Andy’s experience: “I’m no Alpha male, but I didn’t think I was someone to be beset by worry and anxiety.”
06 August 2019
Anglian Water sustainability manager Andy Brown began to suffer from anxiety and knew he had to talk to someone. In this blog he shares his experience and urges others to speak to those around them when they encounter feelings they find difficult to cope with.
Before I start, an apology about the length of this blog. I didn’t intend for it to be so long but as I started to write it I realised that there was so much I wanted to share. I intended to write and publish it in stages as I was going through the process, but in the end it made more sense to do it all in reflection. Since starting to talk about this openly I have met person after person that is suffering too, struggling on in silence thinking that they should be stronger or not even realising that there is help out there. I realise that my experience is on the more minor side of mental wellbeing but I wanted to share it and if any of it resonates with any of you I hope that it will spur you on to take the first step and get the help that you deserve. You are not alone, you will not be judged, you can feel better.
It’s 3am on the 2nd January 2019. I have had a lovely Christmas break with the family and have spent the day walking along the beach in Aldeburgh with my wife, son and daughter, something we have done every New Years Day for the past few years – all is well with the world. So why have I woken up again in the early hours of the morning? I lie there for a couple of minutes and then it starts again. Out of nowhere I have a feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach. Here come the hot sweats. Maybe its the male menopause! Then I feel my heart picking up speed and starting to race.
Now at this point I must explain that this has started to happen over the last couple of months. Four or five times I have had these feelings and they have passed in a minute or so. Unwanted in the middle of the night but not what you might call disturbing and certainly something I have been able to quickly calm down. This time it felt like something very different. In an instant this went from feeling my heart speeding up, to an uncontrollable acceleration. I leapt out of bed and all I could hear was the blood pumping in my ears and all I could feel was my heart beat racing away and continuing to pick up pace. My heart was off like Usain Bolt, leaving the rest of my body and mind on the starting line – struggling to understand what was going on. All I could think about was getting out of the bedroom. I ended up downstairs, naked, and by this time with my wife racing after me trying to work out what on earth had got into me. It felt like my body and mind where completely separated, I had no control over my heart and I felt as though it would continue to speed up until it exploded. I had never felt so out of control and could only think that I was having a heart attack – I was in utter panic. I urged, no begged, my wife to call 999, I thought that this is it, it must be a heart attack, my time is up, is everything in order, insurance, money, house, would the family be alright. But to her credit she remained calm and tried patiently to get some sense out of me. What were the symptoms, did I feel any real pain, could I breath? The answers to these were an express train for a heart, but no not real pain, no tightness in the chest and I could breath. Through this she broke the link to the panic and she began to talk me back down – god only knows what would have happened had she not have been there. That’s not to say that my heart didn’t continue to race or that I started to feel anything like myself again for quite some time, about three hours in fact. I didn’t sleep again that night, I sat in bed watching re-runs of American comedies, anything to wash over my brain and several times I had to wake up my wife just to get her to talk to me again.
I have never felt happier to see the dawn. I got up, my body feeling like I had run a marathon, drained, jittery and strangely hyper-sensitive to noise. I went down to the kitchen made a cup of tea (Decaf – I had been caffeine free for over a year, ironically as I had been conscious of my health) and turned to the NHS website to find out what on earth I had experienced. Now, I had thought I had experienced panic attacks back in my teens; feelings of claustrophobia, concern, hot sweats you know that feeling of fight or flight, but nothing on the scale of last night. So when I read the website I was amazed to see in beautifully clear English a description – “Panic Attacks: you may feel nausea, hot sweats, dizziness, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, racing heart rate – you may even feel like your are having a heart attack and even that you are about to die!”. Yep that’s it, spot on! It went on to say that as bad as they seem, they will not kill you, they will pass and they will not leave any lasting damage. As for the cause, Panic Attacks are brought on by anxiety. Things that can help reduce the impact are regular exercise, avoiding caffeine, reducing your alcohol intake – all things that I have already done (well perhaps I had drunk more than usual this week but it was the festive season). So all very reassuring but it left me with the question – where and why was I storing up so much anxiety?
I recognised that I had been busy at work and in my own life but that was the norm not a recent change. But one thing I did know was that I sure as hell didn’t want to go through last night again – I needed to sort this out, I needed to talk to someone, I needed to get some help. So I made a plan, first I wrote out those words from the NHS website and stuck them next to my bed – all of my attacks so far happened in the middle of the night. “These are panic attacks, they will not kill you, they will not hurt you, they will pass.” Then I made a list of things to do when I got back to work the next day.
1) Refer myself to Occ Health and ask for help
2) Tell my boss
3) Tell my team
4) Sign up for online mindfulness
5) Make enough time in my work schedule to fit in appointments
It was a difficult thing going to bed that night, if it happened last night was it going to happen again, but one way or another I got through, it wasn’t a great night but I did get some sleep. I was up early and the first one in the office. Rather than putting anything off I checked my boss’ calendar, he was still off on leave. None of my team were in yet and so I couldn’t tell them. So I checked on Hawk to see how I went about referring myself to see if I could get some help. That’s when I realised that I couldn’t self refer, my boss had to refer me and he wasn’t here. I didn’t want to wait and let other things get in the way so I thought, I know a few people in Occ Health I will give them a call. I searched for their numbers only to find that the people I knew best had moved on and I hadn’t realised. I didn’t want to just speak to a stranger, I wasn’t really feeling at my best. At that point I very nearly gave up, but something in the back of my mind told me that if I didn’t act today then I could live to regret it.
So I turned to my HR Business Partner, Terry. I got her voicemail, but I left a message anyway. Within half an hour she called back, was very sympathetic and said she could put the referral through and talked me through some experience that she had with other people who suffered from panic attacks. Just taking that first step released a huge amount of pressure. I then sent an email to Alex my boss to explain the situation, let him know that a referral would come through but also to say I was fine and wanted to be at work. I told my team and explained that although these attacks only seemed to come at night, if they saw me ducking out of a meeting I may be having one and not to worry. My approach was to be as open as possible, it takes the strain off you and enables others to be supportive.
That afternoon I got a call from Occ Health and they talked through the options and the process. Then over the next couple of days I spoke to our Health providers and then their mental wellbeing specialists. After a few questionnaires over the phone to work out what may be going on, they described what I had as Panic Disorder! They said I was doing all the right things and then we discussed which therapies may help and we agreed on a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and booked in my first session. Just speaking to a specialist over the phone helped to relieve some of the worry and made me feel like I was starting on a process of recovery – although it all sounded very grand suggesting I had a “Disorder”. But it left me wondering what was at the centre of my anxiety?
Anyone that knows me will recognise that I am no Alpha male, but I also didn’t think I was someone to be beset by worry and anxiety. My old boss, Mark, used to say that it didn’t matter what he threw at me my expression and approach would always be calm and considered, what do we need to do to get the job done. My job can be intense and it had probably been the most intense 12 months of my 21 years at Anglian Water. Don’t get me wrong, its not the pressure of an operational job with customer’s health and safety and environmental protection relying on my decisions. But much of the year had been spent delivering our high profile Responsible Business of the Year programme, trying to raise our reputation with politicians, stakeholders and decision makers and culminating in creating an event at the at the Royal Albert Hall with Peter on centre stage in front of thousands. Just like everyone at Anglian Water, I take my job very seriously and very personally. Its what makes us who we are. But saying all that, I didn’t think it was the pressure of the job.
Whilst I waited for my first CBT session to arrive I continued to ponder on my anxiety. I decided I needed to be honest with myself and really explore my mental wellbeing. What I came to realise, after discounting work as a primary cause, was just how obsessed I had become about my health over the last few years. My Dad died when he was just turning 47 and I know that the run up to passing that age had been a bit of a milestone for me. I was now approaching 50 and when I really looked at myself closely I realised that I was becoming obsessed with my health and in particular my heart. I realised that I often checked my pulse, particularly when I was resting or going to bed, all I could hear was my heartbeat, it had become the soundtrack to my life and if I felt a twinge in my chest I would over analyse it. To be honest I realised that I thought about age and my own mortality much more than was healthy – I think the heart was the focus because you can feel and hear it and of course you only have the one!
With all this in mind I set off to my first CBT session. I have never done anything like this before and so I didn’t really know what to expect but I am a huge believer in the power of the mind. I was going to go into this experience with an open, honest approach and commit to it fully, whatever I was asked.
I ought to say at this point that based on recent history I had generally been having an attack every two weeks and that they had been increasing in intensity from October up until the new year. On that basis I was over due one but, so far, all I had felt were more general feelings of anxiety and what I would call the warning tremors of a night time attack, which I had been able to breath my way through.
Now, everyone’s experience will be different and you need to have a good connection with your therapist, so I am not going to go into any detail of the methods that he used or the specifics of the conversations that we had, but I will try to give you an understanding of the essence and the outcome. Each session was an hour, we sat in a couple of Ikea “Poang” chairs, you know the ones, a bit like a rocking chair but with bounce rather than rock, so no couch to be seen and in the very bland surroundings of the study in his house. The first session was very much a get to know you, answer some questionnaires on the state of my mind and how it was impacting on my life, a general assessment. The hour flew by and to be honest at the end of it I felt a little disappointed. I think I had been expecting a deeper exploration, perhaps even hoping to unburden myself and a quick cure rather than a very clinical discussion. I remember driving home with mixed feelings, very pleased that I had taken the first step, happy that I felt I could relate to him but almost robbed of the chance to unload and desperate to get through a week to get to the next session.
As I waited for the week to pass I decided to explore some self help options too. I had signed up to the AW’s mindfulness resources online but I had also been sent a subscription to a mindfulness app – Headspace. This had come from one of my team, who on reflection, must has seen that I was not in such a good space before Christmas and she had bought it for me as it has specific courses for sleep. Anyway, I had previously tried a version of it to do a bit of meditation but as I sat there trying to be present in the moment all I could hear was the one thing that stressed me the most and that was my heartbeat. I had dismissed it as something that was going to add to the stress rather than relieve it. But everything I had subsequently read suggested that this really could be something that helps, but like everything in life, it would take training to really get any benefit.
So with a new more growth mindset I decided to try it again. Over the space of a week I followed the beginners course, just doing 10mins a day and by the end of the week I was finding that I could get through, relaxing both my body and my mind without the previous fixation and intrusion of my heartbeat. It also gave useful explanations of anxiety, how it manifested itself and how this was not something that you could or even should get rid of but instead over time could be, recognised, noted and managed.
The week passed and the second CBT session came around. I arrived a bit early, feeling uncertain about what the next hour would bring, so pulled over and did that days 10 minutes on Headspace, which left me feeling more focused. I went in, sat down in my usual Poang with a bounce and we started to chat again. We talked about the week, how I was feeling and then specifically about the panic attacks; how they occurred, the physical manifestations, how they left me feeling afterwards. I was honest, explained how intense they were, how fearful they left me and how I felt out of control – not a feeling I was used to or liked. He then explained the biology of it all the impact of adrenalin on the body, much of which I already knew but it is always reassuring to hear it from a medical professional. We then went through some exercises to explore and describe the physical and emotional elements of an attack and relate those to other experiences in life that create the same responses but in situations where we are more comfortable with them and even expect them, for example during exercise. We also discussed how best to approach these when they happened.
This reaffirmed what I had read and also what I had heard from Headspace and which is something you may not expect. I had always assumed that the best way of dealing with these feelings of panic was either to try to close them down (fight) or distract yourself (flight) - which I realised was what I had usually done when I felt them coming on, get up move about, do something to take my mind off it. What you should do is just recognise what is happening, don’t fight it or run from it, you should verbalise it or “note” it and don’t fear it – it won’t kill you, it won’t harm you and it will pass. If you do this early enough when you recognise the triggers or symptoms you can manage them, don’t fear them and stay calm and actually the full attack won’t materialise.
So the conversation and the techniques for dealing with the physical manifestation of my mental wellbeing were rather short and simple. The more complicated part was yet to come. As he described it these attacks were my system letting off pressure that came from a mind that was so full of unprocessed and unfiled issues that when I tried to relax, or in my case sleep, they couldn’t help but come bursting to the surface. What we needed to do now was work out what these worries were and how resolve them.
The rest of the session was spent discussing my thoughts on health and mortality, how these could be related to the loss of my dad, other unresolved impacts of specific stressful episodes with people close to me and how this also related to how I then apply unrealistic standards on myself at work and at home. As we went through these each one felt like a pressure point very close to the surface and my emotions were close to hand but he wanted to keep a light touch before delving into any thing too deeply. Again I felt like I was being held back, felt like I could feel the dam ready and willing to burst, but he was the expert so I had to trust him. By the end of the session we agreed four areas that were the most relevant and said that in the next session we would dig deeper into these issues.
Although I felt frustrated I could understand the approach and did feel like we were making progress. I went home, saw my wife and kids and talked them through the session. I know other people may want to keep these things very close to their chest but my thinking was that if I was going to get on top of this, the more I talked about it the better it was. After all they were the ones I really wanted to do this for and I wanted them to be honest with me and tell me if they saw an improvement. That night Mr Panic came with his early morning wake up call. The same routine, not a dramatic awakening, just a realisation that I was awake, a toss and turn and an understanding that I wasn’t going to find sleep immediately, a feeling in my stomach, heat rising under the skin and then the drum beat picking up, a jog, a run, a sprint. But rather than running and allowing the panic to chase me even faster, I rolled onto my back and I accepted it. I listened to my heart, I felt the speed and the power and I just said “it’s the beginning of a panic attack lets see what it does”. I started my deep breathing, reached for my phone and Headspace (which I now kept by my bed at night), put my headphones in and started a meditation. The session really just supported the breathing routine that I had started and my heart rate steadied and then slowed. Within a minute or so I was fine, but with the usual feelings you get after burst of adrenaline – slightly shaky, drained muscles. But the main take away was that an attack had started and the techniques had prevented it reaching a climax – one climax that I was very happy to banish from the bedroom. I left the headphones in and put on one of Headspace’s getting back to sleep routines and ambient sounds. As I lay there trying to nod back off, I realised that it was probably the therapy session that had brought things to the surface. As I went to sleep I had a very clear image of the being in the back of the ambulance with my dad after he had collapsed, as he struggled to breath, moaning in pain before slowly becoming silent and still – it was many years ago, I was 17 years old.
Another week passed, I talked to people at work, my kids asked every morning had I slept well, I carried on with Headspace and I ran, not in panic but for exercise. I should also mention that I gave up drinking for the month too. I don’t drink more than the regulation weekly units nowadays, with the exception of Christmas, but I still wondered if drink or even certain things that I ate were part of the early morning wake ups too.
My third session was soon upon me and I wondered what this was going to unlock. I won’t go into the details as they are very personal and the memories will mean nothing to you but that session was a revelation. We did go deep and we burst the dam. I have not cried like that since I was a child, probably not even then. At the end of the hour I felt as if I had run a marathon. I relived memories in the most startling clarity, I saw with adult eyes what I have kept locked away in a child’s brain. I made connections and came to an understanding on how I behave and make decisions today. I processed and filed so much of what I had locked away through a number of traumatic episodes of my life.
I know this sounds dramatic, and I know this doesn’t and won’t happen for everyone. But I think because I had got to a point of wanting to let go of the walls I had built up, I was open and honest enough about myself to let it all out and look at it afresh. I said at the end of the session, I wish I had done this 15 years ago, but he said it may not have worked, you may not have been ready for it then.
So our assumptions had been right, the death of my father was linked to my own feelings and fears of mortality and the fact that I had assumed I probably would get to 50. These were strengthened by my own drive to be “strong” and make sure my Mum and brothers survived. Something that I went through again in another, later traumatic period with my own family. My coping strategy, a very successful one at the time, was to box it up, locking it away to be dealt with when life was back on track – I even remember visualising these boxes at the time as a way of getting to the next day. The problem is I was so good at it that I forgot the boxes were still there. But they were and they have chosen this point in time to shake off the dust, rattle their locks and chains and make themselves known.
I left the session that afternoon and I called my brother and told him about what I had learnt and I now know that he has had similar feelings and anxieties. I got home to the startling realisation that I had almost nothing in my house that related to my dad and so when hunting in the loft for mementos and photographs. I also called my Mum and had some difficult but necessary conversations with her too. Finally, I went back to my plan and added quite a few things; if I was going to stay on top on this I had to make a few changes too, including making time for myself.
I went back for a session the following week and that was an intense one too, exploring a few more of the details but in particular how these things related to how I felt and thought today. But the real revelation was how much I had put a barrier up in terms of my age. Subconsciously I couldn’t see myself getting past 47 and then 50 seemed like a huge milestone. I wasn’t planning for the future and wasn’t even thinking about it – I was waiting and expecting to die and I had reverted to just getting through each day, each week, each month. I really do mean this was subconscious. If you had asked me about it six months ago I wouldn’t have been able to recognise this let alone admit it. I would have recognised that I thought about my health a lot but not to that extent.
So, yes I am going to be 50 very soon, no I don’t like it, its sounds old, I feel young but I have probably lived more days than I have left. But to have any kind of future I have to recognise it, not fight it or run away from it and come to terms with it and start planning a fun and fulfilling future. This part in my life is all new for me, my daughter was born on my Dad’s birthday and this year she reached 17. I have no reference point for what family life looks like, I am faced with a blank page but I hold the pen and its time I started planning. That is what I am doing.
I went back for one more session but we both agreed that there wasn’t much more to say or do – I had packed into a few sessions what many people take months or even years to do. I am a great believer in fate, or perhaps just grabbing opportunities when they arise, but the intensity of the panic on New Years Day was so great that it left me willing to do anything to sort it out. If you are going to ask for help, you have lay yourself open and be honest and ready to explore what’s inside.
Over the next few weeks I continued to be open at work and in my own life, telling work colleagues, friends, associates that I work with from many other companies, my kids even told their friends about my experience. Not one person has judged me, not a single person has given me the advice to “man up”, people have been interested and have offered support. Many people have recognised a change in me and say I am much more like the person they remember from a couple of years ago. The most surprising thing though is that in that many of the people I have spoken to have wanted to share their issues with mental health with me and through those conversations at least four people who were suffering in silence have now sought help and are hopefully starting to feel better.
I don’t want any of you to go away from reading this thinking that my world is now filled with joy and laughter everyday and that birds regularly land on my shoulder to serenade me with song. I still have trouble sleeping, my nights are often broken and that can leave me feeling exhausted on some days – those of you reading this that work with me can tell when this happens and I appreciate it when you tell me how tired I look. I really mean that, I greatly appreciate that you are asking if I am ok and that makes me evaluate how I am feeling and make changes if I am driving myself too hard – please keep asking me if I am ok.
Its over five months since New Year and the Big Bang as I think of it. I haven’t had what I would class as a full panic attack since then. I have had the tremors occasionally but even those are rare but I have good weeks and I have not so good ones. But I am aware and in control and it will take time to continue to reprogram me.
Am I in a better place than six months ago? To be honest I don’t even recognise where I was or who I was six months ago and I can’t believe how long I had been there. They say that if you drop a frog in boiling water it will jump straight out but if you put a frog in cold water and then put the heat on, it will merrily stay in there until its cooked not realising its perilous situation. I was that frog, I didn’t realise I had mental health issues, I thought I had physical ones. As I sit here now I think that if I hadn’t taken some action and sought help, if I hadn’t made those calls on my first day back at work, if I hadn’t known some people to call when I couldn’t refer myself I don’t know what might have happened. I might have struggled on but if I am honest I think I would have broken and I wouldn’t have been able to carry on working.
I am honestly not sure what would have happened. I count myself as very lucky and its why I think the company’s decision to create a way to self-refer for mental health is such an important one. Anything we can do to remove the stigma and make it as easy as possible for people to get help the better.
So finally, what have I learned.
That looking after your mind is just as important as looking after the rest of your body – find time to exercise your mind, its takes practice but mindfulness can actually work despite what you might think.
That if we are willing to talk about how we feel then others will often offer support not judgement.
That anxiety is something that is part of my make up and that it won’t go
away but is something I have to accept and work on.
That we need to be open with ourselves and find the space to ask ourselves how we are doing and be honest in our response.
That when you do this you might realise that you are not ok but that by accepting this you can do something about it. None of us are ok every day.
That its ok to ask for help and that I don’t have to be the foundation that everything else is built upon.
That I am not about to die and that obsessing about it, chasing it or hiding from it doesn’t make it better.
That I am getting older but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a future. But that the future is made up of millions of pieces of the present, so enjoy the present, make it as good as it can be, enjoy as much of every little thing, everyday that you can. If you find that you are hiding from today sometimes you don’t realise how dark it has got until the light comes back on.
If anyone is reading this thinking, I recognise that, actually I feel like that, perhaps your emotions are constantly bubbling just below the surface or perhaps you are just focusing on getting through the day, everyday, or perhaps you too get the feelings of anxiety and panic – ask yourself was it always like this, do you feel the same you as the you from six months, a year or even longer ago. If you remember a brighter you then take some steps, set aside some time regularly to do something you really enjoy, make no excuses as you are worth it, do some exercise, try some mindfulness or meditation, talk to someone you trust and think about whether some professional advice would help to find your light switch. Your brain is just part of your body and if you had symptoms anywhere else we would all seek medical help. I know I have used a physio a number of times to sort out problems with my back so why did I take so long to ask for help with my head?
Mental wellbeing is not fiction, its not a fad, its not fluffy. In my experience it became very physical. We can all take steps to look after our mental health but sometimes we may need some help – so don’t be too proud, too afraid or like me too blind to recognise it.
I wish you all the best of health both physical and mental and I hope your light shines bright.