The Reasons I Worried, Part III

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.

Thank you.

 

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The Reasons I Worried, Part II

As I look back, I see that I had always been looking forward. I don’t mean ‘looking forward’ as in an excited feeling of anticipation. I get that feeling when I think of the next time I might go somewhere wonderful on holiday, like New York, or when I’m waiting for a text from that special someone. No, I mean ‘looking forward’ as in trying to see the future before me, and trying to see myself in it. Knowing its blueprint or its plan had always put me at ease. It didn’t matter it was hypothetical. It gave me a sense of relief; a feeling of control. The uncertainty of the future now left me feeling lost. I couldn’t lean into the idea of the time to come when I felt inadequate, couldn’t tell myself that ‘it would get better’.

The sense of uncertainty filled me with a faint feeling of nausea. My instinctive reaction was to try and make it certain, to know it by imagining it. I would frantically Google graduate schemes, making lists of possible employment prospects, all the while covering my desk with inspirational post-its that I would read back to myself: “Chill out Henry, you’re good enough. You’ll find something.” In trying to tame my fear by thoughts, I lost myself in a mental maze, and the fear grew. It multiplied, or rather it attached itself to other worries, other insecurities. The fear of the future became inseparable from my sense of self-worth.

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Mark Wallinger’s ‘Labyrinth’, the maze of the mind

I had deadlines to meet, and I forced myself to meet them, afraid what others might say. The consequence was that I became exhausted. Yet I was restless. I was paralysed by panic: I couldn’t focus on my work. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Worry pressed into my thoughts and touched each impression. It became compulsive, and the feeling was psychosomatic. I started to sporadically explode. At least, that was the sensation I got. I would be lying in bed or walking in the street and would suddenly be overcome by a hormonal rush. A heartbeat of adrenaline bursting through the body with a sharp, muscular pulse. I was powerless to it, an irresistible eruption in the chest, numbing and fiery, before breathless release. It was a burning anesthetic: fear secreted into the bloodstream and took hold and subsided. I have since learnt that this was a panic attack. Then, it felt as if I had a mini Mount Fuji lying behind the ribs. It sporadically belched with burning magma. Worse, perhaps, was the pause that followed an eruption. The moment of calm after its quaking was a horrible deception. It made me feel, for a moment, as if I had escaped my fears. And that was all I wanted, to escape myself.

Along with fear, I have sometimes been driven by doubt. At times, I have been pushed by the desire to prove to myself that I can do something, to disprove the doubt that drives me. When this doubt started to mix with panic, I became hopelessly indecisive. As it is, I like to take time to make big decisions. I like to ask my friends for advice, and consult people in the know. But when I became anxious, doubt was everywhere. I struggled to make small decisions, like what to eat when going out for dinner can be an absolute mare. I’d ask the waiter what they recommended, and then opt for something else. Occasionally I’d order fish in the heat of the moment (I may or may not be allergic to fish). It didn’t really matter though; if the person I was with with ordered something better, I’d be filled with insatiable food envy. I’d sit there, disgruntled, hoping for my hopefully generous friend to offer me a leftover slice of pizza or a grain of sweet risotto. But I’m getting distracted by myself. Basically, I experienced a crisis at dinner, occasionally splurging on several main courses in the hope it would satisfy my idea of a perfect meal. Alas, that was when there was a menu, a kind of plan with a limited number of finite options. The future now had no plan: it was a gaping sink-hole in the road ahead, and one that I saw myself falling into without choice. I doubted myself to no end, and I started to fear the consequence of every small decision.

All my mettle melted to mercury. I had no conviction, and I did all I could to form it. So began the self-affirming rituals of my anxiety. I would stand in front of the kitchen tap and count the drops. If it dripped three times, I would have a good day. Any other number, and I’d be doomed. My behaviour became erratic. I changed my mind with the myriad minutiae of the moment. Terrorised by the tap and bamboozled by the breakfast bowl, I saw signs of damnation at every possibility. I read premonitions in the pavement and chatted to the kettle.I was condoned and condemned in the thousand little signs of the room around me. It was like looking for a fixed reflection in a stream of water, and catching myself in glimmers as the surface flowed away.

The Reasons I Worried, Part I

It has become a cliché to talk of the ‘treadmill’ of education. For me though, the metaphor seems apt. Most gyms now seem to present a common design; joggers tirelessly pounding the rubber floor whilst staring up at TV screens. These screens are usually hung against a wall of mirrors. With a relentless mechanical motion, runners watch a TV show and themselves. This scene captures how I’ve been living for the past 3 years. Running still, concentrating on the television of my imagination, whilst glancing down in self-reflection. On the inner screen has played the idea of the future. Since about the age of eighteen, I’ve been on a machine, looking into a screen, seeing myself and moving nowhere. Always anticipating a finish line that will be displaced by another, and another after that. Until I stepped off the treadmill.

In January this year, I suspended my university degree. I became very anxious, and the anxiety became debilitating. It was my final year, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself after finishing. That seems like a fairly normal concern, but it had an abnormal effect on me. This blog is about the events which lead up to that morning in January, when I stumbled into the Doctor’s room bearing the signs of self-neglect: sleep-deprived, unkempt and filled with a constant sense of panic. It is about the truth behind those events, as I see it. I hope some of it will strike true with you.

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At different times in my life, I’ve experienced bits of anxiety. Most of this has been focused on education. From termly reports to yearly exams, I’ve worried about making the grade and doing well. Just when I’ve needed it, anxiety has been a little man in my head, hitting my conscience with a mosquito zapper. But the result of his shocks is that I’ve always made the grade.

At university, the fear of failure has pushed me to succeed. For the last three years, the pressure of the deadline has taken me out of the present. And, in turn, the idea of the future has become a coping mechanism. It has motivated me. I’ve made a sense of contentment conditional on the time to come. Something like the formula, “If I do this, then I’ll be really happy.” I saw myself in the future in a carnival of colours, where I danced carefree in the costume of my hopes and ambitions. Yet the dream has been a delusion. I’ve ever strived and never arrived. By the time I’ve reached the point in the distance that I’m aiming for, the mind’s eye has already fixed itself on a new horizon. And I’ve kept striving.

When it’s come, I’ve been quite good at hiding this anxiety, freaking out alone in my room or in tears on the phone to my family, or boyfriend. Both had always helped me through, and I’d never really had to question it, or let anyone else know. When teachers have praised me for an admirable work ethic, they’ve condoned my worry without knowing it. With great results, I’ve convinced myself that it was worth it. Worry was a way that I did well.

Then something changed. I came into my final year and my worrying didn’t start its usual productive work.  It fixed itself on something bigger: the future post-finals. Like most of my friends, I’d done work experience most summers since I was sixteen, but I still had no idea what I wanted to do. In the past, education had provided the plan; primary to secondary school to university. Now the future stretched out before my mind as a long corridor of shape-shifting shadows and swirling mists.