Fourteen years old and sitting my Physical Education (PE) GCSE a year early, I remember queuing up to go in to the exam hall, full of anticipation and slightly giddy that I was about to sit a GCSE, an actual GCSE, something I had teachers had prepared us for since starting school.
At my school, we didn’t sit any exams prior to GCSE’s so it was an entirely new experience for me. This was exciting, it felt like my first step towards becoming an adult, this was the first formal qualification I would get and I was going to do my best to enjoy it and put my years of hard work on to paper. Well that was the dream, but life has a funny way of transpiring.
I remember walking in and sitting at the desk, that was when things started to feel odd. Its difficult to explain, my feet were tingling, my legs numb, tummy doing somersaults, heart pounding, sweat pouring down my forehead, and it felt like someone had a whisk in my head with no sight of letting up. I tried to ignore what was happening and focus on what I was about to embark on, I opened the exam paper and the feelings continued to come on stronger and stronger.
I looked up at the clock to see how long I had been sitting there, three minutes, THREE MINUTES! That was all it took for my body to go in to complete shutdown. All of a sudden, the clock became wobbly and blurry and the entire room began to spin, I put my hand up to go to the toilet and try to escape this abyss. The PE teacher walked me out to the toilet but had to come in with me (in case I had hidden any answers in the toilet), but I can assure you my mind was far, far from Fartlek Training and explaining the build-up of lactic acid, to the best of my knowledge I was dying, I thought my life was going to end here, here in the toilets, with my PE teacher stood over me, this was not how I had envisioned it.
On reflection, over 10 years later, I realise this was my first panic attack and even now, 100’s of panic attacks later, I still remember the absolute fear I felt in that moment, and it is enough to make my heart race and feel sick, the thought of sitting in that exam hall with the clock bearing down on me, sweat pouring down my face and my godforsaken neuromuscular system failing me.
That was the beginning of my world spiralling into one big anxious mess, and even today, I am still working hard to fight it. I began fearing certain classrooms, going higher than one flight of stairs in particular buildings, flying, getting on the tube, blood, needles, the list went on and on. Every decision in my day had to be carefully thought through and analysed. This became increasingly problematic, as I would start missing certain classes because the room would send me in to a panic attack. At this point I was having over 5 panic attacks a day, my mind and body were going in to overdrive and I couldn’t seem to get control, the whole situation was a self-fulfilling mess.
It wasn’t long after this all started happening; the black dog visited me. This is where my memories start to become quite discombobulated, like puzzle pieces. I sat down with my mum recently and she reflected on this time and how I behaved and managed myself. I was constantly exhausted to the point I couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings, I would fall asleep as soon as I was in from school and be in and out of sleep until the mornings. I just remember feeling sad all the time; the tears were there ready to fall at the smallest thing. It was as if someone had drained the world of all colour and I didn’t feel safe anywhere. Places that I loved, such as the theatre became my hell and even if it were brought up in discussion my heart would start to race, the complete panic flooding in. The next panic attack was just a room or conversation away.
One of the hardest things for me at this time was not being understood, mental health is a hard thing to grasp if you haven’t experienced it directly. Everyone always talks about it being invisible but for someone suffering from it, it is the most visible thing in the world. It is hard to explain to someone that at a time where I felt everything (I was probably the most in tune with my body at this time, my heart rate slightly increasing, a tingling sensation down one of my arms, I would notice it) I was also completely numb. People think that depression is just feeling sad, but it is a lot more than that, it is an all-consuming darkness that encompasses your entire day, week, month and life.