This is going to the most heartfelt and personal post that I have ever written and something that I have put off writing for quite a few years. I just want to say it may be (very) long and a bit of a ramble as I don't quite know what I'm going to write yet! Whilst I am extremely pleased that mental health is becoming more recognised and accepted in our society, I still find it hard to be open about how my social anxiety has effected my life. The reason for this and especially more recently is that a lot of bloggers, and youtubers have come out to express their take on anxiety, and share their stories which on one hand I think is awesome, but also makes me feel like I can't mention anything without looking like some kind of bandwagon mental health freak. Where as this has been a huge, and debilitating part of my life for many years. I won't be talking about everything that has happened as that would take too long, but here are the bare bones.
As a child, I was very shy, quiet and anxious. I would worry about a lot of things, mainly about one teacher in primary school who I really didn't like and I was extremely clingy with my mother. I would refuse to go to other children's birthday parties even though deep down I really wanted to go. As I hit high school I grew in confidence but also hid a lot behind my friends, I didn't make friends for myself, I made friends with people my friends made friends with. I loved high school despite being bullied in my early years and can't say there are any pinpoint reasons for my mental health issues. There is not always a reason for anxiety it can just be the way your brain is wired. I would usually say I was busy when my friends asked if I wanted to go out, make excuses why I couldn't go to that party, or just not answer texts to avoid situations I knew I would panic about. Any events I went to were usually hosted by me, or planned by me such as movie nights at my house or trips to Alton Towers, places where I felt in control and knew everything that could happen. It's mainly the WHAT IF'S that set off my panic attacks.
AGE 16 / 17
As we headed into college I realised just how much I relied on my friends to get me through, a lot of my friends went to a different college to me, so I was extremely nervous as I really don't like meeting new people and wasn't sure how I would cope. In all honesty I didn't make one single friend in college that I didn't already know from high school. This didn't bother me too much as I liked my own company and just got on with my work, however it was at this point that my social anxiety started to appear daily. I wouldn't like to sit alone in areas with lots of people for fear of looking 'weird' I had trouble going to buy food on my own for fear of asking for the wrong thing, or not having the right money even though I'd spent 5 minutes staring at the menu and counting my money over and over. I really enjoyed my e-media lessons which I did 8 hours a week and had fun with the people in my class as I was a pro at pretending 'to be normal' but once we left the classroom I wouldn't know how to engage in conversation or be able to make eye contact in the hallways.
My plan had always been to go to university, there was never a question in my mind that that's where I was headed as I enjoyed education, but as the end of my college days drew near and it was time to look at what uni's we wanted to go to, it hit me that I had no idea what I wanted to do. I enjoyed things, but not enough to want to go and spend 3 years learning about it, or being away from home. We looked round a few places and I decided I would be interested in a graphic design course but I would need to do a foundation degree in art and design first! This meant I would have to go back to college. This time with NO ONE that I knew. And mostly with people 2 years younger than me. This terrified me but I applied, and got in! I went to my induction day with my usual trouble breathing, fear creeping in and my hands being insanely itchy (side effect to my anxiety) I made it through the half day of induction and then a few days later woke up to start my first day of college.
I was in tears. I begged my mum not to make me go. I couldn't breathe and I felt absolutely horrible. Pathetic, useless and guilty. My mum phoned the college to let them know what was happening and made me an emergency appointment with my GP. My mum had to do all the talking, explaining the difficulties I'd been having with normal tasks like ordering my own food in a restaurants, making friends, going to college and having panic attacks. The GP prescribed me Propranolol which is a beta blocker to stop my heart racing and prevent panic attacks and also set me up on the waiting list for a consultation with the NHS. After this appointment my mum assumed I would return to college but I begged her not to make me go and we both decided that I needed to sort myself out, and look at what I wanted to do. This made me feel incredibly guilty as my mum lost a large deposit that she had to pay towards the course.
Whilst waiting for my appointment at the NHS, I was set up with a phone course of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) Phone calls were a HUGE source of my anxiety, I would never pick up the phone unless I knew who was calling and even then not always. I didn't like not seeing someone's face whilst talking out loud as I had trouble visualising the conversation and couldn't read where it was going, so this for me was a huge step. I had to answer a small questionnaire every time my woman called such as, 'do you feel suicidal' 'have you had a panic attack today' and then we would discuss a small part of a booklet they sent me. Honestly, I felt like this was doing nothing for me, and then one week she just didn't call me... and never called me again. I felt let down and confused but thankfully my letter for my NHS consultation came through. I went to my local hospital and sat with my dad who has also suffered with anxiety in his younger years waiting for my turn. I went in alone and as soon as she asked how I was, I burst into tears. I felt ashamed and pathetic that I even needed this help, why couldn't I just be like everyone else or even WANT to do things that other people did without thought. She was extremely nice and talked to me about my childhood and any events that may have caused my issues of which we found none. She decided it was best for me to see a real therapist and engage in some one to one CBT.
By this point, I had been signed on at the job centre for a couple of months, and I absolutely hated it. They treated me like absolute scum and talked to me like something on the bottom of their shoe. The other people waiting had ankle tags and I felt extremely out of place. They didn't seem to take my qualifications into account when helping me search for jobs and even though I had explained my mental health issues they made me apply for jobs I knew I would never be able to do. One of those was a job at Superdrug. It was unpaid but I got told if I didn't take it I would be thrown out. So I felt I had no choice. I flew thorough the interview and felt positive until that morning I woke up for my first day. Just like when I started college, I woke up instantly unable to breathe, panic set in and I knew I couldn't go. I couldn't even get out of bed. I couldn't ring the job centre as they scared the hell out of me and knew they wouldn't understand so my mum rang them for me to explain and for that day I felt like absolute shit. I had to go to my next appointment and show my letter from the NHS referring me to my CBT. The woman was very rude and snotty and told me that I simply wasn't trying hard enough and she didn't think I deserved their money. I just nodded and left.
At this point I went into a downward spiral. I didn't want to get up, I didn't want to do anything. I didn't have a job, I didn't go out. I begged my mum to let me leave the job centre and get a loan to help me with my business BASEMENT BOUTIQUE. She knew better and told me that was a bad idea, but at the time it was the only thing I could think of that would get me out of this hole that I was in. I didn't talk to my mum for three days. I wouldn't leave my room. Now to some this may not sound all that dramatic, but my mum and I have a fabulous relationship and I have never been a teenager that had arguments or hissy fits or stop talking to her. I basically cried myself to sleep for weeks. I decided that I was leaving the job centre and the next week I said that I was leaving and getting a loan. I didn't of course but I told them that so that I could escape. The atmosphere there was strangulating.
Finally my CBT arrived and I'd just managed to scrape my way into the childs mental health section rather then adults. It was at a school that had a built on hospital area and the woman I had was SO SO nice and put up with me crying for basically my first three sessions. At first my mum took me to my appointments, but as a task my therapist decided I should get the bus alone, which was a big thing for me as this wasn't an area I had visited before so there were a lot of unknown aspects of the journey. We talked about a lot of coping techniques and set me weekly tasks to do, such as asking a stranger for the time. Paying in a shop with just copper coins, and phoning up to book a hair appointment. It was at this time that I headed to Leeds festival alone to see my favourite band Coheed and Cambria. When I heard they would be in the signing tent I had a panic attack. I had to go and see them, but also I couldn't go and see them! I decided if I didn't do this, I would be making a huge mistake, so I joined the queue and waited. I couldn't say anything to them except hello because I was awestruck, But I was so so proud of myself! My therapist couldn't believe I had gone to a festival all by myself but the truth is I got a day ticket, went to see Coheed, went to meet Coheed and then text my dad to pick me up. I saw ONE band at this festival. I ignored the crowds, I didn't buy any merch, That's how I coped. As my CBT finished I did feel a lot lighter and more able to do things. I could make small phone calls, order food in a restaurant and go to tills on my own in shops.
I was still unemployed, still sat at home on my own all day and still didn't feel like I had any purpose. There were still things I felt unable to do but they got pushed down, as situations like that never arose while I was in my comfort zone in the house. I decided to set up my own business PRETTY WILD THINGS which was doing what I loved, blog design. It has been insanely successful and I am now self employed and doing well! My mum could see that there was still something missing and that I didn't get out or engage with people so on my 21st birthday she surprised me with Puka. A puggle puppy that I had been wanting for 6 years. I had NO CLUE and would never in a million years imagine being bought a puppy. Puka has changed my life so much. I go out every day with him, meet people in the park, have conversations and Puka makes me feel confident and keeps my anxiety to a low!
Recently this year I amazingly became a semi finalist in the BEE GOOD lip balm flavour competition and that meant I had to travel down to London (a 4 hour car journey both ways) go into an office, meet the other semi finalists, talk about myself and why I think my flavour is the best. I really really wanted to show to my mum that I was better and able to do this. She drove me there and as we approached the familiar feelings of panic started up. I tried to keep calm and decided to just DIVE in, because my head knew that everything would be fine once I got inside! We got a little lost as the postcode they gave us was wrong and so this just set my panic into overdrive. I started to cry with frustration. I really wanted to be able to do this but just knew I couldn't and I felt I had let my mum down so much by making her drive an 8 hour round trip with no point. I honestly feel that if we had just rolled up the real place (had their instructions been clear!) I could of made myself get out of the car and go in. Has anyone seen the Runaway Bride? The film with Julia Roberts and she needs constant eye contact to make it down the aisle? That's how I feel when I get into situations. If it's not perfect - if I look away then it's all over, and that wrong postcode looked away from me. I was 22, and felt like a failure. I was still broken.
That week we made an appointment to see another GP and again my mum had to explain everything to him as I just couldn't get the words out, when I panic my throat closes up and it makes it very hard to talk and I get very emotional. He asked if I wanted to do another CBT course and I said no, not at the moment and he prescribed me Fluoxetine. This is a low dose anti depressant that levels out the serotonin in the brain and is often helpful with those who have anxiety. I have been taking this pill for nearly 90 days now, and I honestly feel this has been very helpful to me. I didn't really have any side effects to the pill other than trouble sleeping the first week but now I sleep fine and I have no other side effects. I have noticed many things that I am now able to do that I couldn't before such as.
-Making and maintaining eye contact when talking to someone (relative or stranger)
-Ease of starting a conversation rather then just taking part in one.
-More emotionally stable, and able to discuss my anxiety with my mum or doctor without getting upset.
-Feeling happier day to day.
-Not feeling like everyone is staring at me when I am alone, for example waiting for a bus or standing in a queue.
-Not having to think about what to do with my arms or how to stand when I am alone where as before I would constantly feel like I didn't know what to do with my arms?!
-Ordering food, whilst before I could do this I still felt uncomfortable where as now I don't even think about it, I feel normal.
There are many things that I am looking forward to and feel like this pill has given me the opportunity to do without panicking. My social anxiety has ruined many opportunities for me in the past such as events, friendships, relationships and feeling happy. I feel like now I am on the right path and I'm not sure how long I will continue taking Fluoxetine but I definitely think it has helped me.
I am not saying that if you ever feel anxious the answer is to leap to taking drugs, definitely explore every avenue first, talking helped me alot and my CBT course really helped me with the minor things I was having issues with. I would recommend visiting a GP to discuss action. I wouldn't be where I am without the support of my amazing family and friends who don't always understand WHY (neither do I!) but take it in their stride and accept that some things are more difficult for me then for them. Mum, if you are reading this thank you so much for pushing me towards seeing a GP and taking me to CBT and back to the GP again. It has given me my life back and I feel much happier in myself and able to do things on my own. I love you. And to everyone else who has helped me and tried to understand, I love you too!
There are things that I still struggle with for example the idea of going to a blogging event and meeting people I don't know still makes me nervous, but I think it's more of a normal level of nervousness rather then straight up panic, and there are things I still need to work on, I don't think I will ever be free of social anxiety but I now have a sure way to deal with it. I'm sorry that this has been such a long probably boring post, but I just felt it was time for me to write this down! I will not be doing a post on how to cope or deal with anxiety as I feel that as someone who still suffers I'm not really in a place to give advice but I hope that if any of you do suffer from any kind of anxiety that you know you're not the only one who feels like this and there is so much help out there. It can be hard to ask for it, but you only get one life and it's so important to get as much out of it as you can! If you have any questions at all do comment below or email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get back to you!
MEET THE AUTHOR: Serena Ozgowicz is a 24 year old Puggle owner with a passion for beauty, crafts and coding! You can follow her on facebook, twitter and instagram. Thank you for reading this post!