Mental illness sufferer tells of her long journey away from the panic attacks

Emily Mirren, a sufferer of mental illness, tells of her journey away from the panic attacks and towards a better and stronger future

Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire A woman showing signs of depression
A woman showing signs of depression

Emily Mirren is a panic attack escapee. She is a tall lass, bright-eyed, with perfect nails and an irresistible Devonshire twang. After four years of fighting through shock and drug induced anxiety attacks she realised the experience had led her from a fatal tragedy to being a successful artist. A happy one too.

Before November 2009, she would have described herself as confident, calm and carefree. She went on holidays, enjoyed trying new activities and was in the early stages of a career – like many other 20-year-olds. Her thoughts rarely wondered to mortality. Her plans and hopes lingered into eternity. At times she was unproductive.

On her coffee table stands a maroon sculpture of a figure wrapped in green leaves, she says it commemorates the day she realised that spending four years incarcerated in her own thoughts was worth her self-discovery.

Her home boasts a collection of landmarks; some are surreal bodies that appear to be clambering out of the floor, whilst others are free-flowing shapes of nature.

“I thought I had experienced death,” says Emily stretching her legs across the black leather sofa and putting a terracotta pillow over her feet.

In 2009 Emily had her first fulltime contract working in administration for an estate agent. She explains that she spent the majority of her time sitting in the middle row of equally dysfunctional computers awaiting 5.15pm.

On one occasion however, as the end of the day was drawing closer, she answered a phone call from a friend who, through a cacophony of crying and broken speech, announced “Chloe’s dead”.

“I laughed,” Emily sniggers, as she points to her mug which is personalised with Bob Marley lyrics ‘don’t worry – about a thing’.

On November 5, 2009 Chloe Andrews was found dead in her Essex home. During the months leading up to her death she had become detached, often ignoring phone calls and mentioning her dissatisfaction only in flitting comments.

Emily still doesn’t know the cause of her death. On hearing that her schoolfriend had passed away at the age of only 19 Emily’s body went into shock and she was unable to process her feeling of grief.

“I didn’t know how to feel. I needed to know what had happened. I was instilled with fear and instead of crying I laughed – repeatedly. Consequently my grief forced its way out another way,” she says.

For the next few years a succession of anxious responses began to escalate, meaning Emily was spending her day-to-day in a heightened sense of ‘flight or fight’ mode.

If faced with danger fear triggers the release of adrenalin, which can protect you because it will encourage you to either fight or run away.

Some of the most common physical reactions in this moment are an increased heart rate, sweating, choking sensations, pins and needles, rapid temperature changes, knotted stomach and an intense feeling that you are going to die.

The average attack tends to last for around 10 minutes but there is no limit to the amount you have a day.

She passes a photo. It is of her trekking down a valley, enveloped in fauna, her flushed face looking back over her right shoulder towards the photographer. She says: “I have landmarks for every major change. Moments after this photo was taken I entered a terrifying new reality.”

One day prior to the photo being taken, now aged 20, she had spent an evening with her cousin and new boyfriend, and had shared what she thought was a spliff. Inhaling deeply, she remembers feeling an “unusual sensation” on her chest and not long after her breathing became restricted. White blurred her vision and her sight lulled in and out of clarity. She became frantic and pre-occupied, unable to sit or stand at ease. She felt her tongue and face numb first and not long after her arms too.

She had been insistent that life could continue as normal. This meant continuing to dabble in recreational drug-use, which she had done since she was 16. An accustomed dawn welcomer, Emily had often attended a club night called Legends of the Dark Black in Plymouth, which she describes as a 90s style rave.

There were multi-coloured glow sticks, bikini clad women and topless men. She says ecstasy was only part of the experience – never an addiction.

“My whole body felt like a separate entity,” says Emily pulling at the threads of her cushion. She continues: “I took myself into another room. My face was tingling and because of the numb feeling I repeatedly bit my tongue. My feet didn’t feel as though they were connected with the floor.”

That evening led Emily to the next phase: depersonalisation and derealisation. Mental health charity Mind describes these as types of dissociation. Depersonalisation is when you feel outside of your body and are almost watching yourself from a distance or in a movie. You feel as though your body is unreal or dissolving.

Meanwhile derealisation is when you experience a feeling that the world around you seems unreal. Your eyes may play tricks on you, so you can see objects, shapes or changes in colour. It is also common for people to feel that other people are robots or another unearthly being.

During the height of her panics Emily was experiencing an attack every 20 minutes. She was so alarmed by this that over four years she enrolled herself one therapy at a time onto the following sessions: CBT, shiatsu, acupuncture, person-centred counselling and even read a self-help book called the Sedona Method.

Person-centred counselling was, unbeknown to Emily, her final treatment on this topic and she spent four months divulging her childhood relationship with her father. She realised she hadn’t been care-free at all. The following eight months of childhood-cleansing made her drop her habitual reply of ‘I’m OK’ in order to unravel the limitations she had put in place to protect herself from an early age. She became focused, and describes this transition as one of ‘candy floss’. She says, “life looks good but tastes better”.

During 2012 and 2013 there were nearly 1.6 million people in contact with specialist mental heath services, and of this total 105,224 spent time in hospital at some point during the year.

Recently the NHS has changed their mental health policy. A £120m cash injection and an introduction of waiting time standards means that sufferers will be able to access talking therapies within 6-18 weeks. Previously, patients could expect to wait between three months and a year.

In 2004 The Office for National Statistics estimated that one in ten children and young people between the ages of five and16 had a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, and some experienced more than one at a time.

She was offered anti-depressants. She never accepted. During long sleepless nights she clung to the belief that she could step on a plane alone again or that she deserved the career she desired – sculpting. Or at the very least to drink her local cider in peace.

“Specialists, family, and even friends told me to take drugs recommended by doctors to assist in living with anxiety. This is useful for a period of time. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t accept it,” Emily says.

She declares she has no idea how much she spent on therapies. “What I do know is that five years later I now know myself,” she says.

She tumbles back into the arms of her leather sofa and lists the categories of her life which she admits could have escaped her without being forced into soul-searching.

Among them are: a career, self acceptance, health, the ability to have a functional relationship and an understanding of her childhood.

Emily now works as a freelance sculptor. Her portfolio is brimming with commissions. Her hopes and dreams have the privilege of eternity once again. Long evenings out are fuelled only by endorphins.

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