it sneaks up on me, I need to learn I can’t control everything. It’s OK that I’m going through this, so are thousands of others. It’s OK that I have anxiety and anxious thoughts and it won’t ever define me because you and everyone else close to me loves me, no matter what.
With this, I need you to know there are a few things I ask of you, my support network, on my anxious days, or worse my anxiety attacks – if and when they show up. Anxiety attacks aren't always dramatic, they also aren’t always physically present. They might not be me throwing myself on the floor or me struggling to breathe. I may seem flat, or down, or tired or quiet. On days like this, you are the most important ingredient. Please, be patient with me. Please be my sounding board.
Be my silent support when I don’t want to talk about it. If I break down for no reason, just tell me I’m OK, that everything is OK and that you still love me and you are here for me. Most importantly, tell me it temporary, and that this feeling won’t last. I deal with anxiety when it turns up and I do just that, deal with it. When I face an anxiety attack or anxious feelings, I take a big deep breath and repeat to myself “IT IS OKAY” I then try and implement the things that help me – I go for a walk outside, I listen to uplifting music (really loud), I take deep breaths and I typically call or text someone that is close to me – sometimes I tell them exactly how I feel, sometimes I want to just talk about something completely different to take my mind off those anxious feelings.
As I read over what I have written, I hate it so much. I won't be sharing it. I don't want anyone to know the inner workings of my crazy mind. It makes me sound clingy and needy, and I hate that. It's not me, it's my anxiety. This isn't an excuse to avoid accountability, this is the reason behind my irrational thinking. I am strong, smart and independent and have functioned with anxiety before any of you knew. You can be smart, with anxiety. You can be happy and live with anxiety. You can be independent, with anxiety. You can be successful, with anxiety. But having you, my support network around me, makes it easier. It lightens the punch to the chest I feel every time an anxiety attack comes on. You are the support I was too scared to ask for before - but I desperately need. So thank you.
There’s a saying which really resonates with me and the journey I have been on, ‘if you want to see a rainbow, you have to put up with the rain.’ Don’t be ashamed of your story because one day, that story, your story will inspire others.
Sending lots of love to those facing anxiety, supporting those with anxiety or those still learning
Hayley (a woman who successfully lives with anxiety, making the most of the life she is so lucky to have).
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