My anxious confession: dealing with anxiety
Depression used to be a solo act. But in recent times she’s gained a partner as powerful as she: Anxiety. They are spoken about, written about, together. So what is the difference? Do we get one or t’other?
All I can discuss truthfully is my own experience. And because I wrote last time about depression solely, I felt it only right to give anxiety an equal chance at soliloquy. So here goes. I hope it is relatable and comforting for many of you. I write with that sole purpose in my mind: to help anyone who has ever felt like me...
Flatlining with a depressive episode at the age of 35 wasn’t scary for me. Feeling as if my head was a bucket, long ago drained of all its water, wasn’t either. I think I always knew deep down that there was some sort of melancholy within me, as I said before, a twin, an other me I sensed I could never be rid of. Admitting it and giving myself the depression label officially, whilst heavy to accept, wasn’t scary. In fact, once I declared it, I felt finally free of all the hiding. I almost felt relieved. I was unveiling the antithesis ‘me’ to ‘jazz hands me’ after 35 years.
What was scary however, was my realisation that anxiety lay within me too. And it was only with my final admission out loud about my depression that anxiety began to unmask herself in my daylight. She’d been waiting in the wings, utterly invisible up until that point. With my hands up to depression, I had to lay my head on the anxious block too. The blade fell hard and with its reality came a vicious cycle of more anxiety than I’d ever felt. It was as if I’d unleashed it all onto my system all at once.
The depression had somehow always had space to quietly breathe within me. But the anxiety hadn’t. I’d corked it tightly. Once it was released, it came relentlessly in alarming waves.
I grew up in a family where intellectual ability, cultural reference and historical knowledge was of utmost importance. If my family had an hour to kill on a rainy day, our go-to activity was discussing England’s Kings & Queens or seeing how many capital cities we knew. Winston Churchill and his ‘black dog’ was a story I heard in my home. I grew up aware of the world of depression in connection with people capable of great things, possibly an affliction of those with mammoth minds. So when I suspected I suffered, I guess it felt distressing, but it didn’t feel alien. I knew what it was somehow, from an objective view but also somewhere deep within some subjective cellular memory.
I may have heard someone saying Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln had depression, but I never heard anyone saying that, for example, Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday were sufferers of anxiety? Being anxious was a state we could all possibly be in, but it wasn’t a serious condition in my mind. It wasn’t a condition at all. It was merely what one felt when you were about to go on stage, take an exam, be late for an aeroplane. So to discover this as an affliction as serious and debilitating as depression, and then to realise I suffered with it quite severely, was incredibly scary.
I’d always been a coper. I put a lot of strain on myself as a child to do well at school. If my parents helped me with homework, I’d cry, feeling as if it wasn’t my own effort. I cried as I got older too if I didn’t get 85% or more in all my exams. I remember around the age of 14, the pressure of being academic, being in several sports teams, the public speaking team, the actress, the singer, the piano player & the dancer at my school all became too much. And I gave up overnight. I chose to geek out at being the best rebel instead. I perfected that to the max.
Looking back, I put just as much anxious effort into rebellion as I did into nerd. I followed the exact same behaviour patterns, just with different themes.
As an adult, I was emotionally kamikaze. One moment I’d be trying ridiculously hard and winning, gaining an amazing job, only to flake out and lose it far too quickly before a year had passed. I couldn’t get to grips with who I was, what path I was on. To my friends, family & colleagues I was the wild, uncontrollable, ‘bit mental’ Anna I suppose. I was an amusing anecdote, a person to find bizarre yet entertaining in my erratic behaviour and choices in juxtaposition to so many of their steady, corporate pilgrimages. In hindsight, I think I was riding a severely anxious mind day after day. It was all desperately draining. But because I didn’t know it as anything other than just living in my own mind, I didn’t know I had anything to put my hand up about. I didn’t know I could ask for help.
Becoming a parent at a young age centred me for sure. I didn’t feel anxious about being the best at that. But around the calm centre of my baby boy, anxiety swirled around the simplest things.
What did people think of my body? Was everyone noticing I was fat? Did all my friends still like me now I was a mummy? Would anyone ever want to ask me to a party again? Did any of the mums at playgroup like me? Was everyone judging me? The worries were constant.
I did feel separated from my friends. I did desperately want to still feel included. So much so that I behaved as they did, drank as much when I was with them, hoping I wouldn’t be forgotten. I found it so hard to marry my old self with my new self. Looking back, I gave myself such a hard time about who I was. I loved being a mummy and was so very lucky it came naturally to me. I still feel sad to this day I was so desperate to keep up with friends who couldn’t have possibly understood what I was going through. We were 26 after all.
I pushed through parenthood, year after year, constantly hosting dinner parties with complex menus, forcing and driving myself hard on barely any sleep to put on the ultimate candlelit show. It was lovely to see them. But it was so hard to also keep on top of the tiredness, the babies and toddlers waking during the night after everyone had teetered home.
The anxiety became high pitch for those initial months after my first major panic attack and depressive crash two and a half years ago. I worried and over thought everything. I could become paralysed with fear about seeing anyone at all. I could be floored when asked to choose Christmas paper. Choice was my enemy. Options torturous. And I lost access to the beauty of sleep. I would feel so tired and yet begin to panic and stress and analyse so much that I’d end up wide awake, wide eyed and so anxious that the sound of my husband breathing could sound as loud as a car engine. My entire body sort of fizzed and vibrated with awareness.
Nearly three years on, I am feeling much better. Anxiety is as regular as a next door neighbour however. But I have decided to accept it as part of me. I try to use it to my advantage. And when I feel myself becoming jacked up on it, I rely on my husband to help me climb back down to calm. I can’t be over stimulated. Late night intense conversations and thoughts work me up the most. Early, gentle nights are what keep me sane. I don’t really go out at night anymore. I don’t drink. I don’t even have tea after 4pm. As Bryony Gordon said in a Wobble podcast, you literally have to care for yourself as if you were a newborn baby.
So if you suffer with anxiety I’d say this: Don’t antagonise your affliction with too many options. Don’t fixate on lists of tips and pointers on how to deal with it. Just focus on one only. Then master that for a month before going to step 2.
There is so much useful information out there. But for the anxious mind, it can be another dose of anxiety in itself trying to fix it. So don’t. Be kind to yourself and take it slow. Slow living and small steps are the answer that will lead us anxious hearts a tiny bit closer to the calmer light we search for.