I’ve always considered myself an optimist. A bit neurotic, maybe. But never a catastrophiser. I’m able to create a positive spin and view things with a good dose of humour. Unlike my anxiety disorder, which occasionally has other ideas.
I’m happiest in the company of friends and family, preferably in the sunshine with a gin or six. I laugh a lot. I sing all the time, much to the dismay of poor Dog. I’d describe my personality as a bit scatty, and – being a typical Libra – I certainly do like to overthink things, but I’m generally a sunny person. Housemate likes to say my head is “full of cats” which is a nice way of putting things. I’m pretty clumsy. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve scalded myself (current situation: bandaged from spilling mega hot coffee), or fallen down the stairs, or tripped on a patch of ice, flashing my knickers to passers-by.
But my anxiety is not such a happy character. It’s a bit like a high-school bully whispering stuff in your ear. For me, it’s not just the ‘you’re not good enough, you’re not pretty enough’ chat that comes from the pie-hole of this iniquitous beast. No, for me the real danger comes from its unhealthy fixation with doubt.
Now, everyone experiences doubt. ‘Did I leave my hair straighteners on?’ ‘Did I lock the door?’ are common quandaries, easily swatted away. My brain, however, likes to take doubt, blow it up like what’s-her-face in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and then roll it down the nearest hill. It causes me to occasionally fixate, usually on something inane, and not be able to concentrate on the task at hand. My heart races and I get that feeling like I’m standing on top of a cliff-edge, staring down. It varies in length, staying with me for a few hours, days or, at its most extreme, a few months.
I like to think of anxiety as a bouncer. Most people’s sub-conscious will kick off every now and again in an attempt to keep us in check. After all, a little bit of fear can sometimes be a good thing, right? My brain, however, will send in a whole bloody army. Like a whole load of sneaky, burly, ball-busters who enjoy a good raid.
Recently, a friend and I were talking about the disparity between having an anxiety-disorder and being a naturally anxious person. Now, I am not a ‘naturally’ anxious person. I was a pretty fearless kid. I can tell you a bunch of times I haven’t given a shit about what-might-go-wrong. I am not anxious all-day-everyday. That’s not how it works. It’s like an intruder on my ‘real’ personality, like something sitting on my shoulder, and it tends to happen during stressful periods in my life, or when I am feeling a bit low, tired or unhealthy (aka hungover). To (sort of) quote Ghostbusters, “there is no Emma, only Zuul.”
Rational thought: “No, it’ll never happen. It couldn’t.”
Anxiety: “But it could…”
Rational thought: “I’ve checked everything ten thousand times. It can never happen.”
Anxiety: “Yeah but did you though?”
Someone recently asked me whether I thought I was “a glass half-empty or half-full” person and I struggled to answer with honesty and clarity. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed, but rather because I was confused.
I don’t know if I’m one or the other. Or either. Do I have to pick?
Generally, I’m a bit dreamy. I’m a huge romantic, and prefer to look for the good in people, and situations, but sometimes, when life gives you lemons, the lemons are actually grenades, and the grenades keep exploding at inopportune moments. Which is where the anxiety army enters.
The most irritating thing about living with anxiety? It can often make you a contradiction. Sometimes, you feel like you aren’t really ‘you’ and the edges of your personality are gently being erased. Eventually, you sharpen your pencil and sketch the missing bits back in, but it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle.
Matt Haig – the author of the incredible Reasons to Stay Alive – recently posted on Twitter that he occasionally viewed anxiety as being a bit like having a super power.
Queue a split in thinking (and, as its Twitter, the reaction) between his followers.
Anxiety can range from being an inconvenience to debilitating, straight through to god-fucking awful. When you’ve had panic attacks so terrifying that you’ve considered stepping out in front of a car because broken bones are surely easier to deal with than overwhelming fear, or that opening the emergency door on an airplane was preferable to the internal chaos (yes, both of these have actually – and recently – happened to me), it’s easy to side with the people who were a bit peeved.
On the other hand, there are those, like me, who like the positive spin. I’ve read Haig’s books and I know he gets it. He’s been there and continues to go through it. Why shouldn’t we look for the good in any situation?
Also, this is Haig’s experience. This is how he chooses to view his anxiety. And I agree with him. That doesn’t make me right, its my opinion.
For too long I focused on the concern that other people might think I am ‘unhappy,’ ‘over-sensitive,’ or ‘a worrier.’ Now, with the help of an amazing therapist, a good support network, and a healthier lifestyle, I care far less about shame and how people might label me, and more about my own health. Believe me, life is far too short to give yourself such a tough time.
But my experience is unique. It’s my experience of the world.
My anxiety is, for want of a better phrase, a colossal wanker. It makes me late for trains, cancel plans, freak out about my health (and annoy the fuck out of my GP), it can make me needy, it can make me aloof and solitary, it can fill my head with static so there’s not much room for the things I love like words, music and art. It’s a time thief. It can also just hang about like a fly. You can hear it buzzing about in the background, annoying the hell out of you.
But, it also heightens my creative side, encourages me to be more imaginative and reminds me to be gracious and appreciative (I practice gratitude daily and, believe me, its helpful in combating the black dog). My experience with anxiety makes me content – I realise that ‘good’ is an ideal state and chasing perfection will cause me misery – and resilient. It’s made me far more knowledgeable about the brain and our body’s remarkable capacity to heal. It urges me to be kinder and more empathetic. It helps me notice beautiful things that might otherwise go unnoticed – the way the sunshine hits a vase of flowers, fresh air in your lungs, stretching, a good night’s sleep, a great hug, a phone call, laughing, that first sip of a warm drink, and the morning. I never knew how much I loved mornings.
I recently received a text from one of my best friends. I’d just posted some pictures on social media that I’d had taken for my blog, and she wanted me to know that, after a tumultuous period, she was proud of the way I was turning my back on a shitty situation.
Personally, I think this is what Haig means about anxiety being a superpower. I am a freaking superhero. I’m my own superhero. I saved myself and continue to do so on a daily basis.
As a card-carrying member of the anxiety-disorder crew, I was annoyed that Haig felt the need to apologise for his comment. I get why he did – I wouldn’t want to make anyone feel like I was belittling their feelings or experience and, in his shoes, I would have certainly done the same – but it’s sad that he felt the need to, when the crux of the Tweet was so very empowering.
I choose to write about my own experiences with this illness because it’s part of my life. It doesn’t make me ‘nuts’ and I am not ‘over-sharing.’ It’s simply my story. Mental wellness is a subject I feel so strongly about, that I’d feel fraudulent by not putting pen to paper and discussing my own experience. And they aren’t always negative experiences, either. Some of my more memorable moments of laughter and love, particularly in my family life, are borne out of the more traumatic times.
The more people talk and share and write their own stories about mental health, the more likely stigma, misunderstanding and stereotypes will fade and people will feel less alone, less judged, and less afraid.
Haig has managed to get to a place where he is able to find positives in a situation which caused him great pain, and in turn, this gives people, this gives me, hope.
Hope is the thing that keeps the glass topped up. Negativity is what causes it to empty.