Where does it come from?

Me at about 20 months

There’s probably no great mystery about the origins of my anxiety. I lost both my parents within five years, between the ages of nine and fourteen; first Dad, then Mum. I still remember having what I now recognise as a panic attack, about a month after Mum died, because I became horribly aware that I, too, would die. Neither of my parents was exactly well in my lifetime (I was a menopause baby – a ‘happy accident’, Mum used to say), but nevertheless, their deaths were premature, sudden, unexpected, and in the case of Mum, quite traumatic. 

I plan to write about grief more extensively in future posts, but I think it worth mentioning here that looking back, the support, or rather, complete absence of any available to me as a 14-year-old in 1972 definitely made things tougher. I was expected to manage it mostly alone, and after a short amount of time, to ‘get back to normal’. But of course for me there was no such thing anymore. I was living in a house with an older brother who was twice my age and a product of his times. I was female, so of course I cooked (even though at the start I barely knew how to) and cleaned, and did the washing, ironing etc, and the shopping… and all my school work. There were aunts and others who helped a bit, but the day-to-day was basically down to me. 

Not surprisingly, everything suffered. For years afterwards I blamed myself, and felt I had let Mum down. But when my own girls were fourteen, I thought: ‘How on earth could I have possibly done it? Nobody could have, it was unreasonable to expect it of anyone.’ But the damage of that period lasted for decades. Not just emotional harms, either. I scraped through my O-Levels, but my A-Levels were a disaster, and without any back up (my brother had married by this time and I moved out at the first opportunity) I messed up my chance at becoming a nurse. My earlier dreams of University hadn’t happened and I ended up in a dull office job.

Now, before we go any further, I don’t want you to think that I am looking for sympathy. I am well aware that I behaved badly during this period too. I was pretty obnoxious sometimes. I was a normal, hormonal teenager, and I was deeply unhappy. And I went on to make bad choices as a young adult. So no, I don’t ask for your pity. I am simply trying to excavate the origins of my mental illness; if I don’t understand myself, I don’t understand anything. I do know that from the day Mum died I never really felt safe again, not until I had my own home and family, and even then, there has always been an underlying unease. Of course, that’s completely understandable, and I recognised it in myself quite quickly as I matured. But what I didn’t understand at that young age was that anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Those times in my life, long periods sometimes, when I felt sad most (but not all) of the time, when I was in them, seemed to be simply a natural reaction to what was happening or had happened. There were several months in the autumn of 1978 when I was barely functional, but at the time I thought I was just being lazy. I had lost my training place as a student nurse, and with it my accommodation; I had a painful back injury… plenty of reasons to feel down. I was suffering severe sleep disruption – a symptom of depression – but I didn’t seek help for anything except the back pain.

I don’t recall any times after that when I was quite so withdrawn, until very recently; in January 1979 I found a job and things began to look up. I still had my back problem – I still do, although it is better now I sleep on decent mattresses – but I had a reason to get up and go out. But with work comes stress, and my anxiety ramped up. My back pain worsened and that caused friction as my sickness absence record was noticed. That caused a cycle I was to become familiar with: a genuine medical need causing absence, leading to difficulties at work, increasing anxiety, exacerbating other stress-related conditions such as migraine, inevitably causing more absence.

It was with no regret that I left to start a family with my husband, and I was sure in those happy days of pregnancy that all my troubles were behind me. I had my own home and a family again, I was happy and safe. And on the whole, I can say that the years at home, bringing up my two beautiful and bright girls were the happiest in my life. I worried, as all parents do, but I don’t remember any very low periods. Of course, it’s more or less impossible to opt out of life when you have a lively toddler and a newborn, but I am pretty sure I never struggled to keep going.

When my youngest daughter began school, I found a part-time job that fitted in with her. It wasn’t exactly intellectually demanding, but with the return to work came the less welcome return of stress. And once again, it began to take a toll on my mental and physical health. Somehow, I stuck out that particular job for six years, before finally realising one summer break that I could not bear the thought of going back there for the Autumn Term. I applied for a couple of positions and to my amazement I was offered interviews. The first one I did, I got, and I went on to have eleven happy – but not stress-free! – years working in learning support. 

Now I wonder if what has been happening to me in the last couple of years; a long steady decline into depression, a deeper one than I can ever remember, isn’t a reaction to years of ‘keeping going’ in those times of stress when I wasn’t coping at all well. I don’t know. It could also be that writing (something I started since we moved to France) has allowed me to access both memories and parts of myself that had become hidden or at least archived, making the more painful things nearer the surface. Oddly, one of the symptoms that made me seek help was a strange numbness. I felt little emotion and wasn’t getting joy from things that usually cheered me, and neither was I crying at things that usually moved me. It was as if I was wrapped in cotton-wool. It’s taken several months of antidepressant medication to change that sensation, but it has begun to go. I certainly shed a few tears watching the Inauguration last week…

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