I can remember it vividly. I left the gym at Belvedere’s, my senior school in Liverpool, and walked past the netball courts and out onto the street, where Mum was sitting in the car waiting for me. I was sobbing before I opened the door but when I got in, dragging my heavy bag of books onto my lap, the tears flowed even more. Mum didn’t know what to do or say. What could have happened? Who had died? Why was I so distraught?
“Mum, I read the question wrong!” I cried, as my shoulders heaved and I gulped for air.
I’d just done one of my ‘A’ levels and I was convinced I’d misunderstood the question and had therefore failed. I was inconsolable for hours, if not days.
A few months later, when I picked up my results, I got a string of A grades, not a B in sight and definitely no fails.
I remember another time at school when I was asked to run cross country for Liverpool in a race in Coventry. Quite an achievement, perhaps. An honour, even. Only the race fell on a school day and I had to miss drama class. I worried all the way to Coventry and back. I had two relatively new friends at school and I was convinced they’d bond with each other in drama and that when I got back, I’d feel left out. I didn’t enjoy that day or that race. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement. I was in a permanent state of dread, worrying about something that probably didn’t happen (I can’t recall if those girls bonded in that class but I was never short of friends at school).
Jump forward several decades to the time I bought my London flat and you’ll find me in a similar state of panic. In my mind, it was the wrong flat, too far from the Tube, too far from the shops, too this, not enough that. I decided to buy it in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy, but I didn’t trust myself and I beat myself up for months afterwards. Eventually, though, I grew to love that place. I made it my own, I gave the living room a red feature wall, painted the bedroom walls green and invited my friends around often for tea. And then the Tube came to me, hooking up with a station on my street, helping to more than double the value of my attic flat and enabling me to buy another home by the sea.
There are so many other occasions when my anxiety has got the better of me – too many to list, so I’ll just highlight a few.
When I refurbished my flat and decided one of the radiators was too small and the kitchen was so badly designed I couldn’t use a corner cupboard – I obsessed about those ‘mistakes’ for ages, losing nights of sleep, beating myself over the head with an invisible frying pan. When I decided to fly back from Spain on the Thursday instead of the Saturday or whatever day it was and as soon as I booked it, convinced myself I had to change it and set about reading the small print about alteration fees. And all the stress I created over buying my wetsuit and my little mini (which you heard me enjoying in my last blog post). In my mind, the wetsuit was too small and I’d made a huge mistake with the mini because it wasn’t red or blue, the tax was too high and it was too heavy on petrol. Only I’m quite happy with both now.
Which brings me to today. Today, our house purchase completed and later on, my partner and I will pick up the keys to our new home.
“Are you excited?” people have asked me over the past few days.
“Apprehensive, nervous, anxious,” I say, and I’m not sure they understand. It’s not what they want or expect to hear.
How can they understand? How can they get inside my worrying mind? How can they grasp how tortuous these decisions are for me? If I tell them I lay awake last night, worrying that we bought the wrong house, on the wrong street, next door to the wrong people, will they get it? If I confess I’ve been obsessively scouring Rightmove to see what bigger, better, quieter house we could have bought if we hadn’t bought this one – in the exact same way I used to get straight back onto dating websites after getting together with a guy to see who else was out there – would they comprehend? Given house purchases and relationships have the ‘C’ word in common – commitment – it doesn’t surprise me I behave in the same way.
There’s a reason for my nervousness around houses. I have history here. We moved a few times when I was young and I remember, every time, my Mum struggling with house-related woes: noisy neighbours, barking dogs, traffic, subsidence and so forth. Seeing my Mum stressed, worried and sad is an early memory. It’s one of those very deep wounds. It’s not surprising it recurs.
Relationships are similar. In my early years, love meant loss; love meant hurt; marriage meant divorce and Dad moving out. There are some wounds there too, buried deep in my psyche.
But the anxiety I so often feel extends beyond houses and relationships. It’s pervasive. I have a sense that there’s a crisis around every corner, something to be feared. And fear breeds control. If I can control my circumstances, I can reduce the likelihood of feeling pain. So a detached house means less chance of neighbour noise. A ‘perfect’ bloke means less chance of getting hurt. Lots of money and loads of stuff mean less chance of ending up homeless and sleeping on the streets.
Only it’s never enough. The outside stuff is never enough because the problem is on the inside. Outside stuff can help for a while – excess food and overeating used to act as a sedative to the anxiety and the pain, until they stopped working. Money can give me the sense that I’m secure, but that security is an illusion. I can try to control my environment and what happens to me as much as I want, but so much of the important stuff is out of my control.
Why am I writing this? Partly because I read this article on Facebook this morning and it really resonated with me: How to Make Anxiety Work For You, Not Against You. I liked what the author said about making friends with anxiety, embracing it, seeing it as an ‘unbelievably creative imagination’ and channeling it through writing.
After reading it, I did five minutes meditation, which brought me to tears. I’d had a sleepless night, obsessing about the house and all the other mythical houses we didn’t buy and in those five minutes of stillness and silence, I got underneath all the obsessive thoughts and connected with the pain – the deep, deep pain; the pain that so often is lurking beneath the hyper-activity, obsession and control.
Then after crying, I looked at myself in the mirror opposite my bed as I typed some notes on my laptop, curled up in my pjs. I saw my furrowed brow, the way my eyebrows were angled down, almost connecting in the middle above my nose. I saw the wet patches beneath my eyes and the red, flushed cheeks. I saw the lips, so often smiling, turned downwards and the flecks of grey in my hair. Anxiety takes its toll on my face.
So I’m writing this because it helps to share my pain and I’m writing this because it seems to be what I’m meant to do.
I’m also writing this because I want you to understand me. I want you to know this is part of me, a part I really struggle with, a part that can be painful and debilitating, but a part that somehow, as that article said, is worth embracing, even cherishing.
Please don’t judge me for it and please don’t laugh at me. Try to understand me. Hear me out. Hold me if I ask you to. Understand that we all have our strengths and our lesser strengths. Understand that the things I struggle with, you may find easy, while the things you struggle with may be a walk in the park for me. I, for example, am pretty good at public speaking, I’m not daunted my appearing on television and I’m persistent and determined when hassling banks for mortgage money. But other things – decisions, big and small; commitment; buying a house; choosing flights – cause me anxiety or fill me with dread. We all have different strengths and struggles. So let’s understand each other.
There are some things I’ve found that help with my anxiety: making a decision usually helps for a start, even if it causes short-term pain. Action and moving forward help (funny – once I heard this morning the house purchase had completed, some of my anxiety subsided and I did feel excited; the build-up was the problem). Meditation helps. Swimming in the sea helps. Chris Evans’ Radio 2 Breakfast Show generally helps, because it makes me laugh. Yes, laughter helps. Writing helps. Exercise helps. As does having some ‘bottom lines’ or boundaries around my behaviour – so no more checking RightMove for houses or Gumtree for minis; and no more swapping wetsuits for smaller sizes. Anti-depressants may help, of course, but I’ve also been too anxious to take the stupid things!
I could also tell myself to lighten up, to count my blessings, to see my issues as high-class problems other people would love to have. I do that often, but it doesn’t always work. Somehow, that seems like the path of resistance – trying to quash the anxious, worrying side of me, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or telling it it’s not allowed to have a voice.
Maybe the better route is to accept it, to embrace it, to surrender to it, to create something with it and to write it all down on this blog, so that I can look back in a few weeks and see, as so often has been the case, that I had absolutely nothing to worry about.