Given the passion he had for what he was doing at 21-years-old – managing a website that provided advice to cancer patients – Marco’s first official diagnosis of anxiety and depression came as somewhat of a surprise to him.
But should it have been? He had noticed that he was struggling to enjoy things that he would usually love doing. He could no longer sit down with a good book and lose track of time, instead getting through half a page before putting it down again. He could no longer sit and play video games for hours, instead playing for 5 minutes before switching off his games console. He could no longer stomach the idea of going round a mate’s house to relax, instead choosing to stay at home because there must have been something more important to do.
And on top of all of that was the constant sensation of holding back tears.
“I was very tired all the time, I had stopped seeing and talking to friends, and I was generally feeling as if I was going to cry at any minute.”
For a long time, he wasn’t too sure of exactly what had caused these feelings. But when he finally opened up to a family member about what he was experiencing, it was quite clear that it was the job he felt so passionate about that was the cause of his issues.
Every weekday morning, he would embark on an extensive 2-hour trip to work, and once he made it to the office, which was in a remote town that felt separated from the excitement of London that he so craved, he was greeted by a manager he simply didn’t get on with.
“It wasn’t just a clash of personalities and sense of humour. It was also that their version of a manager just didn’t match with mine. I felt like I was being micro-managed and pressured far more than was necessary.”
After 6 months, the job had taken its toll. Feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness, combined with sheer fatigue from 20 hours of commuting every week, resulted in his mental health starting to manifest as physical symptoms.
The class clown
Eventually, Marco went to see a doctor who quickly signed him off work and told him there was help available in the form of talking therapies. And it wasn’t long into his 12 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy that Marco was presented with the term ‘social anxiety’.
As his therapist pointed out, Marco’s feelings of restlessness and fear were often linked to situations that involved other people, whether it was being in crowded environments with strangers or sending a message in a group chat with friends. As a result, he had started adopting avoidance behaviours.
“My feelings of anxiety got so bad that I was giving excuses to not go out with friends even though I was free, or I would choose to be silent in a group chat. I had even got to the point that doing something simple like answering the phone in front of others or ordering food at a fast-food restaurant was filling me with dread.”
As the sessions carried on, it became increasingly obvious that the specific patterns that had led to his social anxiety today had actually been formed when he was much younger. A time when, strangely, anxiety didn’t seem to affect him at all.
“I was pretty disruptive in class when I was young. I remember my report cards up until I was about 7-years-old would always say the same thing: ‘Marco is a bright young boy... but he also enjoys playing the class clown.’”
It was at this age that Marco’s life would take an unexpected turn: his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. And it was at this point in his life when he recalls a distinct change in his behaviour.
“I didn’t really know what breast cancer was, I just knew it wasn’t good. Looking back now on how it affected me, I remember turning from the funny kid in class to the kid that was starting to get into trouble with the teachers a lot. I was in the headmaster’s office every other day because I’d done something wrong.
“Thinking about it now, it seems pretty obvious that I was acting out in response to the confusing emotions I was feeling at such a young age.”
Eventually, Marco’s behaviour was deemed so disruptive that his teacher would assign him a new desk directly in front of her own and in front of the entire classroom. It was an effective approach, but one Marco thinks has had a long-lasting impact on the way he interacts with the world.
“It certainly fixed my bad behaviour. I went from getting into fights in the playground to a model student in no time! But, and this is something I discussed deeply with my therapist, I really feel like it had a lasting effect on my confidence and taught me to be a more reserved person.”
The awkward teenage years
Of course, being socially reserved does not mean having social anxiety. Social anxiety is an overwhelming fear of social situations and can make everyday activities, relationships and working incredibly difficult. But to Marco, it felt like the infrastructure for social anxiety had been laid.
“It was as if the seeds of needing to remain quiet in social situations had been sown and that that was how I should act around other people. It was an attitude I carried with me for a very long time.”
When he hit his teenage years, the feelings of social anxiety really started to grow. Not only was Marco having to deal with bad skin, sweating problems, ill-timed voice breaks and ungainly growth spurts, he was now at a stage in his life when social interaction carried a lot of weight.
“When I couldn’t be quiet, I would feel this overwhelming urge of panic. It was like I needed to escape but I didn’t know how. Most times I would just say something deliberately silly or something that would involve someone else so the attention would be away from me. Everything I was doing was to avoid the spotlight in a desperate attempt to avoid embarrassing myself.”
But although the feelings were strong, Marco had also had years of practice hiding his anxiety.
“From the outside, I don’t think it would have seemed like anything was particularly ‘wrong’ with me. I probably just seemed like the average awkward teenager. But on the inside, I can see now that most of my teenage years was spent cramming more and more of how I was feeling into an increasingly strained box and hoping that no one would notice. And eventually, it caught up with me.”
An ongoing process
Today, Marco still experiences waves of both anxiety and depression. When they hit, he can find it very difficult to do anything productive, whether in his work life or at home.
“The only way I can describe how I'm feeling in those moments is 'What's the point?'. I tend to close down to other people too and will just want to be left alone. It can be very hard for my girlfriend and my family who tend to sense that something is wrong.”
A lot of the time, these feelings can be triggered by regrets of missed opportunities or reacting to situations in the wrong way.
“It's very easy to beat myself up about things from my past, either way in the past or something that’s happened recently, and that can push me into a period of feeling down.”
The ongoing stigma of mental health problems has built a narrative that experiencing them tends to be a sign of mental weakness, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how Marco felt.
“I never really felt comfortable with talking about my thoughts and feelings because I wasn't really sure of what it was that I was feeling. I felt like it was a weakness that I didn't want to let anyone know I had.”
But eventually he did. And it changed his life.
“Having those 12 hours of talking therapy sessions helped me so much. I finally had a reason for why I had been dealing with these feelings for years and I finally had a way of changing them. I know talking therapies aren’t for everyone, but I cannot stress how much they have helped me live a more enjoyable life.”
Trying to make a difference
Looking to break the stigmas around mental health issues, Marco created Talking Mental Health to try to encourage people to share their mental health stories. The hope was that if others stumbled across a story they could relate to, and learned about how someone recovered, they would in turn reach out for help themselves.
“Talking Mental health is a place for people to share their mental health stories in full anonymity as a kind of outlet for them. It’s intended as a place that catalogues mental health experiences for those who may feel alone in their struggle, and to realise that they’re not.”
Now, Talking Mental Health has expanded to include coverage of mental health news alongside personal stories, and Marco has plans to keep going. In his view, the possibilities are endless for how far Talking Mental Health can go.
“I really think that mental health affects
everything we do. Even down to the small things like greeting the postman, or going to buy some milk at the supermarket, or watching a movie – the way you feel and react in those situations will inevitably be impacted by your mental health.
“It's therefore so important to make sure we're looking after our mental health so that we can live our lives to the fullest and how we intend to. And to do so, we need to increase and change the conversation around mental health, from sharing our stories, to discussing the latest mental health news and developments, to so much more.”
Marco is his own boss now and feels in much better control of his life and his emotions. He’s seen his mental health progress and improve over the years, gradually becoming comfortable again in social situations and regaining the ability to enjoy the little things in life. Exercise and good organisation help him stay focused and keep anxiety away.
Written by Natacha Andueza
Story researcher for Talking Mental Health
This article was produced in collaboration with the person who provided the story. If you would like to share your story but need support doing so, contact a member of our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.