In her latest second column, beauty podcaster Nicola Bonn reveals how her prescription medication changed her life for the better. And why more of us need to talk about it
Since I started sharing my struggles with panic attacks these past few weeks on Instagram and in this new column, The Panic Diaries , I've been contacted by so many supportive people. They told me how surprising it was to read that an outwardly successful and confident woman like me could be struggling with such awful anxiety – and how refreshing it was that I was sharing it.
But why do we find it so hard to comprehend that confidence and crushing anxiety can – and often do – go hand in hand?
Many of us are programmed to think mental illness equates to failure or weakness, when in fact quite the opposite is true. Sometimes it takes every ounce of strength.
Acute anxiety can appear at the most unsuspecting of times. In my last column , I wrote about how mine had suddenly returned after 20 years. It had never truly gone away though, I’d just been able to keep it in check. So it was a shock when sitting on my best friend’s sofa and chatting away over G&Ts, I was plunged into the mother of all panic attacks. It seemed unrelated to the happy situation I was in; I was suddenly in another space entirely. The fear, the sweating, the shortness of breath was enough to make me feel that the world was ending, that I was losing all control.
Anxiety is no respecter of success
I’ve met or read about so many other outwardly successful people who have similar struggles, from CEOs of huge beauty brands to comedians, world-famous sports stars. Nicola Elliott, the founder of Neom, shared her experience of anxiety with me on my Outspoken Beauty Podcast . It became the catalyst for her to leave her corporate job and set up her now hugely successful wellbeing business.
I truly felt for Emma Raducanu during her exit from Wimbledon last year, when many people thought she had ‘bottled it’. It was later suspected that she had an anxiety attack. She revealed that she felt dizzy and struggled to breathe as the “whole experience caught up with her”. Leaving the court, with the weight of expectation on her young shoulders, was “the hardest thing in the world,” she said afterwards.
I know from experience that a battle with mental illness takes a level of guts, bravery, and strength that I never thought possible. I have huge respect for anyone who suffers with their mental health and am never surprised when another person (however successful) comes forward to tell me that they too have had a similar experience. In England alone, one in five women has anxiety, depression, or self-harms according to the Mental Health Foundation.
The medication conversation
Once you’ve opened up about mental health (and got over people’s surprise that) there’s another hurdle to contend with: the medication conversation. Tell someone that you're taking levothyroxine for your underactive thyroid, and they don't bat an eyelid. But get out your packet of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors aka SSRIs [which increase serotonin levels] and there is often an added layer of interest – and, at times, judgement. You can see it in the reaction on their faces - if you’re taking medication, they think you must be really ill.
There is still shame and misinformation that surrounds taking medication for mental health. This was proven to me the other day when a depressed family friend told me that she would never take antidepressants as she didn’t want to “walk around like a zombie” for the rest of her life. She was clearly scared of it. I told her she was wrong, that she didn’t need to worry. Plenty of people take it; it helps people like me go about their normal lives. I probably didn’t change her mind, but I felt it was important to educate her.
I get it. People like my friend worry that when you take medicine for your mental health you will somehow lose a vital piece of who you are, that you’ll somehow lose your character. I remember opening up to one person who told me, “Well, your husband will never know the real you.” I was crushed, but at the time not confident enough to correct her.
Now though to those people, I say, firstly, that this has not been my experience. Secondly, what would you rather - carry on feeling this awful or do something proactive that can change your life for the better?
My journey with meds
That’s what I did when I was 23 and struggling and admitted to the doctor that I needed help. I had suffered from panic attacks and anxiety since the age of nine. At this point in my life, there was a piece of me I was only too happy to leave behind: the part that stopped me from going on public transport because of sheer terror or flourishing in my radio presenting career.
I went on the SSRI Citalopram and for the next 20 years, I thrived on it. I was stable, everything was calm, my career blossomed.
Medication for anxiety was my little secret. I didn’t even tell my boyfriend at the time. I was so scared that he would think that I was crazy if he discovered my ‘dirty little secret’, that I hid the pills away and took them when he was out of the room. He never found out.
My Citalopram secret continued throughout my 15-year radio career. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was struggling with my mental health. I believed that if my boss knew the truth he would get rid of me. Why would they put me – someone with mental health problems – in charge of a microphone speaking to millions of people nationwide? Yet the medication made me relax enough to do my best and not be weighed down by the fear of panic.
Medication is not a magic bullet. For me, the effect was a gradual improvement, like a fog that lifted almost imperceptibly over a period of weeks. You think it may not be working and then you look back after three months and see how much better you are. Others have told me that they feel worse before they feel better. That can be part of the medication journey so it’s important to keep talking to your doctor.
Now, it makes me sad that I was so ashamed. I wish I’d had the confidence to shout it from the rooftops or at least confidently take my boss aside and tell him the facts.
Over the years, I’ve opened up to my friends; they have all been accepting. When I met the man who was to become my husband at the age of 25, I told him, because I knew he accepted me for who I was. He didn’t bat an eyelid. The more we talk the more we help to fight the stereotypes and make a change.
As for taking anxiety medication in pregnancy, it can present challenges.You want to do the best for your baby, but you also need to take care of yourself. With my first, I chose to reduce my dose under the guidance of a psychiatrist. But with my second child, I found it too much of a struggle and went back to my normal dose. I realised, and my doctor supported me in this, that it would be more beneficial to keep my baby free from my stress.
Where am I now on my medication journey? After my severe anxiety attack earlier this year, I knew I needed a different approach. I'm currently starting a new medication called Pregabalin alongside Citalopram to manage my changing anxiety levels. It is a huge help already. Not that the transition has been easy. When you are in a highly anxious state it is very hard to start a new medication because you start obsessing over possible side effects and whether it will just make things worse. I spent night after night shivering anxiously in bed whilst reading online reviews. This is never a good thing because you’ll always find reams of negative information that makes you even more fearful.
After three weeks, I plucked up the courage to start taking it and I'm so relieved that I've finally taken the plunge, under the guidance of a psychiatrist. The anxiety is still there, but if I were to compare it to how I felt earlier this year when I felt anxious in my own home, (I'll write about this in an upcoming piece) I feel at least 50 per cent better. Some days are good and feel like a breakthrough. Some days are still very hard.
I’ve also started therapy and am trying to look after myself in many other ways with nutrition, acupuncture, and massage. As part of my therapy, I’m setting myself small challenges. Today, I challenged myself to go one stop on the Tube. It was a struggle but a step in the right direction.
If you're reading this and you're struggling with anxiety, see your GP, and don't be afraid to explore medication as an option. It is not shameful, it is not going to dramatically alter you but if you're anything like me it might just provide the help and relief you've been so desperate for.
I know that medication isn't for everyone and there are those people who overcome their anxiety with the help of a therapist or through other avenues. But I am a huge advocate of considering it as an option, getting rid of the stigma, and being proud of your decision.
Keep up to date with The Panic Diaries on Get The Gloss and follow Nicola on Instagram @outspokenbeautynicola
MORE GLOSS: The Panic Diaries. 'I'm 41 and successful, but I'm shaking and can't breathe'