I’m often told by my friends that as a journalist, I’ve got a dream job. That is particularly true in these current times, being one of the lucky few allowed into big sporting events. But two weeks ago, as I sat inside Elland Road and watched Leeds United play Everton in the Premier League, there wasn’t anywhere I wanted to be less. I just wanted to escape everything.
For over half of my life – since around the age of 13 – I have battled with a condition called Generalised Anxiety Disorder: GAD for short. In a nutshell, it means that everyday life makes me nervous, tense and cause me to have irrational fears. Does that person I’ve just met for the first time hate me? Why didn’t I break that story – am I bad at my job? Those are just two examples. There are millions more. For a long time, I’ve been able to keep a lid on it: largely thanks to a busy social life, and the support of those around me – including my parents.
My biggest supporter was my mum, who could see from a mile away that I would be struggling with her maternal instinct, and help calm me down and rationalise my thoughts. But in the summer of 2019, my life was turned upside down when she suddenly and unexpectedly passed away after a short illness. I lost my main chain of support, the one person I really felt comfortable sharing my worries with, leading me to bottle everything up – including the grief and circumstances surrounding her death – for over 18 months, sending me into a dark place that, two weeks ago, almost cost me everything.
People with anxiety, and in particular GAD, do not share their mindset easily. That can be due to embarrassment, or a feeling that nobody or nothing can help them – and it’s difficult for those who don’t suffer with it to understand. Both of those are true for me. Grief hits us all in different ways, but it is only recently that the enormity of my mother’s death hit me. I bottled it up and stored it away for over a year, and it prompted me to behave differently. To force people away who were trying to help me. And act irresponsibly and without conscience of how my actions impacted those around me who cared. I was warned I was doing it – it’s only now that I can see it in the cold light of day and I want to put it right.
Even when my mum was gravely ill, I tried to keep fighting on. I was in a hotel room in Wembley preparing for the Challenge Cup final when I was told the decision had been made to turn her life support machine off. I couldn’t bring myself to see her in intensive care, telling myself she’d definitely recover. I was constantly asked at her funeral if I was okay, because I didn’t shed a single tear throughout the whole day. This all happened exactly 36 days after another death in my extended family, too. It is only in the last few weeks I’ve been able to address my emotions and break down, as a tidal wave of anxiety came flooding towards me and, simply put, it overwhelmed me like never before.
Not talking about my problems resembled an overflowing bottle. I tried to keep a lid on it for so long and carry on as normal that eventually, the bottle exploded under pressure, forcing me to push away people who love and care for me. I behaved irrationally. I didn’t think about how my behaviour was breaking the heart of people who wanted me to be happy. So two weeks ago, alone, worried and filled with anxiety like never before, I put a message on my Facebook wall, turned my phone off and got in my car. I was done. I couldn’t face the fact my actions had forced people away, or the anxious thoughts racing around my brain, any longer.
Where was I going? I didn’t care. What did I want to do? Well, that doesn’t really need discussing. But in burying my grief surrounding my mother’s death for almost 18 months, and not speaking about my mental health problems, I found myself constantly trying to escape reality, and avoid the real world. That happened again here in a way I’d never experienced before. Quite simply: I had broken down and had nothing left.
Fortunately, I switched my phone back on, and after ignoring numerous calls and messages, I answered the phone to someone who still does care. I was talked down, given immense support by my father and my friends – including wonderful people like Neil, Jo and Andy at my running club, Northowram Pumas (though there are also countless others too: you know who you are) – and the following morning, spoke to a mental health crisis team in Calderdale. They referred me to my GP within hours, and by the end of the day, I’d been prescribed anti-anxiety medication and booked in for counselling. For years, I swatted off the need for either of those things, embarrassed that I’d have to resort to such measures.
But now, I have the motivation to tackle this head-on and face up to it. Yes, I am determined to get better to improve my own quality of life, having been taken to a place I’ve never been before by my mental health. But to repair my relationships with the people I’ve hurt – and the people I love, despite not showing it in recent months – by bottling up my fears and feelings in the last 18 months drives me forward every day. For key people in my life to turn round in the months ahead and tell me they can see a positive difference in me and I’m worth investing in again? That would be the biggest win of all.
It feels strange, alien even, talking about all of this so publicly. I’m an incredibly private individual when it comes to my personal life. This is the first time I’ve addressed my mother’s death on any social media platform at all since she passed away. I hardly ever put anything personal on Facebook – something I want to try and change. But I now understand the importance of talking and being open about your problems. If just one person reads this and realises they need help, then it’s worth bearing my own scars a million times over.
Work have also been incredibly supportive, and make no mistake about it: I’ll be back before too long. But I’ll be easing myself back in. I also feel I should mention that while I understand lockdown and the importance of it, it has, unfortunately, only intensified my GAD and my problems. We should remember that these times we’re living in is quietly creating a tsunami of mental health problems that could impact the lives of so many forever.
In my first Cognitive Behavioural Therapy session, I was asked what my goal was. Saying ‘beating my GAD’ would be too ambitious. And to be honest, I’m content with it being a part of my life now I know how to deal with it. Just making sure it doesn’t define who I am and the way I behave is my goal. Being comfortable with the importance of talking about your problems goes a long way to doing that. So don’t be afraid of it, guys. It’s okay to talk. And it’s okay not to be okay.