What my four-year battle with anxiety disorder taught me about dealing with corona-fear
In a new memoir, Josh Roberts, 30, charts his battle with excruciating honesty - and explains how he pulled through
We live in worrying times. That was true before this horrific Covid-19 virus rocked-up; but now the sense of worry is palpable. You can’t look anywhere, read anything, speak to anyone without feeling anxious. And as a result, tragically, thousands of people are now experiencing, what I’ve been living with for the past four years - the insomnia, the knotted stomach, the looming sense of doom. It has taken me that time to get to the bottom of it, to find an even keel - but it’s something we can all achieve.
For me, it all started four years ago, the day after I went to a farewell party for some friends who were moving to South Africa. I’d actually been quite well behaved. Drunk enough to dance, but not much more. So, as I lay atop the bed covers fully clothed the next morning, I felt a deep sense of injustice. I hadn’t expected any hangover at all, let alone one of this intensity. And it was intense.
Assessing the damage on Sunday morning, I ran through my usual hangover checklist: Headache? Check. Nausea? Check. Dry, itchy eyes? Check. All standard stuff... except something about this particular hangover wasn’t right. Why is my chest tight? Why am I beginning to sweat? Why can’t I breathe? Why is my heart pounding? What is happening? It came in waves of panic, which would surge up and ripple out across my body. I lay there, frozen in fear.
After 10 minutes, the waves finally began to subside - although they never fully subsided. For the rest of the day, every 30 minutes or so, there’d be another crack of panic. My chest would tighten, my heart would thump and the terror of imminent death would return. It didn’t follow any schedule or rhythm. I remember trying to make lunch when – WHACK – a new hurricane of panic arrived. I dropped the plate, crumpled to the floor.
I tried everything to make the feelings of nervousness go away – showering, eating, exercising – but to no avail. When evening arrived, I even tried drinking a beer. But if anything, my mind whirred faster. I could feel my chest constricting with every gulp. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. During one surge of anxiety I nearly called an ambulance, but managed to talk myself out of it. My situation was already pretty embarrassing, and having other people know about it would only make it worse.
I can’t tell you how I got to work that morning, but somehow I did.
‘Good weekend?’ asked my smiley colleague, Lily.
‘Not really,’ I said staring emptily ahead.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked. ‘You look like s**t.’
Or at least I think that’s what she said. If I’m honest, she’d lost me at ‘Good weekend?’ I’d stopped listening, and started panicking. Without saying another word, without even taking my coat off, I made for the toilets, crashed into a cubicle, fell to the floor and began crying. Not sobbing or weeping, but full-on, visceral, abdominal crying. That’s how it all started.
Soon this sorry sight was part of my daily routine. Some days I could manage a few hours at my desk before my first trip to toilet cubicle two. Other days it was more urgent. Often it was the first thing I did on reaching the office. I couldn’t control it. I just had to cry.
It all happened so quickly. One day I was a cheery, chirpy 20-something, with a loving girlfriend Cali, supportive family and well-paid (if dull) marketing job in a bank in London - the next I was a hot mess of panic and tears
In those early weeks I went to A&E three times, and saw two different NHS GPs. ‘A hangover gone wrong,’ was the general prognosis. But after a fortnight things still hadn’t improved, so I booked an appointment with an incredible private GP.
What exactly are you worrying about?’ he asked. Everything. It wasn’t just a fear of immediate death any more but a continuous, all-pervasive nervousness. As soon as my brain came up with something new to think – like what to wear to work or have for tea – the anxious thoughts would arrive.
‘Josh,’ the GP said calmly and confidently, ‘you have an anxiety disorder.’
It was the first time I’d been diagnosed with something and it was a bizarre blend of relief that I wasn’t the first to go through this, and alarm that I had got something. Maybe I’d be like this for the rest of my life. Maybe it would kill me. I’m not being melodramatic. Being a man under 50, I was already in the high-risk category for suicide. With this diagnosis, that risk went up several notches.
However, my primary emotion was shame. Partly it was about being weak. But also because I should be happy. I’m a white, middle-class, heterosexual man; it’s not possible to imagine a life less worrisome than mine. I’ve never had to struggle. What on earth do I have to worry about?
The GP prescribed me with a Valium-type pill for use in emergencies and referred me to a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) therapist. ‘It’ll take some work,’ he said. ‘But it will get better.’
According to the NHS, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a long-term condition that can make you feel anxious about a wide range of situations, rather than one specific event. There are two main theories about the causes of GAD, and most mental health problems: ‘the parents one’ and ‘the environment one’. The first is the idea that mental health problems are passed down through families. Genetics is the obvious mechanism, but children also learn from observing and copying parents – including, potentially, how to be anxious. In contrast, the environment one suggests that it’s all about behaviour and the things that happen. Drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs and not sleeping enough could all be causes. As could getting fired, being dumped or losing someone.
In my own case, it was a bit of both. Depression and anxiety hang off my family tree like miserable black blossom. And this - plus the way I behaved in my early twenties (boozing, not sleeping enough, never exercising) - made some kind of mental unrest inevitable.
Which isn’t to say I had an unhappy childhood. Far from it, I’d had brilliant upbringing in a pretty Tudor house on the outskirts of a quiet village near Guildford, with my parents and two older brothers. Materially, we were pretty comfortable. Weekends were always packed with fun activities like sailing, bike rides and bonfires. And yet, come my mid-twenties, my ‘anxious genes’, combined with societal pressures and my own reckless behaviour, tipped me over the edge.
In the early days after being diagnosed with GAD, I’d love to say that I started the fightback, but instead I made a cardinal mistake, and googled it. What a terrible idea that was. I started out on the NHS website, but when that didn’t tell me exactly what I wanted (ie, that I would be completely fixed very quickly), I cast the net wider, and found myself in the weird and woeful world of mental health forums. Ingesting other people’s misery made me worse. It gave me more to worry about.
The weeks that followed were exhausting. Outwardly, little changed. I didn’t lose any weight (sadly) or hair (thankfully), and I didn’t call in sick to work, or break down. (Though I must have been pretty weird, dashing off to the loos, suddenly going silent in meetings.) Inwardly, however, I ricocheted around, physically drained, but mentally wired and at the mercy of the anxiety. It decided when I could sleep, what I could eat, how often I could see my friends. ‘There’s no point in looking forward to the weekend,’ it would say. ‘You’ll be nervous the whole time so there’s no chance you’ll enjoy it.’
The duality of my condition - the fact that I can be outwardly cheery, whilst inwardly disintegrating - meant that few spotted what was going on. Even my girlfriend Cali didn’t fully know the magnitude of my turmoil, as I didn’t want to put her off, or to jeopardise our relationship.
I shouldn’t have kept it to myself. Opening up to Cali and accepting her support was vital in my recovery - we’d we had only been going out for a year or so when it all started, and our relationship survived it; recently we got engaged. Which isn’t to say it’s all been plain sailing. There have been sleepless nights, ruined holidays, moments of desperation. But I have no doubt that if she hadn’t been there for me, I wouldn’t be here at all.
About a month after the breakdown I had this marvellous idea to list the things that made my anxiety better and worse. I’d start by jotting down my nervousness on a scale of 0 to 10 (with 0 being a Caribbean holiday and 10 being unbearable worry), then I’d record the current circumstances (time of day, weather), and rummage through the previous 24 hours. Did I go to the gym yesterday? Did I drink caffeine in the afternoon? Did I eat dinner too late? Whenever I thought I’d identified a bad thing, I did it less, and when I found a positive, I did it more. In fact, I did it obsessively. Within weeks I’d developed a long list of rules.
I couldn’t drink booze or coffee, for example. I couldn’t eat chocolate or red meat. I couldn’t see friends on Sundays, or have meetings in the morning, and I had to exercise in the evening (every day). I had to walk a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, and take vitamin supplements. And I absolutely couldn’t spend time alone, this correlated with my anxiety getting worse.I started timing my morning routine to coincide with my flatmate’s, to ensure that I didn’t commute alone. I’d wait to hear her door crack open and then leg it into the corridor. ‘Are you leaving soonish?’ I’d ask with faux nonchalance, ‘I could walk with you to the station.’ ‘Isn’t that the wrong direction for you?’ she would respond. ‘Oh, it’s not too bad. I rather like the walk.’
Evenings were fastidiously planned. I booked dinners, took up cycling and started tutoring GCSE Maths. Often I’d double-book myself as insurance against being cancelled on.The great irony was that I’d started doing all this stuff to make the anxiety go away but it only made the quagmire deeper. It became yet another thing to worry about. It took a year before I accepted that other factors could be involved. On two different days I’d behave exactly the same and yet experience wildly differing levels of anxiety.
Realising this was scary. Humans despise ‘not knowing’. Whenever we can’t explain something we go to pieces. I’m no exception. Accepting the randomness and uncertainty of my condition was terrifying because it also meant accepting that there was nothing I could do about it. But there was also an upside to this. It allowed me to end my mad quest for a cause. And with that, I began to unpick all the bizarre rules that had taken over my life.
It took me three years to recover. Throughout Year One I’d thought that my anxiety would never get better - that year wasn’t about recovery but survival; I worried constantly, slept little, cried loads and ‘learnt’ to live nervously. Year Two showed me that it would get better. And Year Three was about applying that discovery during relapses. ‘You’ve been this bad before and got better,’ I’d tell myself. ‘So don’t worry, this won’t last forever.’
Things first started to get better when I changed jobs. The bank was so dull that at one stage, I started booking meeting rooms to watch Netflix. I hadn’t expected switching jobs (to sell advertising) to make a difference, but it was exciting to meet new colleagues, learn new tasks. And, for about a year, that proved sufficient to banish my anxiety. Not totally. Most days it was still switched ‘on’ but for the first time since my breakdown, there were occasional days when it was turned ‘off’.
Then things changed. First I started getting stuck into therapy and in particular CBT, a simple set of techniques for challenging the thoughts in our heads. If you can prove the anxious thoughts to be invented rubbish, then you can prevent the emotional or physical responses from taking place. And secondly, my attitude shifted. I made the conscious decision to stop obsessing over a cure, and accepted that my recovery would take time.
Other things helped too - drinking less alcohol, taking up exercise (three times a week I’ll lace up my Asics and go running or lift weights - people who exercise tend to exhibit higher levels of the ‘happy chemical’ serotonin) and cutting back on social media also made a difference. It’s no coincidence that the explosion of social media has coincided with a 50 per cent increase in childhood mental health problems.
I’ve also started to jot down my anxious thoughts on my phone. I read it to be reminded of the many times when I’ve been bad and then recovered.
But, it was the support of others that really helped. At first I’d concealed it from my family, but when I told them they were phenomenal. My parents understood immediately, and my brothers and cousin helped me where they could, taking me out for dinner and even letting me sleep on the sofa in the corner of their office. (Odd, I know. But when my insomnia was really bad at night it became the only place I could sleep during the day. There was something comforting about their passive company.)
"My experience has taught me that, whilst we can’t stop terrible things happening, we can manage our emotions when they do"
My bosses’ reactions were surprising and brilliant too. I’d been scared to confess, worrying what colleagues (especially male ones) would think of me and assuming that bosses would write me off. But at some point I simply couldn’t hide the unhappiness, so I booked a meeting with them. Not only did all three bosses offer empathy and support, but two had actually had similar problems - and these were veterans of advertising sales, an alpha-male industry. The experience taught me that mental health problems are more prevalent than I thought. In fact, 25 per cent of people will experience one in their lifetime.
Four years on, I still despise my condition. And I get terrifically down about it. My anxious episodes are shorter, more spread out and less intense yet their arrival still makes me sad. The feeling of being ‘normal’ is such bliss, it hurts to lose it. But in consort with the CBT therapist, I’ve got much more adept at detecting when an anxious episode is inbound.
As a man, there is an added pressure to remain calm thought it all, as generally speaking society still expects us blokes to be hard-working, high-achieving, rock solid (in all senses), James Bond-esque badasses. And for a long time that’s what I tried to be. I tried to cover-up my problems, to disguise my anxiety, under a thick slick of masculine bravado. After all, as every ex-public school boy knows, the only thing worse than being fragile is other people knowing that you’re fragile. Nowadays I don’t do any of that. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m a bit broken, a bit vulnerable, a bit weak. The difference is that now I know it’s only temporary. I know that clouds break, storms clear. Which has also been helping me through the panic surrounding this pandemic.
My experience has taught me that, whilst we can’t stop terrible things happening, we can manage our emotions when they do. We can reach for the positive - reach for each other - and try to remember that, no matter how bad it gets, at some point it always gets better.
See article in The Telegraph here