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Anxiety, agoraphobia and the questions mental health research could answer

Gemma describes how anxiety has impacted her life, from when she was a child up until her present day experience of agoraphobia, writing that research is "vital" if we are to understand mental illness.

My name is Gemma, I am 35 years old, I live near Brighton, I run my own dog walking business…and I have agoraphobia.

I was an extremely shy child. I mean, so shy I couldn’t speak to any adults other than my parents without great difficulty. I hated being this way. It seemed completely at odds with who I felt I was inside but I just had this brick wall around me that prevented me from speaking out. 

I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I wanted to be confident and cool and popular but I really didn’t like who I was and I felt like no one else really liked me either.

I didn’t realise at the time that what I had was an anxiety disorder. In the eighties it wasn’t something that parents or teachers really recognised as something that needed to be diagnosed and treated by a doctor. It was just ‘shyness’. 

At the age of around 9 or 10 I remember deciding that I would not be shy anymore and that all my thoughts from then should be of making myself into a confident, happy-go-lucky, popular girl who everyone liked.

In secondary school a group of girls started bullying me. It was just words, but I was incredibly sensitive and I took everything they said to heart. I felt like I was completely on my own and that somehow I deserved it. Eventually I found the courage to tell one of my teachers, which gave me the courage to tell the bullies where to go! They stopped, but this had really knocked me and my confidence was really low.

I’ll never forget my first panic attack. It was a Wednesday afternoon at sixth form college and I suddenly felt very sick. I went into the toilets to vomit but nothing happened. I felt awful. Hot and shaky. The rest of the week went by as normal. But it came to the following Wednesday afternoon and the same thing happened. It seemed my brain had remembered the day and time from last week and was making me feel sick again. I ignored it this time knowing what had happened the week before but from then on every Wednesday afternoon I felt sick. 

As my attacks got more frequent and stronger I began to look into it and what I could do about them.

I went to my GP, who prescribed antidepressants and gave me a handful of leaflets about anxiety. But when my anxiety continued I was offered beta blockers and six sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The sessions only scraped the surface, in my final appointment I felt I was only just getting to grips with the ideas behind the therapy.

Luckily, I was fortunate enough that my family and I were able to fund private therapy. I tried counselling, hypnotherapy, nutritionists, online courses and more CBT...

The anxiety and panic didn’t go away and a few years later in 2009 I had what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown. I woke up one Monday morning feeling sick. 

I called into work to tell them I wouldn’t be in that day and curled up in bed to try to rest.

That’s when I suddenly started feeling really hot. Swelteringly hot. My heart started beating out of my chest and my legs turned to jelly. I tried to get up to go to the bathroom but I couldn’t walk properly. I could barely breathe. I thought I was going to die. Or, worse than that even, never feel ok again. It felt like all hope for anything was gone. It wasn’t until my mum suggested maybe it was a panic attack that I realised.

The next few days I felt awful. I was so terrified of having that feeling again that I couldn’t leave the house anymore. It felt scary to even leave my bedroom at times.

My GP was happy to sign me off work with anxiety and depression but no other help was offered.

I was desperate to get back to normal but I didn’t know how. So my parents paid for a private CBT therapist to come to the house. It took me 3 months to get back up and running again – I returned to work but things weren’t ever really the same for me there and I eventually left in 2013.

Today, I still live with agoraphobia. My ‘comfort zone’ is currently between a 5 and 10 mile radius from my home and I deal with some level of anxiety every day. But, I have now been living on my own for 5 years, running my own dog walking business for 4 years and challenging my boundaries every day. 

Deciding to not be ashamed about my condition and to talk about it was a major turning point for me. Other people confided that they felt the same way and it became a great source of hope that so many other people understood.

There are still so many people who are scared to admit their feelings. The stigma is still there and the fear of losing friends, relationships or even jobs is all too real.

Research is vital if we are to understand mental illness. We need to know more about how these conditions develop. Is it nature or nurture? Are there noticeable early signs? Does this mean we will be able to stop certain mental illnesses in their tracks?

MQ’s work seems to mark a new era for mental health. It really seems like there is a revolution going on and a huge change in attitudes is coming.

We know that three children in a typical classroom are suffering from some form of mental illness. That is a shocking and very sad statistic and I’m passionate about supporting them and raising any money I can to help. 

That’s why I’m holding my own ‘Son of a Biscuit’ bake sale and I’m hoping to raise much-needed funds and also spread the word far and wide about mental health research and why it is so important. We have some amazing raffle prizes to win on the day and also a signed Chelsea football shirt that will be auctioned off!

I can’t wait to use this as an excuse for people to really open up about how they feel and to become as excited as I am about MQ!

As MQ say: together we will transform mental health.

Last updated: 17 May 2017

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