Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.
Also, there’s quite a lot of swearing.
I’d like to try something, if I may. An experiment of sorts.
Imagine you’re lying in your bed. You’ve had a cup of warm milk, or maybe some chamomile tea; you’re all snuggled up in your pyjamas; perhaps you’ve got a favourite cuddly toy tucked under your arm; the duvet is pulled right up and you’re nice and warm and relaxed.
Sounds great, right?
Now, imagine this – in spite of everything, in spite of how relaxed you should be feeling, part of your brain is convinced that somewhere close by is a tiger. A huge, ferocious, angry, ravenous tiger. This tiger wants to eat you. It has your scent in its nostrils and it’s not going away any time soon. This part of your brain with the tiger fixation won’t shut up. Round and round inside your head it keeps screaming TIGERTIGERTIGERTIGERTIGERTIGERTIGER…
Do you think you could fall asleep like that? Of course not. You’re terrified. Your heart is pounding, your whole body is trembling, your skin is clammy, you’re short of breath, your mouth is Sahara dry. You know damn well that there is no tiger, but try convincing that stubborn bit of your brain. It feels like the logical part of your brain has been locked in a soundproof box – it’s trying to break out, trying to scream at you, shake you by the shoulders, tell you to snap out of it and that you’re being an idiot.
That, so I’m told, is what it’s like to have a panic attack. Find yourself drifting off to sleep at last? Nope. TIGER. You’re just watching some TV or a movie on NetflOH SHIT THE TIGER’S BACK. Getting up early to try and have a productive day? TIGER IN THE SHOWER. It’s one fucking persistent tiger and until that logical part of your brain can break free and finally convince you to listen, it’s going to keep popping up out of nowhere, like a horrible furry ninja.
Lucky for me I don’t suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, or anything like that. My fiancé Frank, however, does. He regularly has panic attacks, some of which last for hours and every morning after grabbing whatever fitful sleep he can, he immediately feels anxious and can’t stop pacing around the flat. Sometimes, he can’t stand being hugged, because it feels like I’m trapping him. He gets worried about leaving the house in case he has an attack in the street, or when I’m at work and there’s nobody he can call. The medication he’s on to combat the anxiety makes him feel exhausted, but his brain doesn’t let him sleep. He also has extremely low self-esteem and when you pile all that on top of the fact that he suffers from Nf2, a crippling neurological disease that has left him profoundly deaf and unable to walk unaided? Life is not easy for him.
The anxiety is more of a recent issue and it sucks. It really does. It’s started to affect our relationship – our sex life is non-existent, we snap and snipe at each other, I’ll come home from work and we’ll barely say a word to each other until one of us suggests something for dinner…the list goes on. Anxiety is a horrible thing to go through, but because it’s one of those ‘invisible illnesses’, like depression or, in Frank’s case, Nf2, some people can’t, don’t, or won’t take it seriously.
Not everybody is like that, obviously. Our closest friends are incredibly understanding – although that may stem from the fact that two out of four of them suffer from anxiety issues too. They’re not as severe as Frank’s, but it’s still a hard thing to deal with when you can’t speak to someone you don’t already know and eating food in front of other people freaks you out because for some inexplicable reason you’re convinced they’re silently judging you. In our little group is three couples. We meet regularly for tabletop game nights and we’ve all got our issues and we’ve managed to find solace in each other. We are our own little support network and one thing I’ve learned from being an outside observer of anxiety is that people who suffer from it should not be left to suffer alone.
So, I’m the outside observer. It’s an interesting place to be, because not everybody who suffers from anxiety or panic attacks is the same. There are degrees of severity, like with most illnesses or conditions, that vary from person to person and some people are much better at hiding it than others. They seem fine, until you look a bit closer and you see the tightness around the corners of their mouth, the clenching and un-clenching off their hands under the table, the fidgeting, how easily distracted they are, because anything is better than thinking about that fucking tiger.
Yeah. Remember the tiger?
The tiger is tricky. It can spring up out of nowhere and there’s nothing you can do but wait until it flicks its tail dismissively and disappears back into the jungle. You can’t fight it, it’s a tiger. You’ll make the situation infinitely worse. But you can’t ignore it either, because huge feline predators are very difficult to ignore once you know they’re there. You just have to let it come and that is very difficult. Half your body wants to fight and half your body wants to run – it’s instinctual. Fight or flight. But you can’t do either of them. You can’t run away from your own brain.
What I’m trying to do here is help you understand, because I didn’t at first and it wasn’t a good thing. You can’t really SEE the anxiety until it manifests itself, if ever, as a panic attack. You can’t SEE fear unless you have physical symptoms to go along with it – the pounding heartbeat, wide eyes, shaking and trembling – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In fact, it probably means that whoever it is who’s suffering is trying to protect you. They don’t want you involved, because funnily enough anxiety tends to have a negative effect on people.
Frank tried to protect me and I turned around and said to him that I wanted to understand. I wanted to be able to help him, if I could. So, eventually, he told me about what it’s like to have a panic attack, what it’s like to have two parts of your brain at war with each other all the time and what it’s like to not be able to tell anyone what’s going on. While it didn’t make the anxiety go away, it helped him and it helped me too, because now I know what to look for and I know how to respond.
People with anxiety sometimes have a lot of problems in their lives and a lot of reasons to feel anxious – and sometimes they don’t. Either way, it can feel like they’re stuck, because if they try and reach out and make someone else understand there’s a high chance that whoever’s attention they grab won’t ‘get it’. They won’t be able to sympathise, because they can’t understand what it’s like. They’ve never gone through it. They don’t understand the effect it can have on a person’s mental state. Some people like this can be dismissive of ‘invisible’ illnesses, like anxiety and depression, because they don’t know why the victim can’t just ‘snap out of it’. It’s easy to assume that’s possible if you don’t have any experience with it.
This is where you come in – wonderful, understanding, helpful you. You try and help as much as you can, even if you don’t quite get what they’re going through. Simple things are fine. A shoulder to cry on, or lean on when it all gets too much; a cup of tea; a hug; a smile; a sympathetic ear. If they do end up having a panic attack, make sure you’re there for them. Get them a drink, and stay with them, talking in a soothing voice and holding their hand. There are so many things you can do which can alleviate the fear, even if it’s only temporary and the majority of the work is probably being done through medication.
Don’t get too frustrated if what you’re doing doesn’t seem to be making a difference, because it probably is, you just can’t see it – a bit like the anxiety itself, really. Don’t give up on them. Ultimately, yes, they are the ones who can save their brains, but not without you. You can help them see that the world isn’t out to get them. The world, their world, is actually pretty okay. They’re in a good place. There are good things in their life.
There is no tiger.