Friday, 10 February 2017

I cannot be 100% happy 100% of the time (and there is nothing wrong with that)

I just walked past a shop window and saw a book, titled “For every minute you’re angry, you lose 60 seconds of being happy”. I stopped walking. Snowflakes were landing in my hair, and I could feel my nose beginning to turn red with cold, but I was struck by something in that book title so I stood there for a few minutes considering it.

In some of my unhappier times, I have spent time reading messages about forgiveness. I have pored over poems about happiness and healing. I have imagined myself as the person who forgives people for her own happiness, who finds healing in it, who does not spend time being angry. I have equated anger with a disease, with toxicity festering inside me, making me unwell.

But the problem with those poems, and with that book title, is that they presuppose that your anger is toxic. They presuppose that you have the luxury of being able to forgive people at will, to let go, to just refocus your energy on being happy. They presuppose that healing is linear. They presuppose that anger cannot be productive.

I went to someone recently and told them I thought that I was going crazy, that there were two people inside me - one who was well-adjusted, and happy, and healed, and one who was bitter, and angry, and terrified. The second self, who I tried so hard to repress in my pursuit of linear healing, in my pursuit of happiness, would occasionally burst out of me at inopportune moments. I’d have an argument with someone and have an urge to smash something, to scream. The rage really scared me. Anger, especially that kind of unbridled rage, was not something which I associated with myself. I was well-adjusted, kind, capable of forgiveness, capable of being happy all the time. I could choose not to be angry. So why did I feel like I was losing it? Why did I feel like I wasn’t in control?

The person that I told this listened impassively. She seemed vaguely concerned, but I had expected her to be terrified. I had expected her to tell me I needed serious help, that I had lost my mind. She said “All of these feelings are normal. You are allowed to have them. You are an emotional person, who feels things, and trying not to feel them is what is causing this. You repress and repress and repress and it suddenly bursts out of you. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to be angry.”

I was shocked. Allowing myself to be angry was not something I could reconcile with being a happy person, with being someone who was healed. But the problem was that I could not differentiate between the two different kinds of anger. There is the anger which eats you alive, which keeps you awake at night. The anger which makes you into a person which you are not, which festers, which makes you jaded and bitter. Then there is another kind of anger. A productive anger. An anger which drives you forwards, which helps you to heal, which helps you to realise things about yourself, which helps you to process when something awful happens because it makes you angry that it happened, it makes you realise that it was not your fault. 

Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet for a second. Sometimes there is a pressure to get straight back up, to find your happiness again, to ignore it. There is a pressure to forgive too soon, to avoid processing your feelings because you are avoiding the negative in the pursuit of the positive. 

For every 60 seconds I spend allowing myself to be angry, allowing the feelings to come, to help me process, I have another 60 or 600 or 6000 seconds of being able to be happy without repression. I have a motivation to move forwards. I have a sense of my rights as a person, of my boundaries. I am calmer, I am kinder, I am happier. I am able to harness the productivity of my rage without allowing it to consume me. I am in control of when I let it out, rather than a dormant volcano waiting to explode at the people I love.

So I don’t think that book has it right. I haven’t read it, but I think that the title speaks from the privilege of not having anything real to be angry about, of never having had anger come to you even when you don’t want it, even when you want to cast it aside and be healed. It jumps from A to B without any consideration of how hard it is to get there. 

Eventually I know and believe that I will get to the point where it doesn’t help me anymore, where it begins to dissipate, where I become that person in those poems about healing and forgiveness that I read. Right now I am between being angry and being healed and able to forgive, and that is okay. I will get there. And anger - the non-toxic, productive kind - is one of the things which drives me forwards.

Sometimes you cannot replace anger, or sadness, with happiness. Sometimes you cannot refocus your energy. Sometimes you need the bad feelings to help you heal, to help you to get to the good feelings. Being angry sometimes does not mean I am not a good person. Being angry sometimes does not mean that I am not capable of being happy. Being angry sometimes does not mean I am not healing.

Monday, 6 February 2017

On self-criticism and fear.

(cartoon by Liana finck)

I am not always very good at being nice to myself. I’ve addressed this briefly in other blog posts in relation to my anxiety, but I wanted to give it its own post, because it’s an issue I’ve been struggling with especially recently.

I’m writing this from my bed right now. I’ve got an essay due in tomorrow evening, which I haven’t done any reading for, but I woke up this morning feeling fluey and tired and all my plans to have a productive day and do some exercise have gone out the window. I know that what I need is to rest, but there is a voice in the back of my head saying ‘you’re lazy’, ‘get up, you’re not even ill’, ‘it’s going to be a crap essay, like last week, if you don’t start work now’, ‘why are you so bad at managing your time - you should have worked more over the weekend’. It’s relatively quiet right now, but it's there.

Some weeks it’s really really loud. I’ll slip up and say something stupid, and spend the rest of the day inwardly abusing myself - ‘why do you always do this’, ‘why do people even like you’, ‘you should just stop talking altogether’. My essays are never good enough. If I forget to do an admin job, or miss a meeting with someone, I convince myself that they’ll hate me, that I’m incompetent, that I should never have taken the job on in the first place. It’s like I’ve got an inner self, and I can sometimes tune her out, sometimes even shut her up completely for a while, but as soon as I am feeling overworked, or tired, or stressed, there she is again. The opposite of a personal cheerleader. Someone really put it in perspective for me recently when they asked if I would ever talk to someone else the way I talk to myself sometimes. I was horrified even thinking about it.

I’ve never really known why it is that I have this - I’ve attributed it to anxiety before, to low self-esteem, to any existing mental health issue that I’ve had at any one time. I always try and attach her to an external factor, because then I don’t have to face the facts that her voice is my voice, that it is me that is the problem. 

Last week I was at a session with a new counsellor, and she said - in my first session with her, bear in mind - “I think you live in a lot of fear”. This woman, who had known me not 40 minutes, hit the nail right on the head. I am afraid. Afraid that people won’t like me, that I’ll let people down, that I’ll never be ‘good enough’, whatever that means. And this fear drives me to intense perfectionism - everything I do has to be the best, otherwise people won’t like me, people will think I’m a fraud.

In my first year I had an obsession with deadlines. If I was off by even half an hour I’d freak out, sometimes even cry - I knew I was being dramatic but it felt like the worst thing in the world. I did a personality test towards the end of the year (the Myers Briggs - it’s pretty cool if you’re into that kind of thing) which gives you 4 letters to describe yourself: I got ENFP. My friend, having watched me freak out numerous times over deadlines, was surprised that I was an ENFP, not an ENFJ. I’ll highlight the differences here: “ENFPs tend to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to "keep their options open" should circumstances change.”, whereas “ENFJs tend to plan their activities and make decisions early. They derive a sense of control through predictability.”. The reason for my deadline obsession wasn’t a wish for predictability, but fear - fear that my tutor would hate me, that I would be seen as a bad student, that people would realise I was a fraud and that I shouldn’t be here (imposter syndrome am I right?).

The truth is that I am so hard on myself because I am scared. I am scared that if I cut myself some slack then my work won’t be good enough. I am scared that if I say something wrong then my friends will decide they don’t like me anymore. I am scared that if I miss a deadline my tutor will hate me - which actually isn’t true, because last term when I apologised for handing 3 essays in a row in at 3am the day before the tutorial, 9 hours late, my tutor brushed aside my apology and said he was ‘impressed that I had poured my blood sweat and tears into getting the work done’. But it’s not always easy to listen to logic.


I had such an epiphany last year about ceasing to judge myself based on other peoples’ perceptions of me, and I really thought that I had come past that, but it turns out that I haven’t. The voice is still there because I haven’t let go of that fear yet. I am not yet ready to rely on myself, because that is the scariest thing of all. But I am going to start trying to be brave, and let go. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Healing from trauma


At first, it will be easy to pretend that nothing has happened. You will think that you are over it. Everybody will believe that you are over it. They will see you laughing, smiling, being your usual self. They will see you being friends with that person. You will convince yourself that it was insignificant, that you were making a big deal out of nothing, that you deserved it, that you don’t have a right to be upset. You will carry on.

Eventually cracks will start to appear - someone will make a joke which reminds you of something, and you will feel like vomiting. But you will smile, you will laugh. No one will notice anything. They will touch your shoulder in a harmless gesture, and you will want to recoil, but you will not. You will smile, you will only tense up slightly. No one will notice anything.

These cracks at some point will become too hard to bear, so you will begin to distance yourself, to save your smiles for people who are completely unaffiliated with them. You will not even notice that you are doing this. You will think that you are just ‘branching out’, ‘making new friends’. You will stop spending any time in college at all. You will ‘explore other libraries’, ‘start new hobbies’. You will think that you are just busy. You will not notice that these are avoidance tactics.

You will miss your best friend’s birthday pub trip to go and do sport. You will think that it is because you want to stay fit. You will not recognise that the real reason you are not going is because you do not want to be exposed as a fraud. You will not realise that you are not passing up spending time with those people because you are busy, but because you are scared of doing or saying something that lets on how you are really feeling. You will leave your friend looking sad because you’re missing her birthday. You will carry on.

Eventually you will be unable to keep smiling. A joke which goes wrong will bring your entire facade crashing around you. You will laugh. You will smile. But something will short circuit, and before you know it you will be in floods of tears. You will see people looking confused. You will feel ashamed. but you will not be able to stop. You will feel angry. You will feel scared. You will try to bring the facade back together. You will try to tell people that you are fine. You will try to accept responsibility for your own actions, but will find it difficult to figure out what exactly you did wrong. You will still beat yourself up.

You will report what happened. You will think that this will make you feel better. It will not. Even when the person you tell says ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘This is not your fault’, you will still think that it is your fault. You will lie on your friend’s bedroom floor and cry. You will feel like a selfish mess. You will be terrified that you will be told that you are wrong, that you will be told that you have made it up. You will beat yourself up again for being so pathetic. You will go home to your family for a while because even your best friend’s room doesn’t feel safe anymore.

You will come back. Everything will be resolved by people higher up than you. You will think that this will make you feel better. It will not. You will feel like it is your fault. You will alternate between terrifying, burning rage and overwhelming sadness. You will stop eating for a few days. Someone will tell you that your feelings are similar to grief. You will feel like you do not deserve this analogy because you have not lost anything, except maybe your sense of self. You will feel like you are drowning. You will find out what people are saying behind your back and want to scream ‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH YOU ARE DAMAGING ME’. You will not. You will stay silent. You will do your work. You will avoid college. You will carry on.

Eventually, after a while, you will feel like you are healed. People will have stopped talking about it. They will have moved on. You will feel like you have moved on. Everybody will think that you are fine. But you will see that person and have a panic attack. You will feel pathetic again. You will feel like it is your fault. You will spend increasing amounts of time in your room. You will realise that this is an avoidance tactic. You will come out of your room. You will spend time with friends. You will start to feel happy and safe again. 

Sometimes you will have bad weeks. Sometimes you will feel like you are about to lose it completely. You will beat yourself up for not being over it. You will feel weak. You will try to get it together. You will get it together. You will remind yourself of your own strength. You will carry on.

Monday, 31 October 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur


Have you ever read a poem where it feels like the poet has reached into your head and pulled something out, woven it into words you never could've come up with to express a feeling which you didn't quite understand? That's the feeling I get when I read this book. It must've become annoying by now to my closest female friends that every time we stay up until the small hours of the morning talking about life and broken hearts, I find a poem by Rupi to read aloud. One of us will stumble upon a feeling and I'll get up, reach for her on my bookshelf, reaching for the writing which will render that feeling universal, make us feel less alone. She takes your pain and makes it tangible, then makes it bearable, then teaches you to allow yourself to move on from it. She is the voice I need to hear when I am feeling low, feeling like I can't fathom how to let go of anger, or hurt. "It's okay" her poems whisper. "You are allowed to feel this way, I have too. You are allowed to feel broken. But you are also allowed to rise up from it, stronger than you were before." Rupi's poetry helped me to find an inner strength that I didn't now was there, and taught me to support and love the other women in my life. I want to give her book to every woman I've ever met who's had a hard time, or even those who haven't, just in case they ever do. Buy it, read it, keep it forever, pass it on to generation after generation of women. Just get a copy of this book - I promise you won't regret it.

(a taste of Rupi's poetry)

Friday, 14 October 2016

I've finally stopped worrying about what I eat (and I feel great about it)

When I was 16, my BMI matched my age. I know this because one morning my mum asked me to work it out - the night before my sister had seen me getting changed into my pyjamas from her room across the hall and seen the vertebrae of my spine sticking out. For her, that was it. She’d spent weeks and weeks watching me make excuses at mealtimes, eating a yoghurt for breakfast, skipping lunch at school for one piece of toast, and overexercising, and she’d kept trying to make me see that something was wrong, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally, desperately, she told my parents, and they stood and watched me weigh myself, worked out my BMI and were mildly horrified that I’d managed to become malnourished under their noses. 

I was taking my GCSEs at the time, and had taken them so seriously that I’d let my phone go out of charge for weeks, deactivated my Facebook and shut myself away to revise for 8 hours a day. I felt out of control - these exams were dictating my life. So I decided to reestablish control by restricting what I ate, by becoming as small as I felt that I was inside. I socially isolated myself, and flipped out at any one of my friends if they commented on how little food I was eating. I was obsessed. I’d go to the gym 4 times a week and not allow myself to leave until I’d burnt at least 500 calories on the cross trainer. I’d sit in the library at school and work out how much I’d had to eat that day, the amount of calories I’d consumed directly proportional to how guilty I should feel. And it worked. I was tiny. But it was never enough. I sometimes think that I wanted to be so small I could  disappear.

I’m not exactly sure when it started - there isn’t a single moment when I decided to stop eating - but rather it built up over time. Between the ages of 8 and 13 I was very overweight. I’d look at pictures of people in magazines and feel sad because I didn’t look like them. I found it difficult to feel like I mattered because I was overweight. The kids who bullied me at primary school, the adolescent crushes who I felt would never feel the same way about me, the films and tv I watched in which nobody looked like me all built up to the overwhelming feeling that I just didn’t fit in, didn’t matter. I was reading a section of ‘girl up’ by Laura Bates recently in which she asked children at a primary school to draw a picture of themselves as they were, and a picture of themselves with anything they’d like to change if they could. She showed a selection of pictures, from both male and female children. In the boys pictures there was no real discernible pattern - larger biceps here, an attractive girlfriend there. One boy drew himself as a magician. But in picture after picture the girls had drawn themselves as smaller, thinner. Reading that made me want to cry. The overwhelming impression is that even at a young, formative age, girls want to shrink themselves. And that’s what I felt.

After that pivotal conversation with my parents I had a decision to make - I either had to do what they asked and try to eat more, to (to my horror) gain weight, or carry on as I was, listening to the voice in my head telling me to eat less, to get smaller, so I might finally feel like I was good enough. I had to choose the first option. I knew that if I didn’t I would ruin my relationship with my parents, and in that moment, looking at the concern on their faces, I couldn’t do it to them. I couldn’t continue hurting them. So my mum and I worked out a regime (which at first mostly involved eating pop tarts and mars bars at various points of the day) and slowly I started to put on weight. It took a long time for me to break out of my rigid regime, but by the age of 17/18 I was back to a healthy weight, and my parents were satisfied.

But the disordered eating didn’t stop there. The voice was much quieter, but it was still there. When I first arrived at university I would still feel bad about eating beans on toast the morning after a night out, ridden with guilt because of all the calories I’d consumed the night before in alcohol. I would watch people eating chocolate bars at lunch with fascination, because it was something I’d never allow myself to eat. I described my eating habits - no carbs, no meat, mostly protein and vegetables and very little else - to a friend once and he looked at me and said, half joking, ‘how do you live?’. Being vegetarian gave me a ready excuse - there was a whole food group that I could avoid - and I also often hid behind the statement ‘I’m just trying to be healthy’. But, even though I wasn’t depriving myself of nourishment (I was eating around 1800 calories a day), I was still obsessed. I was still following rules, restricting myself, always thinking about the next meal and how I could make it healthier. I still wanted to be thin. I still didn’t feel good enough.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time watching videos from the StylelikeU youtube channel, in which women are interviewed about their lives, their passions, their sense of self. The message they send is that women are not just their bodies, or what they wear. They are not defined by how attractive they are. It showed me that there are so many other ways to feel like you matter which don’t involve shrinking yourself, which seems like a self evident truth, but was something I’d struggled with for all of my teenage years. All these women were so beautiful, despite many of them not fitting into the idealised standard of what is considered to be attractive.

Watching these videos, and educating myself about body positivity, had a huge effect on me which at first I didn’t even notice. It was as simple as having a meal without once thinking about the amount of calories in it, or not caring when someone commented that I’d put on a bit of weight, or just deciding to buy a new pair of jeans when my old ones didn’t fit me anymore, rather than holding onto them to torture myself into losing weight and shrinking back into them. Now my eating habits aren’t exactly 3 meals a day normal - I’m at university, so some days I’ll forget to eat lunch because I’ll be writing an essay, or I’ll eat half a packet of biscuits while sitting at my desk. But the important thing is that I’ve stopped worrying about what I eat. I’ve stopped criticising my body and started to accept it for what it is. I’ve put on weight and I don’t give a flying fuck (excuse my French). I am not my body. I am the books that I read, the people that I spend time with, the values I uphold. I am my interests and passions. I am myself. And I feel pretty great about that.

I want every girl who’s ever felt like she needed to lose weight to fit in, or to feel like she mattered, to feel this way too, but I know it’ll take time. Just know, please, if you’ve ever struggled with body image issues, that you are not your body. You are not the standards which media and society set for you. You are so much more than that. You are, as my friend said to me recently, a precious gem that should be cherished.

Monday, 12 September 2016

I went to Paris with no wisdom teeth

Earlier this year I visited Paris with one of my best friends. It was my first trip; he'd been before. Immediately before we went I'd had my wisdom teeth removed and developed a horrible, painful condition called dry socket. I kid you not, the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I called Alex from the train platform on my way to London to meet him (we were getting the coach) and said "I'm in a huge amount of pain, and will probably be grumpy as hell for this whole trip, but I'm really looking forward to it". Or something along those lines. Luckily with the help of French pharmacists (who really know their shit) I managed to get hold of some clove oil, so I spent the 5 days relatively pain-free, smelling of clove, with everything I ate faintly tasting of clove. Although I would warn anyone taking French paracetamol that you should NOT TAKE TWO DOSES AT ONCE of 1000mg of paracetamol. I made that mistake, went completely loopy, and sat in a park staring at paper boats in a pond, completely mesmerised, for about an hour. Although I guess at least I was distracted from the pain.

(the park where I got high on paracetamol)

(me looking 'jaunty', as Alex put it, in a French bakery, with a swollen face)

We decided to stay in a small hostel in Belleville to escape the higher prices of more central hostels. It turned out to be a great decision - Belleville is charming, cheap and full of indie bars and vegan restaurants. Alex and I had a deal that I would accompany him to galleries if he would accompany me to vegan restaurants, and generally this worked pretty well. A particular favourite of mine was a thai restaurant we found just 2 streets away from our hostel - pretty much always empty, but so cheap and the food was amazing. There were 2 bars we went to whose names I can remember - Aux Folies and Cafe Cheri(e). Both had a similar grungy, posters-all-over-the-walls, lots of people with piercings and tattoos kind of vibe, both were very cheap. One bar in particular sticks in my head, though, even though I've forgotten it's name, because we stopped off for a drink there one night (it was just up the street from our hostel) and stumbled upon a slam poetry night. Neither of us can speak fluent French, but both of us were pretty sure that the poetry standard was quite low. That night, drinking too much beer and trying really hard not to laugh at the awful poetry, was one of my favourite memories of the trip.

During the day we'd alternate between wandering the streets (Alex has a weirdly good sense of direction) and finding galleries to browse. Neither of us were particularly fussed with doing the basic touristy things in Paris, Alex because he'd been before, me because I'd been warned off Paris by all my friends who'd stuck to the tourist areas. So my experience of Paris was atypical but wonderful: by day we'd look at art and eat vegan food, and by night we'd buy a cheap bottle of wine, find a park, and watch the sun set before heading to a nearby bar. One of my favourite days was when we went to the Picasso gallery in the morning, then had lunch at a restaurant called Neo Bento, then walked back to the metro along the Seine in the sunshine.

(sunshine on the Seine)

(Alex ft a Picasso sculpture)

(post-Picasso bento)

On one day, after I saw an advert for it in the Metro, we decided to go to a photography exhibit at the Museum of Jewish History. Alex has commented often since on the level of security on the way into that museum - it was unlike anything I've experienced before. The general feeling in Paris that week in March was of a city on edge, for obvious reasons, and you might see men with guns, in army uniforms, outside a building or a children's park. But this museum locked you in a glass room while they scanned you, and your bag went along a conveyor belt to be scanned also. I can only imagine that if they found anything untoward in your bag or on your person, you wouldn't leave that glass room anytime soon. But luckily for us we got through, and it was worth it. 

The photographer, Lore KrΓΌger, spent much of her life either fleeing or fighting the Nazi occupation. She lived in Paris for a while, and studied there. The section which depicted her life prior to her photography was heartbreaking - it included a letter from her parents telling her that they'd decided to pre-empt being forced out of their homes in Majorca by committing suicide. Much of her work consisted of portraits, many of them colleagues from the anti-Nazi newspaper which she was actively involved in when in New York, and also a series of photographs depicting the lives of gypsies on their pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.  It was an incredibly moving exhibit.


(the heartbreaking letters from Lore's mother and father)




Alex is a great person to walk around a gallery with. Imagine you're strolling along the streets of Oxford with him, and comment on a building nearby. He will likely be able to tell you the architect of it, the year it was built, and an interesting piece of trivia about it. So for someone like me, who has but a tenuous grasp of what impressionism is, walking around the impressionism exhibit with him in the Musee d'Orsay was enlightening. He'd point at a painting and be like "so the interesting thing about this painting is...." and I'd listen to him for about 10 minutes, learning more about the painting than I imagine even a tour guide would be able to tell me. 

He's a great travel companion in other ways, too. When I was in the most pain between paracetamol doses, he'd be there with a witty comment to distract me and make me feel better. He always seemed to have a radar for good coffee. His sense of direction was amazing. And he let me drag him to Shakespeare and Company (one tourist trap that I was not willing to forgo), and even a cat cafe (although he kind of hates cats). And, you know, if you're going to sit next to someone in a park and talk about life and drink wine as the sun sets (even though the wine tasted like clove), I can think of worse company.

(Dancers in Blue by Edgar Degas - my fav painting at the Musee d'Orsay)

(I call this his cocaine face)

(Alex's coffee radar led us to this little cafe in Belleville every morning)

I love Paris. I couldn't tell you what the Eiffel tower looks like up close, I haven't been inside the Louvre (although I have been in the park next to it and petted a large group of dogs, which in my opinion is better), and I haven't done pretty much any of the main tourist attractions of the city. But if you want small gallery recommendations, or vegan restaurants, or cheap hole-in-the-wall indie bars, hit me up. If, like me, you are a fan of the occasional vegan instagram, head to Bob's kitchen for an acai bowl. They are not only amazing but also aesthetically pleasing.

(The acai bowl at Bob's kitchen)

(the closest I got to the Eiffel Tower - if you squint you can see it)

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

My experience with anxiety

This is quite a scary entry for me to write, but I've been thinking about it for a while. Mental illness is often stigmatised and not talked about, so if talking about my experience could help even a tiny bit to destigmatise it, then it'll be worth it. And also I find it sometimes helps to write things down. So here goes. 

Towards the end of this (academic) year, I went through a difficult time. Some bad things happened, and I made some very difficult decisions, and I fell. Hard. I wasn't sure how to get back up. My self esteem was at an all time low. I couldn't see a way out of the pain I was experiencing, but I had to. Life at Oxford doesn't stop for mental illness. Over the course of a term, after I got up the courage to ask for help, with support from friends and understanding tutors I slowly managed to find my way through it. But at that time, for the first time in my life, I suffered from quite severe anxiety. 

Before my experience with anxiety this year, I had always had a tendency towards it - I found moving out of my comfort zone, specifically in social situations at school, really scary. In the process of coming out of my shell, and trying to overcome my shyness, in my last couple of years at school, I felt fear and discomfort and self doubt often, but I pushed through it. I learned to ignore the thoughts telling me I would fail. I learned to breathe through the anxiety I felt before entering into social situations with people I didn't know very well. 

But this year my comfort zone suddenly became extremely small (often the size of my room), and the thoughts harder to ignore, the anxiety harder to breathe through. The first time I realised I was having a panic attack I was in a library, trying to do an essay. Not exactly a terrifying social situation. But something in my brain short circuited, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming need to be outside. I could feel that my eyes were wide, and I was alert - my vision was heightened, I sensed my surroundings with a clarity beyond anything I'd felt before. My heart was racing - I could feel the adrenaline running through my veins - and my knees felt a bit wobbly. More than anything else I felt trapped inside my own head. My thoughts were swirling, incoherent, irrational, inescapable. I could not quiet them. I sat on the steps outside and called my friend, who also suffers from anxiety, and said 'I think I'm having a panic attack'. The words seemed not to belong to my voice. I never imagined I'd say them. After she came and found me I sat and held her hand until, slowly, it passed. My heart stopped racing, the knots in my stomach loosened, and I was able to look at my surroundings rationally. Where before I'd only seen threat after threat, now I saw people, grass, trees, the walls of my college. Everything was as it should be again. 

After this episode it began happening more frequently, sometimes triggered by things like social situations, sometimes triggered by a particularly difficult counselling session, sometimes triggered by nothing at all. I'd wake up some days and struggle to get out of bed, overwhelmed by the feeling that something awful would happen if I left my room. Something as simple as dinner with a few friends became absolutely terrifying. I'd often talk myself out of things by putting thoughts in other peoples' heads - 'she doesn't like me', 'he thinks I'm boring', 'they're only hanging out with me to be nice'. On days like that I'd be so frustrated with myself. I'd try desperately to rationalise, and I'd always force myself to leave my room eventually, but the feelings would not be rationalised, they would not go away. One such day I went out for coffee with a friend and tried to describe to him how I was feeling. 'Imagine a burning building' I said. 'Flames, smoke, chaos. That's what I think you'd see if you looked inside my head'. He took me to buy a cactus to make me feel better. I named it Patrick. 

On those days when I woke up with it I'd at least know what I was dealing with, but sometimes it would come out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times. One particularly awful experience I had was at a dinner party. I play tennis at university, and was at dinner with most of the male tennis team, and a few of the girls. I was surrounded by boys laughing and joking and drinking, and was sat at the end of the table, by the window, opposite another girl on my team. Last year I would've been in my element - I love the social side of tennis, and I am friendly with most of the guys and girls. But suddenly, out of nowhere, I was gripped by an overwhelming fear that everyone there wanted to hurt me. I knew it was irrational, I desperately tried to make it go away, but my body had already gone into fight or flight mode. I felt trapped and unsafe. Luckily the meal was winding down by that point so I made my excuses and left, desperate not to let on how I was feeling. I made it as far as the tesco on the high street before I broke down sobbing and called my friend (the same one that took me cactus shopping). He cycled from the other side of town to meet me (Bonbon if you're reading this you're the best). I felt much better in his company, but at the same time I was devastated - the tennis socials were such a huge part of my life, and now I was terrified that if I went to another one it would happen again. Its situations like that - when having anxiety begins to take control of your life - which are the most demoralising. 

It started to affect my sport as well. Tennis is a game which happens mostly inside your head - tactics, technique, mental strength if you're losing or playing badly. If I ever went to a session feeling anxious, one bad forehand could send me into turmoil. I'd be unable to rationalise it or pick myself up from it, and my game would fall apart. Instead of trying to be positive, and applying the technique I knew I had, my head would fill with thoughts like: 'you can't do anything right' or 'you're going to get dropped from the team'. Tennis was something I loved, an activity to help keep me sane during the stressful Oxford terms, and I nearly quit the team because of my anxiety. It was so frustrating - I felt like I had two people inside my head: one telling me I was worthless, and making me afraid of everything, and the other desperately trying to shut the other one up. The captain of my tennis team was incredibly understanding, and over the course of a few weeks, as my mental health improved, so did my tennis. And other things improved, too. The days when I'd wake up feeling anxious became fewer and further between, and I managed to get through social situations without having a panic attack, and I started to feel my comfort zone widening again, slowly but surely. 

Before this experience, without meaning to, I'd sometimes been dismissive of anxiety. I had friends who suffered from it, but I'd never really understood it, or tried to. I didn't know what to do if someone had a panic attack, I found it difficult to comprehend if there wasn't a rational trigger for it (which, as I now know, there often isn't), and I generally thought of myself as removed from it - it was something that happened to other people, but not to me. I've been very lucky throughout this experience that I have wonderful friends who I could call whenever I was feeling low, who would help me out of my room with invitations to coffee dates, who would pick me up sobbing outside tesco or take me to buy a cactus, or be waiting outside my building when I got there because I'd just texted them to say I'd had a panic attack on my way home and would be late to meet them. I've learned what to do now for someone with anxiety - be there. Be constant. Be someone who cares. Hold their hand while they're having a panic attack, or listen on the other side of the phone, or give them a reason to leave their room if they're having a bad day. I've also been very lucky that my anxiety has subsided a lot over the summer, and while I'm cautious of assuming that it's gone, I know that I have it much better than people who have to deal with it every day. Although it has been at times demoralising, frustrating and generally awful, and I have wished more than anything that it would just go away, this experience has allowed me to have some understanding of what people with anxiety go through. And I am grateful for that.