Disability and I: Rachel O’Neill

As humans, we have always prided ourselves on our ability to think. We have always seen ourselves as above other species because of the thoughts in our head and how we act or react to them. But at what point are we thinking too much? At what point does our ability to think become damaging to our health? I found that point a very long time ago and my brain has been punishing me ever since.

I was officially diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder in 2015 but for as long as I can remember, I have overthought nearly every aspect of my life. I’ve put myself under huge pressure to achieve perfection in every aspect of my life be it academically, physically or socially. I have driven myself into depressive episodes in a bid to try and achieve perfection, in a bid to try and eliminate the self-loathing I have had for so long.

My anxiety doesn’t involve panic attacks or hysterical crying. My anxiety means every thought I have spins around in my brain and is repeatedly crushed into a fine powder of panic and hatred. Every action is replayed over and over again as I pick apart what I did or why I did it, looking for a way to find fault with everything knowing that it’ll always be there. It is an endless and miserable cycle that I have lived in for most of my life. What’s strange is that I thought this was normal until my best friend Lorna pointed out that she’d never seen anyone react to exams and college the way I did. I thought I was normal and that what I was doing was absolutely fine when the truth was, I was depressed and anxious all the time.

Some people would read that and say I’m overreacting or that I should just stop worrying and thinking so much and I really wish I could. I’ve been in therapy on and off for the last two years and what I’ve learnt from that is how hard it is to reverse conditioned behaviour. If you’ve thought about something in a particular for 10 years, it’s very hard to think about it in a new way. Sometimes you make great progress and you feel like you can face your problems head on. Then you get a setback and you feel like the whole world is against you. I’ve made great progress but I’ve also had several major setbacks.

My mother was re-diagnosed with breast cancer last year and that was a huge setback for me. Instead of focussing on her getting better, I started writing her eulogy. I started to worry about how my dad would cope if she died. I started to worry about what would happen to the house and my brother and the rest of my family. I’d find myself crying myself to sleep, scared I’d wake up and she’d be dead. My mum was in great hands and thankfully none of what I thought of ever materialised but it was enough. My anxiety could feed off those thoughts for months and is still doing so. Recently I was lying in bed, in tears as I imagined my parents dying in a bus crash in Cambodia when they were on holiday there. It is utterly exhausting.

Sometimes the thoughts are so unrelenting that it leads me into a depressive episode where it takes every ounce of will to go to college or to see my friends. I have an incessant need to be perfect but the fear of failing leads to procrastination, low self-esteem, lack of motivation and general low mood. You find yourself hating the way you look and that makes everything worse again. The thoughts mount up one by one until you barely want to get out of bed. Then you have to get out of bed because if you fail that exam or that assignment, then you’ve failed at life.

All of what I’ve outlined above sounds ridiculous and it is. I know that failing an assignment does not mean I’ve failed at life but that is what your brain will scream at you until you obey. I’ve tried one course of antidepressants to try and cope but found that they messed with my sleep cycle too much for me to continue using them. I’ve recently suffered a regression and will restart therapy in the next week but even admitting that I had a problem again was hard. It took me two months to come to even consider going back to my therapist because my brain told me I was a failure for not being ok.

I don’t want to paint such a depressing picture because my life isn’t as bad as my brain wants me to believe. I have an incredibly supportive family, friend group and boyfriend. I’m lucky to be able to afford therapy and I know I will come out of this eventually. What I will say is that you shouldn’t underestimate anxiety but you should not let it control your life either. You will have bad days or bad months or even a bad year and you have to know how to cope with that. You need to learn when to persist and when to stop and take care of yourself.  Anxiety is exhausting and it takes every ounce of your will to keep going and to not let yourself slip. That being said, it’s ok to slip and if you feel like it’s becoming too much then talk to someone be it a family member, a friend or your GP. You are not alone and people will be there for you.

I want to finish on a quote from my favourite poet, Elizabeth Bishop. It was a quote from her poem “Filling Station” that stuck with me so much that I actually got it tattooed on my right hip. It resonates with me because it always reminds me that someone will be there for me if and when I need it. I don’t believe in God or organised religion but as Bishop says, I do believe that “Somebody loves us all”. I will be ok eventually, it’s just going to take a little time.

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