Anxiety at 27: panic attacks and crying in the work loos
By Josh Roberts
Originally published in
It’s a funny business crying in the toilets at work. Usually you can let your body do whatever it wants as you force the emotion out. You can let go. Here in the loos the opposite is true. You must stay completely still and silent, to avoid giving the game away. You must keep your legs still and snuffle your sniffles with a fist full of toilet roll. You must remember to do a “phantom flush”, less Gary from accounts in the adjacent cubicle suspects that something is amiss. After all, as every ex-public schoolboy knows, the only thing worse than crying in the toilets at work is someone else knowing that you are crying in the toilets at work.
So here I sit, aged 27, on the cold marble floor of trap two sobbing, head in one hand, mobile phone blinking with fresh emails in the other.
And the worst bit? This isn’t the first time. For the past week, this has become a grim part of my daily routine. One of those things that I have to do even though I hate every moment of it. Like paying my mortgage, or watching Bake Off. But you’re probably wondering why I am crying in the toilets, day after day.
Maybe I got dumped. Not so, my lovely girlfriend is next to me as I write this. Perhaps my parents are going through a miserable divorce. Nope. In fact, I would say mine is an above-averagely happy family.
Maybe I just got the sack from a fancy-pants gig at a law firm. The sort of job that mums boast about in Waitrose: “I heard that your Rory got on to the PwC grad scheme. You must be so terribly proud.” But again, and at the risk of sounding nauseatingly smug, it’s a no. I had a cracking job selling adverts that I really enjoyed.
The truth is that, like 25 per cent of people at some point in their lives, I have a mental-health problem. Mine is called generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). It’s pretty common — and extremely misunderstood. If you google it, the NHS will tell you that GAD is “a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event”.
The best way I can describe mine is to imagine all those little thoughts that involuntarily enter your head in a five-minute period. Normal thoughts, such as, “What shall I have for tea?” Now, imagine every single one of those thoughts being about some catastrophic, unavoidable thing that is inevitably going to happen: “I am never going to sleep again” or “I am going to be nervous for the rest of my life”.
It’s a really obsessive worry about worrying. I sit there at brunches or dinner parties and all I can think about is worrying. I try to force my brain to come up with things that are happy or relaxing. But I can’t.
This is a fairly new thing. Before then I was a very happy chappy from the home counties. I was born in Guildford in April 1990 and had a lovely middle/upper-middle-class upbringing. Dad worked in technology, Mum gave up a career designing interiors to look after me and my two older brothers. We had a pretty Tudor house on the outskirts of a quiet village, and Surrey life was good. Tennis got played. Cloudy Bay got drunk.
I started at a little local prep school at seven and then migrated to Harrow at 13. And up until 27 life unfurled as I had rather fastidiously planned. Then — KAPOW! — one Sunday morning in September last year everything changed.
It started, as most Sunday mornings used to start, with a hangover. Lying there on top of the covers, I ran through the normal checklist. Half-drunk Peroni bottle by the side of the bed? Check. Throat like I’ve been drinking hot gravel? Check.
But wait, what’s this? I feel really nervous. Like, really, really nervous. I’m absolutely terrified. Of what I don’t know, but my heart is racing, little bullets of sweat are appearing on my forehead. I feel as if I’m having a heart attack. I’m about to die. This is it.
I was having panic attack. Relatively common after a big night out, except this one didn’t subside. I went to three different A&Es, phoned 112 twice, went to one NHS GP and eventually — now a complete mess, having not slept for three days for sheer panic — ended up at the door of a (brilliant) private GP.
“Have you ever seen someone with these symptoms before?” I asked, praying that the answer would be “yes” (one of the things at the start of a mental-health problem is you think you’re the first person to feel like this).
“Josh,” he said kindly, “this is extremely common among men your age.” He wrote me a prescription for anti-anxiety medication (some beta-blockers, some Valium etc) and gave me the number of a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) man.
Two weeks later, with more than a little trepidation, I rocked up to a basement flat in South Kensington in London. The overwhelming feeling, though, was one of embarrassment.
Embarrassment for two reasons: first, because on paper I had nothing to worry about. And second, because I am man, and men shouldn’t have these problems.
Over time I would come to realise that these views are rubbish. First, mental illness doesn’t care if you are rich or poor. It’s an everyman, broad church kinda thing. Like Pizza Express or Ikea. And second, lots of men have these problems. The thing is they only talk about it to people who have had it.
Here we are, this group of young dudes with a common secret. We shuffle into pubs to talk about it, we exchange shady Whatsapp messages, we silently support each other.
“Ever have the one where you think you’ll never sleep again?” I might text my friend Harry. “Yeah, mate, all the time. You’ll be fine,” comes the reply.
The impact of the CBT was almost immediate. We’d isolate a particular thought process, break it down and then use evidence to prove or disprove it.
At first, interrupting your normal thought processes is difficult and exhausting, but if you apply yourself it becomes second nature. And most importantly you feel the nerves lifting. For me it took about three months before I allowed myself the occasional day off from panic.
In addition to the CBT I started exercising much more regularly, made myself busy and drastically reduced my alcohol intake. The pills never really worked for me, so I stopped taking them.
In the past month or two things have got a lot better. I’d say at the moment I spend about 50 per cent of my time nervous and 50 per cent fairly relaxed.
Of course I go through phases, but usually they pass. Like the one where I convinced myself I’d never sleep again (two months). Or the one where I assumed I’d never have sex again (one month). Or the really weird one where I was absolutely terrified about getting a sore throat (about ten days).
Anyhow, what’s the point of writing all this down? Well there are a couple.
Before all this I was a sceptic. I was one of the “just pull yourself together and have a nice cup of tea” brigade. Now I know how painful and problematic mental ill-health is. It isn’t being over-tired; it isn’t being overly emotional. It’s as a real as a broken bone.
There’s a general view of me and my contemporaries as needy, bubble-wrapped millennials who want everything for nothing and can’t cope with the natural ebb and flow of life. That may be true. Or it could be that attitudes like this are the reason why the biggest killer of my friends is themselves.
Second, I’m one of the lucky ones. Theresa May recently described the UK’s mental-health services as “patchy”. In some parts of the country it takes more than six months to receive an initial consultation. So, I’m lucky in the sense that, unlike most people, my parents have been able to fund my treatment privately. God knows what I would have done without them. I guess that, like 6,639 people last year according to the Samaritans, I might have decided I couldn’t go on any more.