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When I look back now

When I look back now it’s only now I realise how much I was struggling with my mental health. As a teenager, I always thought I was different or odd or just shy. I found it difficult at times that there were more than 3 people or even less depending on the group in a group chatting. I would often find myself interested in the conversation and want to join in but afraid to say something in case I sounded strange. I would think about what I was going to say far too long by the time I had built up the courage to speak that topic had passed and I felt I had missed the opportunity. I would get nervous like I was doing some sort of presentation in front of lots of people. My heart would race, my throat would get dry and sometimes I would go red in the face. I would get all flushed. It was awkward and uncomfortable.

I thought there was something wrong with me, I was weird, an outcast and for the most part, I did have different interests to people in my classes, but these thoughts only pushed me further inside my head. I guess on the outside I probably came across as very quiet and shy. My teachers often said in teacher meetings that Sarah needs to speak up more and ask questions. But in classes even just answering ‘Anseo’ for the role was a struggle. I’d say it and because I was so nervous I would say it so quietly the teacher didn’t hear. And the unfortunate thing about that was it only made me think about it more. And that’s part of anxiety. It makes you question and repeat things that you have done or said over and over on repeat in your head. I would often replay something that might have happened weeks ago in a class or out with my friends. Something only I thought was embarrassing and it would play on repeat like a broken record. Late at night just as I was about to dose off to sleep pop there was the awkward moment I experienced, and I went from almost asleep, to awake for the next two hours tossing and turning. At that time in my life, I didn’t know this, it wasn’t something that was discussed or even if it was it seemed like a big thing that you shouldn’t talk about.

As the years moved on I struggled further with my anxiety in different ways but still not really recognising it or maybe I was recognising it but I didn’t want to face it. But either way, it still wasn’t something more normalised and wasn’t discussed at least in the ways it is today. I don’t remember the first time I drank and can’t remember what age I was, but I know I wasn’t that young, but I do remember the feeling I got from it. It made me feel more comfortable speaking up and talking. It made me feel ‘normal’, well what I viewed normal as at that time in my life.  For one reason or another, it silenced my negative thoughts so that I didn’t overthink what I wanted to say and just came out and said it. This was great, I felt a sort of weight was lifted and I didn’t have to worry about my strange issues anymore. I could just have a drink and no more worries, yet I couldn’t have been farther away from the truth. Now I am not trying to be judgemental of anyone who enjoys a glass of wine or going out getting locked with their buddies. That is completely their choice and you be you. I am just telling my story.

Alcohol was a coping mechanism that I hid from my friends, my family and myself for a long time. I struggled so much with who I was as a person at such a young age with anxiety I was so afraid of just being me that drinking kind of took over. It began as just a little thing to help me socialise with people I could never speak to if I was sober in the fears of embarrassment. But alas it became more difficult for me to not drink the more I used it to cope. And by now I was drinking so often days got mixed up and I felt more and more lost. There were many reasons why I should have stopped drinking for and I did stop drinking for them but to this day the best reason I stopped and will continue being sober is for my mental health.

Now, this brings me up to my 20’s and I had finally hit the stage where I knew deep down I needed to stop because my little strange issue of anxiety I had, which probably if I look back enough started when I was 13 had now gotten so much worse. See what had happened was all the time I had spent not dealing with it in a healthy way had come back to bite me. I remember how hard I found it the first 6 months sober. I now had really strong feelings of paranoia, that people hated me and were talking about me. I would feel waves of panic and a darkness around me in public places or in crowds just like in the city. I would be nauseous and physically feel like getting sick. I couldn’t sleep at night; it was like my brain just didn’t want to turn off and that voice you have inside your head that doesn’t believe in you had now taken over. This all sounds so sad, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I simply had no choice but to push myself and deal with my issues in a healthy way.

I began to talk about things with my family and friends. I went to counselling. The way the counsellor worked with me was different from any other, she made me always focus on the good qualities I had which included my awkwardness, my shyness, ultimately my anxiety. That’s when I started to get more into my hobbies, my crafts. I started to spend time doing things I always loved but didn’t appreciate the benefits of as much. Drawing, crafts, and crochet helped me in so many ways I just can’t believe, and the thing is it was always there. I’ve always had this coping mechanism built in me I just hadn’t put two and two together. The more I spent time being creative the more I felt better, more like me.

Today I admire all the different hobbies people have and social media can be an amazing platform to display them. Whether it’s photography to cooking, running to reading every hobby is another person’s way of working through their mental health. Now I appreciate social media a lot more for those qualities. Even I see posts on Instagram that point out symptoms of anxiety, like a dry throat or tightness in muscles that I never knew related to anxiety before from when I was a teenager. Like wow, I am still learning about my mental health and I always will but now I am no longer scared, I am willing, and I am thankful to hear others speak about it too.

– Sarah O’Leary

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