Has anxiety become fashionable?

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I appreciate this might be a risky article to write. Many millions of people suffer with varying degrees of anxiety, either for a short specific episode or a prolonged ongoing time. These people cannot help feeling anxious about certain things, it gets into the very grain of their being, day-in, day-out, and often therapy or medication is needed to learn to cope and manage the feelings and symptoms they exprience.

But lately, I seem to be hearing more and more people saying that they suffer or have suffered with some form or anxiety, for at least one stage in their lives. Maybe it is that these days, it is easier to ‘come-out’ as having anxiety, where it wasn’t before. It is widely known that people suffer from anxiety, depression and other brain-health disorders in silence, perhaps not even telling a doctor or family member through fear of not being believed, or being told to just “pull yourself together”. I say ‘brain-health’ as I truely believe and want others to recognise that mental health diagnoses are as much of a health issue as asthma or coeliac disease for instance. It’s just that although you can’t necessarily ‘see’ the problem, it is physically just as present as many other diagnoses. The problem is that if someone hasn’t suffered themselves, or there isn’t a blood test to cofirm the issue, then people struggle to believe it is most definitely happening, without the choice of the person it is affecting.

I might be one of the many who chose not to let-on about the anxiety I was experiencing after having a baby. I have three children and each time, I have treated the anxiety in different ways. With baby #1, it came as quite a shock. It was, I guess, part of post-natal depression to have anxiety like this. After having my daughter I’d feel so incredibly tense and frustrated by my lack of physical ablities due to my CMT neuropathy, that even though I knew exactly what my hands/arms could and could not do, I became severely affected by the thoughts of other peoples’ perceptions of my parenting and also about having to ask other people to do so much for my own baby. After all, nobody would do things exactly like I would if I could. I focused and obsessed over tiny things that were ‘wrong’ and everything seemed to make me want to lock myself in the bathroom and not have to ‘parent’ in front of others, especially those who knew me. With baby #2, I suffered simillarly for a few months before finally going to the doctor 4 months postbirth. With baby #3 I had the foresight to think ‘well this is probably gong to happen again isn’t it’, and even though I was absolutely rubbish at just sayong “hey, this is how crap and anxious I’m feeling”, people were aware a lot earlier and I was slightly better at normalising it, for myself and for others.

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So has it become less taboo to talk of your own serious anxieties, and by that I don’t mean being afraid of cliff-edges or big spiders – I mean things that are completely irrational, unexpected perhaps, and most of all uncontrollable to an extent? Or has claiming to have a severe case of anxiety become a get-out clause, an excuse maybe, to get out of things you’d rather not have to do? After all, people aren’t supposed to deny your anxiety, are they?

Are some teenage girls who would rather not play netball in school and have an excusing note from their mum, undermining the true experiences of the 15 year-old with crippling body dysmorphia who would rather jump off a bridge than have to show their legs off to fellow students and teachers? Is she going to be told “sorry, everyone has to join in”? Shouldn’t we be more lenient about what they can wear, or is it one-rule-fits-all?

I have always hated having to speak in front of groups of people. I remember even as a 7-year-old in Brownies, the moment when you’ve not long joined the club and you have to say the ‘Brownie-Guide Law’, I stood there and started crying and my mum had to say the words for me. Suddenly the idea of all-eyes-on-me was horrific. Since then I’ve detested it, it makes me feel physicallt sick and I will go out of my way not to do it even if it means being the only one who doesn’t play a part in a presentation. I get red-faced, my eyes start watering and I lose the ability to make the right amount of eye contact. However I also know that other people have it way worse than me, and cannot even speak to a cashier in the supermarket for example. So should college lecturers and workplace managers stop asking people to speak up in a group, because many people might be ‘too shy’, when really it might be only one or two who are suffering some form of actual anxiety?

It is difficult really, because whilst more needs to be done to help support those of us who are genuinely anxious and distressed about things that we really would prefer to experience, should we really label more and more kids as having anxiety because they haven’t got many friends or don’t want to say lines in tbe school play, and should we make physical education less integral to the curriculum incase school-aged adolescents feel embarrassed wearing a sports’ kit?

There is certainly a fine line between knowing whether to help somebody through anxiety by allowing them not to do something which might mentally distress them, and just saying “you’ll be okay, come on, let’s do this”. I worry that it’s becoming ‘cool’ to say you have anxiety, similar to when people say “oh I’m so OCD”, when they admit to not wanting people to get crumbs on their sofa.

What do you think? Have you had true anxiety? How have you treated it, and who did you tell?

Yours anxiously,

@shopgirlygm

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The Painful Fourth Trimester

I’ll start this by saying that, for me at least, having children is one of the most magical things I’ve ever done. I love my three more than anything and most days if I really think about it, I can’t quite believe they are mine and that my body made them. There are lots of parts of the whole parenting thing that I love. You get to be a kid again and enjoy the things your children enjoy, at the same time as being their protector and their mentor. But it’s not always magical. Sometimes having babies is pretty shitty.

Giving birth is something that I strangely enjoy, despite all the pain and blood and the pain and useless gas and air and did I mention it’s painful? Going into labour is confusing and scary and exciting. You have no idea how things will unfold, how long it will all take and you’ve forgotten or haven’t yet experienced how bloody painful it is. But it’s happening and that means you get to meet your baby soon, and that’s what you want most. For your beautiful (you hope) baby to be here and you’ll both be well, you and your partner will be euphoric for at least some time and then you’ll get to carry on life at home with your now bigger family.

By the time you get home most of your family and friends have heard the news and can’t wait to see and hear all about the new little being. They’ve stopped asking how you’re feeling and are now asking how much sleep you’re getting. And the looks on their faces when you say “oh not too bad, about 2 or 3 hours at a time”, tells you that they slightly pity you because they can’t think of anything worse. These facial expressions are most helpful when you’re trying to be positive about the amount of sleep you’re having. You like it when family and friends will come and stay and buy take-away food, bring cake and hold the baby so you can drink a cup of tea whilst it’s still hotter than 20 degrees Celsius.

Over the first few days, these things happen: Part of your baby’s anatomy (hopefully just the umbilical cord) will shrivel up, turn a bit gunky and then fall off. Nothing is quite like it and it’s not pretty but in a strange turn of events you feel compelled to hold onto this gross little thing as a keepsake. You also feel gross – you haven’t picked up the eye liner in about seven days and you look and feel weak and somewhat ghost-like. You need to sleep only marginally less than you need oxygen to survive, and no matter how much people tell you to, sleeping during the day when the baby sleeps just doesn’t happen. Whoever came up with that nugget of advice needs to have a baby. You will lie there on the sofa for over an hour listening to BBC News on very low volume (being in the loop on current affairs is apparently quite a priority for me) with your eyes shut and you won’t fall asleep, because at any given moment, probably when you just manage to fall asleep, your baby will fart and you’ll jump out of your skin and take a further thirty minutes to relax again, at which point the baby will wake up.

After a few days you might be turning into a hermit because you haven’t stepped into outdoor daylight for quite some time, you’re wilting like an unloved plant and you think maybe a change of scenery will perk you up a bit. Just when you go to get in the car your boobs will start leaking and because you were cocky and didn’t wear breastpads, thinking you could manage to not leak just by squishing your boobs against yourself in a stealth-like manner when you feel an unwanted let-down, you’ve now got to hope that the matching 50p sized blobs of wet milk on your top will evaporate before you get to the supermarket. You get to the supermarket and you have a bit of a nervous breakdown trying to make a decision on which trolley to choose. You could put the baby in the trolley with the raised up bit that you strap the carseat onto (I am well aware of the campaigns to ban these ‘unsafe’ trolleys) but because it’s so high up and you’re in a wheelchair, you cannot see your baby for the duration of the shopping trip. Your PA (in my case) understands this issue and is just as irritated as you that there are no wheelchair-friendly baby-carrying trolleys. Because disabled people don’t have babies of course. You opt for the stupid trolley with the carseat holder and cry inside at this minor problem which doesn’t feel at all minor. Your baby is 4 days old and you’re still firmly in the stage where you have to look at their face every 3 seconds to check they’re still alive. That, and you’d like people to know that he belongs to you. You try very hard not to cry in public about this and feel like you’ve failed at this day already, this being a tiny obstacle but reminding you of how this parenting thing is never going to come as straightforwardly as it does for the average mum. You feel particularly anxious at being in a large supermarket at this stage postpartum and don’t really know what you’re supposed to be doing, so the only things you buy are shampoo and oven chips. You leave as quickly as possible and get home to be able to burst into tears on your partner’s shoulder for no apparent reason other than failing miserably at buying things in a bloody supermarket. It’s also your partner’s last day of leave and you know that tomorrow his shoulders won’t be around to cry on. Crying again. There’s a lot of crying.

In the following days you will burst into spontaneous tears whilst you’re getting dressed, sat on the sofa, sat on the toilet and many times whilst sat in your wheelchair. Unless you don’t use a wheelchair – in which case don’t worry, you can cry standing up. The baby is feeding well and putting on weight though which is the desired progression, but you still feel like you’ve accomplished nothing in the last few weeks. Check-ups with your lovely midwife have turned into check-ups with a health visitor which is scary and you want to hold onto that era for a little longer but you can’t.

You seem to have forgotten so much about the new baby stage and what the hell you did three years ago. You can’t remember how often you used to feed, or when they started to have a sleep routine or really just how the hell you do this. You’d also quite like to have an appetite again rather than just eating for the sake of needing energy to feed and be half awake. Food is a chore for the time being but hopefully it will start being fun again soon.

Suddenly the idea of seeing friends and colleagues at work fills you with nerves and you realise you’re not quite sure how to be a ‘new mum’ again in front of some people. People who aren’t used to seeing your boobs in the middle of the day. What will they think? Will they think you’re doing a good job?

Surprisingly your other two children have been nothing but adoring and helpful since the birth of their little brother. They haven’t experienced him stealing their toys yet and for the time being he’s the best thing ever. Your five-year-old takes pride in choosing his babygrows and vests when he’s puked on himself one too many times, and your pride levels rocket when you watch her holding him and rubbing her face on his velvety head because she is so in love with him. Your three-year-old is equally as in love with him but shows it in a more “I’d like to squish his head and then make his feet clap” kind of way, but she takes her job of putting nappies in the bin very seriously. You and your partner find this mildly amusing and think it’s a fitting job for the culprit of the most recent episode of pooing-in-knickers.

Some days you feel like you’re doing okay, you’ve kept the baby alive for a few weeks now and every day you look at his little face in awe at how brilliant he is. Some days, more than you’d like though, you feel completely overwhelmed and underwhelmed all at the same time, exhausted, anxious and pitiful. Everything is difficult right now. Then you look at your partner holding his baby while the girls are giggling and using felt-tips to draw ‘tattoos’ on Daddy’s back, and realise you have the perfect little package of people right here on your sofa. And you know that one way or another, between all the crying from you and the baby and the puke and the poo and the stressful mornings, everything will be okay.

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Follow me on Twitter @shopgirlygm