Beating Dave With a Banana

Or: Being a ‘What if…?’
“Because it is egotistical, controlling, over-inflated, self-important & meddles & ruins all things good, I think I’ll call my anxiety Dave,” I tweeted this morning.
And then I remembered Jo had recommended that I eat bananas. (Thanks, Jo, if you read this!) So I fetched a banana and wondered why it would do me good. I looked it up on the Internet and found out about the benefits of bananas to our mental health.
I have a mental health problem: I suffer from anxiety.

Anxiety is a rotten thing.

For me it’s also a constant thing.

I live in a permanently anxious state. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am. It’s somehow linked to my furtive imagination, and sometimes that can work in my favour and be a benefit (and, I hope, perhaps to those around me too on occasion), but sometimes it works against me. I come from anxious, imaginative parents so it’s bound to have rubbed off or been passed down or both. Most of the time it’s bearable and I wouldn’t recognise myself if I woke up one morning and wasn’t repeatedly taking the real into an unreal place anymore. Being a ‘What if…?’ person is the best part of me. (Well, it’s the part I like best anyway!) Everyday things can be turned into adventures. News stories can be turned into fictional stories. There’s a feeling that nothing is impossible. When I see that positive side of us ‘What if…?’ people in others I realise that the world needs quiet imaginative people having sometimes crazy, sometimes useful creative ideas.

But I have times when it can be more extreme. And ‘What if…?’ isn’t very helpful. In fact it’s downright disruptive. I am on edge all the time and far too easily startled. I hate surprises and sudden noises. If I have more than a split second to think about doing something I take the possibilities further than they need to go so that I am imagining myself in a situation where I am unable to cope or incapable of being myself or presenting myself normally. Put simply: I imagine deaths, accidents, public embarrassment, failure; I imagine anything that could go wrong but also things that couldn’t possibly go wrong. I might find myself feeling increasingly overwhelmed by an impending social situation, for example – something that is, to others, normal and everyday. I can actually freeze for a whole day if I know I have something vaguely socially demanding to do in the evening. Or I can lie awake all night practising in my mind how I will get everything done if I have a lot to do the next day. I believe a lot of people do this but perhaps not to a point where they become unable to function properly. If I have guests I will be so busy worrying whether everyone has everything they need and if the towel needs changing in the loo that I become unable to make conversation – and I will have worried myself stupid that exactly that would happen! But I can’t stop it because I find myself physically as well as mentally overwhelmed. And that’s the other problem: anxiety comes with a whole host of physical complaints. Headaches, sleepiness, shakes, skin problems, stomach pains and digestive problems, hot flushes, caffeine intolerance, weak muscles… The urge to crawl away and sleep in a dark corner comes over me as an answer to all my problems regularly.

For most of my life I haven’t talked about this because I didn’t even admit it to myself. When I started to notice at some point in my childhood that I seemed to need more time out than other kids I didn’t want it discussed, I just wanted to be left alone. As a teenager, dominated by hormones, I fought against the anxiety and tried to block the imagined disasters for a while and tried to be more outgoing, more active, but I look back now and realise my trying-to-be-normal behaviour was just daft and out-of-character. My life seemed to be full of much nervous garbling and much exhaustion. So worried was I by my own silences I thought I had to fill them by speaking tosh.

Still in denial – and possibly rather afraid of the outcome of any self-analysis – I struggled to maintain what I perceived as normality by watching others. I copied patterns of behaviour that didn’t necessarily feel comfortable for me but that’s what we humans do, isn’t it: try to fit in with majority behaviour? The fact that I would often find myself pacing up and down the sitting room crying and biting my fingers until they bled didn’t suggest to me that I was becoming a little like a caged animal by denying myself my instinctive behaviour, no – strangely, I would just move on and pretend it hadn’t happened and carry on looking to others for clues.

But it was when I started to get the more frightening ‘What if…?’ disaster feelings every day about three years ago, that I started to worry about myself and wonder if it would ever stop. I compared myself with people who wrote about their food intolerances, depression, bipolarism, and saw similarities, but not enough to feel that any of those were what I was struggling through. Why was I so frightened all the time? Something told me this wasn’t about needing medication, major life-style changes or forcing myself out of this. I began to feel that this was more to do with understanding and accepting something rather than fighting. But understanding what?
Starting writing helped. It helped a lot and it has continued to help. Throw a lot of ‘What if…?’ situations into a short story and Hey Presto! my imagination’s had a little outing and it’s happy and bothers me with less with the madness, and I’m happy because I’ve created something and have given myself a present. Separating the real from the imagined like that is therapeutic, I’ve found. But what also helped was taking writing courses that included life-writing. Hesitant and embarrassed at first, I was convinced I had to nothing to say, nothing that anyone else would be interested in, but a wealth of strong emotions and memories came tumbling out. There was a lot of guilt in there: guilt for not appreciating my father while he was still alive, there was an enormous sense of loss that I hadn’t dealt with, but there was a surprising amount of childlike vulnerability that I didn’t recognise and wasn’t sure if I liked it.

And then recently I discovered the connection between grief and anxiety. My anxiety had become slowly worse just after my father had died. (It seems crazy now – that I hadn’t made this connection but I suppose when you are not only denying that you have a problem but that you are worthy of any analysis you are not looking for solutions.)
I had anxiety. Of course! It was okay to accept that, and in doing so to begin to manage my life a little bit better around it. So now I know that when I am being irrational by imagining the worst too often it is because I have suffered a great loss in my life.

But all this has opened up some very very old wounds indeed and made me understand something about myself that I had been blocking for nearly forty years…

Thirty-nine years ago, when I was three years old, my 13-month-old sister, Beatrice, died.

I rarely talk about the death of my baby sister. I don’t like to “use” her (for want of a better word) or my family. I don’t feel like I own the monopoly on the pain that her death left. My parents, of course, were totally devastated when she died and I always felt that the greatest portion of the pain belonged to them. I also felt that my sisters have suffered in their own very different and individual ways because of what happened to our family, and I couldn’t take my own loss and discuss it separately. It’s been a bit of a taboo, I suppose. But the life-writing, the feelings after my father’s death, reading about anxiety, and the sudden increase in fear and the childlike feelings that were emerging made me remember dreams I had when I was four: I kept dreaming that my new baby sister was going to get hurt. Bad, bad things had happened and could happen again, I must have thought. This must have given way to the extreme and terrifying dreams. Too young to realise or explain my fears I suppose I absorbed them and turned them into dreams and now they are part of who I am: anxious.

Today had Debilitating Anxiety written all over it from the start. I’m not sure what the trigger was (perhaps concern about my Open University degree) but I knew it wasn’t just regular anxiety – it was Dave. I began to blow everything out of proportion. So, I ate the banana. I organised my thoughts. I gave myself permission to write.

There’s a still a young, vulnerable part of me who needs to express those emotions she bottled up for so long, but I’m feeling less anxious already just because I’m accepting everything.

And because I ate a banana, I expect

🙂

6 thoughts on “Beating Dave With a Banana

  1. You write about your anxieties so eloquently, Rach. I can’t imagine how your sister’s death has cast a shadow over you. I am an only child and don’t ‘get’ siblings. I too have incidents in my past which have formed me and are responsible for – let’s call them my ‘quirks’. I only hope that I might one day be able to write about them as honestly as you have.
    I’m sending a wish out to the universe that you will find some peace and acceptance of who you are: wonderful, talented, empathetic and bananas. Obviously.
    Nxxx

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  2. Such a touching post, Rachel.

    I can relate to feeling in a constant state of anxiety: I try to suppress it for a number of reasons (I have to be strong for family members, who seem to suffer it worse than I do; my husband has no patience for it; I have to show a cool front at work; etc, etc), but it does surface in a number of ways (constant stomach problems, insomnia, exhaustion, OCD tendencies). I was highly strung as a child, but quickly learnt to keep it to myself. I suspect it is why I have such a desperate need for solitary time and quiet.

    I admire your bravery for talking so openly about it and love that you embrace it for the positive influence it has on your personality and writing.

    I’m so sorry for your grief and I know it won’t go away, but like Annette, I wish you much peace and acceptance.

    Have a banana, Noosh xx

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  3. I particularly appreciated you sharing your proclivities from when you grew up. There were times when I simply desired to be alone, and they still happen, and I still don’t particularly desire to have them explained or examined, just experienced. So long as our habits for us, it’s not so bananas, is it?

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  4. Its really hard to put uncomfortable feelings into actual black and white but it does help I think, a little bit. It makes them real somehow. Anxiety and depression are still so ridiculed and yet they are so life impacting. I’m glad that it helps you to be the writer that you are but as with any tricky mind thing, I wish people didn’t have to go through it.

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