I spent my teenage years chasing the idea of ‘anxiety recovery’ that I later discovered didn’t exist. I wanted a life without anxiety, because all I understood was that it was limiting, destructive, painful, and stole too much from me. I also thought that was what I was meant to want. At church, year after year, people prayed for my anxiety to go away. Anxiety was a popular new topic on YouTube, so I watched as many videos as I could of people sharing how they overcame their anxiety. The goal of the brief Cognitive Behavioural Therapy intervention I had was to stop feeling anxious and to stop having panic attacks – at least, that’s what I understood of it. So, it was natural that my idea of ‘anxiety recovery’ meant not feeling anxious at all.

When I was diagnosed with autism at 16, my parents weren’t relieved like I was. Not because they were ashamed of me being autistic – not that they really knew what it meant – but because they didn’t know where autism ended and anxiety began. It seemed like the same thing to us. Whilst a life without any anxiety was idealistic and, frankly, impossible, that did not mean it always had to rule my life. But it did mean that I had to reframe how I understood it. I had to learn what was OCD and generalised anxiety that needed work, and what was anxiety, panic and overwhelm from life because I was autistic and finding things unmanageable. Nine times out of ten, the panic attacks that left me unable to speak or move, missing out on the teenage-ry fun things my friends were doing, and not wanting to leave the house (though also attributed to OCD), were because of the latter – noise, crowds and overwhelm which would spiral into panic.

It took a few years for me to learn that ‘anxiety recovery’ wasn’t going to be what I thought it was. There is this idea that anxiety or mental health is something you fight. According to the Oxford Dictionary, to fight something means to ‘struggle to overcome, eliminate, or prevent’. But the more I did that, the more self-hatred, frustration, jealousy and depression grew, the more panic attacks would occur, and the more control anxiety had over me. It has only been since I have started accepting my anxiety, trying to understand it for what it is – my brain trying to keep me safe the best way it knows how – and making adjustments for it, that my distress around my anxiety has reduced. I think that is because parts of distress can stem from the judgements we place on things rather than the thing itself.

Yesterday, I went into London with my boyfriend to see The Book of Mormon. I love musicals. I am good at theatre trips these days because I know the process – it’s pretty similar normally. What I hadn’t anticipated this time was the pre-Christmas crowds and the tube strikes. The tubes and platforms were so crowded you couldn’t move. I got off the tube in time and my boyfriend didn’t, so we were separated, and I was stuck on the platform, unable to move and unable to think through what to do. I waited for the panic to come, almost because that was how I expected myself to react. I even imagined where I might try to run to and hide. But then the panic didn’t come. My head felt cloudy and my thoughts were jumbled, but my body was calm. I attribute most of this to my ADHD medication I’d taken 20 minutes earlier. But I still couldn’t think, and I still felt scared. So, I called my parents. They told me to look for the exit sign and follow it. It felt so obvious, yet I’d needed them to tell me. They helped me stay calm whilst I navigated the crowds. They texted my boyfriend and I waited outside the station by a Christmas tree and eventually he found me. I may be 22 years old, but I am autistic and can’t always manage unfamiliar situations alone. And actually, the fact I was able to stay calm and call my parents is progress from the past.

The rest of the evening did feel overwhelming – especially when we were stuck getting home because of the strikes – but the show was very fun. There were several things which helped me:

Loop earplugs – I wore them the whole evening. I don’t usually wear them during shows, but they blocked the noise of wrappers, whispering and squeaking seats.

ADHD medication – it slows down my thoughts and I don’t feel so panicked.

Familiarity – we went to Zizzi’s to eat instead of somewhere new as this was less stressful and the music is not too loud in Zizzi’s.

Adjusting expectations – telling myself it was okay if it wasn’t the best night of my life. It’s okay if we needed to change the plan to make it more manageable. In the end, I did enjoy the evening.

Environment – There were no hand-dryers in the theatre toilets only paper towels and I hate the noise of hand-dryers so that was brilliant.

Support – From my parents and my boyfriend.

Sunflower lanyard – I don’t usually need this aside from airports, but my bag had broken and I think wearing it made the security guard more patient with me.

Taking time – Recovering from the ‘verge of a meltdown’ on returning home with a hot water bottle, book and Headspace meditation.

There were parts of yesterday when I felt upset that anxiety still takes so much of my energy. Then, I remember that there was a time when I couldn’t get on public transport, let alone a tube at rush hour. There was a time when I would push myself to go into London because I didn’t want to miss out, only to have three panic attacks and find myself unable to get home again because I simply couldn’t force myself back out into the crowds of people. There was a time I thought my life would always be controlled by anxiety. But yesterday, there were several times when I could have panicked or become distressed, and I didn’t. I keep reminding myself that the whole evening was actually a success. Hard, yes. But a success. I saw the show and it was fun. I actually think I coped well, and I am proud of myself.

‘Anxiety recovery’ isn’t going to be what I thought it was before I understood how my autistic brain works. Too much of my anxiety is too closely linked to my autism that I have to accept it is there. I can’t get rid of it, my brain is wired like this. But I can learn to be kind to myself, to adapt things, to try one thing at a time, to alter my expectations, to minimise triggers and to give myself time to recover afterwards.

It’s okay if your journey looks different to other people’s <3


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