I haven’t written a blog post for a while. I regularly long to write and blog and blurt out my thoughts but I can’t settle long enough or often enough to organise my words. Being an anxious person does weird things to my brain: it clouds my judgement and reorders my thoughts, it plays lists of Other Things I Should Be Doing so loudly in my head I can’t concentrate or relax; it makes the outside world a challenging cacophony against my interior thoughts and leaves me running in circles and chewing my nails, often achieving little or nothing.
As a writer, it is assumed I should and do read a lot, right?
I can’t even settle for half an hour with a good book. I lust after books, I buy books, I line them up on shelves, I take them to bed with me at night, but I rarely get past the first few pages. I can’t seem to stop the feelings of guilt for relaxing, as if relaxing is not only impossible but somehow not allowed. It seems I should be constantly dodging bullets or chasing chickens or watching for wolves. I said to a friend recently that in the past I would have been the one to stay awake all night and listen out for danger. It’s like there’s an alert button that will not switch off.
Anxiety also messes with my routines and cuts my connections to the things that make me feel whole. I can commit to great swathes of different activities but then suddenly I find I am not managing anything. It’s a rather rocky path to travel along, my life. I look back and see I have been stumbling on things for a while and dropping things along the way. It’s hard to go back and pick things up when you haven’t done them for a while. Leaving things or ignoring things and hoping I can feel like dealing with them in the future is a terrible habit of mine – it’s a coping mechanism I guess, but one of the false coping mechanisms that we anxious people use when we believe can’t actually deal with things at all. It’s strange how we know that in reality we will feel better when we have dealt with things that are causing us to worry, but instead we try to block them. My memory also suffers a lot because of my difficulty remaining calm. I think so much of my brain deals with being anxious that I don’t always process or store information efficiently.
There’s a popular mantra theme I see all the time on the Internet: Face your fears; Do one thing every day that scares you; Feel the fear and do it anyway -as if we will somehow feel better if we have done something truly terrifying. One thing I find important to stress as an anxious person is that we are doing things all the time that absolutely terrify us and it is exhausting! We are not skydiving or white-water rafting or making speeches to huge gatherings, but we may as well be. Just being moderately normal kicks out so much adrenalin I get a dry mouth, palpitations, migraines, insomnia, digestive problems, alcohol cravings, bad reactions to sugar and caffeine, tearfulness, shaking arms, chest pains, shallow breathing and exhaustion: exhaustion like you wouldn’t believe. I can’t possibly entertain the thought of deliberately looking for something scary that will make me feel fulfilled somehow! Crazy.
My introverted behaviour and longing to be at or close to home must give a false impression of how I am. I must seem quiet, unadventurous and perhaps a little dull. How contrary that is to the way I feel: I am easily bored, I love new stuff and am always planning new projects. But the problem with anxiety is that it can blow up at any time and the excitement of imagining, dreaming, organising and planning can switch to the panic of loss of control and fear of disaster, or feelings of being overwhelmed or unable to cope. Failure is always at my shoulder. Often the anxiety tells me to stop everything because I am getting it all wrong and I’ll never be a success at anything I’m trying to do.
Some days I allow myself to do nice or pleasant things (or just not awful, mundane things ) but most days I don’t. Many days I am simply tough on myself all day and will only allow myself to do what I think will serve others; some days I am punished by the extreme exhaustion and other physical symptoms of having pushed myself through a stressful situation. I can refocus for a while – particularly while out walking and paying attention to things around me, or while watching a gripping film, but it never leaves me. I am never completely calm.
Anxiety is not a new thing for me. It’s newly diagnosed and newly accepted, but it’s a chronic part of who I am. It’s something I have always had inside me. I think through genes I was born anxious but it was intensified by stressful situations as a very young child, and has been triggered by other things that have happened as I’ve got older. I also had anxious parents and it’s bound to have affected me. I am anxious through and through: mentally, physically and emotionally. I don’t feel it’s something I can step out of or get over through a course of CBT or drugs. I feel in my case it’s about recognising, accepting and managing.
The most important thing that has happened to me in the last year is being forced to recognise there is a problem and talk to a doctor about my symptoms. Not everyone likes a label, and perhaps not everything can or should be labelled, but I needed to blame something else rather than myself for the days that have been so dark and frightening I simply couldn’t cope with getting out of bed or leaving the house or being around other people. Blaming myself for everything over the years has certainly increased my anxiety and the fear that I look merely useless or lazy or thoughtless or unreliable has brought me incredible distress. In fact the impact I perceive I am having on others brings me the greatest distress.
Everything starts in my head with “You’re not going to cope with this situation”, and then that either escalates to a point where I duck out of the situation in which I have decided I will not cope or I force myself into it and I find I am in a “You’re not coping with this situation” kind of hell. This is always followed by “You didn’t cope with that situation. You are a failure”. The failure plays again and again in my head, making me feel hot and sick and restless.
Now that I can call that situation “Anxiety” and not just me being useless, I can begin to take back a little control. The anxiety still kicks in before the reason, but I can often recognise it now and decide if I’m strong enough to fight it, and I have spotted little tricks to fend off some of the physical symptoms, sometimes. Sometimes I’m just done in and nothing works but I am armed with knowledge and understanding of myself and my disorder now. I still can’t always make a division between what I just don’t want to do and what I would like do to if I were less anxious, but I can stop blaming myself.
It’s hard to tell people you suffer with anxiety. Play it down and it just sounds like you’re being lame and will usually lead to people telling you to “stop being silly”, “you have nothing to worry about”, “you’ll feel better once you’ve done it”. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt better after doing something I was afraid of – because it hasn’t happened. I have never felt better after doing something that scared me – because the fear ruined everything. I don’t blame people – no one can know what it’s like to constantly live with too much adrenalin unless it’s happening to them.
But stress the importance of the anxiety and the serious impact it’s having on your life and you feel the stigma of a mental health problem begin to emerge; people avoid you or suggest things you should do, or helpfully imply that you would be better off on drugs.
Here’s what I want to say to people:
I suffer with a chronic anxiety disorder. I don’t want you to do anything or say anything, I don’t want you to pity me or avoid me. It’s not who I am but it affects how I can act, and I’m dealing with it in the best way I know how. For me everyday life is like a lot of tangled threads, and simple things are not easy to order or contain. I need you to know and to accept it because I see how keeping it hidden has made me more anxious about the way I might be judged and that really really hasn’t helped.