Trigger warning: self harm, anxiety, depression, suicide
Growing up I was always a happy child (although family photos from a certain Disney World trip might tell you otherwise - guess I never was one to fall for Disney princesses). I had a great childhood. I had (and still have) two very loving, caring, supportive parents, a big brother who I know loved me, even if he did tease me incessantly (still), and a group of friends that I loved spending time with. I enjoyed school, even if I wasn’t very popular, I loved learning and I got on well with most of my teachers.
I was always a happy child, until one day I just wasn’t. One of the teaching assistants in my classroom made me tell my parents about the cuts on my arms he’d noticed. I can’t remember why I did it, I think I was just trying to control something. My home life was under control, everything was perfect at home. But my brain felt very much out of control. Changes were happening in my body that I couldn’t control.
I can remember my first panic attack. I was in my teens and I was on my way to catch a bus after leaving a friend’s house in the city. I was worried about being late. I was worried about getting on a bus I’d never been on. I remember feeling particularly uncomfortable in my own skin that day. My default feeling as a teenage girl, I guess, but this day it was overpowering. It suddenly felt like someone had hit a switch. My vision went, like someone was turning off an old TV, I got tunnel vision. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and my biggest concern was that someone was going to think I was drunk or high that morning as I was staggering along the pavement. I skipped the bus stop and sat in the grass outside a nearby library convinced I was about to die. I remember being very aware of the feeling of the cool grass on my skin. My breathing slowed, I focused on the grass, I felt it between my fingertips. Suddenly not much else mattered apart from me and this grass. This small patch of grass I’d passed countless times felt like it had saved my life.
Fast forward to my late teens and early twenties and panic attacks had become a regular part of my life. I was prescribed tablets at the time to help with my anxiety and depression. I was also in a very abusive relationship at this time and felt like I was spending a lot of time gasping for air and a lot of energy pretending that everything was ok.
I was self-medicating with heavy drinking and trying to avoid sobriety at every opportunity. I used it to shut out the voices telling me that what was happening to me was all my fault and that I didn’t deserve any good. I had some incredible friends at that time in my life, yet I felt so alone. I didn’t feel I could talk about what I was experiencing. I regularly had thoughts of ending my life yet I put on a big smile every time I left the house. I didn’t want people to think less of me.
After a few years, I managed to break free of that relationship when I moved over to the UK. It was a fresh start, I had even started to feel a bit better, although I was still having a lot of panic attacks, I knew there was a big ocean between me and that part of my life.
I had my moments throughout my twenties where I dipped into what I call...depression light. One that I could easily pull myself out of, and it wouldn’t pull me down too far. I wasn’t going as far down as I had been before. Anxiety was still very much a part of my life, but I again, was self medicating enough to shut it up or so I thought. It took me another few years to realise that self medicating wasn’t helping at all.
The year I turned 30 a very deep depression hit. I was working too hard, I wasn’t focused on doing anything good for myself, I was drinking and smoking too much and I could feel myself falling. I just kept working, hoping that I would wake up and be ok, or never wake up again. I kept up with the late nights and the lack of sleep. I kept skipping out on things I knew were good for me. I fell hard. I saw two different therapists throughout that year but I kept spiralling downwards. For some reason I was never completely honest with them about just how bad I was feeling. I didn’t feel myself. I didn’t want to see my friends. I was struggling to see the point of why I was even existing. I felt like someone had thrown me into a hole and I couldn’t find a way to get back out again. The worst thing is, I didn’t want to get back out. I didn’t want to burden my friends with this. I felt like no one would notice whether I was around or not. I didn’t want to bother my parents with how I was feeling. I couldn’t imagine telling anyone, because I didn’t want to sound “dramatic”. My friends were reaching out to me and all I could do was push them away. I didn’t have the energy to fake like I was ok. I went for a walk with a friend one day and told her that I had been having suicidal thoughts. A small weight felt like it was lifted. I said it out loud and it somehow made it just a tiny bit smaller. A couple days later I was told my friends were picking me up and we were going to go for a walk in the forest. In the car, my other friend looked at me and said “I’m really glad you’re here”. Another weight was lifted. These lovely human beings who I had managed to convince myself couldn’t care less about me, not because of anything they had ever done, simply because of what was going on in my head. Here they were, coming to my rescue. Right in front of me, where they had been this whole time.
That was a big turning point for me. These small simple things that my friends had done and said made me realise, actually, people did care. Having lost a couple friends to suicide over the years, I could now see that I didn’t want to do that to someone else. Where was that happy person I had been all those years before? I remember a friend saying to me that we carry around these heavy weights, and we think we have to do it on our own, but if we can just share it with a friend, that lessens the load on us a bit. It can give us space to breathe. I felt like I was finally getting some space to breathe.
I had known for years that exercise made me feel much better when I was feeling low, and loved cycling for this, but when my anxiety was bad, I couldn’t get on my bike because I would convince myself I would die. That Christmas my dad gave me a gym membership as a gift. We would go to the gym together 2 or 3 days a week and I would soon get hooked on endorphins from weightlifting and HIIT. I quit smoking and drinking, because they held me back from enjoying my workouts and my workouts were making me feel great whereas the booze and smoking wasn’t. I started working with a routine - I introduced a rather strict one, that was
basically the complete opposite of how I used to operate. I wanted to make big changes so I could push that darkness away. I started waking up early, adding structure to my days, booking in “me time”, reading more and going to bed early. And then there was running. Running was something I had never really got on with, I’d tried it before and it just felt so hard. I didn’t see how people could enjoy it. When a friend came to visit me she suggested we go for a run along the seafront. Something clicked and before I knew it was looking forward to my next run. It was a chance for my brain to chill out. To focus on my breathing, and to just ignore everything else in the world for a moment, except for the sound of my footsteps and the birdsong. I’d say I’m even happier now, most days, than I remember being as a child.
The business I run designing cards and gifts for angelachick.com , carries a bit of a theme of making people feel better. They are messages that have been inspired by my own dark times, or by people I know. Messages I would have liked to receive in those times, or messages I have sent to other loved ones.
I don’t for one second think it’s as simple as waking up and “choosing happy”. It’s not. It took me a lot of work to get back to a level playing field. Most importantly, it takes me regular work to stay level. I still have moments where I feel low, or I let my anxiety get the best of me. And I know because of the nature of the beast, I am likely to find myself in that dark place again. I just hope that I’m able to remember that it does pass. There is a way out, even from the darkest, loneliest of holes. There is a way out.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are not alone. If you feel you cannot talk to a friend or loved one then please:
Call Samaritans (samaritans.org) at 116 123 for free.
Check out mind.org.uk for lots of helpful information about mental health.
Angela Chick is an illustrator and designer based on the south coast of England via Canada. She creates fun, bright, bold drawings packed full of empathy and fun. She likes running, swimming and is a big fan of food. See her work here: www.angelachick.com