This is from the Rethink Mental Illness blog looking at anxiety and alcohol. Thank you to Simon for sharing his story entitled ‘To the edge’.
Simon’s anxiety disorder was so severe he turned to alcohol to cope. He tells us about how his ‘coping strategy’ came to dominate his life and ruin his health, and how stopping drinking was only half the challenge…
In September 2015, raising money for Rethink Mental Illness, I entered the ‘The Nine Edges Challenge’. This is a 22-mile hike that takes in the beautiful eastern gritstone edges of the Peak District.
In September 2013, a broken man, physically, spiritually and mentally I began my ‘Recovery Challenge’ at a drugs and alcohol clinic in Bedfordshire. Not quite as scenic, granted, but by then walking wasn’t much of an option for me.
I’ve always had an odd relationship with my brain. As a child it would create strange and scary phenomena whilst I tried to go to sleep. In what I now know as ’hypnogogic sleep’ I would have out of body experiences, the walls of the room expanding before I nestled by the glow-in-the-dark plastic stars stuck to the ceiling.
But my troubles really began when I pushed my poor brain at university. That’s when my Generalised Anxiety Disorder came to my attention rather fiercely. Like many, I had never experienced a panic attack before and when one came early on in my first year, I was scared that I was going crazy.
The fear came at me any time, good or bad, and the crippling anxiety and terror seemed constant. It got steadily worse as my studies progressed. I couldn’t walk straight, eating was always followed with dry retching, and places that I always found comforting, like the library, became stress-inducing to the point where I would need to flee. Exit strategies were found, toilets mainly, panic rooms. I tried so hard to calm down, breathe normally, but it always seemed to make it worse. Alcohol became my sedative, helping me write an essay, be around people and most of all, get some much needed sleep.
I passed my degree and was mightily relieved to get through it all in the end relatively unscathed. However the stage was set for the play that was to run on for the next 18 years.
By the time I hit 38, I’d become so dependent on alcohol to keep the anxiety in check I was hospitalised with Wernicke’s encephalopathy and neuropathy. This is a neurological disorder whereby I temporarily lost the use of my legs. I was heading into full-blown psychosis if I didn’t stop drinking and seek help.
My month in rehab was brutally life-changing but I learned what had been controlling me all these years. I also learnt that as an alcoholic, I had been in fear of fear all my life and that with a programme of recovery, I no longer needed to be afraid.
I have the support of some wonderful people in Alcoholics Anonymous and my family and friends who have walked by me step by step on my journey of recovery. I still suffer from anxiety, but I now have a much better set of coping strategies to help me not become my illness, but acknowledge it as something I can live with in a positive way.
As my legs began their slow recovery, I began to walk, swim, cycle and rock climb again. Activities that I love and that, in the darkness of my neurosis and neuropathy, couldn’t even dream of. I’m very pleased to say today I am now in a much better space. I’ve begun to study Occupational Therapy and have gone back to work in the NHS in both brain injury rehabilitation and psychiatric care.
On the day of the 9 Edges challenge there was non-stop rain with thick fog for the first 12 miles, as we hiked up and over some of the Peak District’s most stunning hillsides. The weather finally abated with 10 miles to go and I was proud to be able to wear my Rethink Mental Illness vest, displayed for all to see as we headed on towards the finish in bright sunshine, slowly drying out as we went.
I count myself a very fortunate fellow indeed. I still have a funny old relationship with my brain, it continues to play some impressive illusionary tricks on me. I learn about myself and how to help others with mental illness every day and how to live a meaningful life that isn’t defined by my anxiety, but acknowledges its presence. I can now see my illness as a positive towards helping others and am grateful for my second chance in life to realise this and all the wonderful opportunities that life brings.