I'm pleased to say another colleague/friend has agreed to contribute a guest blog about his experiences.
Once again, I am immensely thankful that they are helping out in this way to break down the barriers and the stigma.
And with that I'll hand over the keyboard to Jack.
Take Care Paul
I'm not what I say on the tin - By Jack 9/11/17
I’ve never written for a blog before, but my colleague Paul asked me to contribute after we spoke last week about the stigma surrounding mental health. In some respects our discussion was extremely positive but it also highlighted how little we discuss our mental wellbeing with each other. I had absolutely no idea that Paul suffers from similar anxiety issues like me and yet we’ve have sat next to each other for the past 12 months. I guess we’ve been conditioned not to be open and honest about it and that has to change. The stigma around mental health only compounds the problem and so I thought I would share my experiences in support of everyone whether they have mental health problems or not.
I suffer from a mental health condition – from my perspective it seems very boring and mundane in comparison to some of the more serious conditions you read about such as clinical depression, bi-polar or schizophrenia. I’ve never been sectioned, suffered from any psychosis and I’ve declined to take medication.
However, in recent years I’ve realised that my social anxiety has ruled many aspects of my life. In combination with Dyslexia it severely impacted upon my education, it has led to difficulties until recently in forming long lasting relationships and in hind sight has held me back from progressing in my work life.
Like many who suffer with social anxiety I have loads of friends and consider myself popular. But as with many sufferers, my friends, work colleagues and even family members don’t really know the real me. I’m a walking contradiction which can in large part be explained by my teenage years.
As a child I was painfully shy and anxious in large part due to childhood trauma. My shy younger self realised that feigning illness to avoid school and social situations wasn’t getting me very far and I tried to adapt. I created a persona which was in contradiction to my real character. This persona was reasonably confident, and outgoing. It was in effect a mask to hide the social anxiety I felt in social situations.
I became a popular and expanded my social network which in lots of ways was hugely positive. However, it came at a price. My understanding of who I was became blurred and whilst I did not show my social anxiety openly it was eating me up inside. I became disruptive at school and did poorly in exams. I self-medicated with alcohol in my teens and early 20s to cope with the demands of a social life. When I wasn’t inebriated, my anxiety would greatly impair my ability to function in most social situations and I felt out of control. A nightclub or student event would have been the last place I would ever want to be sober.
It also impacted negatively upon my work life as well. I carried my mask into work. Colleagues assumed I was confident but I would struggle with my anxiety which would impact on my ability to complete tasks. I often hid my failings behind bravado and then would spend hours awake at night anxiously dissecting my mistakes.
Like many sufferers of social anxiety it was in my late 20s when things came to a head. I was feeling increasingly down and felt like my life was chaotic and out of control. I was getting increasingly anxious in normal everyday situations. I dreaded my birthday, Christmas’s and avoided family events. I started to suffer quite severe panic attacks on nights out and found shopping trips exhausting. I suffered and those closest to me suffered from irrational mood swings and my tolerance for people in general hit a new low.
On the outside I was still the same to my friends and family but inside I was in turmoil. I did some research into my symptoms online and decided to see if some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) might help me deal with these situations better. Almost immediately I was diagnosed with social anxiety and given some tools which help me deal with my anxiety in certain situations.
It was the diagnosis rather than the tools which have benefitted me most. I have felt empowered in the past few years to embrace my less sociable self. I’ve learnt to minimise social activities which cause me stress and anxiety. This has been complimented by a number of coping mechanisms and CBT strategies which allow me to function as myself in my personal and work life.
I no longer see being myself as a negative. In our modern and ‘social’ obsessed society it can be a challenge being ‘anti-social’ but my personality has huge benefits. For example, I can spend the whole day without company and not feel lonely. Because of my hyper sensitivity I’m also very good at reading social situations and empathetic. I’m good in a 1 to 1 situations or small group situations which means I’m often the first person my friends call for advice. At work, I’m much more confident in who I really am and this has led to me being able to focus on my actual strengths and not try to over compensate for my perceived weaknesses.
Whilst I’m in a very positive place at the moment, I have to manage my social anxiety every day and I imagine the worst symptoms will rear their head again particularly when I’m going through stressful times in my life. My experiences have highlighted that sometimes we aren’t the person we wish to project and that it’s not necessarily healthy trying to conform. I’m hopeful in the not too distant future, mainstream society embraces social anxiety in much the same way as disabilities such as dyslexia. Rather than being reactive when people reach crisis point, I hope in future that society is more proactive in identifying sufferers and providing tools and support so that symptoms are managed effectively.
Mr Paul Wyse