Where My Mental Health Journey Began – High School, Panic Attacks and GCSEs

Hello There!

I thought as an introduction to my new blog it would be interesting to hear my own mental health experience. Maybe you have come to this page after following my creative journey as a photographer and illustrator or maybe you have just found my blog now. Welcome! This is a little peek into my mental health journey.

Trigger warning – vomit and anxiety

The Beginning:

My story begins as a teenager, I never really liked the idea of being sick, but it had never been anything that stopped me doing everyday things before. The moment everything changed for me or at least what I think was my trigger, was one day in our morning school assemblies. They usually take about 20 minutes, and we used to sit down in a small hall on chairs. That morning, as the head teacher was making his announcements, a girl started coughing and spluttering from the other side of the room. I think most people looked over as she ran out of the hall. It’s so weird that this was 13 years ago and it’s still imprinted in my memory, though it’s probably a very heavily edited version of what really happened. 

 I felt myself becoming anxious and suddenly very aware of how I was on the end of the row squashed in, with a wall on one side, girls sitting on chairs in front and behind me and basically how I was boxed into my seat. I started to imagine how disruptive it would be if I quickly got up and ran out and how many people would look at me too, how they would tut and all stare if I manoeuvred my way out. In reality, I was very likely experiencing my first big panic attack but at the time I had no idea what was going on. 

How My Mental Health Went On To Impact My Life

After this, the idea of sitting through assembly then having to deal with the rest of the day (as this was the year of sitting my GCSE exams) was too stressful. I started hiding in the toilets when the class walked down to the hall for assembly. After weeks of this, I got to the point where even going into school and knowing I had to attend assembly, was too overwhelming emotionally and my anxiety levels were at an all-time high. 

Where my mental health journey began - fear of school assembly

Feeling Alone

While this was happening, I didn’t talk to anyone about this, I don’t even know if I was self-aware (the way I am now) to know it was a problem that needed addressing.  My reasons for avoiding were, I kept imagining worst-case scenarios, that either I was going to see someone throw up or I was going to and as a result, I would be trapped. At this point in my life I had rarely thrown up. As an undiagnosed emetophobic (the technical term for someone with a vomit phobia), it is quite common to develop a phobia as a result of rarely throwing up in your life. It’s kind of like the more you don’t do something, the more you are scared of it.  So actually, the probability of this happening was so low I didn’t realise. 

When People Started To Notice

It got to a point I was dreading the morning assembly so much that I refused to go into school. I started off by just lying to my parents and saying I didn’t feel well. And in a way that wasn’t a lie, because your mental health is a health problem…it’s in the name! But I felt so ashamed by it all that I felt it was better lying, as well as this, it was the only way I would be allowed by my parents to miss school. After many days of this happening, my mother caught on that there was nothing physically wrong with me and started to try and talk me into returning. I remember sitting on the floor, paralysed with fear and crying in the morning before school.  

My first experience of a therapist.

Feeling out of her depth my mother told me she was going to take me to see, in her words: “A nice old lady who was good to talk to”. I didn’t understand that she was a counsellor or know at the time that my mother was paying her.  I don’t remember much of what happened, but I remember feeling better for talking to this stranger about how I was feeling. I still don’t think my parents knew enough about mental health to know I was suffering with anxiety and depression at the time. 

“Stressed? You don’t know what stress is!”

It’s hard to remember the exact timeline of events, but I do know that before I went to this counsellor, I would have very emotional conversations with my parents during the time studying for my GCSE exams, where I would say I was ‘stressed’ and their response was to dismiss it as I was only a teenager. “Stressed?” they would say, “You don’t know what stress is, you’re too young.” I believe that was my first cry for help, but as I’m writing this I don’t resent them for ignoring it, I just accept that they didn’t know enough to understand mental health at the time. Since then, in the last 14 years, they’ve learned a lot and have become very supportive.

Returning To School

Eventually the school got in contact with my parents and after talking about the situation, an arrangement was made where I was allowed to sit in a classroom just off the hall because I could still hear the assembly but didn’t have to go in. The school seemed surprisingly supportive of trying to help in this way and I honestly thought I was going to get into trouble for asking to skip assembly.  I think this worked out for a bit, but other students and teachers did question me about why I was in my own room and this just heightened my anxiety once more. I felt embarrassed, so again, I skipped school. 

Drama Saved Me – Taking It One Step At A Time

Again, I was unable to get myself to face school. Everything had just become overwhelming. Because drama was the only GCSE that I needed to work with other people to pass and it was my favourite subject, I asked if I could only go to drama for a while. Only going to drama for a bit was such a relief that I actually got the confidence to return to all my other subjects. 

Special Arrangements For My Exams

I started to see another counsellor at school. I still was completely unaware of what mental health was but now I understood I was in therapy. I barely attended assembly but did return to my classes. I had suffered a panic attack during the mock examinations that were earlier that year. Right before the history exam I took a travel sickness pill, believing this would stop nausea because my anxiety was causing me to feel lightheaded and a little sick, but I wasn’t aware that these were just panic attack symptoms.  I think the pill made me feel weird and during the exam I panicked and pleaded with the examiner to let me go to the toilet. I was told that in the real exam I wouldn’t be allowed to use the toilet and this triggered my anxiety again.  My anxiety is around being able to get out and go to a toilet at all times. Now, because of years of talking and therapy I am able to articulate this, but as a teenager it was very hard.

When I brought this up with my school, arrangements were made to sit my exam in a separate room alone with my own invigilator, who knew if I needed to drink some water or go to the toilet that was ok and I wouldn’t be disturbing the other students. I was also issued a doctor’s note as a backup so I could take my exam from home if I was too anxious to come in. I only sat my history exam from home, this was the subject that I ran out of last time so it triggered my anxiety more. This is how panic attacks work, it becomes hard to return to the scene of the last panic attack. 

Hard Work Pays Off

I passed all my GCSEs with good marks from A* through to C. Drama which I had put my heart and sweat into got the A* (which is the top mark).  Next, with the help of a new therapist and a recent self-diagnosis of Emetophobia, I was able to take a trip with my friends across Israel on a 1 month summer camp. I self-diagnosed myself because of a fantastic magazine article that made me go: “Hey! That’s how I feel, let’s Google that. Hey! It’s not just me!” 

My Mental Health Journey Was Just The Beginning. 

I should just mention at this time, aged 16, I was not diagnosed with my life long condition, which I was born with, of Aspergers Syndrome (a form of autism). Anxiety and my phobia is just the tip of the iceberg with what was really going on with me. It’s such a long story that it’s just good to start somewhere.  These days my anxiety and phobia is managed so much better that I have got to a place where I feel comfortable sharing my experience and giving tips.  The road to my mental health recovery has been long and challenging and this is why I am starting this blog.

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4 Comments

  1. Ellen
    March 13, 2019 / 1:10 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this. Some of things you mentioned you dealt with during high school, made me realise that I have been dealing with Anxiety probably a lot longer than I thought I had.

    Excited to keep reading about your journey. I blog about my mental health as well; usually about the time I cry ridiculously in Ikea.

    Love

    Ellen

    • Anna
      Author
      March 14, 2019 / 12:48 am

      Thank you! I’m glad it helped you realise that you also suffered from anxiety during school. If you leave me a message on twitter, so I know who you are, I can find your mental health blog to read.

  2. Anne
    March 15, 2019 / 7:06 pm

    Really interesting blog post you have helped to offer an understanding into the mind and thoughts of someone who is going through the things many of us are and just reading this has been refreshing .

    it’s refreshing to read that others also experience the same feelings in regards to anxiety.

    Thank you for sharing !

  3. March 17, 2019 / 7:21 pm

    Wow, this made me think back & realize that my anxiety and depression have been going on for longer than I thought, Mental health was just not acceptable, while I was growing up, so I guess I rather hide it than accept it and seek help. I’m so glad you were finally diagnosed and treated, since then I, personally have overcame so much!

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