Written by Lucy Nichol

In The News

A series of unfortunate stereotypes

On World Mental Health Day, Lucy Nichol asks that we leave our assumptions at the door and bring in a boatload of understanding and support instead.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket’s Aunt Josephine is terrified of everything. Estate agents, leeches, the telephone, Count Olaf. And then, when faced with her fear, the Count pushes her into the water, where the leeches devour her to her very death…

I love that film, but my God, that’s no motivation for someone who lives with anxiety.

And while I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of fan of those cheesy self-help books made popular thanks to Bridget Jones in the early noughties, I am on board with the notion of taking action upon feeling the fear.

In my story, Aunt Josephine, following some rather effective therapy sessions, jumps in that rowing boat, casts a net and catches those pesky leeches, saving herself, and the rest of Lemony Snicket’s fantastical world from death by nasty little bloodsuckers. Oh, and she just ignores the evil Count Olaf. I mean, who is he anyway?

You see, having anxiety doesn’t make me a mouse (ugh stereotype city; Jerry wasn’t exactly a wuss, was he? *slaps wrists*). But both friend and foe seem to think it does. Why, when there’s a mental health issue, do people assume you’re weak?

If I can’t breathe properly because my lungs are chocka full of pneumonia, no one’s like, ‘Wow, that girl really can’t cope with life.’ But if I can’t breathe properly because I’m mid panic attack, it’s seen as a weakness.

Oh, and of course, all I need to do is ‘calm down’! Easy peasy! Sure thing. As soon as you just suck that infected gunk right out of your lungs and breathe you wheezing fool. Pull yourself together! It’s no easier for me to pull my head together when my brain’s going at a million miles an hour, than it is for someone to tackle a physical illness. So how similar are they?

Well, look at it this way, both can benefit from medication, and both can benefit from self-preservation.

Back in 1995, I did, in fact have pneumonia. And if I had taken all my antibiotics, and stayed in the house instead of going out clubbing in my platform heels and shiny shift dress from Bay Trading Co., I would have probably made it back to college a week earlier. Similarly, if I take my antidepressants, and practise mindfulness and counselling techniques, my panic attacks are not as intense and the recovery time quickly diminishes.

And that’s another thing. I have health anxiety. I am a hypochondriac. But as you can see, that didn’t stop me hitting the dancefloor to be all consumed by Fatboy Slim and The Violent Femmes. No. As soon as the X-ray confirmed that I didn’t have a life-threatening disease, I relaxed, and continued in my mission to snog a spotty 19-year-old while smoking a John Player Special and drinking a Taboo and lemonade.

Anxiety isn’t about being afraid of what’s directly in front of us. It’s about the unknown. Did I put the dryer on with my beloved cats trapped inside? Are they being burned alive? Is my throat closing up? Am I going to die this very night? How will he feel when he sees a dead body lying next to him? I haven’t got life insurance: how will my family survive?

“I am not anxiety, I am me. Do not look at me and see Aunt Josephine, and I will not look at you and see Slimer from Ghostbusters just because you once had the snots.”

Catastrophising. Worry chains. Imagining the worst. Building a picture in my head that wouldn’t be out of place in a Japanese horror movie. But when I know what I’m dealing with, I’m actually OK with it.

Well-meaning friends will warn me not to push myself. To look after myself. And I know it’s born out of love, but that’s another thing that people may not know about anxiety sufferers (well, me anyway): I am so anxious about the fact that somebody might be taking advantage of me that I meet them head on.

In fact, I’m known at the local vets as the only client who managed to overturn an insurance decision. Well proud of that one! (But I still miss Trevor the cat, who, thanks to my successful fight with the insurance company, was given every possible chance to live.)

When I’m seen as weak and it is used to undermine me, it can be pretty catastrophic. Tell me I’m self-indulgent; tell me I am having a bad effect on the people around me; tell me I am self-obsessed. It just makes things worse. Because I really enjoy thinking that I have a fatal illness, or that the bus I am on is about to topple over and scatter my body in pieces on the central motorway. And, it goes without saying, I am doing it with the sole purpose of irritating you and wasting everyone’s time.

Just as you’re not much use with your head over the netty when you’ve been struck down with the norovirus, I’m not much use mid panic attack. But just like the norovirus, the symptoms disappear. And you come out the other side ready to take the world on.

I am not anxiety, I am me. Do not look at me and see Aunt Josephine, and I will not look at you and see Slimer from Ghostbusters just because you once had the snots.

It’s 2016 and we are getting there. But we’re not quite there yet. It’s time we bigged up those who have survived mental distress. Because seriously, can you imagine how it feels to think you’re dying, to hear threatening voices or to feel like there is no point going on. I can’t imagine the latter two things myself, but big respect to those who can.

Read Lucy’s blog here.


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Written by Lucy Nichol

Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.