What can I do, what I can I take, what can I change to make this better?
These are common questions when it comes to anxiety. You just want the feeling to go the hell away. You think: if I quickly check that my straighteners are off, I’ll get some peace, some rest bite from the incessant nagging that if I don’t, I’ll be single-handedly responsible for something awful happening. It doesn’t matter that the third sneaky peak on the way out of the house leads only to the fourth and the fifth lap of the house. There in the moment the only thing you need is to feel better, lighter, free of doubt.
Anxiety banks on you looking for the quick fix. It thrives on your hope that you can heal a flesh wound with a bandaid. Checking for the fifth time doesn’t make the anxiety go away; it briefly calms it before the storm strikes.
Why, then, do we keep relying on quick fixes? Well, it’s natural to want to make our lives easier. It’s perfectly acceptable, too. It’s why a well-timed cup of coffee gets you through a tough morning. It’s why washing detergent comes with an easy-pour spout. The problem, however, is that emotions can’t be turned on and off like a tap. Anxiety has no simple answer. Constant worrying can not be cured overnight.
Yet, lately, I’ve been all about the quick fix and it’s not working.
I know, for example, that my hair straighteners are off because I am looking at the plug where I used them and it’s empty. However, all I can see in my head is an image of them turned on. It’d be easy to go and look in my bedroom. It’d get rid of the doubt… for about ten minutes. Because, the more I check, the more I need to check. The more I try to calm the intrusive thoughts, the more strongly they imprint on my mind. Yet I can’t seem to help it. The cycle has started and the vicious circle is tightening its grip.
It’s time for some action. It’s time for a plan.
One treatment for anxiety involves pushing yourself through the stress of needing to check and coping with the intensity of sensation that comes from not checking. You have to force yourself not to give in to the misplaced notion that you can just check once and be better. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into a million times, yet one that’s all too often impossible to avoid. So, I’ve come up with the following in the hope of breaking out of this current pattern.
Allow myself to check once before I leave the house. That means a quick glance in each room to check that things are off.
Take a deep breath before the front door and accept the fact that I am feeling nervous about going out.
Leave the house, lock the door, and take another deep breath, again, accepting and noticing that I feel bad, but not allowing myself to give in.
Tell myself that if the feeling is as strong in five minutes, I can come home and check.
It will probably work about a third of the time for the first few days. It will probably never work all the time. It’s a reality I’ve long accepted. However, it is action. Since my little guy came along, I am even more aware that anxiety is a poison in my life, and a learned behaviour that I desperately don’t want to pass on. I’m fighting it for two, now.
It’s easy to write this down. It’s a list that’s meaningless until the next time I go out. It even seems to trivialise something that’s incredibly complex. However, I gotta try, haven’t I? Nothing will change without recognising what’s going wrong and thinking about how to fix it. This half an hour of thinking it through, of typing it out, of sharing it in the hope of calming it is step one. It’s my way of saying bye bye, quick check, hello plan.
“Yes, but there isn’t anything wrong with your heart, you know.”
These words still haunt me. They still cause me to bristle and feel ashamed. Yet, I can’t even remember if it was a male or female doctor or a nurse that said those words to me. Nor can I picture his/her face or tell you anything else about him/her. I do, however, remember the shade of lemon and mint green paints used in the consultation room. I remember clearly staring at the floor, face burning and feeling mortified. And just a little bit angry.
I’d been trying to describe the symptoms of what I would come to know was a mild anxiety problem. I would later be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) with some Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tendencies. At that moment, however, I was in my early twenties, with two decades of experiencing behaviours and feelings that didn’t seem normal, and desperately trying to describe them to see if there was any way to feel a bit better.
Perhaps the words came out harsher than intended, perhaps I misinterpreted them, or perhaps she just didn’t believe me, but which ever way, those words stung and left me with a complex about mental health that exists within me, to some degree, even today.
It takes no time to crush someone’s confidence if you’re not careful.
Anyone who has ever felt nervous about anything can testify that while anxiety is a mental phenomenon, it often manifests itself physically: racing heart, sweating, tension, sickness and shaking are all symptoms that anxiety suffers experience. Anxiety is common place; it’s an instinctive reaction to danger. It’s just it becomes problematic when it is your common state of being. It is an issue when you constantly react to danger that isn’t there.
Anxiety had been my every day for years, on and off. From waking in the night and feeling an overwhelming responsibility to ensure my family were alive to checking taps, plugs and electrical items, intrusive thoughts led to extended periods of worry. By my mid-twenties, it was getting out of control. There was always something lurking in the shadows. There was always a thought, starting off no bigger than a seed, that could come to life faster than Frankenstein’s monster. (Later I would learn that, like that monster, appearances are deceptive and engaging with the thought and understanding it would be the best remedy.) These thoughts chip, chip, chipped away at my confidence, my enjoyment for things, even some of my relationships.
It takes time, but recognising that something isn’t quite right is a big step.
So what changed? A little while later, on a routine appointment with another nurse, it came up again. I wanted to know if the medication I was taking could cause mood swings and sadness, because, well my moods were swingier than your average playground set and I felt mostly sad, most of the time. With some prodding, this nurse made me relax and got me to explain. And just like that, she was referring me to a counsellor. Nothing fancy, just someone who I could go to for a couple of sessions and talk it out. Someone who would give me some suggestions of how to take back the control I felt I’d never had.
It took time, but talking was the first step to feeling better.
And so it began. That couple of sessions became months of sessions. Each week was spent tackling a different thought or a different behaviour. There was no quick fix and no magic pill for never feeling anxious again. Everyone feels anxious sometimes. We’re supposed to. It’s human. However, understanding this, learning about how anxiety is useful and when it is useless made the biggest change to my life.
It took time, but listening to an expert explain anxiety was a huge step to understanding and, ultimately, feeling better.
It’s been five, maybe even six years since I last sat down with Jen and talked and listened. In that time, I’ve found a confidence to talk more openly about mental health. I realised that people I knew with back problems or long-term injuries could talk about their health, so why not talk about mental health? There’s nothing heroic in it. There’s nothing usual in it. We’re just not in the habit of it. So, in honour of Time To Change’s Time to Talk Day, it seemed important to share just one small story and remind people of the need to talk and the need to listen. I’m so glad that first experience talking about mental health didn’t put me off forever. Had it, my life would be a lot worse for it.
It took time, but talking and listening about mental health helps me to keep feeling better.
Take your time to talk. Take your time and listen.
As a child, it’s hard to know if the emotions you are feeling are the same as everyone else’s. It’s hard to identify what’s normal from what’s not. From a young age, you have words like happy, sad, angry or excited in your vocabulary, but nothing to help capture feelings with any subtly. You certainly, for example, don’t have the word anxiety or its real meaning, and therefore are not well placed to identify or explain this hard, sinking feeling you walk around with.
Recently, I was reflecting on my anxiety and how my life has changed over the years, and I came to a startling conclusion: the most powerful weapon I ever gained for tackling these feelings and these behaviours, as I would come to call them, was language.
Words allowed me, in a way I would never have suspected, to define and explain what was happening to me and then gave me the vocabulary I needed to change the narrative. From anxiety and adrenaline to intrusive thoughts and catastrophising, terms helped me to understand the nature of ‘things’ that I never realised even had names.
When I was little, I’d lie awake sometimes, I can’t really remember how often, desperate to hear my parents breathing. I’d creep down to my sister’s room to check she was still alive. Back then, it was impossible to say what was making me do it; I had no control over this feeling, this need to make sure that everyone was okay. Later on, I was able to explain that this anxiety was driven by an overactive sense of responsibility –a belief that I had to ensure that everyone was okay, and a misconception that a slip on my part would result in unimaginable consequences that I would be unable to cope with.
These habits, or behaviours, changed as I grew up, but the root thinking – something a wonderful counsellor helped me understand – remained the same. Whether I was stuck (for that’s what it felt like) in the house checking electrical appliances and taps for ten minutes before going to work or revisiting the days events to try and figure out how to repair the damage from the “stupid” things I’d done or said, I was acting on this deep-rooted belief that I always had to be responsible or else something bad would happen and I’d get the blame. Furthermore, I remained convinced, whatever the situation, that the consequences would be unbearable, so unsolvable even, that I could envisage no possible means of coping.
There was no overnight cure, no magic button, but working through some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and completing assignments over the course of a year or so made a huge difference. It was, ultimately, however, having a language to talk about this element of myself that had been so mysterious for such a long time that helped. Furthermore, it’s these words, this knowledge that helps me through lows and dips now. When anxiety takes over I can call it out. When I’m imagining the worst, I can recognise it and challenge it. I can take back some control over things I felt were controlling me. It’s a relief I’d never dreamt possible.
Words can’t solve all problems, of course. We’re each unique. But, being able to name the beast, spot its weaknesses and understand them, certainly helped me to tame the beast.
Best foot forward, taking care care of yourself, recognising problems, and looking ahead.
We can begin with a metaphor, but I’ll let you decide which one: how about Jekyll and Hyde? Or the double-edged sword? Let’s try it’s afine line; or what about two sides of the same coin? Happy with those? Got an alternative? It doesn’t really matter. They all work in their own way and they all describe the aspect of my nature that is both the most and least useful. They help explain the best and worst part of my character: my saviour and my nemesis.
Worrying about stuff, any stuff, keeps me focussed. Being anxious makes me organised, helps keep me on top of things and able to keep going. It is my drive and my motivation.
Until it turns around and slaps me in the face.
Until it drives me to the top of my game then sends me hurtling back to the ground with a sickening thump.
Wanting to get it right, feeling the weight of responsibility, hankering to do things well, wanting to make good decisions and be an all round good person are amiable qualities.
Having to get it right, fearing the consequences of responsibility, needing to do things well, cowering at the idea of making a bad choice or being a bad person are attributes that are from amiable.
The dutiful soul that makes me check things carefully is the beast that leaves me doubting what’s done and what’s not.
The contentious mind that helps me create to-do lists is the nervous energy which leaves me with five to-do lists at the end of the week, rewritten and extended, too antsy to tick something off.
The ever-careful conscience that helps me make moral decisions is the paranoid inner-voice that whispers poisonous thoughts and doubts.
From careful to obsessive, alert to rabbit in the headlights, thoughtful to overthinking, the seesaw never stops. The best and the worst of me, yo-yoing back and forth.
They are waiting on the other side of the door. They are outside, standing patiently in line, waiting for you to finally turn the handle. They are staying calm for now, but it’s bound to change. They all think they’re important, you see. They all think they’re the number one item that needs attention and so they are bound to start to jostle for position soon, bound to start elbowing here and there.
They are all the bits of life that need attending to: the bills, the plans, the E-mails, and the calls. They are the work that piles up: the day-to-day musts, the projects, the minor things that always slide until they become major. They are the bullet points on your to-do list, resenting the order in which they were added to the tenth post-it note this week. They are the deadlines, jumping up and down desperately to get your attention, filling you with a counter-productive dread that does more to demoralise than motivate.
And they are all there, right outside the door, desperate to get in.
They are all there, not prepared to wait until tomorrow, forcing their way into today.
See, you were warned – they are getting rowdier now, pushing and shoving, vying for attention. They all want in and they all fear not making the first cut. They know there is only room for so many on the other side of the door.
Still, it’s not like your sitting behind that closed barrier alone. There are already 101 things crammed into the small space that are the hours of today. Your eyes need match sticks to hold them open. You yawn more than you breath, yet you can not sleep. Not with the riot that is now going on, warning you the flood gates are about the burst at any moment.
And when they do?
What happens when we can’t manage it all anymore?
Well it’s only a small door. Realistically, only so much can get through without everything getting stuck. And when it gets stuck, necks twisted around the door frame, fingers waving desperately, trapped behind the door hinges, all we can do is pull free the important things.
We have to do what we can today, weed out what really matters for tomorrow and leave the rest to fight it out amongst itself!
We can look fine on the face of it. Even those more familiar with the various shades of our face might not even be able to tell. Feelings don’t always write themselves all over our faces. Yes, looking fine and feeling fine are worlds apart.
Day in day out, we work and we play. We socialise and we stay home. We read, we write, we talk, and we listen. We function and we function well, doing our jobs as our employers expect, smiling and laughing with friends. Enjoying ourselves.
How often, though, are these looks deceptive?
How often would those closest be surprised to see what’s going on inside?
At work, competent and collected, no one would suspect a thing. There’s no evidence, you see. No sign that it took twenty minutes to leave the house. No sign that the oven, turned off more than twelve hours earlier, sucked minutes and minutes of time and kept presenting itself as a thought, a chilling thought, of gas pouring through the house and flames and guilt, slowing your departure. And no one would know because you’re so rarely late. The time to check long built in to your day.
With friends, in the middle of it all, catching up and sharing news, there is no clue. No clue that a conversation finished five minutes ago is going round and round and round your head. No clue of the furious scolding going on inside for that stupid comment or that too loud a laugh. You look just fine; you feel terrible; and you are probably somewhere in between.
Depression is not all individuals, head in hands, back against the wall. OCD is not all clean surfaces and cups all facing the same way.
Depression, anxiety, whatever it may be don’t look like any one thing. They are not a constant that force you to limp off the playing field until you’ve stretched it off and are ready to return fighting fit. They don’t manifest themselves in any one or in any constant way. You can look just fine without feeling it. You can be just fine without look it. We are complex. The way we look and feel and are aren’t always correlated.
We get good at getting on with it, that’s all – strong on the surface, unsteady below.