Body & Fitness

The moment I realised how I felt wasn’t normal

“It was terrifying to realise I hadn’t been happy for a year. That I’d sailed so far away from happy and I hadn’t even noticed.”

I was 30 when I found out I had a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or “GAD” as no one calls it. A generalised anxiety disorder; not even a specific one. I could have had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or Social Anxiety Disorder, but no, it was generalised. Angst of all trades, master of none.

If you’d told me the definition of anxiety six months earlier (long periods of constant worry over myriad matters) I would have thought, poor buggers, those people with anxiety. Because I was so used to being worried, sleepless, exhausted, and a little bit afraid, all of the time, I didn’t know there was another way to live. I didn’t think it applied to me.

I was taking every job offer and working a lot. Of course I was, otherwise it would run out and then I’d be poor, and then I couldn’t afford to eat, and then I’d be homeless, and then I’d die. It was that simple and that catastrophic. It’s amazing how motivating fear can be; one must only look at the rise of Donald “The Donald” Trump.

But between too much work, too much time away from home/relationship, and the outright refusal to do anything consistently good for myself, cracks became canyons. And for the same reason canyons make such good tourist attractions, people began to stare.

I started to forget things. Often. I had a light and constant shudder of adrenalin, like I was always in a massage chair. But not a good one. One of those undignified retro chairs they put in a cinema complex foyer. I had the overwhelming urge to leave anywhere I wasn’t supposed to or couldn’t. Trams between stops. Meetings. The stage. Ah the stage. That’s the one that hurt the most.

There is something magical about a stage. Most times nerves are outweighed by the thrill of simply being there. Like there’s only room for one of them. But that stopped. The nerves became fear, and the terror followed me on. I was in a double act with someone who was not invited, but I was the only one who could hear it:

“Get off. You’re shaking. They can see it. You have a knot in your stomach. Feel that? I think you need to go to the toilet. But you’re trapped here. You see the exit sign, just walk towards it. They’ll be happier when you’re gone because this is the gig where you ruin everything.”

The panic started happening earlier and leaving later – great work ethic! I would go to EMERGENCY LEVEL RESPONSE for every situation. Missed the bus? Why do you always do this? People will think you’re unreliable and talk about that fact behind your back. Can’t get a phone signal? This is the most important hour of the day to be receiving calls and emails. Maybe if you were better with your money you could afford a phone that worked properly. Trying a new restaurant? What if you have nothing to talk about with your partner and you sit there in silence for what is anything but a “relaxing meal”?

It was a real hoot.

I pushed the limits of living unbearably but drew the line at some blurred point when I’d had enough, which was a shame: I hate being a quitter. I eventually went to the doctor and was diagnosed: GAD and evolving depression. No point having a headline act without warm-up guy. I saw a therapist and that held me in good stead for a couple of years.

But then just last year I got bitten by the black dog in a way I hadn’t in a decade. Lethargic. Angry. Grief-stricken without reason. Self-loathing, and a loathing of anyone who loved me. I had no idea it was happening to me, or my body. It happens to us; it’s a physical and mental affliction.

My months of unidentified sadness were punctuated by a trip back to Australia. With all the space and wonder of the land, and kindness of the people, and joy of the audiences and comfort of my family and friends. I experienced happiness for the first time in what I realised was probably a year. And it terrified me – that I’d sailed so far away from happy and I hadn’t even noticed. There’s no way to measure that stuff. Unlike body mass, I can’t weigh my ideal emotional or mental state. There is no set of scales that tell me I’m experiencing higher levels of anxiety than last week, so it’s easier to drift far away to the land of CODE RED without even realising.

So I returned back to London (where I now live) and sought more therapy. This time, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And I started swimming two or three times a week. And these became my non-negotiables. They are the bare minimum of what I need to be doing for myself, on top of eating well, going home as early as I can to sleep, spending time in a park looking at a pigeon whilst eating a sandwich (the last one is optional at the moment) if I want to operate in society without spiralling towards my inevitable end. My apologies if some of the language is too bleak. As someone who has depression I find it more helpful if I use blunt language to explain it all because it feels pretty blunt when it’s happening to me.

So I’m now a reluctant convert to the manageable lifestyle of the mentally ill. I do not want the horror of last year to sneak up on me again. If it does, I want to know I’ve done everything in my power to keep it at bay. But days go by when I do the stuff, but it’s still not enough. That’s okay. Well, not really. It absolutely sucks. But I have a little more acceptance around that now. I occasionally try to be nice to myself – the idea of “self-care” used to make me feel queasy. I’m still not completely over that notion if I’m honest. But the past 12 months have been my most sane, my most normal, and quite a lot of the time I’ve been my happiest self. I missed her. She’s a lot of fun.

Felicity Ward is comedian. She is currently touring New Zealand with her new show What If There Is No Toilet? as part of the 2016 New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Auckland April 26 to 30, Wellington May 1.

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