Jo tells us about her history of anxiety, how opening up to a therapist has helped, and why she'll be taking part in The Mind Walk.
Two years ago, I took a leap of faith into the world of therapy; a world I had avoided for many years due to feelings of fear, shame and embarrassment. Here’s what happened.
In my eyes, anxiety has overshadowed my life from the time I was diagnosed with it at the age of 14. For years, however, I hid it from the world and carried on without truly acknowledging my difficulties: catastrophising kept me awake at night, self-criticism and feelings of shame gave me problems with eating, and permanent hyper-awareness controlled my life.
I excelled at work and was commonly seen as the "life and soul of the party", all just so that I didn't have to acknowledge what I was really going through.
As a child who grew up with an alcoholic parent, I learnt very early on to be alert, cautious and prepared, and to suppress any emotions or feelings due to fear of showing vulnerability. I displaced my anxiety, becoming super organised and efficient. I was the listener amongst friends and the fixer in my family. I excelled at work and was commonly seen as the "life and soul of the party", all just so that I didn’t have to acknowledge what I was really going through. This worked well for me for many years. It saw me through job promotions, a divorce, unemployment, and eventually through losing my mum to alcoholism when she was just 57. I didn't know back then that my behaviour, my defence mechanisms and my distraction techniques weren't going to work forever, and that by not opening up to my support network and acknowledging my anxiety, I was ultimately doing myself more harm than good.
Fast forward some years, and the anxiety was starting to take a greater hold on my life. I was struggling to engage with people as I convinced myself that they would hate me, I would make a fool of myself, or I just wasn't good enough. I was unable to cope with last-minute changes of plans or when something unexpected happened. These things would really trigger my anxiety, setting my heart racing and my mind spinning. I would lose all ability to think rationally. I became irritable, impatient and argumentative, and my hyper-awareness was out of control. I would notice every little word said, constantly listening to two conversations at once, and never really being present. When something was out of place or not done properly, I'd spot it. I'd notice every door, window, and safe space wherever I went. I stopped wanting to do things or go places with others, but I carried on because of a worry what others might think of me (cue anticipatory anxiety) and an overwhelming need to not let people down. I pushed and pushed myself, and ignored my own feelings to the point where I was losing control and my relationships were being affected. My mind wouldn't stop - all day, every day - over-thinking, over-analysing, organizing meticulously and catastrophising constantly.
It's been painful and scary to open Pandora's box after so many years. To look at my past, my upbringing, the relationship with my mum and the feelings that I had locked away for so long.
I knew I had to give counselling another go, but the thought of giving myself to therapy scared the hell out of me! But I felt like I had run out of options, and no longer possessed the strength to hide the anxiety I suffered from daily. For the first time in my life, I could no longer fight it.
Two years ago, I found my counsellor, and I have not looked back since. My therapeutic journey is ongoing and has been a turbulent one. It's been painful and scary to open Pandora's box after so many years. To look at my past, my upbringing, the relationship with my mum and the feelings that I had locked away for so long, and to actually sit with those feelings and learn from them.
Therapy has given me the much-needed guidance and validation that I had been missing for most of my life. It's allowed me to acknowledge my anxiety and to learn how to start managing it. I know that my journey may be long, but the distance travelled so far has been worth every step. The positive impact that therapy has had on my mental health is what has encouraged me to become more vocal about my struggles. I want to share my experiences to eliminate mental health stigma, and help others feel less embarrassed to reach out.
It's not about the distance or how quickly I complete it, it's about standing together and walking with others who might struggle with mental health problems.
I wish I had the support and the knowledge I have now when I was growing up, and it's for this reason that I want to share my story. If, by sharing my story, I can give some strength to just one other person, putting myself out there will be worth it.
This is why taking part in The Mind Walk is so important to me. As I see it, it's not about the distance or how quickly I complete it, it's about standing together and walking with others who might struggle with mental health problems, and who want to be heard. I want to show my support and thanks for the wonderful work that Mind does, and I want to be a part of bringing people together and showing support to others. Something I really wish I'd had growing up.
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Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.