At the moment, everything in my life is going as well as it could be. I have almost finished the first year of my degree without a hitch (second to last class of the year today) and I’ve got my placement and a supervisor lined up and ready to go. Coming out to everyone back in February went better than I dared hope and I’m very happy living with my partner. My relationship with the rest of my family is the best it’s been in years. My eating is fine and my weight stable, I’m happy with the way I look and even more so that I don’t have to put any effort in to maintain my current weight (I still find not giving a shit about what I eat or weigh liberating and a bit of a novelty, even after two and a half years at a healthy weight!). Although I’ve spent the last week suffering from an annoying summer cold my health is generally pretty good. All those things the anorexia trashed – my health, self esteem, relationships, education, future prospects – I’ve worked really fucking hard to get them back, and I’ve succeeded.
But for the last few months my anxiety levels have been through the roof. It’s seriously affecting my quality of life. I feel like I’m perpetually stuck in the split second just before something horrifying happens which will either kill or mentally destroy me. It’s not catastrophising in the usual sense because I’m not thinking of awful endings to scenarios I’m actually in, my head just plucks random images of death and destruction out of nowhere. My brain is constantly squawking DANGER DANGER DANGER and I’m sure if you looked through my ears you’d see a revolving red light and a bunch of armed headless chickens digging trenches.
It’s also happened before. During most of the time I was depressed/anxious/eating disordered there were stressful and traumatic things going on: bereavements, bullying, the rape, relationship breakdowns, physical health crises and so on. But one of the scariest periods of my life was the academic year – because I still think and work in academic rather than calendar years, being a perpetual student – of 2005/6, when everything in my life was going really, really well, and I was somehow still utterly suicidal. It scared me because I couldn’t pin the depression on any external circumstances, and I couldn’t blame myself either – I was doing everything you’re told to do to stave off depression, including eating and exercising healthily, continuing to attend university rather than hide in bed, asking friends and family for support, getting help from professionals and so on. I still ended up being hospitalised in early 2007.
This is one of the reasons that “things going well” triggers my anxiety as much as actual stressors. My brain has slowly learned over the years that when I let my guard down, start to relax and accept that maybe this time everything will work out, something awful happens. There was my friend Sam, a couple of years older than me, who I wanted to hug on the last day of his exams but was too shy, and instead told myself that I would be braver when he came back for the next term in September – only for him to die two weeks later. There were those first few weeks of my A levels when, after a year out due to my ED and anxiety, I was determined to say yes to all social invitations, make friends and have fun – and was raped by the first girl who invited me round for a sleepover, which I had not been informed would include her sociopathic boyfriend. There was the moment in late 2006 when I was happy to have my third student OT placement rearranged for somewhere I could commute to because I couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation at the first place – to later find that the new placement was in the same building I saw my first psychologist, around the same time of year I was raped, and to be inundated with flashbacks the entire week I lasted, crying in the toilets at every coffee break. There was my new start in York, when I was teetering on the verge of relapse but really determined to give it a go, and then came down with flu the day I moved, so I was confined to bed and could barely eat for the first two weeks of university, which of course gave the relapse a massive jump start. Honestly, Alanis Morrisette and her non-ironic situations (or was the fact that they weren’t ironic the ironic part? Gah) have nothing on me.
This is not to say that I should sit around feeling sorry for myself, and generally speaking I don’t – I don’t see the point, I’ve done an awful lot of looking backwards in the 10+ years I’ve been in and out of therapy and in my day to day life I prefer to concentrate on planning how to move forwards while cementing the gains I’ve made. But it is helpful for me to understand why, when I think “wow, I’m so lucky, everything in my life is going really well at the moment” the Doomsday bell starts ringing between my ears. And it can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Without enough resilience I could easily be overwhelmed, become depressed again and then, in three years time, have “was doing really well until stupid depression got me in 2012 and lost everything again” tacked onto my list of woes.
There are theories in counselling – I’m thinking of transactional analysis in particular – which suggest that from their earliest years people use their experiences to start creating a script for themselves made up of their newly formed expectations and beliefs about themselves and other people, which they will unconsciously try to follow at all costs, because it’s very uncomfortable having the fundamentals of how you make sense of the world challenged. If you really believe that you are incredibly unlucky and nothing will ever go right for you, then that belief can become the thing that always keeps you unhappy, fulfilling your script. Many of my past experiences combined to teach me that I was powerless, helpless, fragile and that no one would help me however desperate things were, so it was always up to me whether I survived or died – a terrifying prospect when I was thirteen, being bullied and secretly suffering from psychotic delusions, or eighteen and in the bedroom of a rapist, or twenty four and severely anorexic. I never felt up to the task of being responsible for my own safety because that responsibility was thrown at me too early.
But this is 2012 and I am 27, and I have proven that I am up to the job. I am resilient. I have survived. Those lingering beliefs, which I know are unhelpful intellectually but can’t quite shake off emotionally, do nothing but make me anxious now. They may have made sense of the world for me once, but now they don’t match reality. I guess if I was run over by a bus later today at least I would have been living my life with dignity and courage – but at some point before my life is over, I would really like to teach my brain that it’s safe to chill out a bit, so I can enjoy all that dignity and courage shit without the headless chickens spoiling the scenery.