I want to talk about the power of anxiety.
I want to talk about how it’s not about a change in mindset.
I want to talk about how it’s not a thing you can easily control with thoughts and actions and practices.
I want to talk about how all the pep talks and encouragement in the world don’t always help. Sometimes they make things worse.
I want to talk about how the fight against anxiety is often a bad fight, a futile fight.
I want to tell you it’s not about attitude. There’s nothing wrong with my attitude.
I want to ask you please not to tell me not to worry, not to tell me it’ll all be okay, not to tell me I’ll enjoy it if I try, not to tell me I’ll be glad I did something, not to tell me “Well done” when I walk through hell and come out the other side, weak, dizzy and exhausted, with bits missing and reduced power.
I want to ask you to please not write me off either. Don’t think you know what I’m capable of or not capable of. Don’t assume I can’t or won’t. Let me decide.
I want you to know how much I love films and theatre and concerts and loud music and dressing up for parties and dancing and laughing and coming home late in a taxi thrilled by the feel of nylon instead of jeans on my smooth legs, and the soft fade of twenty perfumes around my head from all the familiar faces I kissed in greetings and goodbyes. I want to tell you how much occasion moves me and fills me with the joy of experience. I want to tell you how good it is to catch up with old friends and grin into eyes I love and to feel the energising give and take of a fond squeeze.
I want to tell you how beauty and being Out There, and filling all my senses with both new and familiar experiences and making a record of my life makes me feel alive. I want you to know I am fun. I am.
I want to tell you how, despite knowing everything will be okay and knowing my destination and my love for what I will be doing, that sometimes I hurt too much to see it through. That I hurt before I go, I hurt as I get ready, I hurt as I walk through a door, or leave the safety of our home or our car. I hurt when I see many faces. I hurt when I already know this isn’t going well. And on those occasions I will not be glad I went. And sometimes I will genuinely wish I hadn’t or be glad I didn’t just because I needed the pain to stop.
But instead, I’ll give you an example, and hope that will make you understand – or at least make you realise you understand less than you thought and that you need to understand more.
Yesterday we went to the cinema. I and three of my safe people. Safe people are people I can see whatever kind of day I’m having. In my case it’s my husband and children. We went to our usual, familiar cinema. I said what and where and when, and had booked seats in advance the day before and pictured where we would be sitting. I then got on with my life, pre-event. We went shopping and for a walk and I made dinner and did gentle yoga. I went to bed at a sensible time and I got up and did more gentle yoga. I showered and dressed in the usual way and got myself ready to leave the house. But anxiety had been waiting, and as I got ready, it began to hurt me. I felt pain in my chest, and by time we were in the car I felt pain in my upper arms. As we got out of the car and walked through town, I began to feel weak. This simple everyday event was something I should have felt entirely comfortable with, in theory, and yet I was getting all my usual symptoms of fear.
We met our eldest daughter and the four of us killed a bit of time before the film started but all the while I was looking forward to sitting down in the dark, and being out of this anticipatory phase.
The film was Bohemian Rhapsody. It was loud and entertaining and distracting. It tugged at my emotions, the music lifted the pain in my chest. I was taken back in time and really felt absorbed as music memories were triggered.
I am musical. Music used to play a huge part in my life. I was always singing, playing, performing, practising when I was young. Music always lifts me. Loud music that I can feel in my chest is medicine to me. I related to the quirky creative performer that was Freddie Mercury.
When the film was over and I was still high from the music, I talked about 1984 and Live Aid and the impression it had on a then 14-year-old me. My words weren’t formed properly and I stumbled. I think I got away with it because we were walking out of the building and I was up against other voices. But already I knew I’d exhausted myself.
At home we walked the dogs quickly as the sun set and I felt a strong desire to be still and do nothing but stare at the sky but we rushed home and I cooked the evening meal. My legs began to feel weak and my arms shook. No one noticed. It’s something I’ve had to hide all my life. I began to forget why I’d walked to the left to fetch a spoon or what I was going to do next. I can only explain this is a feeling of shutting down.
I felt dizzy. I felt weak. I felt symptoms commonly associated with hunger but eating didn’t make me feel better.
I didn’t help clear up after the meal. I went upstairs to change and collapsed on the bed. All the pain had stopped (although it’s back now for some reason) but I was left feeling absolutely exhausted. In theory though I shouldn’t have been tired.
The night before I had slept well. Really well. It had been my best night’s sleep of the year. I had absorbed the extra hour of the clocks going back and woken with a smile before doing yoga.
I am glad I did what I did yesterday. I don’t always know when or how much anxiety will strike. I don’t know how much it will affect my faculties. I do still want to plan and look forward to stuff and try to have fun. But anxiety is draining. It sucks the life out of me. If I do something small it’s bigger than your 2 activities, than your 3 activities. My trip to the cinema is bigger than your flight to Morocco or your 60th birthday party. I’m not entirely happy with that knowledge.
Today I will have an anxiety hangover and have to limit what I do and what I put my brain through. My husband won’t understand. Why should he? So I’ll just be slow and useless and boring and feel like a complete disappointment.
When I’m better I will plan something else.
And hope that anxiety can’t be bothered to play up. My trick of distracting myself sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. My trick of thinking ahead and making sure I know exactly how things will go sometimes helps and sometimes it doesn’t.
If anxiety does want to play I will have the usual choices:
Get as far as the event and either embarrass myself or run away or both?
Plough through the pain and hope the anxiety fades?
Go but regret it?
Spend the next few days doing nothing while my body recovers?
Get through relatively unscathed and be happy?
Maybe it will be worth it. Maybe it won’t.
I can’t call it. You can’t call it. But I’ll never write myself off or decide that I’m not doing anything again. I just have to pace myself.
So please don’t ever tell an anxious person they’ll be glad they did it. Please don’t tell me “Well done!” when I’m actually done in and uncertain. Each time is different and sometimes getting through was the wrong decision. The power of anxiety to trash events and lives is more complicated than you might think.
And please, please, please don’t write us off, don’t cross us off your list. We need things to look forward to and we need our capabilities noted.
Oh, and did that extreme exhaustion mean I slept well last night? Hell, no… adrenalin and cortisol poison my sleep patterns and haunt my nights.