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Coming to terms with anxiety

Tom Higgins, who works in our Change Delivery team in HR, was diagnosed with anxiety and stress in 2020. It was a moment that marked the end of one painful journey, and the start of another as he set about rediscovering who he was.

‘I'd had physical symptoms – of what I now know is anxiety – for a long time,’ Tom recalls. ‘Crippling migraines, nausea, and a feeling of not wanting to go out as much. I had test after test, scans, medications, but nothing seemed to change the feelings I was getting. After the incident in the supermarket with my son I knew that I needed to get help.’

Turning point

‘I was in Sainsbury’s with my son Freddie, who was two at the time. All of a sudden out of nowhere, I started burning up. I felt sick and was certain I was going to pass out,’ Tom says. ‘I crouched behind the trolley, while Freddie was asking, “Daddy are you ok?” I had an overwhelming need to get out of the shop, just run, but I couldn't leave him. I breathed, tried to take stock of the situation, and called my wife. We talked through what I needed to do to get home. It feels strange to look back at that now, but at the time I was in a dark place. It's like you have a really rubbish alter ego, that you don't want to be. A dark personality that doesn't want to be around people. It sounds ridiculous, but your brain is so powerful and changes your perception on everything.’

Tom and his wife, Kerryn, did some of their own research before he visited his GP, where he was diagnosed with anxiety and stress and prescribed. After the diagnosis, Tom started to think about what he thought could be at the root of his mental health issue.

Losing a brother

‘I'm sure the catalyst of my stress and anxiety goes way back to 14 years ago to when my 18-year-old brother died in a car accident,’ Tom remembers. ‘At that time, I closed down all emotions. I stopped being worried about the small things, very rarely got embarrassed, and masked my sadness in any way possible. I buried my feelings. I'll never forget giving his eulogy, stood in front of 400 people packed into the church and reading the speech as if I was reading a book, no emotion. I carried his coffin through the church and saw everybody crying. As I walked past them, I remember saying “hey, it's ok”. I held it together for mum and dad and my brothers and sisters, but it caught up with me in the end.

‘I think that as I get older and my life changes, getting married and having children, I have subconsciously been thinking that he has missed out on so much. That we've missed out on sharing so much together.’

Becoming a parent

One of the things they missed out on sharing, and which became sources of stress on their own, was the birth of Tom’s two children.

‘Looking back now I think Freddie's birth was probably my first panic attack, although I didn't know that at the time,’ Tom recalls. ‘I just put my reaction down to a normal response to the situation. We had a consultant-led pregnancy, few complications etc. so there was stress and worry. Kerryn was booked in to be induced, so we knew when things were going to happen. Nothing happened after she was induced so I was told to go home and then I got a call at 1am saying come in it's happening. I got in the car and although I was excited, the second I was in the room with her I fell to pieces. My wife was in labour and I had midwives around me fanning me!

‘When we found out we were pregnant again with Eva, the attacks started happening more frequently and lockdown didn't help. I went into a dark place.’ Tom's anxiety got to such a point that he missed out on his daughter’s birth.

Eventful arrival

‘Kerryn and I found out we were expecting our little girl about a week before the first lockdown. We had our son at home and we were both committed to work,’ Tom says. ‘It caused clashes we wouldn't normally have and the stress just built. I had no release – no gym, no rugby, no socialising because I'd withdrawn from all the things I used to enjoy. I could feel the decline in my health.

‘To get through the birth I knew I needed to see my doctor to look for help and that's when medication was mentioned. We were booked in for the C-section on the 25 November, but little did we know that Eva had other plans. One day whilst watching TV, my wife went into labour. I hadn’t even finished the first course of medicine, and when the midwife told us to head to hospital I crumbled on the spot. Anxiety hit me like a train and I didn't think I had it in me to even drive my wife to the hospital. It was like an out-of-body experience.

‘I got her there, but I'll never forget how brave she was telling me that she was ok and that she would go in on her own. I felt like I'd let her and our daughter down, I wasn't going to be there for them. My mother in-law came to the rescue and I waited anxiously at home. I just paced around the house, I didn't know what to do. It's something I'll regret forever, not being in the room for my daughter's birth, but something I'll be eternally grateful to my wife for.

Eva was born late in the evening and when I woke up at home the next day, I was desperate to see her, but the anxiety was still there. I got to the hospital and saw her which was amazing, but I couldn't stay long. The anxiety had ruined the whole thing.’

Making strides

Since his daughter was born almost two years ago, Tom’s made great strides in his recovery. ‘Today I'm back in the gym, training for rugby, and I've been away with family doing different activities every day,’ he says. ‘If you'd have asked me at the beginning where I'd like to get to, it would have been going on a walk without the need to run home having an anxiety attack.

‘I feel like my life was on hold, but now I'm getting back to living. A couple of weeks ago I went to pick conkers with my son down by the canal, a simple normal thing but a few months ago I couldn't have done it. It blows my mind to think that.

‘I thought masking my feelings, putting my bravado first and not talking about how I felt would cover me for life. It didn't. If you need to, get help, speak to those closest to you, or a doctor, or even a stranger. People are so supportive and will help you get through it. I decided to share my story because those who suffer with mental health issues have helped me on my journey. Colleagues, friends, family have all been incredible and supported me through my darkest hours. There is so much support out there you just have to have the courage to accept you need it, then take it. I'm still on the journey but I'm, me, slowly coming back. I know that I might have to manage this thing forever, but I have coping mechanisms that will help me get through it.’

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