Decades before I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was always being told to “stop worrying”. I first remember feeling properly anxious when I self-diagnosed a headache as a brain tumour. I was 11-years old and my mom correctly guessed that I probably just needed glasses.
This incident triggered the start of my 30-year love affair with self-diagnosis and most of it without the assistance of a smartphone or Doctor Google. I mainly relied on articles or documentaries about rare illnesses as my points of proof. Sometimes I was inspired by a favourite disease-ridden character in a novel I was reading. Now I can tap and swipe hundreds of unreliable medical sources in the palm of my hand.
What I want, above anything else, is confirmation of my imminent death. I am not bothered whether the source is reputable or whether the disease mainly affects inactive men over 60 with a history of smoking. I don’t see the words “rare” or the sentences that start with,
In most cases, your symptoms are not an indication of a serious illness…
I don’t want to die. Rather I have intentionally chosen to live a life that challenges and inspires me, which makes my anxiety all the more frustrating.
I moved to London, England in 2015 to chase a long-held dream of an international career. My husband still lives in Canada so I commute often between the two countries. I travel around the world regularly for work and have been to New York, Brussels, Rome, Dubai, Singapore, Barcelona and Paris in the last year. I negotiate foreign streets, sleep in strange hotels, eat alone in restaurants where I can’t understand the menus, and attend meetings in soaring skyscrapers. I mainly thrive in London’s metropolis of almost 9 million people.
These things don’t make me particularly anxious, at least not in the ways I would expect. Before my diagnosis, I thought anxiety was strictly about phobias and panic attacks. I didn’t know anxiety could be so quiet, physically debilitating and still propel me, whether I want to or not, out in the world at what feels like 100 miles an hour.
I know I am not alone in feeling that my mental illness is invisible. There are many articles about identifying with high-functioning anxiety, something I have recognized in myself and in my behaviours. I conceal my anxiety in public. If you know me well, you may notice the skin around my fingernails is shredded and that my legs are always tapping. You may notice I am constantly writing to-do lists or that I am at least 30 minutes early for everything.
At work earlier this year, my breath became shallow and I felt shooting pains in my chest and arms. Before I even considered calling an ambulance, I reached for my phone and my trusted friend Doctor Google. Heart attack!
Anyone familiar with CBT therapy will know that one of the strategies involves challenging your assumptions or irrational beliefs. I have used it effectively in past situations by basically having an argument between my rational and irrational selves. What things could actually be contributing to my perceived heart attack? I had a cold, I had been traveling a lot, not sleeping well, slept awkwardly on my left side, etc. But I think most fellow anxiety sufferers will agree that at a certain point, it is nearly impossible to recover your rational self.
I couldn’t hide my anxiety and I had to ask for help. A colleague tucked me into a taxi and I was sped off to a nearby hospital. I spent the day going through a series of tests to confirm what I already knew – I was healthy. As my heart beat strongly and my lungs breathed deeply, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame and embarrassment. I apologized endlessly to the understanding doctors and nurses. I sent texts to my team full of needless apologies. I felt like I had wasted everyone’s time.
I write this now and I appreciate how ridiculous it could seem. How can I manage what are arguably actual stressful situations in my professional and personal lives but collapse at home because I think one of my moles has turned a shade darker?
I felt like I lost of self-respect that day. I hated that I couldn’t find the strength to manage my contrasting selves: the carefully controlled woman who projects positivity and capability versus the woman buried in chaos and incompetence. My anxiety had never betrayed me so publicly.
The day I spent in the hospital forced me to make a choice in how I went forward with my anxiety. I couldn’t hide my mental illness anymore at the expense of either my emotional or physical health. I went to work the next day and I started to tell people I trusted. I didn’t make up some fake story about being hospitalized for food poisoning.
I know it’s not easy to talk about our mental health and despite increased awareness, there is no guarantee as to how people will react. Mental health is personal and it’s not easy to be so vulnerable. I was lucky that I received a lot of support the next day at work; there were offers to help, hugs and others shared their own stories. I was also met with awkward silences and one unhelpful piece of advice not to tell too many people.
Right now is the right time for me to talk about my anxiety and to share my experiences. This is a way for me to take some control and let others know that whatever you are going through, it doesn’t preclude you from having a great big life.
I believe in hope and strength. I believe we can all move forward even when things seem impossible.
About Erin Hallett
Erin Hallett is a higher education professional living in London. Originally from Victoria, British Columbia she moved to London in 2015 to pursue her dream of an international career. Erin is passionate about writing and hopes to use her voice to raise awareness for mental health issues.