“She’s Got The Shrinks” – living with anxiety

I’ve written this blog many times, some on paper, some in my head, but it is time.  It’s not perfect, it’s probably not going to be finished, but I’ve given myself an hour and then I’m going to press send.

First reason, it is Time To Talk Day, a day where we can all discuss mental health issues in the hope of reducing the stigma around them

Second, I recently found the first draft on my computer in unfinished form, almost exactly a year ago

and Third, this week marks my being signed off from our local mental health team with a Monty Pyton-esque ‘You’re Cured, Mate’ without so much as a by your leave. It feels like an occasion.

If you’ve read my blogs before, you will know that anxiety is a common theme – anxiety about Brexit, my children, exams, George Michael, running, anything really. But the causes aren’t the real issue, as much as the anxiety itself.

It’s hard to talk about.  On the one hand, admitting that you have a mental health issue does carry with it a certain amount of stigma. On the other, the fear that it will be dismissed as middle class whining when people have real illnesses to worry about is strong.

The ability to be simultaneously fearful that people will think I am both too mental, and not mental enough, is a pretty accurate illustration of what we’re dealing with.

Things came to a head with a visit to the GP.  It was not about me, it was about one of the children, but it became apparent that all was not well in the state of Denmark.  I am incredibly grateful to have a local doctor who I have known for a long time, and who took the time to ask me if, aside from my children, if I was OK. I wasn’t.  I didn’t really realise just how much I wasn’t until he asked me “when was the last time you really enjoyed yourself without worrying about anything” and I couldn’t remember.

It wasn’t because enjoyable things hadn’t happened, they really had, but that I was incapable of enjoying them without worrying that the house was burning down, or the door wasn’t locked, or we were all about to die in a ball of flames.

He referred me to the Mental Health Team who diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.  Basically, I’m terrified of EVERYTHING. The only other time I had heard this term was when Oscar Pistorius used it in his defence, which was not a great start.  I was cross about this. I’ve always been a little bit sceptical of mental health issues if I’m honest.  I mean, it’s all very well for other people but surely I’m made of stronger stuff than that. I had expected her to tell me that I was absolutely fine and should just get over myself, that I was a shining example of coping and togetherness.  I was a little fearful I was going to get told off for wasting everyone’s time and resources. Apparently not. So here we are, 9 months of CBT later.

You don’t look like an anxious person

Too often, anxiety is confused with nervousness.  It’s easy to conjure up images of Victorian smelling salts and pearls to clutch, whereas actually it’s actually nothing of the kind. I can work a room with the best of them, I’m quite obnoxious and opinionated, I’m more than happy to address a crowd.  Nerves are not the problem.

We’re also different to that depression bunch.  Yes they can often go hand in hand, but they are very different beasts. It’s not about being miserable.

It also isn’t dramatic.  It’s not about panic attacks or histrionics (although one day I may tell the story of Carbon Monoxide gate).

It’s more like The Twits.  I’ve always been someone who worries, but gradually, little by little those worries became stronger and more numerous.  And gradually, the things that made me uncomfortable became the things I didn’t like to do, then became the things I didn’t do. Then other things became more uncomfortable, so that you realise that you are suddenly a lot smaller than you once were.

All fears essentially can be put into one or more of the following boxes … and sometimes all three.

  • Something terrible is about to happen
  • You’re doing this all wrong
  • It’s all your fault

The most overwhelming thing is the noise, which can be deafening. I likened it once to being Kirsty Wark on Newsnight, yes she might look calm and collected on camera, but in her ear are multiple voices shouting instructions, corrections, random pieces of information about what she just said and is about to say. The world becomes a cacophony of confusion, contradiction and chaos.

All that noise doesn’t translate into actual speech, which means life becomes incredibly lonely.  You may be surrounded by people who love you but they have no idea that what they think is silence is anything but.

And it is exhausting.  A permanent state of Defcon2 can’t be sustained for prolonged periods of time.  Every possibility has been mapped out, every angle covered, every eventuality catered for before any action can be taken. It’s easier not to take any action at all.

That means there have been things that I would have liked to do that I haven’t done, there are friends that I think about all the time, but never contact because it will never feel enough. And the less I try the more anxious I feel that I should be trying harder and the more I feel I’ve failed everyone, and so it continues.  The noise, and the loneliness and the tiredness.

The saddest part, is that it has stolen a lot of the joy that I should have felt over the past years, which I wouldn’t let myself feel.  I’ve stopped beating myself up about that and life is a lot more joyful as a result.

Now I wouldn’t exactly say I was cured, but things are much better than they once were.  I still worry, I still overthink, I still have a superhuman ability to imagine imminent catastrophe in lightening speed, but I’m much better at talking myself back down, and letting other people talk me back down too.

Being able to talk about it and having people who are willing to listen has made all the difference. Sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant and it is incredibly how quickly fears can fade away once you say them out loud. I’ve very grateful for an NHS that cared that I was struggling, as much as they would have done with a bad back or a nasty cough.

Now my hour is up, so I’m pressing send.  I shall no doubt return to the subject again.  It’s not the best thing I’ve written, it’s not finished, but it’s good enough and that’s OK.

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

– Mary Anne Radmacher

Dad, Brexit and an end to fear

I’ll be the first to admit that my blog posts are patchy. I often have several, half written, which never get finished. Today, however, gives me an excuse to merge 3 half written posts into one, and I like to see that sort of thing as a sign of something.

This week has been one that I can only describe as bleak and I’ve found myself feeling ever more desolate.  From the scenes of English football fans throwing coins in mockery at refugee children, to Orlando, to the horrific murder of Jo Cox, the world has seemed a terrible place.

Not only is the world a terrible place, but the world is frightened.

I know a lot about fear.  In fact, I have spent most of my life being frightened. It’s not something that it easy to admit but anxiety is very much my resting face. It’s not immigrants or unelected bureaucracies that keep me awake at night; my particular brand of terror centres largely around various modes of transport and household appliances that I think are out to kill me. However I get it.  When critics say that people are merely acting out of fear, I know how powerful that fear can be.

I recently made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to be frightened any more; that I would choose something else.

These days it’s no wonder I’m fucking terrified.

The EU  debate, more than any in my lifetime, is one cloaked in anxiety, terror and fear from both sides – and I’m old enough to remember When The Wind Blows. No one is attempting to soothe anyone’s brow.  Each side has tried to beat people into submission (although it’s hard to decide whether something is scaremongering or genuinely terrifying).  People frightened of immigrants, people frightened of economic collapse, people frightened of a loss of sovereignty even when that sovereignty is wielded by people in diamond hats.

Father’s Day has very much brought these feelings to a head.  Ok I admit, not for everyone, but mainly just for me.

My father has been dead for practically all of my adult life.  He has missed all of the best bits; the wedding, the children, the dramas and the questionable decisions.  However, it seems odd to say that I don’t think I’ve ever missed him more than now – the EU referendum.

My Dad is the reason I am passionate about politics.  In most areas of my life, he was not to be questioned – house rules, dress codes, teenage tantrums – he was very much he who must be obeyed, and indeed I did. We never discussed personal issues, or emotions, or anything so liberal or namby pamby as that.  However, when it came to politics, I like to think the Marquis of Queensbury rules applied.

He was a staunch Thatcherite and ridiculously conservative for an Irish immigrant.  He was persuasive, convincing and resolutely passionate in his beliefs.

And how I raged against them – about the ozone layer, and the rainforests, and the third world and Nelson Mandela, and racism and all of those retro 80s/90s concerns.  I spent 14 years being a vegetarian (long after he’d died in fact) because he said it was a teenage phase that wouldn’t last the month – and dear God if you are party to the traumas I have with my children, feel free to laugh heartily.

We would argue over Sunday dinner which would extend late into the night.  My Mum would leave the room declaring she refused to listen for a moment longer.  I remember a particularly heated debate in an airport departure lounge, although I can’t remember the subject, where I stormed off and then remembered he had my passport. There were tears, always mine – earnest and heartfelt. But there was also an awful lot of love and respect from both of us. My Mum once took me to one side and told me that he didn’t really disagree with me at all, he just wanted me to be sure I’d thought things through.

I’ve thought of my Dad regularly over these past few weeks, and the arguments we are not having.  I reckon he would have been in the Brexit camp, and I’m pretty sure I would have stormed out of the house at least once. But at least we would have both thought things through and come out the other side secure in the knowledge that it would all be OK.

What makes me most sad, and most frightened, is that these are not the conversations we are having, anywhere, by anyone; particularly not those at the epicentre of the campaign.  There are very few people having conversations, where they are genuinely listening to anyone else’s point of view.  No one’s opinions or arguments are actually being challenged – it’s seems just one giant game of one potato two potato over who can make the other the most terrified.

No good can come of that.

The murder of Jo Cox struck me deeply.  She is exactly the person I wish I could be, if only I wasn’t so scared – compassionate, self-effacing, tenacious. If we’re talking about taking our country back – she is the embodiment of what I want our country to be.

Her death, to those who loved her, undoubtedly means pain, loss and unfathomable grief.  However, for those who admired her from afar, I hope it represents a line in the sand.

A line where we all stop being so frightened.  Whatever side people are one, I hope that our decisions are made according to our hopes and not our fears.  That for the next week we can stop talking about the worst case scenarios and start talking about the best, about the kind of people we want to be, the kind of country we want to become.

My Dad adored Les Miserables.  I’ve seen it countless times (although these days I pretend I only go to see Strindberg and things at the RSC, natch) and always revert to it in times of crisis. He liked the bad boy made good storyline but I was always all about the barricades.

This week I’ve found it comfortingly pro-remain and have hummed it a lot.

“It is time for us all to decide who we are”

And indeed it is.