Monday, July 7, 2014

ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, VIOLENCE, AND THE STIGMA OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN


Nine years ago, I was newly pregnant when I was violently attacked by my boyfriend at the time. We were having an argument: he hit me in the face, causing my ear to bleed, then clamped his hand over my mouth, suffocating me, and told me repeatedly that he would kill me. He said afterwards that the incident only lasted 20 seconds, but those 20 seconds were to change my whole life irrevocably.

It doesn’t matter who he was. He could have been anyone. I don’t want to identify him, but he was probably different to the man you’re imagining: he was over ten years older than me, well-spoken, intellectual, ex-public school, cruel, abusive; he was also funny, smart, kind, affectionate, and I was deeply in love with him and thrilled to be carrying his baby. People are complex, and to demonise him and paint him in black and white doesn’t make sense; that isn’t how real life works.

I managed to get away from him, from that dark room in the middle of the night, but we were on holiday abroad at his relatives’ remotely-located house, and I knew they wouldn’t help me. I didn’t know the emergency number or the address; I hadn’t thought I would need to know details like that, because my boyfriend would be taking care of me. I texted home to tell a friend what had happened.

When we returned home the next day, I called the police, but because the incident had happened abroad, they said it was outside of their jurisdiction and that I would have to return to that country if I wanted to press charges. Even then it would be his word against mine; in addition, I didn’t speak the language in that country fluently, and to return there when I was pregnant and struggling with severe morning sickness, while still being mostly in love with my boyfriend, seemed impossible. I knew there was nothing I could do. The police didn’t even take pictures or a written record of my injuries; I went to the doctor to have them recorded.

Though my boyfriend apologised and said “I know I can love you properly, if you only let me”, I knew I couldn’t stay with him, though he threatened to kill himself. I left him and had a termination, which I agonised over for weeks because I had been so happy to be pregnant, and had already named the baby. I was very early on so could take the abortion pill, RU-486, but when I searched for information on abortion online, thousands of pro-life Christian websites came up, with enlarged pictures of foetuses sucking their thumbs, and threats that if I had an abortion, I would be sure to die of breast cancer and go to hell. A Catholic friend gave me the number of a Catholic “helpline” where they tried to dissuade me from going through with the abortion. I was so vulnerable after the termination, I was scared to fall asleep in case I died in my sleep and went to hell.

My boyfriend and I had belonged to the same creative community for work; he told everyone in it that I was mentally ill and was making up stories about him. He explained to them that I had had a violent childhood, which was true, a fact I had told him in confidence, and which he used to explain my “illness”; he privately told me that I had subconsciously “wanted” him to violently attack me. He was confident and authoritative and more well-established than me; I was 24, he was 35. Other people in the community believed his story and began to spread it. As I’d known it would be, it was his word against mine; even though I had an email from him confessing to the attack, I didn’t want to post a screengrab online; I was too scared of what he might do to me.

The friend who I had texted about the attack said that she was sure I must have done something to provoke it. I started to think it was my fault; I had sworn at my boyfriend during the argument. This friend was my closest friend at the time; she sided with him and I ended our friendship. My next closest friend was my previous ex-boyfriend, who had seen my injuries and was horrified; my boyfriend lied to him that I had cheated on him, causing my ex to sever all contact with me.

I cried for a year. I was constantly fearful of absolutely everything, convinced that strangers would try to attack me. Because of the suffocation, I couldn’t be in enclosed spaces without suffering severe panic attacks – and that meant rooms with the door shut and the windows closed, which made professional interviews and meetings difficult. I couldn’t take lifts, couldn’t take the tube underground, couldn’t take planes. The attack had hemmed in my whole life. I didn’t trust anyone, and hated myself for – as I saw it – ending my baby’s life.

I had two sets of therapy on the NHS; when it didn’t work, I would go on to have five more sets privately. Psychodynamic therapy, integrative, cognitive behavioural therapy, cognitive analytic therapy; I was so desperate I even tried hypnotherapy, EMDR and EFT. None of it worked. I was depressed and having suicidal ideations. I woke up sobbing and would go to sleep sobbing.

After that year, I was still very scared, but I was a much harder person. So few people had shown me kindness throughout the experience that I had a very dim view of human nature. I didn’t believe in God any more; I was resolutely pro-choice and anti-religion. I had relationships with men, but I didn’t let myself fall for anyone, and I didn’t believe anyone if they said they loved me.

When I finally started writing for the Guardian in 2008, three years on, my anger and scorn came through in my writing; I wrote a particularly stupid piece about anti-depressants. Reading it now, the subtext says “If I came through that hellish experience and my whole shitty life without anti-depressants, which don’t work anyway, you should be able to cope without them.” But I didn’t write about the attack; I glossed over my twenties as though they had been uneventful.

Later that year, I started the atheist bus campaign. The campaign was hellish for two reasons; firstly, I had to appear on TV and radio in studios with the doors and windows shut. I had a panic attack nearly every time; one time live on BBC Breakfast in front of six million viewers, though thankfully the segment ended before anyone realised; one time on the Jeremy Vine show, clutching the producer’s hand. Any kind of broadcast media opportunities I might have had were curtailed by my claustrophobia.

Secondly, I started to get threats. Not just one, or two, but dozens and dozens, filling up my Inbox. “If you come to America I will shoot you in the head”, “I hope you die”, “I hope Jesus kills you” etc. I didn’t report them because I thought the police would say “what the hell do you expect, running this kind of incendiary campaign?”, and besides, none of them were direct enough to warrant police attention, but I received several per day, providing an unpleasantly menacing kind of soundtrack to my life. I thought of taking my email address off my site, but reasoned that I would rather people express their anger in written form than in person, and that I would rather know if people were angry with me. I tried to shrug off the threats by making light of them in public.

I have asked myself a question several times over the past few years: how could I, such a fearful person, have successfully run a nationwide campaign which – though essentially lighthearted – was so potentially inflammatory?

I guess the answer is that I was as angry as I was fearful: angry at the idea that a benign God existed, when my whole life had been a testament to the exact opposite; angry at Christian pro-lifers who targeted women at the most vulnerable point of their lives; angry at the Christian bus adverts which linked to a website saying all non-Christians would end up in hell. I never expressed this, though; I had left my ex-boyfriend and that experience behind mentally, even though I was still struggling with it in lots of ways.

I was going up and up. The atheist bus campaign was a huge success and went global, running in 13 countries across the world, from America to Germany to New Zealand. Despite the panic attacks, I was still going on TV and radio shows, BBC1 and Radio 4, was mentioned on Have I Got News For You, and got a book deal with HarperCollins. I managed to get so many people I admired to write for the book, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas: Richard Dawkins, Derren Brown, Charlie Brooker, Simon Le Bon, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Jenny Colgan, Natalie Haynes… the book was a bestseller and raised £60,000 for the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust. I even overcame my claustrophobia enough to start writing travel pieces for The Sunday Times, and start filming a video series for The Guardian. For the first time since the incident, I felt glad to be alive.

And then I fell in love, and I fell apart.

It was the first time I had been in love since the incident in 2005, and something inside me just broke. I was terrified – not that my boyfriend would hurt me physically or leave me – but terrified that someone would kill me, whether the government or a religious organisation or one of the people who had sent me a threat. I didn’t deserve this amount of beauty in my life. I decided I would try and kill myself before “they” killed me, but I was too scared to commit suicide, so I just lay in bed and shook and screamed. I screamed for my boyfriend to help me, but he couldn’t – nobody could. I withdrew from everything – I cancelled the Guardian video series and stopped pitching pieces to all my editors. I took my name off the US and paperback editions of the book I had edited, the book I was so proud of. I begged my boyfriend to leave me because I couldn’t bear to see him fall out of love with me due to my illness. To his credit, he didn’t; he waited for me to get better. I didn’t get better.

I was put on antipsychotic medication, but was too scared to talk to anyone about my thoughts in case “they”, the establishment I had upset with the campaign, were following and monitoring and recording me. I fell pregnant, started eating compulsively and put on five stone in weight. Despite the medication, the thoughts worsened, and I started researching ways to kill myself before “they” killed me; the helium method seemed to be the most effective, but I didn’t know how I would rig it all up without anyone realising what I was planning. I obsessively visited suicide and euthanasia websites, trying and failing to find someone who would help me commit suicide while pregnant.

When I gave birth to my daughter, over a year after my nervous breakdown began, I was temporarily elated and felt well enough to re-emerge on Twitter. I felt so well, I came off my antipsychotic medication and quickly became suicidal again. Because I was a new mother with mental illness, I was assigned a psychiatrist quickly, and I will forever be grateful that he put me on an additional drug, an anticonvulsant, and diagnosed me with generalised anxiety disorder with prominent paranoia. The drug got me back to feeling 60% normal, and the thoughts slowed down. It would take another drug to treat my other condition, obsessive-compulsive disorder, to get me back to where I am now: 80% normal and fully-functioning. I will probably have to take all three drugs daily for the rest of my life. I am hugely grateful to medical science and the amazing doctors in the NHS for giving me my life back.

It is one of my greatest regrets that romantic relationships cause me to panic to the extent that life becomes unbearable. I have no doubt that it is related to the incident in 2005, but I have forgiven my ex-boyfriend for what happened.  I keep trying to get into relationships, needing someone to spend my life with, then withdrawing when the horrific anxiety sets in again. Despite all this, I am lucky: I survived my nervous breakdown, and now have a beautiful daughter who I would never have had otherwise. I also have two great friends, Graham and Emily, whose kindness I will never forget.

I didn’t expect to be telling this story now, but I turned 34 last Thursday and it got me thinking. For many years, I have hidden the extent of my mental illness: because of the stigma, because I didn’t want people to think I was weak, because I didn’t want anyone to take my daughter away, and because I was scared that - if I ever died in an accident - people would wrongly assume it was a suicide because of my mental health issues. For the record, I love my daughter more than life itself, and would never ever leave her. I have missed far too much of my life due to fear, and I want to embrace every second of it.

During the years that I struggled desperately, I couldn’t believe that I would ever feel well again or overcome the crippling anxiety that destroyed any chance of happiness. Everyone I read about seemed to be coping with life effortlessly; I was the only person who couldn’t cope. I wanted to tell this story to let anyone who had a violent childhood know that there can be life afterwards, to let anyone who has experienced domestic violence – during pregnancy or otherwise – know that life can get better, to let anyone having a breakdown know that there is hope, and that though the future often seems insurmountably bleak, time and the right medication can make life worth living again.

I wish there were a more cohesive narrative to this story, and that it were less of a muddle, but life is rarely neat. We are all messy and just muddling through the best way we know how. Lots of people have told me never to tell this story, and for years I refused to tell it, but I am no longer ashamed. What is shameful is not being a victim of violence, or having a termination as a result, or receiving threats, or falling apart, but instead being a complicit part of a society that says that victims should remain silent and hide the crimes of others, as well as their own frailties. It is not a society I want my daughter to grow up in, and if I want to change the way it works, speaking out myself is the first step.








66 comments:

  1. This is such a brave and powerful piece. I'm sure it will help many people who have been in similar situations and feel alone because they don't yet have the strength to be so open about it. Really proud of you. xx

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  2. Lots of love Ariane. I'm so sorry that you've had such a rough time. I agree with Graham - you've been really brave. I hope that the rest of your life will be a very different story. X X X

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  3. Yes, brave. I admired and respected you before, but now I do so much more. The Atheist Bus Campaign changed my life. And you were so helpful and supportive while I was pregnant with my son. I think you're beautiful and strong. Thank you for sharing this. I, too, suffer from mental illness (GAD).

    I know you have wonderful friends and family, but there's also a woman overseas who thinks you are just lovely.

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  4. Terrifically brave, Ariane. Not for speaking out now, but for walking away when you're violent boyfriend showed his true colours. For me it's been 18 years in an abusive relationship, but the terrible fear of the repercussions and the vindictiveness I know I will have to endure keep me here. I am crippled by shame. You are a phenomenal woman.

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    1. It took me 23 years to escape for the same reasons. Please get out. It is hard i wont lie to you but you will come out the other side.

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  5. @Graham: Thank you for everything. I wouldn't be here without you.

    @Margaret: Thank you for your kindness. I do hope so too.

    @Alessa: Same to you. GAD is an absolute fucker of an illness (sorry about the language, I couldn't find a better word) because, as with OCD, you never know when or how it's going to hit next. You are amazing for getting up and caring for your son every day the way you do, despite it all. Thank you for being my friend I have never met.

    @Anonymous: I am so sorry. I want to tell you to walk away, and I also understand completely why you feel unable to. Please don't feel ashamed. Your partner is the only person who should feel ashamed. I hope life gets better for you soon. I'm at ariane.sherine@gmail.com.

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  6. This is so brave and so very much appreciated. I can relate so well to so much of this. I have struggled with depression for as long as I can remember and I was also attacked by my son's father when I was 4 months pregnant. My son is the only thing that keeps me going some days -- more days than I'd like to count up.

    While I hope that you'll someday have a healthy, unfearful relationship, I've finally accepted that it's never going to happen for me (I'm nearly 20 years older than you) and I can tell you that it's not the worst thing in the world. I get the whole pint of tiramisu-flavoured gelato all to myself!

    Thank you, Ariane.

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    1. Argh! Ariane, cifthreadrefugees = Montana Wildhack. @MsWildhack on Twitter.

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    2. "We are all messy and just muddling through the best way we know how." "We are all messy and just muddling through the best way we know how." So true. Far fewer people are as "together" as we assume and it is no shame not to be among them. Well done for getting through this far, this well, and all the best for the future.

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    3. @Montana: I'm so sorry about what happened to you. I was only six weeks gone so I can't imagine it at four months... it must have been horrific. You're smart and funny and kind and a credit to your son. Wishing you much love and gelato.

      @Julian: Thank you for your kind wishes. I have always admired and enjoyed your writing, and look forward to reading more of it.

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  7. How terrible. I'm only just beginning to realise just how common male violence against women is. I have lived in this street for 7 months, I have already identified two abusive neighbours, and had to call the police on one of them. I'm alert to the signs after the flat I moved from shared a wall with a very violent abusive man, on whom I also have had to call the police after hearing him hurting her and dragging her by the hair.
    I have a friend whose ex-husband pushed her down the stairs when she was pregnant.
    I know of at least 3 violently abusive men in my small hometown.
    My boyfriend's boss couldn't get down his street last year because it was cordoned off after a man murdered his wife & children.
    It's everywhere and everyone is in denial about it. People turn up the TV and pretend they don't hear Mr Smith punching Mrs Smith.
    It's time for people to wake up to the reality of male violence against women. 2 women a week in this country die at the hands of men who are supposed to love them but the press ignores it and the cps, the courts, the government leave the issue in the dark well away from justice.
    Women deserve better, children deserve better.

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    1. It is desperately depressing. A third of all domestic violence starts in pregnancy. Before today, my experience was that people didn't want to know, but I've been truly heartened by the response to this piece, and I hope that slowly things are changing. Thank you for your comment.

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  8. Thank you for telling this story, a couple of points rang incredibly true for me. You are brave and strong and so very human, thank you for being sohhonest and open. May we one day live in a world where no one has to hide the things they secretly struggle with.

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    1. You're very welcome. I think things are changing, slowly, for the better. Thank you very much for your comment, and I echo your hopes.

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  9. Thank you for your work, your compassion, and your smarts. I'm glad you're still about.

    Joe.

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  10. Thank you for writing this, Ariane, and for the compassion and humanity you show. There are people who make you despair of humanity, and others who inspire awe and respect. You're definitely in the second category. Best wishes to you for a happy and loving future.

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    1. That is very kind. Thank you very much for your good wishes.

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  11. Thank you so, so much for writing this - heartbreaking to imagine what you went through but will hopefully help many others.
    Your work has always been a great force for positivity and progress. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you so much John. I really hope it will.

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  12. Ariane, you read at an event I held in London in December 2007, and I have always remembered you because I was struck by how glamorous and funny you were. Now that I know what you were battling, I'm even more impressed by you and your sharing.

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    1. Thank you so much Sarah. I really enjoyed the event. I hope you're well and happy.

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  13. I grew up in a violent home, when my dad drank all hell would break loose, it didn't happen every night but the fear that tonight could be the night was there everyday. I used to swear to myself that when I grew up there was no way this was going to happen to me. So when I dated guys I used to get them drunk to see how they changed I was lucky to meet a wonderful man who took all my issues onboard, for the first 3 or 4 years he would phone me on his way home from a night out with his friends just so I would know how inebriated he was before the key turned in the door. We've been together 16 years he no longer has to call home because I now feel safe, not all of my issues have gone away but they are buried deep in the recess of my mind. I honestly feel that you were 100% right to not go ahead with that first pregnancy, my dad beat my mum before she married him and way before I (the eldest) came along, I wish she'd left him before she had children it would have saved us all a lot of heartache.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm sorry your childhood was similar to mine, but I'm so glad you found a kind and loving man who is so considerate. Thank you for your support.

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  14. Thank you for sharing this, I can not imagine the amount of courage it took to finally put this out there. While I never had a difficult childhood, no abuse, no drinkin or drug problems, I do have anger management issues and am constantly on guard to keep my anger in check. I also have recently admitted to myself that I am suffering from depression ever since my mother post her battle with cancer. A person should never be ashamed of having these kinds of difficulties, but it isn't easy to keep from feeling that way. Hearing stories like yours helps me to see that I can take control of my life. Again, thank you for your story.

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    1. Thank you. I can relate to finding things hard to admit to (I tried to repress the abortion, I felt so guilty). Please never feel ashamed. I wish you much happiness and hope you feel better very soon.

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  15. A brave and touching piece. I hope you find a way to be 100%. I think that this article will resonate with a lot of people.

    If anyone is not sympathetic to people with mental illnesses then they should read this.

    We are just a brain in a skull. Connected to the world via our sensory and motor functions.

    As a highly organised organic computation device the brain can easily be affected by its environment, the genes which played down its construction or itself.

    You should be proud of this writing. I wish you well for the future.

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    1. That's very kind, Richard. Thank you - I wish you much happiness too.

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  16. Nothing to say that expresses the admiration I have for anyone who gets through even one such difficult experience, let alone a linked sequence. Thank you for the work you have done, even more so knowing how hard it was at the time. I'm sure I'm one of many who has read the book, or used the thoughts inspired by the bus campaign, to get through rough times. And for every person who tells you that, there will be many others who appreciate the work you have done even if they've never heard your name or let you know.

    So thank you on their behalf too.

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    1. I'm so glad you liked the book and the campaign, and that you found that they helped you. Thank you for such a lovely message.

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  17. Thank you for writing this piece. It is important for people with mental health problems to talk about them, it can be so easy when one afflicts you to look at the people around you and think badly of yourself because everyone else seems to be coping with life even though just below the surface others are experiencing their own private versions of hell too.

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    1. Thank you - that is so very true. It reminds me of the quote that most people "lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them". I used to look at everyone else and think "I wish I were you", unaware that they might have been thinking the same thing.

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  18. Seems to me that the people with the *real* mental illness from your post and some of the comments are the men abusing their partners and/or children. Pardon my language, but wtf? It makes me sick knowing that there are people out there who can inflict such emotional and physical harm on another person and not be held accountable. If anyone should be contemplating suicide, it's them. The world would be just a little bit better for each of them who had the decency to off themselves and accept a complimentary Darwin Award on their way out.

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    1. I agree that they should be held accountable, and understand your anger, but I would have felt incredibly distressed if he really had killed himself. I don't know if men who abuse women have the capacity to change, but I would like to think so.

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    2. I'm sure some of them can and do change. And certainly they should be given the opportunity to do so. But those who can't or won't, the rest of society would be better off without them. I feel the same way about pedophiles, rapists, and anyone who can't control their impulses to hurt others.

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    3. Um, just so you know, paedophiles are not, by definition, people who can't control their impulses to hurt others. Simply being a paedophile (having a sexual interest in children), doesn't hurt others. It's actually hurting others (physically and/or mentally), that hurts others - i.e. rapists, not paedophiles.

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  19. I really appreciate you writing this. It's no doubt very helpful to those in a similar position to you, but also to people (like me) who are trying to support others to get through difficult times. Thank you. I wish I could make that 'Thank you' come across as strongly as I mean it too.

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, and thank you for helping people come through a troubling experience. Many less caring people would shy away from taking on your role.

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  20. Ariane, I have always admired your writing and your observations on life but reading this has made me realise what a tough time you have had. Your courage is awesome... thanks for taking us

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  21. Lovely piece, Ariane. I'm so proud of you x

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  22. Excellent, brave and powerful writing. Thank you.

    Paddy

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  23. Ariane,
    Such a brave piece of writing - well done! .
    K x

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  24. For every stranger who says they wish you harm, there's another who thinks you're awesome.

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  25. You are incredible for having had the courage to face your attack in the way you did, despite the pressure on you to take the blame for it. I am so very sorry that you have felt such anxiety, and so incredibly impressed that you were able to hold everything together as much as you did. I'm so glad that you went on looking for help and finally received it. You are an astonishing person.

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    1. Thank you for such kind words. I appreciate them very much.

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  26. Ariane, you're as brave as hell and I take my hat off to you, as much as anything for articulating all of this so clearly. I've always admired your wit and warmth and I wish you all the best for the future.

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  27. Thanks a lot Nathan (and really nice to hear from you). Wishing you all the best too.

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  28. Reading your article I was really struck by how truly brave and courageous a person you are, I'd like to thank you for encouraging me to be more open about my anxiety issues and just say that I'm happy that you're now happy!

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  29. Thank you Ariane for conveying so bravely the depths of your suffering. Unless people have experienced major depression and massive daily anxiety they cannot understand the extent of the loneliness and unhappiness we feel. I have tried in my books about my own experiences to show others that they are not alone however rejected they feel by others. Thank you so much for speaking out so honestly and openly, Polly Fielding

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  32. Dear Ms Sherine, Beautiful, powerful writing. Your daughter will grow up happy and healthy for she has a very loving mother.

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  36. Dear author,

    Thank you. As someone of a similar age, who has been preoccupied with the more difficult or unpleasant aspects of our existence, and of my personal situation, and who has found himself shaking in fear and frustration at the end of youth and of opportunity and all of that, reading this blog post has been mildly therapeutic.

    Although your life has experienced far greater peaks and troughs than my own, you have been in a far worse place than I have ever been, and at a point where one might have expected you to be at your happiest. The irrationality of our minds is a reminder that when things seem darkest, they are not necessarily really so.

    I especially identified with this part:- "Everyone I read about seemed to be coping with life effortlessly; I was the only person who couldn’t cope."

    It's especially reassuring to hear that from someone like yourself, who in many ways really has coped well with her life.

    Of course, you might not feel that you've coped particularly well - you might compare yourself unfavourably to some brilliant contemporary who has risen to the top of their profession and become a household name - but to the ordinary person you have led a remarkable and quite successful life. In addition to which, you have a child, which is one of the greatest blessings in an ordinary life. Besides being inherently wonderful, the constant activity generated by children and the constant learning and living that is involved means that you are unknowingly filling your life with memories. If you were, as I am, sat by a computer, typing, ignoring the sun outside and with no motivation to tidy up or do anything in particular, you would have far fewer memories and a far less interesting existence. A child, and later a grandchild, is one of the few things that reconciles someone, somewhat, to the loss of their own youth, and to death.

    Anyway, the point is, that it's good to know that some of life's frustrations are shared by others, even when those others are actually those with whom we might in other respects seem to have the least in common.

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  40. Getting back my husband after separation was very difficult for me because he went to settle down with another woman, i had two children for him already. I have tried to make contacts with him to come back home yet he refuse, each time i look at his kids i become more sad and i needed him at my side to raise the children together. I was so lucky i finally got the help i needed, i went on a search and i saw Dr Mack contact. People say he is a very powerful spell caster that he can put an end to relationship problem, causes that disturb destiny, he is also good in curing different diseases. He is such a special man gifted with powers and reliable spell caster that have a cure to most problems of life. My husband is back to me and we are living happily as it used to be, Dr Mack have done what i could never have done with my own powers.

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    […] I was so heartbroken but after 3 days of contacting dr_mack@yahoo.com, my lover came back[…]

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  41. I salute you for sharing your story! You're brave!

    What you should do to eliminate anxiety? There are many ways nowadays to treat anxiety like therapy, medications and etc. but for me I love the natural way. I do use herbal blend to eliminate my anxiety with fast result. You should try it! It has no any side effects.

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    Message in this fb page
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    Hope to hear to you soon.

    ReplyDelete