For years I’ve thought about writing about my struggles with anxiety but I didn’t want to seem weak or attention seeking. What I do want is to let people know that is ok to not to be ok and finally I’m ready to share my story. My name is Aoife and I’m 22. I recently qualified as a nurse and I’m still surprised at myself that I got through all those extremely difficult years in college.
My first proper experience of anxiety was in 2012. I just finished my leaving cert and the night before I was to go on my post exams holiday I had a panic attack. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep in a foreign country. Seems ridiculous right? This became a massive phobia in my life which I struggled with for years after and to this day it still plays on the back of my mind when I go somewhere new. It sounds like such a silly phobia considering I was never scared to go on holidays or stay away from home before this, yet here I was terrified of the panic attacks I might get in Spain if I didn’t sleep. I went on the holiday anyways and I did sleep after the first 2 nights but when I got home I told myself ‘I’m not doing THAT again!’ And so here began my phobia which took over my life and caused major anxieties and depression for the next 2 years to come.
You see the thing is I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I didn’t know what anxiety was, never experienced irrational panic. Depression was a big ugly word we whispered about but no one ever admitted to having. I became terrified. I didn’t know why I felt so miserable and scared all the time. Why I felt so alone.
In September of 2012 I started a PLC in nursing in my hometown because I had just turned 17 and I wasn’t ready to move away yet; my leaving cert points weren’t high enough to study close to home. At this point I had told my parents and a few close friends how I was feeling but no one really understood. They’d say just stop worrying you’ll be fine. I felt so isolated. I just wanted to go back to school. It had been my safe place, where I remember being happy and carefree, surrounded by friends. Now I just felt scared of the future, I only wanted to crawl back into my past.
That year continued to get worse for me, I don’t remember much of that PLC because I blocked out much of that horribly long year. The year 2013 always resonates in my mind negatively; it was by far one of the worst years of my life. Thinking back now I had ignored my problems and didn’t ask for help, I just avoided my problems. It was a terrible decision on my part. By August 2013 I had just turned 18 and was waiting to see if I had been accepted to my local university in Galway to study nursing. Sadly I didn’t get accepted on first or second rounds but I was offered a place in Dublin. The thought of moving city to study was by far the most terrifying thing you could’ve asked me to do at that point. This was when it became clear to my parents there was a more serious problem than they anticipated.
I started seeing a psychologist then and what I remember most from her was that she was €90 an hour. If it hadn’t been for my parents I would never have been able to afford it. I didn’t get much relief from these visits and that was my own fault; I didn’t listen to her advice. She told me to push myself and face my fears which I couldn’t do, she told me to exercise and meditate which I didn’t do. I wanted a quick fix and wasn’t happy when she didn’t offer one. All I worried about was how much money I owed my parents for each visit. I still think about how much I owe to my parents and how I’ll repay them in the future.
A few weeks later a miracle happened. I had deferred my offer in Dublin and was falling into a very dark place. One day I broke down in front of my parents and we decided it was time for a visit to my GP. More money I thought. I was put on an antidepressant and I went about everyday in complete misery waiting for it to kick in. I remember one morning mid September my Dad woke me early, I was annoyed at him as sleep was something I worshipped but so rarely got due to my anxieties. Sleep was where I could escape my tortuous thoughts. However this morning my Dad burst into my room exclaiming ‘You got into Nursing in Galway!’ Someone had dropped out and I was next in line for a place. I couldn’t believe how my luck had changed. So I stopped taking my medication and I stopped seeing my psychologist and I fell into the routine of college.
However the phrase it’s always darkest before the dawn was very much appropriate for me. If anything I got worse. I used to sit in complete anxiety through lectures not hearing what was being taught but just trying to hold myself together until it was over. Trying to focus on study was torture. It was honestly like I was trying to keep my head above water while a darkness I could not identify was desperately attempting to drag me down. One day will always stand out to me. I was sitting with my new college friends and they were begging me to go out that night. At this point in my life I had become anxious about everything and the thought of going out drinking was terrifying. I had refused to join them on every occasion prior to this. I think they were starting to get fed up with me as I had no good excuse to give them as to why I kept cancelling. I felt so low and awful about myself that day. They just wanted to go out with all their friends and I was too ashamed to admit why I couldn’t.
That afternoon I had another breakdown. I sat with my mother in the car, me in floods of tear and her face etched in concern. I’ll always remember what she said to me. ‘I’m really worried Aoife, are you ok? Are you going to do something stupid?’ and my response was ‘I don’t know’. And I didn’t know. I knew what I wanted to do but I knew I couldn’t. That was my lowest point. Each and every day I was waking up wishing I was dead and going to sleep wishing I wouldn’t wake up. I thought of ways I could kill myself but I never acted on it because I loved my family too much to hurt them. That was my lifesaver, my incredible parents and I honestly don’t know if I’d be here today if it wasn’t for their amazing support.
I went home that evening and stared in the mirror wishing I could be normal, hating myself for being so weak. I decided if I never faced my fears I’d never get better. Things were only getting worse and I knew something had to change. So that night I dressed up and decided to join my friends on their night out. From the outside I looked like a regular 18 year old, but inside I was dying. Mom wanted me to eat some dinner before I left the house but my anxiety was so severe at that point I could only stomach a few bites.
You see anxiety and depression are an illness. They may originate in your mind but they have many physical symptoms. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep. Your head throbs, your muscles ache, your stomach burns. You could feel so unwell that it’s nearly physically impossible to pull yourself from bed but you can’t call in sick to work with the excuse ‘I feel anxious today’.
So I pushed myself and went out that night and nothing bad happened. In fact I actually had a good time. I woke up the next day feeling lighter, I had faced my fears. And so I pushed myself again and again to do things that scared me. And just 3 months later I flew over to Australia with my family to visit my sister. An incredible milestone for me.
My anxiety and depression slowly started to lift after that and then began 2014, my favourite year. I was a new person, I started loving nights out and weekends away. I became so comfortable and happy in myself. It was like a whole new life. Although things had turned around for me, sadly my anxiety started slowly creeping back in late 2015. I put a lot of pressure on myself back then and it was hard for my fragile mind to cope. College became very difficult again but I was a different person this time and I reached out. I met with my lead lecturer who was so kind and understanding and gave me an extension on an assignment that was causing me a lot of upset. She also encouraged I go to the free college support services. I found them very helpful but sadly the damage had been done and my anxiety had already built big scary walls in my head that I’m still trying to break down.
Again in final year my anxiety flared due to fear and worry about returning as a nurse intern. Being a student nurse is not easy. It’s a tough career that requires determination and a love for the job. I absolutely love nursing. I love caring for my patients. But going out as a fresh intern was difficult. I struggled for the first few months and had many sleepless nights resulting in working 13 hour shifts completely physically and emotionally exhausted. I broke down in tears more times during my internship then I ever did in college. One rotation became so tough that my clinical coordinator told me I should avail of the HSE free counselling services. So again I went back to see someone and began to feel better. I also opened up to my parents again because even though I knew they would begin worrying about me, I knew I’d feel better.
In September of last year I got offered my position as a Staff Nurse on a ward I absolutely loved. I was on cloud nine. I still had anxious days then but I was much better at silencing my demons. However my amazing luck of being placed on that ward was short-lived. I started having minor issues with power to my left arm and eventually after lying on it funny I lost all power below the elbow, I couldn’t lift my wrist or fingers. Instantly I was told I could not work until it was healed. I was devastated.
I injured my wrist in November 2017 and now as of April 2018 it has still not fully recovered, however it has improved immensely. I only recently got back to work but sadly I’m not allowed nurse patients, I’m doing office work instead. I won’t complain though because those 4 months off work became as dark as those days in 2013. Being told you can’t work is extremely difficult. I always felt a sense of purpose when I worked. I loved my job. Now I was at home every day alone with my thoughts. It wasn’t easy. I completely lost hope. My wrist was healing so slowly I thought it might never recover fully. All my college friends were getting so experienced and confident on the wards and I felt like I was rapidly falling behind. I wanted to give up again. I knew I needed extra help so I went to my GP and she recommended I try some medication for a while. So now I’m on an antidepressants again. It has immensely reduced my irrational anxiety that was always playing in the back of my mind like a broken record.
Currently I feel great. I keep myself super busy as I find it a great distraction for the mind. I’m back working 2 jobs, playing guitar, volunteering and I also work out 4 to 5 times a week. I cannot express how much exercise helps my mood. It truly is one of the best natural cures for anxiety. Whenever my mind is running and I can’t stop it I go to the gym or go for a run and that is my mindfulness. Your body is distracting your mind. It was the only thing I filled my days with when I was off work.
However while off sick it opened my eyes. Life can you throw you curveballs at any time and you can never be prepared for the emotional toll it can take on you. I realised if I didn’t have my parents and their financial support I don’t know where I would be now. But not everyone has those supports. Not everyone feels they can talk about their worries. It is extremely hard to tell someone you feel like crap when you yourself know there is so much more suffering in the world. I knew I had a job, and a family and great friends. You feel horribly guilty for that not being enough to fulfil your happiness when others have nothing. However I’ve come to terms that we all have our demons and no matter how small they are they can affect us deeply.
I also think it’s important for younger generations to know that sometimes college isn’t the best years of your life. They are tough and students need to be made aware of this. I was so unprepared for the bombshell of adulthood. I was always told that college would be amazing and sometimes it was but it was also mentally draining and difficult. I think it’s no harm to let students know that it will be tough during exams and you can feel lost at times, but you’ll also meet amazing people and have many nights to remember. If I knew the skills I know now to manage my anxiety and negative self talk back in school I may have been able to cope better.
I just want people to know it’s ok to feel bad sometimes. I was so confused and embarrassed to have depression but now I talk about it freely. It has made me a more caring and empathic person.
So if you are feeling down know that it does get better but you need to help yourself, and be kind to yourself. Go out in the fresh air, spend time with someone who makes you happy, face your fears, and talk to someone if you need help. There are so many free services out there who can listen and as well as offer advice. Also there’s no shame in talking medication for extra support. I won’t stay on it forever but right now I don’t feel quite ready to come off it. If I had diabetes or epilepsy I wouldn’t be embarrassed to take mediation for them so why should depression and anxiety be any different.
It’s time to break the silence. Let’s all open up about how we feel, if you wish to hear more about my journey and the awareness I am creating around Mental health – Follow me on Twitter here.