There is life after mental illness, and I’m living proof of it. But there was a time when I could see no future that didn’t involve being trapped – literally – by the most paralysing fear.
I was in my early 20s and starting my second-year exams. I went into the room, sat down among about 100 other students and knew, without any question, that I had to get out there and then. I was found 20 minutes later sitting on the stairs, crying, sweating and shaking, and sent home. I was firmly on the road to full-blown panic disorder, and to all intents and purposes I didn’t leave the house again for nearly three years.
That’s not strictly true; I did try. I tried really, really hard. Occasionally I would, with a lot of support from family and friends, get into a car and be driven around the block. But the overwhelming need to be back in my safe place meant that no trip could last more than 15 minutes. At my worst, I couldn’t walk down the garden path to put the rubbish in the bins. At my very, very worst I had to force myself to leave my bedroom to get to the bathroom.
The road to recovery was difficult and lonely – and too long to describe here. I was 20 years too early for panic disorder to have been defined as a condition, and cognitive behavioural therapy wasn’t even a twinkle in a therapist’s eye. I pretty much had to do it for myself.
I made myself walk to the corner shop, counting the steps all the way so that I knew how quickly I could get home. I made 20 attempts to walk into a supermarket before one day, finally, managing it for five minutes. Gradually, I learned that if I could do "this" then maybe "that" would be manageable. Right up to my late 40s I would describe myself as a recovering agoraphobic, constantly aware that panic could hit at any time.
Then, one day, I had a flash of the blindingly obvious. I realised – I’ve no idea how or why – that my panic response was my stress response. In that moment I stopped being afraid of my anxiety, and instead welcomed it as a friend. It became my early-warning signal, my own personal canary in the coal mine.
Now I know that at the first hint of feeling "jittery" it’s time for me to take a step back, get a good night’s sleep, eat properly and check my equilibrium. That makes me stronger, more resilient, than I think I would ever have been otherwise.
This week we’ve seen many people share their stories, and that’s important and helpful. But 30-odd years after I walked out of that exam room, I see young members of my family trying to handle their own mental health issues, and still without truly effective or meaningful professional support. Having mental ill health in the 21st century is much like having serious physical illness 100 years ago – frightening enough in itself, but doubly so because by and large no one can tell you with any certainty how to get better, or even if you will.
There is life after mental illness, and I’m living proof of that. I really hope that in my lifetime this stops being such a necessary thing to say.
Jane Ide is chief executive of Navca. She spends her working life travelling the length and breadth of the country, and is perfectly happy on a crowded tube train. She’d love to be able to go back and tell her 21-year-old self that this would be the case