I’m reasonably open about the fact that I have a mental health condition, I suffer from anxiety. I talk about it occasionally on social media, friends know, but I haven’t ever made any kind of thing about it apart from writing a thinly veiled piece about facing fear and the Great War.
When I wrote the original, I had been experiencing a fairly bad but mercifully short-lived episode. A set of familiar circumstances occurred, alerted an old PTSD which I’d had for a year or so around 2006 after a nasty car accident. It set various things grinding away in my head again. These ganged up with some other older stuff and beat me into a different shaped version of myself for a few weeks. I’ve since had another episode which has modulated on and off for just over two years, triggered by various things bubbling up again from way back. I won’t go into detail, because shit can and does basically happens to us all. This one obviously hasn’t quite done with me yet either.
Over the last six weeks it got really quite unbearable, this week it has improved slightly, therefore while I’ve got my foot on its neck it seems like a good time to tear the veil off and actually write about my problem properly. I’m not as scared of it anymore, and I believe by this process I can actually see it better for what it is, it’s better off out there in the wild where it might do a bit of good, where other people can see it too and compare it to what they experience. So I’m being a brave boy and sharing it all, or a fucking idiot, not exactly sure yet. We’ll see.
Basically this is the low down on what it’s like being a 6 foot 2 inch tall, fairly extrovert, apparently confident and seemingly self-assured, middle-aged bloke. I can hold court with people fine, am not terribly worried about what most people think of me or my foibles, can even tell a decent tale in front of a small crowd, am told I’m good at various things but don’t ever really believe anyone, and I have a broken head.
Thing is, I’ve always struggled with ‘worry’, I mean not just background stuff, but a constant nagging, pit of the stomach thing, and I mean about everything. It basically feels almost like a long-term project, another thing I’ll never finish. As a child I was one of those kids who would hang at the back if something vaguely dodgy was suggested, petty theft, vandalism, the sort of things children in market towns do because they’re bored and living in a market town. ‘Let’s call the police from the phone box for a laugh’ – one of best childhood friends, we were aged 7 or 8. And there I stood, not having the courage or conviction enough to tell him it was a terrible idea and not to, but too scared to run away and reveal my fear. So I stood there ashen-faced, frozen in this horrible fretful torpor, heart racing, stomach turning to water, letting him do it, which he raucously did. Then we both legged it, him laughing, me trying not to cry. Back home I sat in a guilty silence and didn’t eat my tea, because I was waiting for the police to turn up and lead me away. We did quite a lot of this sort of stupid stuff, I ended up getting snarled up in it fairly frequently, hated it, and never really learned either.
My anxiety is partly nurture, my mum was a ball of nervous energy, a machine gun of excitable nonsense and noise, the only calming thing for her was knitting, the endless click-clack creation of misshapen and slightly embarrassing jumpers. My dad was the opposite, measured and paced, a softly spoken almost silent man, nearly invisible, very contained against her wall of shrill chatter. She loved me openly and never shut up. He loved me but rarely engaged. He liked numbers, the football pools, horse racing, read John Masters, Philip Caputo, and Wilbur Smith, dabbled in trying to understand poetry. He wrote notes on scraps of paper which he kept in folders, made highly intoxicating home brew very well, his solitude was the shed or garden, he often used funny voices to say what little that had to be said. Quiet and reflective, an introvert, he doodled quietly in the margins. He was so patterned in his habits and interests it has only occurred to the family recently that he was probably autistic.
Mum endlessly blared her life at anyone who would listen, broad swashes and spikes of colour on an endlessly unrolling canvas, she was constantly distracted and distracting, worrying loudly about everything from the dog to her interpersonal relationships within the town. She was also always a a victim of her merciless nervous stomach, having to run home, always mindful of where the next loo was. Now she’s almost certainly be diagnosed with stress-related IBS, it bugged her right up until her death in 2003. It was quite a stage on which to learn and then refine the art of being worried.
They were old when they had me, instilling in me a special fear I didn’t share with my friends. Most of them had grandparents the same age my parents were. I felt it set me apart, because it did and in some ways it still does. Your mum and dad are old, or is that your Nan? were a common comments from an early age. My biggest childhood fear was that they might suddenly die before I had enough life behind me to cope or survive. I worried that I would have to feel the wide arc of grief and loss when I wasn’t yet fully programmed for it. I remember this quite often causing night terrors, pinned in fear beneath a twisted sheets and blankets, clutching the rolled edge over my face, a frozen scream slowly thawing in my throat, one of them coming in to calm me, telling them it was just a bad dream, because it was really just a bad dream – fear, based on manufactured broken-toothed cogs of thought already ticking away as my young chromosomally slightly altered brain looked at every eventuality, down every bleak dark alleyway where them suddenly dying could lead.
Genetically, I can see both my parents in me fairly clearly, I look more like my dad. He eventually died in 1983, I was 17 I wasn’t ready, it turns out you never are even after all that wasted worry. I am now the age he was when I arrived (53). When I look at myself in the bathroom mirror, his ghost stares back at me through my eyes, I have his face shape, his wavy slightly uncontrollable hair, he slicked his down, mine is quite native. I have his eyes and eyebrows, the Judge Dredd downturned mouth and his large spade-like hands. Midlife lowered a bulbous midriff over me like an inner tube, as it had him. I am blessed with his love of words, patterns and drawing, but not numbers. I have my mum’s nose, her flat cheeks and the same patterns of moles on my arms and face, a tendency to talk too much for too long and butt in when I should shut up, I go on a bit basically. But the things I carry the most from her, hidden in the helter-skelter swirl of my DNA is the reactive stroppy digestive system, and this inherited worry, a combination of genetics and nuture, a gift from womb to tomb.
I can’t list everything that ever made me scared and has thrown me into this state, it would be stupid, long and boring. Specifics still stand out though, I remember a long phase of worrying about poison, germs were a big thing for a while, especially dog faeces was a thing for some reason in my early years. I went through a phase of obsessive hand-washing which lasted months when I was about 9. Rabies was a particular problem for a time, the mention of it could raise beads of sweat, any stray suddenly a threat worthy of pegging it away up the road because it could have snuck in on a ship from the continent, or been bought over hidden in an old lady’s hand luggage. Thanks public information films, I mean really, what the fuck.
Health-related fears were also a thing, I’ve had a few over the years, all unfounded. A boil that wasn’t cancer at age 15, repeat as required. One adult health fears lasted for about fifteen years of my life and despite repeated negative tests and the reassurances of two different eye-rolling GPs it nearly ruining my life. It also caused some serious damage to those around me as I obsessed over it. I was completely unable to dispel what my stupid brain had decided were a series of facts. Looking back through the refracted lens of now at myself then that one seems especially, well, basically mad, but I suppose that’s because I was and still am. What was I thinking? well I was thinking everything wasn’t I, everything that could happen, and guess what, none of it did. Then one day I woke up, realised I was being a twat because even illnesses you don’t have tend to have a time limit and I’d theoretically have been dead, so I promptly forgot about it, suddenly cured, filed away in a dusty box marked you complete dickhead somewhere at the back of my mind.
Another piece of spectacularly irrational behaviour which has always stuck in my mind was when I was bought a cheap science set by my dad. It had some vague toxicity warning on it, it also contained sharp pins and a nasty dissecting blade. It terrified me from the moment I slid the lid off the box, looked at the dull bottles and blades and cheap microscope set into a block of pristine white polystyrene. I somehow convinced myself I would sleepwalk and inadvertently eat the crystals in a semi-conscious state like some deadly sherbert dip-dab, or maybe somnambulantly gouge my eyes out with the pins and bleed to death. I asked him to keep it on top of a wardrobe and never used it, I couldn’t even bear looking at the thing. These are aside from the 1980’s standard cold-war paranoia which haunted all our teenage dreams and routinely made me wake up twisted in the sheets lathered in a cold sweat.
There is a list of this type of behaviour in my head, boring in their specifics, it stretches on forever, from hiding things I was scared of, to avoidance of triggers. Specific phobias like heights which I think I’m always going to have. I add to the list of fear even now; I developed vehophobia which slowly morphed into hodophobia after the car accident. Both are related to agoraphobia it turns out, but less limiting as they tended to just make you shake and be sick if you have to go anywhere, or they did me. Nottingham for instance sticks in my mind, I didn’t realise you could drive, retch and smile at your kids at the same time until then. Eventually, when I couldn’t even get on a train to see a client in London, on his advice, I realised I had to do something. It was only then, once I’d had some treatment which more or less got rid of it that I found out these phobias even existed. It still makes me twitch slightly thinking about pulling onto continental roads but that’s it, I’ll do it anyway. Another thing I’ve found is it’s sometimes easier to not make new things and just worry about specific points on the old maps my mind has drawn, use up some old stock so to speak, so if I ever run out of things to worry about I just revisit the files in the dusty shed in the back of my head, riffle through the paperwork in the semi-dormant section, usually just as I’m trying to sleep, and pick something to examine and fret about.
My anxiety is not always crippling, it’s usually a constant and fairly manageable background noise, like a terrible, annoying concert in a nearby park or field, where a covers band murders songs I know but don’t really like, the volume of it lifting and dropping with the wind. Anxiety triggers vary in me, occasionally it will be a familiar echo of something from a past worry, familiarity with a set of circumstances, or an unknown thing occurring suddenly. The recent episode of it peaking has been quite bad, the stimulus had finished months and months previously, but I’ve lived with a lot of noise since. I thought recently I had it completely under control again; a series of visits to a psychotherapist had helped quieten my mind a lot initially, she’d pointed me to the future, made me turn my back on things that were now irrelevant. I spent a few months trying to find new things to bury myself in – basically displacement activities. I upgraded some old music software, mucked about with sound, something I hadn’t done for over ten years. I bought books I’ve started reading but not finished, still failed at being able to write, struggled with different new photographic projects which seemed vaguely pointless. I drew some plans up for a scratch-built model then threw them away. I quit alcohol too. It was vaguely working though in that I was trying to do something.
Problem was I think on the back of this positive developments, I’ve watched, heard and been involved in various friends and relatives problems, people I really care about and love, riding with them on that sour wind across their own black seas. Add to that experiencing my own general life and work worries, the condition of the world, the rise of the far right, increasing racism, homophobia, the sheer state of our country, and then add a few personal triggers; new things that look feel and smell like old things, reminders, and BLAM! The PTSD element reignites, which it did. This is my black dog baring its teeth, not just lurking in the shadows growling sweet nothings at me, It’s right here at my shoulder, snarling, rabid foam-slicked teeth and radium eyes ready to tear me up. God only knows what it must be like if you’ve been involved in an actual conflict or an large scale emergency, I can probably imagine better than some, but I’m going to try not to for now.
When it slides into gear the resulting heightened anxiety state almost becomes an entity in its own right, it inhabits you like a driver in your head. It’s so easy to become trapped in cyclical-thoughts, overthinking, micro-overanalysing the same basically illogical things repeatedly. You end up looking for hidden patterns, meanings, study every detail, motivations, and guess at all the elaborately different outcomes. Your trust in things, people, and in yourself starts to collapse. Once fertilised by doubts it grows, eventually it starts to infect other thought patterns, becomes absorbed into other worries and spreads like a virus, filling everything, seams split, and it all starts to comes apart. Mine writes hundreds of completely irrational eventualities for each worry, nearly all negative, all of which will be studied over and over again relentlessly. It’s horrible, pointless, exhausting and destructive. I get utterly lost.
As it becomes deeper and darker I worry I’ve upset people by being sharp or negative, or pissed them off by repeatedly seeking assurances, or just by repetitively trying to explain myself to them, I’m one of those extrovert people that needs to communicate to feel I exist. It makes me have panic attacks, although those are quite rare these days. I’ll cry for no apparent reason even at shit adverts or stupid films. I can’t sleep properly, suffer insomnia or wake up in near panic in the middle of the night. My appetite dies, there’s memory loss, loss of motivation, and I end up isolating myself, avoiding people generally because I can’t always face the contact, the explanation, or having to hide the truth about how I really feel when I just feel wretched.
It can last weeks, months, and as previously mentioned even years, over long periods attenuating from hiding in a cupboard being fed pins to almost but not quite manageable. At its worst it actually makes me feel dead inside, it breaks everything; puts pressure on relationships, damages friendships, makes me less able to concentrate on my job, less good at life, slows my thinking to a crawl and makes me feel completely inadequate and totally worthless, and that is despite what people think they see, because the outside of someone is no gauge of what the inside is doing, and most people that suffer this and other mental health difficulties mask it heavily.
Just occasionally at its noisiest I have actually wished I was dead, and I don’t mean I get suicidal, I just want it to fucking stop and that would do nicely thank you very much. There’s been a few times where I can barely go to the shop without having to summon up every ounce of energy to put my boots on, and then invariably come back with 5 kilos of kumquats, a power engraver and a jar of oddly flavoured bratwurst or whatever Aldi have on offer, but forget the eggs, tea, bread, and potatoes because my concentration is shot to bits.
The weird thing is I understand the processes, I know it’s just my mind being hyper-vigilant, looking for threats which translates into finding eventualities I’d rather didn’t happen. Deep down I know most of those things don’t exist, but I can’t really control it. So the emotions, rationale and my responses can go all over the place, and I just hate myself. My occasional therapist after the recent terrible episode described it as the soldier in the jungle who doesn’t know the war has ended, a phrase I think she tailored for me because she’s quite good at her job, she knows where my interests are seated, where I come from, and what was behind me being the causation. She has done me immeasurable good several times by helping me tinker under the bonnet or deep in the engine room, has helped me see things how they actually are and not how I think they are.
I’ve was also once well-meaning informing me, that we all need someone to look out for the tigers in the grass. This isn’t helpful, nobody wants to be that constant sentry, a sleep-deprived fool leaning on a parapet shivering with fear about something that almost certainly doesn’t exist, so be careful what you say, advice is great, not every analogy is though just because it sounds clever.
Anyway, I have a Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) so I’m told, the psychotherapist says I’m quite high-functioning, she nods a lot and asks me questions, and lets me empty my bin-fire of a mind into hers when I can’t stand the noise anymore, then she sits and sifts the embers with me. I am also prone to drinking to make it stop, nowadays I tend to remember that this makes it worse, eventually, usually after I’ve made it worse for a while by drinking. Deep down I suspect I’m largely done with alcohol, it’s too damaging to my mental health the next day and the next day and the next day. I also have emergency pills to make it go quiet, mother’s little helpers, which sometimes take it away for long enough for me to get a few hours sleep when it gets really, fucking, bad. And do you know why I’ve had this recent episode? No me neither. And that’s why, in part, it’s such a dick to deal with at times, because I often don’t really understand what sequence triggered it once it starts because I can’t remember all the bits anymore, it’s like looking at a model kit on a table with no instructions because I’ve burnt them.
Sometimes the smallest thing spirals, a conversation, or an argument, unkind words, or just an intrusive thought about something. I dwell on it, play it back to myself over and over again, it sets a little broken subroutine running, not neatly, but like an off-centred wheel on a worn spindle, this rubs away setting other related or unrelated worries spinning. Until it’s like being sand-blasted by negativity from every direction. It feels like your head is on fire, your chest may just explode, and your stomach, suddenly the size of a walnut is brimming with liquid pain. The main problem though is that before you know it your mind is being torn to bits by a growing pile of wonkily spinning things spitting hot splinters everywhere, which make so much noise they almost but not quite switch you off. You feel like you’ve nearly stopped functioning as a human being, and yet you have to smile and carry on somehow, pretending it’s not there while under the surface the broken teeth are chewing away at you.
If I do this, will this happen? What’s that noise the car is making? Why did they say that? Does this mean what it says? Will this work? If I do this will this happen? Why did they do that? Can I get this thing I’ve promised done? Was that sincere? Are they just saying that? Did I do that well enough? Did I lock the door? If I do this, will this happen? Is that thing related to that other thing that went wrong? have I upset them? Why did that happen? Why did I say that this way? What did that actually mean? Did I cause this by doing that? If I do this, will this happen? If I do this will, this happen? If. I. do. this. will. this. happen…
And each little routines has its own myriad set of subroutines like one of those awful fractal things which are actually just maths, zooming in on these spinning patterns. They’re not so clever when it’s your neurones just basically making shit up. And in the depths of it, the bottom of the slough it is the worst thing, because, certainly in my case you sort of know you’re not being rational, but it’s like a cart on fire rolling down a hill only there’s hundreds of carts, and you can’t stop all of them, you barely have the strength to stop anything. It is almost catastrophising as an artform, cyclical thoughts making you stare Malcolm McDowell-like at every single possible negative outcome, poisoned butterflies pinned down in a display case, but ever-shifting with more and more potential negative eventualities, and if you run out we’ll just look at those ones over there again won’t we.
None of what this parasite shows you is logical, it is just obsessiveness writing you a different set of realities all of which are varying degrees of appalling but don’t actually exist; the future doesn’t exist yet except inside your head, and of course it will probably never be these futures anyway. It is a waste of everything. And yes I locked the door because I’ve checked it three times at least and stared at the lock for good measure, and taken a photo of the lock on my phone, just to remember I’ve checked. And the gas is off, isn’t it?…
Oddly, what I’ve also discovered is, I also need it, not at peak running where it takes stuff away, but it is definitely one of the mechanisms that makes me good at what I do as my profession. Because I worry about whether something will work, micro-analyse it, scrutinise, project manage. I’ll lay awake thinking about a contract or job, the result, things I work on usually come out well because of this peculiar searchlight on them as I make them happen.
I’m also always staggering how when confronted by a genuine crisis, people can deal with it very very calmly. Dealing with someone having a bad epileptic seizure in a shop, an elderly woman fainting in the street and knocking half her front teeth out, body-blocking a verbally-abusive drunk racist grandad on a bus, Ah hello actual real life, you called? not a problem… This is something also noted by a friend and fellow sufferer recently, he deals with horrible real-life situations on a daily basis because he’s a rozzer, it just switches off and you operate at a different level entirely when you’re faced with someone swinging a baseball bat at your face, whereas whether that egg mayonnaise was a bit past its best, or if that person actually meant what they said about that thing, can ruin your evening, even though it wasn’t, and they did.
There are of course things you can do. I’m never really sure what they are though a lot of the time because it varies from instance to instance and I tend to stumble into a book or find a record, or draw something, or get sucked into an idea that absorbs me for long enough to give me a break, to reevaluate what things are what and turn the noise down a touch. This piece of writing is a painful one of those.
There’s a lot of talk of exercise helping with acute anxiety depression, it’s not for me, it just makes me feel sweaty and like I might die embarrassingly in front of loads of people in Lycra who aren’t as fat as I am. Since childhood I’ve relied on hobbies, by which I mean being absorbed in creative processes that aren’t my day job. If the results are good, great. If not, personally I don’t care that much. It’s the doing it that matters, 99% process 1% outcome. I’ve learnt to play lots of musical instruments, mostly badly. I’ve been in several unsuccessful but fun bands, painted, read, drawn, researched, carved, printed, collected, sculpted, written, fished, cooked, modelled, made things. Taken lots of photos and taught myself both how to do it and how to see and present the world through the fractured lens of my mind. I’ve also learnt stuff, got obsessed by lots of subjects; music, beach-combing, field-walking, conflict, death rituals, archaeology, prehistory, maps, walking, drifting, rocks, geology, glaciation, astronomy and fossils. You can even make sport out of just seeing, collecting scenes on a phone camera, cataloguing or listing. We are all different too, so if it’s macrame, fell-running or bird-watching, that’s fine too. Most projects I start professionally off my own back are inextricably linked into my restless mind, running hot in the depths the night.
One of my main distractions is music, it is never a chore, listening, getting lost, trying out different genres and styles, getting absorbed in patterns and rhythms, wandering down the genealogical side streets of how different styles interface, where they come from, how influences work, who was in what band and in that other band. Plus I never get bored of finding new things. Music has also become my barometer of how badly my mind is working, if I can’t listen to music or find something to absorb me via my ears then I know I’m in trouble. Today I have found things, some of it involved various church organs, and vocals that reminded me of early Dead Can Dance, other things involved a man apparently shouting into a bin while someone else hit what sounded like a washing machine with a big stick. Today therefore was okay.
These are all displacement activities, important things which for me can sometimes keep the noise of that distant hateful concert downwind. Displacement is also useful in terms of output, which is an odd byproduct of something pretty awful, it’s surprising what I can create through nervous energy trying to circumvent the sparking monolith of a whirring mind. Another fellow sufferer called his ‘The Robber’, this resonates with me too. I’ve never lost everything at once until fairly recently, two years of not writing and half-heartedly pointing a camera at things without really seeing anything. And I now realise that allowing something that doesn’t really exist to let you lose things you love is incredibly, stupidly, painful.
What I will say is this, just from my own experience. Always try to be in the present and deal with what you can at the time. Write when you feel able, draw when the mood takes you, paint, take photos, knit, sew, make, as your demons allow. Just keep fighting them, or obstruct them, suppress them as best you can whatever it takes. Try not to live with it, try and blot it out with whatever helps you escape.
Secondly, the Health Service is there for a reason, access it, no matter how slow and underfunded it is, services are in place. There are also independent organisations offering mentoring, activities and advice. There is counselling and psychotherapy, and people to talk to. Importantly there is no shame in any of it despite how some people choose to try and humiliate people with mental health issues. I am not highly strung or a hot mess, I am not a snowflake or a lightweight and nor are you. Should your doctor recommend SSRis or something similar, think about it, again there’s no shame in pills, if you have back pain, you take painkillers, if you have diabetes you take insulin, what we have is a biological malfunction in our brain, it is an illness, accept help if offered. After a long chat with a doctor and various friends and people I know who use SSRis I’ve decided it’s pretty clear they are not for me at the moment, but for some people nor are talking therapies, hypnotherapy, mindfullness, NLP, EMDR or CBT. Be prepared to try things, take advice, talk to people, be they experts or other people who may already have explored the avenues you’re looking down, and pester to get what you need.
I’ve just stumbled out into the open again vaguely, both with publishing this on here and with my anxiety dropping back, a moment of light, or at least I hope so. A few days ago it started to turn cold, which is how I like it. I was driving along the winding, swaying line of the A1067 to a meeting, a new step in my life, listening to a comfortably familiar album to try and quell my jangling nerves. The air was clearing of moisture, a slight haze still lay on the horizon towards the north west, the tree-lines and hedges just indistinct enough over distance to show all the layers we inhabit. The cloud broke as I slowed into a broad curve and the sun lit a ploughed field and a small wood, leaves stuttered away like pale orange flags in the breeze, hundreds of rooks suddenly lifted into the air like oily rags, and I saw for an instant something so hyperreal that a gear switched in my head just for a moment, I slowed on the empty road and watched in wonder for just long enough to make the chattering cogs and wheels quieten.
Sometimes it’s better not to search for happiness where you think it might be, it’s better to stumble across it as a flickering moment, then hold on to it for as long as you can.