Natasha Devon blogs for SANE - Part one
Posted by Admin
5th Jul 2018

I have a condition called Panic Disorder, which is exactly what its name would suggest. It’s incredibly easy for me to have a panic attack – an episode which will cause profuse sweating, chest pains, hyperventilating and, when at its most acute and terrifying, loss of vision.

Now I’m in my late thirties, I’ve reached a stage where I don’t see Panic Disorder as radically different from if I had, let’s say, diabetes. It’s something I have to be aware of, vigilant about and take steps to manage. I need to understand my triggers and act swiftly to bring myself back to state of health. Yet it doesn’t define who I am.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m not a particularly anxious person, at least not in the classic sense of the word (as interchangeable with ‘nervous’). I can and do present speeches in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. I appear on live TV and have meetings at Parliament and none of these things freak me out in the slightest. Yet catch me on a bad day and something as simple as traffic noise, or a clumsily worded email will be enough to send me spiralling into panic.

People often say to me ‘you don’t seem like someone who has anxiety’ and in doing so they misunderstand the nature of the illness. Anxiety is what has me writing essays which will never be read at 3am. It’s the reason why, on some days, I’d rather have a temper tantrum than take part in a mindfulness activity. It’s a dark energy which vibrates within me and, unless I can keep a lid on it, it has the power to jeopardise friendships, my sleep patterns and my sanity. It, at least in my case, has nothing to do with ‘confidence’.

I know all this now and, as Francis Bacon famously said, knowledge is power. When I received a diagnosis of Panic Disorder I was 31 and the relief was immense. To understand that this was a recognised phenomenon, that other people experienced it too and, perhaps most importantly, that there were steps I could take to control it, represented a key turning point in my life. It also made me incredibly sad that my illness hadn’t been identified earlier.

Whilst writing my book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’, I sprinkled scientific research with some of my own memories and experiences. Looking back, I realised I’d had my first panic attack at the age of ten, following a family bereavement. With the benefit of hindsight, the eating disorder I battled between the ages of 17 and 25 started to look very different. I realised that it had been a coping strategy which had swooped in at the point when the anxiety I had struggled with all through my teens began to become overwhelming. Recovering from bulimia was only part of the process – dealing with the symptom, as opposed to the cause.

My story teaches us two things. The first is that we should not fear diagnosis. Owing to the way mental illness has been treated historically (i.e. carting people away to an asylum and performing lobotomies based on only the most spurious of diagnostic criteria) and ongoing stigma, there is fear around being given a ‘label’ of mental illness. Yet, in my experience, knowing what your opponent is makes it much easier to fight.

The second lesson to be learned is that our most obvious symptom might not tell the whole story. Mental illnesses ‘borrow’ characteristics from one another, so that if you saw a person’s list of symptoms written down, you’d be unlikely to be able to decipher whether they had depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, an eating disorder or something else. That’s why enabling dialogue around mental health is so crucial – The more we talk, the more we can truly understand the nature of our demons.

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