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My childhood anxiety went untreated - and I'm still dealing with it now

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Society is gradually opening its eyes to the severity of mental health, with increasing numbers of people speaking out about their struggles. But what about children? From small stresses to crippling anxiety, children can struggle from anxiety in much the same was as adults, and the way in which it is handled can have an enormous impact on their later life. Here Stylist.co.uk contributor, Alexandra Hayward, open up about her own anxiety - and why she wishes it had been recognised sooner. 

In 2013, aged 25, I finally had a breakdown.

It arrived mid-summer, cascading, after the tears and attacks of teaser breakdowns dogging my university years. I'd somehow simultaneously wangled becoming an adult who people deemed warm and outgoing (albeit pretty tiresome and obnoxious at times) but since childhood, anxiety struggles increasingly ravaged both my mind and my body.

The aggravations that leaked into everything were like private, regretted tattoos: I could conceal them, but knew that they'd be there forever. With every year that it got more extreme, I blamed myself – and like a tattoo, I could only see that I'd inflicted it of my own accord.

One reason I took a lax approach to addressing my stuff was that, in avoiding labelling my demons, I could pretend they weren't real. And that's because of the stigma I was conditioned to apply to depression and anxiety during my earlier years.

That, and a combination of my own ostrich-head syndrome and a desire to appear happy and radiant, hyper-aware of avoiding the gross cliché of 'indulgent' or 'misunderstood'.

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"I was conditioned to apply a stigma to depression and anxiety during my earlier years."

I was a shy child, but the issues really started when I was 11, when my parents saw my shyness turn into a prolonged period of melancholy, and my nerves implode into full-blown depressive states.

I don't think I smiled for a year. I must've been a barrel of joy.

But when I finally signed onto therapy, some thirteen years later, I tried not to attack myself. It was counterproductive to place the blame on either myself or those who'd spent years bewildered by my behaviour. Why had it taken me so long to see a therapist?

My childhood GP headed up a tiny village surgery and was kind of dopey. He smiled an irritating amount. When the problems first began he was flummoxed, concluding my early woes were down to vaccinations gone awry, or something to do with my tonsils, before stating that I was just 'tired.' He called my sadness 'nonsense.' His smiles became even more annoying.

alex

"Why was there such a stigma attached to labelling me mentally ill?"

A year later my low mood was weighty.

I was 12 and skeletal from worry, distant and disinterested in food or fun. I was referred to hospital for blood tests, brain scans. There was a brief moment where they toyed with the idea I had anorexia – the only time during this bleak period, it seems, that mental illness was considered.

Straight back to the drawing board: was it an early puberty? It wasn't. Why was there such a stigma attached to labelling me mentally ill?

And then there was the perplexity of my parents who - though wonderful and kind and brilliant - were very much from backgrounds that categorically opted to leave mental health out of the conversation.

This attitude is generational, cultural, and I don't chastise them for it. But it's frighteningly commonplace, as I found when discussing with others.

As I entered my teenage years, the cloud slipped away and I started to like life again and be less afraid.

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I trusted my parents' old adage that things would just get better, and for a while the no-frills approach worked.

Inconveniently, after a smooth-sailing adolescence, the darkness filtered itself back when I was around 17. I was highly strung to a fizzing, debilitating level, with a fractious energy that was both my party trick and my downfall.

The anxieties controlled me. I became obsessed with the fragility of my own life, often picturing myself as just a bunch of warm cells, pointless and powerless, and I became obsessed with death.

I'm not keen on attributing all my character flaws and wrongdoing to my long-untreated mental health problems.

But I do believe lots of things – lack of professional concentration and social flakiness namely – could have been better for me, had it been tackled earlier.

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