Mental Health

Fear Of The Familiar

I can feel it now – it’s like a coldness around my heart. A dull sensation in the pit of my stomach. Intermittently interrupted by nervous flutters. There’s a sense of dread. Of heaviness. A resistance to moving, or doing, or being.

I have never been formally diagnosed with anxiety or depression, so I never thought I was allowed to speak about the topic with any authority. But I know I have felt what people have described, and I know what I have felt is not normal and not healthy.

My darkest time was when I was 19 and about to finish my undergraduate degree in law. A perpetual over-achiever, I had set myself the challenge to equal my big sister and gain a law degree before I turned 20. And of course my perfectionist self defined the degree as being a minimum of a 2.1, with anything less constituting a failure.

Four months before the final exams began, I would be woken at ridiculously early hours of the morning by a crippling pain in my stomach – extreme doses of fear, anxiety and panic would flood through my system, jolting me awake and sending me to my books. I would study for as long as I could, before finally allowing myself to make one of the two phone calls I permitted myself to make – to either my Mum or my then boyfriend, both of whom were back in my home town 2 hours away. Calling them, crying and hyperventilating, they would talk me down from my hypothetical ledge, and I would find a way to calm myself enough to get back to my books.

Other people seemed stressed too, but no one seemed to be handling it as badly as I was. No one else seemed to be wishing they could get pregnant because then they wouldn’t have to deal with any of this and they could just go back home and deal with that instead! I couldn’t drop out without a good reason! I didn’t know I needed help, I just thought I was doing everything wrong.

Somehow, I managed to get through the exams, and scrape a 2.1, and I should have felt proud but I just felt relieved, and broken. I was terrified of challenging myself in any way – I just wanted to go home, to switch off, to disconnect, and to never feel that cold, paralysing, darkness and tension ever again.

Moving to London at the age of 27, living with strangers, and newly-single after a traumatic break up from a short-lived relationship, some familiar feelings began to return. Like echoes from the past. I could feel cold hands around my chest, gripping my heart. And the tension rising in my stomach – the constant questioning of my self-worth, my appearance, my value, my likeability. Had I said the right things? Had I done the right things?

Sunday afternoons were the hardest – it was as if all the activities and distractions of the week started to settle and slow down. And I would feel sluggish. Not in a lazy post-roast dinner way, but in that slowly setting concrete way – like my limbs were gradually numbing to the discomfort of loneliness by trying to make myself inanimate.

And now, almost 7 years later, as I increase the amount of time I spend alone in the house, I feel those wisps of familiar winds. I see myself sitting indoors looking out at beautiful sunshine, not able to move to enjoy it. I feel the sluggishness in my limbs as I choose to remain in one place for as long as possible, trying not to feel anything, trying to distract myself until the alone time is over. And then, I hear those old doubts pipe up – did I say or do the right thing?

I’ve been here before, and I am afraid. But as my good friend Hannah has pointed out, that fear is not the depression itself – this is just an emotion, a warning sign, a familiar flicker of a memory. I can allow myself to feel it, and not be overwhelmed by it. I can allow myself to speak of it, and not feel ashamed of it.

I can feel that old familiar fear, and not be afraid.

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