Putting those pieces back together again, by Ken Skates AM
I recall with vivid clarity my first encounter with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It came during a very formal wine reception in Matriculation week at Cambridge University.
The feelings, sensations, panicked response and subsequent recovery were things I’d become familiar with over the next decade, until talking therapy gave me the firm foundations needed to live life again, rather than just exist in constant worry.
In autumn 1994 I arrived at Cambridge, in retrospect as a naive, insecure young adult. I was the first person in my family to have gone to University and for that matter, to have studied A Levels. I had not prepared for life beyond school and coming from a very close-knit, rural family of five boys I was, with hindsight, badly equipped for independent living, particularly in an environment that was so very alien to me.
During Matriculation week I was introduced to a lifestyle that was as unfamiliar as it was unsettling. Yet almost everyone around me appeared comfortable with their surroundings. They appeared at ease with the gown wearing, etiquette overloaded societal life of Cambridge, seemingly commanded a greater knowledge of their subjects than me, and in general came from comparatively affluent backgrounds.
I had always been a bit too conscientious, too keen to please and determined to achieve high grades in all subjects. Against a backdrop so alien to me, and in the company of people with whom finding a natural affinity was difficult in those initial weeks of university, a wave of fear and panic consumed me. I didn’t realise I was experiencing a panic attack at the time, nor was I diagnosed with GAD for several years to come, but I can still feel the sensations they incited, time and again in the years that followed that first knock-out bout.
I survived Cambridge in spite of regular spells of anxiety and the depression that accompany these waves of fear; of worry about nothing specific but of everything, absolutely everything. After graduation I subconsciously began shrinking the world around me to avoid situations that could provoke a panic attack or advance a period of GAD. Churchill described these regular feelings of despair and hopelessness as his ‘black dogs’ and JK Rowling’s description of the Dementors as metaphors for depression is frighteningly accurate. Depression (anxiety is closely related and concerns the same chemicals in the body) really does draw your life and character from you, leaving you a paler, colder, more fearful shell. It steals much of what you previously enjoyed in life and replaces it with despair, a constant doubt that life will ever improve.
Churchill described these regular feelings of despair and hopelessness as his ‘black dogs’...
But for me life did improve. It got better with the help of family, friends and one particular expert in talking therapies.
Getting diagnosed correctly took time (the Nurse at College gave me Strepsils and thought I had glandular fever), my local GP insisted I was too young to experience such damaging emotions and therefore too young for medical treatment and I feared at times that I would succumb to self harm. Instead, the Internet enabled me to self-diagnose and to eventually seek help from a therapy centre that specialised in child psychology. The cost of the talking therapy I received was not cheap, but certainly worth sacrificing holidays and nights out for, and seeking their help was the most important decision I’ve ever made.
It took a considerable period to talk through all the life experiences that I had inadvertently allowed to shape my feelings and responses, but I reached a point some five years ago where I felt stronger, more comfortable with life and more secure than I had ever done. My strengths had returned, but without the self-doubt and insecurities that had been a driving force for academic achievements. I recall my final meeting with my therapist, when I gave him a card, in which I wrote ‘thanks for putting the pieces back together again’.
Counselling, talking therapies and mindfulness are not coping strategies, they are strengthening exercises.
Our minds are made up of a plethora of thoughts and feelings. We all have a complex and multi-layered jigsaw in our head and sometimes the pieces fall out of position. It’s natural in times of trauma or life changing events, yet the longer the pieces are left to make no sense, the more difficult it is to place them together safely.
Talking therapies help put those pieces together again, creating a picture of life that is more often stronger, brighter and more resilient than what existed before. Counselling, talking therapies and mindfulness are not coping strategies, they are strengthening exercises.
And in my view, all of us would do well to partake in them regularly.
Ken Skates is the Assembly Member for Clwyd South