Many thanks to Viv for opening up about this, and writing this blog post for us.
Hidden mental health issues: my battle with anxiety
I've been following this blog for a while, and thought I'd make my own contribution to it. Lots of my friends know I'm battling a progressive neurological disease which started when I was just 22 in 1994. Less well known is that I have mental health issues, specifically generalised anxiety disorder. This probably comes from coping with my severely disabling and life threatening disease day to day, but may also be due to the medicines I have to take. But it's not something I talk about much. My GP thought it would be a miracle if I hadn't developed something like this, given what I have to cope with.
I first mentioned it more openly in an email to a friend back in September 2014. He was going through a meltdown at the time, and I thought it might help to say that I understood part of what he was going through (soon after he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder), but also that I suspected many more of his friends who'd been offering support may be dealing with mental health issues in a private way.
My anxiety started to develop from the early 2000s onwards. I'd worry unduly over all sorts of things, and the problems only increased over time, until it reached a crisis when I pulled out of a planned and much wanted short trip to Venice, far too anxious to make the journey. I'd been aware of problems growing for some time, with anxiety becoming more and more of an overwhelming issue day to day, but this was the final straw, and my husband wisely dragged me to the doctor the next morning! My GP agreed with my self diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder (I'd figured that out from doing my research using good reliable online resources like NHS websites) and offered cognitive behavioural therapy, but warned there was an extremely long waiting list. He suggested I might like to try a SSRI pill first, or instead, which I was happy to do. Because of my MS-like illness I was already taking about 15 different medicines (~40 pills) a day - what difference would one more make, that might help. It took me a few goes to find one that didn't cause troublesome side effects, but I'm now happily settled on Sertraline. It doesn't remove anxiety completely, but makes it much more manageable, me better able to cope, and, importantly, I'm still "me", i.e. the drug doesn't change my personality too much.
I'm not working in academia in a paid capacity - my MS-like illness rules that option out completely now. But I am still active as an academic, doing new research, publishing journal papers, giving conference papers, all helped by an ongoing honorary research fellowship from my university. As a historian doing academic publishing I am a sole author, and have to cope with peer review etc. on my own. That can be extremely stressful, but I've adopted a very pragmatic strategy, and manage it well now. When I get feedback from peer reviewers that I may need to act on I'll skim through it quickly, take a deep breath, then put it to one side for a few days or even a week or two before I look at it more fully, and formulate a plan for tackling the reviewers' concerns prior to any resubmission. Time and distance helps to remove the worst of the sting! Giving conference papers is also a challenge, not least because of the logistics of travelling, with wheelchair, and coping stamina-wise with the event (I have huge problems due to my MS-like illness with fatigue, and can't, for example, do successive days any more at conferences, needing to rest/sleep on alternate days). I find that planning carefully in advance combined with pacing is key. And the more I try to do these ambitious things and succeed, the more my confidence grows, step by step, and the easier it gets the next time. But it's still hard, and still requires a leap of faith every time. Luckily I have a wonderful husband who helps me all the way.
I don't want to suggest that any of this is easy. I still have very difficult patches, as I know others do too. Also depression can be a factor at times, probably caused by coping with my illness, with some extremely dark patches. I don't try to be productive then. But as things lift I can do more, and I enjoy it.
But I suppose my original and most important point is that many more people out there probably have experience of mental health issues (their own, or those of close friends and family) than others realise. And this blog post is my small way of contributing towards that, by opening up about my own issues, and how I'm trying to cope with them.