Content Warning: contains discussions around anxiety, panic attacks and HIV.
I’ve sat for the past hour or so wondering just how to start this. As someone who talks and writes about mental health regularly, I would love to say it was an alien feeling having something about myself that I couldn’t quite bear to expose, but it's not. As much of an open book as I try to be, there are still chapters I hope no one ever has to read.
I have decided to open up about the events that led to my first major panic attack and eventually, my acknowledgement that after moving from a teenager to an adult, my mental health hadn’t improved like everyone said it would. It had in fact, gotten worse.
In my late teens, much like many people, I had a lot of nights of heavy drinking with my friends and plenty of evenings which were totally lost to ever anxiety inducing ‘black out’. Also, around this time I remember reading an article in the Agony Aunt section of the ‘The S*n’ (I cannot vouch for my colleagues at the time’s taste in newspaper’s sadly) where a man had written in to say he had contracted HIV but claimed it was from falling over landing on a used needle, rather than through any drug use of his own or sex outside of his marriage. He was torn to shreds by Deirdre of ‘Dear Deirdre’ and was told that it was highly unlikely that he could have contracted HIV in this manner and should admit to himself, and his wife, what had really happened.
I have no idea why but as time passed I thought back to that article on a few occasions and somewhere, deep in my subconscious a story started to spin. I started to wonder whether I could have, in one of my many drunken stupors, somehow come in to contact with an infected needle. Could I really be sure that I hadn’t somehow contracted HIV or anything else for that matter? As I sit and write this now, even reading it back, it seems laughable, but stick with me.
I couldn’t pin point exactly what age I was when this all started, but I’d guess around 19 or 20, I was in a happy, long term relationship (which I am still in), I had never cheated on my girlfriend and my sexual experiences prior to this relationship were certainly nothing extravagant. I had never had a test for sexually transmitted infections but had never felt I needed one, given that the chances that I had contracted anything were minimal.
I think it was around 2 or 3 years, but perhaps more, perhaps less, that I allowed myself to be tortured by the possibility that I had somehow contracted an S.T.I, either through some contact with needles when I was blind drunk (thanks, Dear Deirdre) or through my past sexual experiences, which as I said, were unlikely to bear any real risk. I spun narratives in my mind on an almost daily basis that I could have contracted some infection and had passed it onto my girlfriend. I thought of all the horrible medical problems I could have caused her, and at times felt almost 100% sure that I was on borrowed time, that one day one of these stories would come true, I would be unveiled and my life would come crashing down, along with hers. Simply put, I was allowing myself to build a situation where I had ruined everything, a situation that simply did not to exist.
Of course, I considered going to the sexual health clinic and taking a test but this felt almost impossible for so many reasons. I did not want to go and keep it a secret from my girlfriend simply because I like to be honest and also because I feared she would think I had slept with someone else, which is also the reason I felt I couldn’t tell her I was going to take a test. I followed that path in my mind hundreds of times too and became terrified of her accusations. Again, allowing my brain to race off and create situations that didn’t exist. Anyone seeing a pattern here yet?
So instead, I just let it boil inside of me, again and again building these horrible situations up inside me and allowing them to a crescendo, I endlessly felt guilty for things I hadn’t done and felt powerless inside my own mind. Something deep down knew how irrational all this, but it did not stop the wrenching in my stomach every time it crept back into my brain.
This couldn’t last forever and it didn’t. Early one morning at work, I was slightly hungover from a few drinks with friends the night before and was trying to combat this by drinking an energy drink. The mild hangover and the caffeine provided the final fuel needed for everything to crumble. I was sitting lifeguarding a swimming pool, watching people get in their morning lengths when it hit. My breathing became agitated and heavy, I burst into tears and felt completely, for lack of a better word, panicked. As soon as I could I alerted my colleagues and was taken away from poolside and sat down in the office where I started gushing about everything; the constant narratives I had been running over and over in my mind and how I didn’t want to give in to these delusions because I felt like if I did, I was allowing my mental illness to win. Something I hadn’t confessed to myself or anyone else up until that point.
I was, of course, advised to go the sexual health clinic and get myself checked out, for my own peace of mind and then contact a doctor about my mental health issues. Unfortunately, at the time I was only ready to take the first piece of advice. I can still remember the understanding look on my girlfriend’s face as I told her I was going to get the test and why I felt I had to do it and the wry smile on my own when I sat down in the clinic waiting room, knowing even then there was nothing wrong.
I am still bothered with totally irrational thoughts, but thankfully, nothing as bad as these ones has ever cropped up since. The only advice I can offer from this experience is that if you feel something beginning to eat you up, deal with it however you need to, at the earliest opportunity. Allowing your mind to race off and twist your thoughts serves no purpose. It may also ruin someone’s morning swim.
I have since made the trip to the doctor and have actively started trying to deal with my anxiety. Whilst I still struggle massively at times and am a long way from where I’d like to be, taking those first steps have been vitally important and are something I’d recommend to anyone who feels they are struggling. Aside from this I have simply begun reading more about mental health and I can’t overstate how helpful this can be, reading about the root causes of these issues or about others who have had similar experiences can be paramount in helping you realise that you are not alone and in being able to separate yourself from any issues you are suffering. Sites like this one are massively helpful, providing a bank of useful information from various sources.
I have also started my own blog and podcast which focuses on talking about mental health in an open and honest way, whether it be a deep, candid conversation or a more light hearted chat. Getting to speak to different types of people, whether it be musicians, poets, comedians or tattoo artists, about mental health is hugely interesting and it’s often inspiring to hear the stories of others. It’s also a lot of fun too.
Words by Nathan Brown (https://www.facebook.com/pg/365aberdeen)
Illustration by Abbi McCaffrey (https://www.facebook.com/pg/AbbiDesign)