Anxiety is tough, it is annoying, it’s scary and it brings you down and beats you up just when you don’t need it.
As a 16-year-old boy, I’ve dealt with anxiety a lot, sometimes being aware of it and sometimes being unaware, whether it’s at school, social events, meeting new people or (possibly the worst of the lot) watching and supporting Tottenham. I have learnt that, if you have anxiety, this is NOT the football team you want to support.
Anxiety can come for me in many different forms. Whether it is a full-blown panic attack or a tiny worry in the back of my head, it’s always there. Even writing this, I’m feeling it!
There are lots of ways to deal with anxiety. People suggest slow breathing, facing your fears and walking straight into it or, in my case, completely running away from it and not being able to go to school for four years! Something which I do not advise.
I was 11 years old and moving to a completely new school. For most people, this would be a major cause of anxiety but I was surprisingly positive (for once). I had all my closest friends moving with me, I was excited to meet new people and I was ready to get out of the absolute nightmare I thought primary school was! Little did I know it was about to get a whole lot worse.
I was a goofy, loud, sarcastic and abnormally tall 11-year-old – all traits I still have now – however I added one more quality, dad jokes. Yes, I know, I hate them too. My dad, however, is extremely proud that he has ruined my humour forever!
So, I had just started secondary school and everything was going well, or so I thought (cue dramatic sound effect), when around five months into year 7, I woke up one morning and everything fell apart. I could not get into the car, I could not breathe, I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest.
Everything anyone had ever told me about how to handle myself in these situations had gone flying out the window and even the thought of seeing anyone outside of my house made me burst into tears and feel overwhelmed with panic. I did not know how to control myself. I didn’t know what was happening. When was it going to end?
For the next two years, I didn’t attend school once. I tried many times. I got to the school and I couldn’t step inside. The same thing would happen again each time – that fear, that panic. It was as if there was a brick wall in front of me every time I tried. In the third year, I gradually went back to school for very short amounts of time, starting with 10 minutes a day sitting in a room alone and building up to one hour a day with one friend.
For three years of my school life, whether I was there or not, I did no work, I sat at home for the majority of the day, playing PlayStation, watching Netflix and football. Sounds great, right? Well, for some weird reason, it wasn’t. It was almost as if sitting at home all day doing nothing would fail to motivate me and stimulate my brain. Who would’ve thought?
One more thing that made it even worse was that, during years 7 and 8, everyone was having bar and bat mitzvahs. For those who don’t know, this is a Jewish celebration for 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls. It involves a ceremony and a huge party, which is the only bit most kids care about. So, whilst everyone was going out every weekend having the time of their lives partying, I was at home, on my own, watching them on social media. Even now, I still struggle to go to bar/bat mitzvahs and parties.
Changing things around was a long slow process. I saw around eight different counsellors/psychologists, none of whom really helped me, and many of whom I am sure were exasperated by me. I couldn’t communicate and felt misunderstood, which usually made me feel quite angry, if anything. At that point, medication proved more helpful than counselling and I’m still on a low dose now.
There was no ‘turning point’ for me, it was gradual. There were many meltdowns and mostly they would be with my mum, who was my ‘go to’. She understood me and spoke to me on a level that did not make me feel judged and she knew me better than anyone. She never gave up and pushed me only to a point that she knew I could handle.
She had a plan for me. Initially it was just about getting dressed every single day into my school uniform, getting into the car, and driving to school. I didn’t need to step out of the car or go INTO school, I just needed to get there and back in my uniform. Sometimes even just getting into the car would take two hours. But we did it every single day.
Once I was able to easily to do that (after many months), I had to get into the school and step inside the building and then come straight out and home again. It was so hard. But I knew that I would not be pushed to do any more than mum had promised. I felt safe and never tricked into doing anything. It was all about trust. I just had to step into the building and step out again.
We pushed on and stuck to what we had planned to do that month. When that became easier, I had to stay in the building for five minutes. Months later, 10 minutes. Then eventually into a side room. Once I had mastered that, I felt confident enough to have a friend with me in the room (avoiding seeing anyone was a big issue for me). So mum would be in constant contact with the school telling them what the next stage was and, each time I mastered it, we would discuss between us what we thought I could manage for the next stage.
Beginning a new ‘step’ was always very difficult but we persevered – sometimes for months, day in day out, until it became comfortable. The first time I stepped into an actual classroom after a couple of years (for five minutes) was a massive achievement and, after a month of doing that every day, it was me that asked for an increase to 15 minutes.
So you can imagine how slow the progress was but eventually I was able to manage a whole lesson! Imagine that! And so lessons and timetables were planned weekly by mum and sent to the school and I had to try to stick to the plan that we had made together. Two lessons a day, eventually half a day etc.
Sometimes it would get too much and I’d feel awful and a failure but then mum would not make it an issue and start afresh with me the following day. And I always had support teachers with me. So we built it up over a long period of time, extending the goal. And, when that was reached, extending it again.
Family and friends
I consider myself very lucky. I had an extremely supportive family who wouldn’t scream or get annoyed at me whenever I panicked. I also had the best friends anyone could ask for, always looking out for me and supporting me even if they didn’t know why I wasn’t at school. Everyone cared.
With parties and social events (well, there weren’t very many as these were and still can be difficult), I really wanted to go and would beat myself up beforehand for many days! But mum would say “Go, stay for half an hour only and, if you want to stay longer, then text me.”
Mum would often get many texts from me. Some social events I would stay at, some I would come home from, and some I never made it to at all. But mum always convinced to me try – with an ‘out’ if I needed it. Somehow, throughout this whole process and the thousands of texts and meltdowns, she stuck with me and, most impressively of all, maintained her sanity and patience with me. Well, at least I think so!
I still remember one day, which really sums up how amazing my friends and family are. In year 7, when I first started missing school, the thought of telling everyone I had anxiety gave me even more anxiety, so I opted for the easy way out. I told my friends I was off because I had glandular fever. How my friends believed that I, a weird, awkward, taller-than-everyone-else 11-year-old, contracted what is predominantly known as “the kissing disease” is beyond me, but they did.
I mention this because, in year 9, when I was 13 years old, I was seeing my friends a lot and slightly happier than I previously had been, so I decided I was sick of hiding, sick of lying to people and just wanted to tell the truth. I wrote a long and detailed message explaining to my friends what was really “wrong with me”. This was a huge step forward for me. My friends were incredibly understanding, offered their full support to me and didn’t judge me at all. They didn’t take it too seriously and treated me the same as they always did and, of course, constantly made jokes about it (which I wanted and loved).
More in control
That brings us to now, five years on. I am at school full time – well, as much as Boris is allowing me! I have grown as a person and really understand how to control my anxiety and deal with it. Of course, it’s not been easy. I’ve had some very tough times and have had to fight through them with the help of my family, friends and professionals.
I was able to catch up on all my work, which I found extremely stressful and daunting. I can be in lessons, be with friends and have had amazing support from the entire school to help me find my way back into being a full-time student. Luckily for me, COVID hitting allowed me to escape the nightmare of GCSEs, which was something of a blessing.
Of course, my anxiety hasn’t completely gone. I still have several moments and panic attacks but I have managed to control it and deal with it when the time is right, which comes naturally with experience. When it comes to panic attacks, this is not something you want but, oh well, I have them now.
I know anxiety can be different for everyone and everyone can have it in different ways, it’s just that mine is more serious and should be considered worse than everyone else’s (that’s one of those dad jokes I mentioned earlier).
In all seriousness, if you are reading this and you’ve dealt with or you’re dealing with anxiety or another mental health concern, here is my advice for you: Although it is different for everyone and your experience may not be the same as or even like mine, it WILL get better. I didn’t believe it when people told me either but I promise it will. Make sure you talk to people, accept support and do the things that help YOU!
Finally, and most importantly... if you have anxiety, DO NOT SUPPORT TOTTENHAM, it will only make it worse.
We’d like to thank Travis for sharing his experience of anxiety with the Good Thinking community and being so honest about the challenges he faced and how he got help. Of course, every situation is unique so it’s important that you get the right kind of support. Your family, your school, your friends and health professionals are all there for you.
Good Thinking provides a range of resources to support your mental health, including free NHS-approved wellbeing apps, expert advice and podcasts. If you’re feeling anxious, stressed or sad, you might find the following links useful. If you need urgent mental health support, find out how to get in touch with your local NHS 24/7 helpline and other support organisations.
If the Good Thinking resources don't look like they will be helpful for you or if you try them and feel they aren't helping, you haven't failed in any way. Everyone needs what is right for them and it is often helpful to talk to your GP about what types of support you could access.