There was an irony in my anxiety. I lost control to the fear of losing control. I became governed by fear in mind and body. I was the ruler of a state of worry, and I felt under constant attack from a voice inside me. The voice played over each episode of panic; it was the voiceover of my inner narrator.
Most of my life, this voice has been the awkward sound of life inside. It shapes feelings into words, speaks thoughts, and articulates inappropriate urges. It dares me to eat a grape, just one grape, in Tesco’s and then rebukes me for doing so. It’s the confused voice of conscience, confounding itself between naughty and nice, sweet and sour, good-cop bad-cop.
As I started to get anxious, this voice started sounding really unkind. It liked to self-castigate, to tell me I was no good. At the slightest suggestion of my fears, wherever I was, it would remind me that I was going to fail. It intimated doom and despair on the daily. It sounded like the cry of a child lost in a supermarket mixed with the speech of a paranoid despot. So somewhere between five-year old me trying to hug a stranger who I mistook to be my mum in Tesco’s frozen foods aisle, and a fearful Putin asserting his power in a room full of disgruntled oligarchs. The voice was fear with a megaphone, and the voice was mean.
As term went on, the voice grew louder. I saw a single path to survive, to press on, and it spoke with imperatives: “You must” “You should” “You have to”. I was exhausted, and stayed awake on a diet of adrenaline. My instincts told me to sit in the library from open ‘til close, and work for as long as I could. This was a futile attempt to find order as I felt my world fall apart. I was terrified of work, and unable to do it – the thing I had always been good at, the thing I had given up so much for, was breaking me in two. I felt a compulsion to keep going, unrelenting, and knew that it was in vain. My mechanism of endurance no longer worked. So I listened to the voice, and looked for patterns in the pavement.
I gave up my volition to the dishwasher and tormented myself with the kitchen tap. Drop, drip, drop. The nervous noise of panic. When the voice refused to tire itself out, I would lock myself in the bathroom and turn off the lights. I wanted to turn off the noise to silence. It wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t turn off the self-conscious commentary. So, to use the imagery of Tennessee Williams in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, I shut the door on a burning house, hoping that the fire would go out. And it didn’t. The flames kept rising. The blaze burned on, and I burnt out.
A question I ask myself now is why I didn’t ask anyone for help. If I had broken a leg, I wouldn’t think twice about going to the doctor. This was different though. I couldn’t think clearly about my pain: it was in my head. I struggled to concentrate or focus on simple tasks, the choice of what socks I would wear could send me into existential crisis. Researching and writing a dissertation seemed like travelling to the third circle of Dante’s Inferno and back by comparison. It would be too easy to say I didn’t want to do it. I was terrified of work.
Along with the noisy, nervous despot, there were two feelings I couldn’t escape. One of those feelings came from a sense of ‘undeserving’. What excuse did I have to be suffering? The pressures I felt were those of privilege and prestige. They were not the worries of serious hardship or misfortune. They were the product of my own expectations; I ‘made’ them, so I told myself I had to stick it out. Head down, get on.
About half way through term, a very close family friend passed away. She had found out she had a terminal illness and passed away four weeks later. In the midst of this, I could see my worry for all its irrational worth, and was filled with the feeling. I knew I had lost perspective: my worries simply did not matter. But knowing others were worse off did not alleviate the pain. It only made me feel a whole lot worse. The feeling was guilt.
The other feeling came from a fear of what those around me would say. ‘Anxiety’ was something others had. It wasn’t something I could have or be. It was part of that mysterious cult of ‘mental illness’ that everyone talked about and no one understood. This feeling couldn’t acknowledge that there might actually be something really affecting me. That feeling was shame. Here my voice was silent.
I felt ashamed to admit what was happening. Telling others that something was wrong would mean at least acknowledging it myself. So I acted that everything was fine. I put on a mask to hide myself, to conceal the chaos underneath. In convincing others, I wanted to deceive myself. I wanted to believe that nothing was the matter; it was just a heavy heart that could be lifted in an hour or an evening by an act. I wanted to believe that, really, I was content. There was a pleasure in my pain, spoken by the voice: “this is a part of successful living.” I wanted to believe in myself. All I could do was make-believe. I would stare into the mirror of my mind and look for a smile. I made myself smile. Behind the plastic grin was a grimace. I saw my own eyes in the shape of that mask, frightened and unresigned to the fear.
Luckily, I had a very supportive family. I went home at the end of term and they eventually sussed that this wasn’t normal, productive panic. My parents forced me to see my GP. I doubted myself every step to the doctor’s door, disbelieving that something or someone who could make it better. That might have been the worst part of my anxiety: I lost faith. It wasn’t a spiritual faith; it was a faith in myself. I stopped believing that it could get better. I know now how deluded I was by the fear that controlled me. I didn’t believe it would ever get better, and it has. It took a while, but the light turned back on, and it was brighter than before. I suppose I am really writing this hoping that if you recognize the way I felt, you won’t feel alone. Or you’ll feel a little bit more able to help a friend who feels that way. Either way, you have to have a blind faith that it can get better. Tell someone you can trust what is happening. I know that I couldn’t be where I am without the care of my family and friends. So really, this is for them. To my family and friends who helped me, you reminded me in a dark time that there was a bright light, and it was me.