Thursday 19 October 2017

An Anxious Person Does Stuff (like climbing to the top of a tower)

Hey you. 

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for months but – be warned - that doesn’t mean I'm very clear on what I want to say. There may* be rambling.

(*There will be).

In general about doing things while you’re feeling anxious - and it may be the start of some sort of manifesto I’ll develop (#ananxiouspersondoesstuff), or it may come to nothing.

And it doesn't have satisfyingly transformative ending and, hey, who knows, it might just depress someone. Including me.

Am I selling this to you yet?

Oh and the story itself isn’t a particularly interesting, exciting, or dramatic one, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and some people may think I wrote it to fish for nice people to say nice things. 

Sounds great doesn’t it? You’ll have to read it to be the judge.

So what is it about?
It’s a poke around the idea of ‘conquering’ your anxieties, a narrative we often hear in relation to mental health, which is great in theory (I mean, who wouldn’t want to get over all their fears and worries and live a fulfilling life?) - yet in practice, in daily minute-by-minute life,it’s not always so straightforward.

Last month I wrote a post about how anxiety can feel like having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag unexpectedly handed to you, which makes the rest of your day just that bit harder to deal with (if you missed it, catch up here). In that post I mentioned that something over the summer had caused me to start thinking more deeply about anxiety and, hello! …  this is that something.

After it happened, or maybe even while it was still happening, I realised there were two distinct ways I could present the events:
  1. As an entirely true, but slightly selective, ‘internet’ version of event in which I wouldn’t have lied about what happened or - if I did - it would only be a lie of omission. And it would have ended with a glossy, punchy, neat Instagrammable philosophy. Or ...
  2. as a messy and complete version, where I do reach some sort of happy ending … but then sail straight past it to the more realistic place that lurks just over the horizon.

 You know I decided on the latter, don’t you?

If I’d gone with the first version we may all come out of it with a little sugar rush of good feeling but it wouldn’t have lasted. 

It would’ve perpetuated the lie that you need to be bold and confident to get anything done in this world, when I’d rather say: anxious people can do stuff too, even if we feel conflicted and crappy while we’re doing it!

So, for your reading pleasure (or not) here it is …

Content notice: this post contains detailed descriptions of an anxiety attack which may be triggering. Also, there’s swearing because … well, because apparently that’s what comes out of me when I write naturally. (Imagine the disappointment I must be to my Catholic school English teachers).

A story of An Anxious Person Doing Stuff (including a guided tour up a bell tower).

So what have you been worrying about now Kirk?
Well - thanks for asking - over the summer James and I booked to go on a guided tour of the highest tower of Lincoln Cathedral, which, initially, wasn’t a cause for concern. We’d been on several other roof tours there without a problem, I’m not especially claustrophobic, or scared of heights, they’d provided some great photo opportunities in past years and it seemed like a good solid part of our holiday itinerary. It never occurred to me to worry about it ...

And then …

And then, when we went to book tickets in advance, they made us read a list of all the things that we could expect during the tour (regarding the steepness of the 300+ steps, the narrowness of the stone staircase and passageways, the heights, plus the level of fitness and the sensible footwear required), and we had to sign to say we were OK with all of that. Which I was.

And then …

And then we had to wait several days for the event itself to come around.

Oh the sweet irony of our room name ... 

Before the anxiety (or, if you’re familiar with the analogy: ‘Before the funfair goldfish arrived’):

If I’d read that list ten minutes before beginning the tour I might not have been quite so alert to the possibilities for concern; but there’s nothing like the luxury of All. That. Time. To. Think. to really set anxiety in motion, is there?

“It’s probably the same list they’ve shown us all the other times” said James sensibly. “And nothing ever happened then.” he went on, trying to reassure me. 

And maybe it was, maybe every other time I’d just skim read those potentially troubling phrases, dismissed them, signed it and gone straight on the tour without a second thought. But ahh … this time, time was the enemy.

Seeds of anxiety + time +  plus the manure dumped from an over-thinking brain = quite the strong, and anxious, seedling growing in my chest.

Or, to use the goldfish analogy: at this point someone was surrounded by the smell of diesel-powered generators and boiling hot-dogs, wasting all their spare change on trying to hook a duck and win a fish. No one had yet thrust a goldfish at me ... but the moment was growing ever closer.

On the day itself, sitting waiting for the guides to arrive, my breathing had already begun to speed up, I began to feel slightly dizzy, a bit nauseous, and maybe like my digestive system might play me up.

I want to repeat here  that there doesn’t need to be a specific cause for the anxiety: I was NOT sitting there thinking I was going to get trapped in the narrow corridors, or fall from the height. Rather, like a scaly little fish, in liquid, in a thin bulging plastic bag, anxiety is often far more slippery than that. I was just anxious. Not of or about anything in particular. I just was.  
And then ... the tour began.

During the anxiety/goldfish: 
So, there we were, a group of around 15, heading straight up the first set of stone stairs where several things conspired together to make me uncomfortable:
  • It was warm: it was July, in a narrow staircase packed with bodies exerting themselves, travelling upwards, just like the heat.
  • It was narrow: like … ‘not much wider than some people's’ shoulders’ narrow, which I could probably have coped with, except …
  • It was a spiral: the tightly coiling twist meant that the steps tapered away into nothing at the centre so, while you could easily set down your left foot, the right foot had to be careful it actually made contact with a flat surface or you’d slip. And all that spiralling became dizzy-making. The women in my family are not blessed with the strongest of necks and looking up to grab the hand rope (there was no rail) and look down to check where my feet were going, tightened my neck muscles making me dizzier still.
  • It was steep and speedy: the guides were setting such a fast pace (it would’ve put even the most overly achieving personal trainer to shame) there was literally no time to stop to catch your breath.  
And finally, to quote Tom Petty -
  • There ain’t no easy way out: At times I couldn’t keep up and tried to slow down, but the guide at the bottom was setting the pace for the people behind me leaving no way to drop back and let people overtake. The staircase was only wide enough for one person, so there was absolutely no way down without making the entire party back up all the way down too. And who wants to be that person??? (Oh, hi there Social Anxiety, fancy meeting you here, have you come along to take photos of the view too?)

None of this on its own would be insurmountable – but all of it slung together?

And … did I mention it was warm? And like a work-out? And relentless. And verrry … verrrry … swirrrrrllllllyyyyyy spinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnyyyyyyyy?

James was ahead of me, I often glimpsed the soles of his shoes dip out of sight around the spiral while I tried to slow my pace - meanwhile, behind me, or rather - below me - a stranger had their head at my feet. Or worse. 

And - boom - there I was, wonkily storming up an ancient spiral staircase filled strangers while trying to carry a funfair goldfish (seriously, if you still don’t know what this means, you need to read my other post).

By the time we reached the first stopping point I was struggling. Emotionally more than physically but hey - physically too – let’s not leave out that particular treat; I had the whole party going on.

So, we already know I’m a bit head-spinny, and my legs are heavy, and my lungs are asking Why Julie? Whyyyy? But now:
  • the hollow of my spine was slick with sweat;
  • my forehead a curtain of droplets to be swept away by a tissue, 
  • and there was a tightening in my guts. 
And, anxious readers, you know the kind of tightening I mean. The kind where you’re not 100% sure how it all might pan out. Like, maybe you might just burp or your stomach will grumble and then you’ll feel some relief, or ... maybe it’ll be vomit, or a fart. Or worse. Who knows? (And when you know where a stranger’s head is going to be in a few minutes once you’re back on that staircase, well … it doesn’t bear thinking about.)

By now we were in an open space where we could pause to breathe and recuperate, while the tour guides told us something about the automated bell ringing system and used their laser pointers to indicate areas of architectural interest. But my body was demanding more of my attention and - you know how in Tom and Jerry, when the humans talk and all you hear is that ‘Wah wah wah’ sound? Well, that.  So, ignoring the tour altogether I began stripping off. Off came my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and, let me tell you, if there’d been a dignified way to whip off the leggings from under my skirt …

While trying to juggle these immediate physical needs (get cool, breathe) with the overarching emotional goal of calming the fuck down, there was a constant battle rumbling in my mind: how much of this discomfort is due to the anxiety and how much to the sheer exertion? It was probably a filthy mix of both but – if I focused on the idea it was most likely just the exercise I could prevent the anxiety from escalating. Far better to attribute the wobbly legs to all those bloody steps, than to some inexplicable fear.

And then …

Despite all the attempts at rationalisation I started planning my exit strategy. What would I say? When would I say it? So yes, hi, yes, so … yes, lovely brickwork up there, and h, those ancient beams, but I can’t do this any longer, I can’t go further up, I can’t go at that pace. Something might come out of me, who knows from where. Don’t make me, you’re not the boss of me, let me out, let me ooooooouuuuuutttttt!”.

Or words to that effect.

But, on second thoughts … FFS it’s supposed to be a nice day out, you wanted to do this, it’s a normal thing, it shouldn’t be this overblown. You’ll spoil the day for James. You’re a hundred or more steps up, in a room with some sort of machinery (if I’d been listening properly I’d have known more) and there’s no way they’ll leave you to wait here until they all come back down. No. You’ll  have to be escorted out. All the way. You’ll look feeble. A failure. A criminal!

And I reckon it was this – the idea of the social embarrassment – that made me decide to stay the course in the end. Not the positive self talk, not the focusing, not the 1reathing but the horror of something worse than feeling like this i.e: feeling like this while other people spectate.

So I kept calm and carried on!

OK, OK, OK, no … that was just a little joke! Let me re-phrase that: I carried on. We can say that much if nothing else.

After the initial anxiety began to subside:
In short, we climbed further up; we squeezed through a corridor that was almost too narrow for me; I sat opposite the bell as it bonged. 12 times. (Alas, it’s a level of distraction not yet readily available on the NHS as a treatment.)  

We climbed up more swirling steps to the roof ...

where we looked out for miles across the countryside;

And saw the resident peregrine falcons swooping and sweeping below us.

 I was fine with the height, and thoroughly welcomed the cooling blustery breeze. 
And then ... then we went down the way we came, only this time non-stop, with more open space in front of my face (if you think that going up my face was close to the steep stone steps rising directly in front) and also without my bum in anyone’s face. Always a bonus.

Back on terra firma I felt like someone made of rubber trying to maintain their balance on a bouncy castle. 

I felt like an astronaut meeting gravity once again. I felt heavy, yet breakable. Slow yet skittish. 

I needed lunch; a good cup of tea; a hand to hold. I also needed to write about what just happened (it’s how I deal with stuff) and before I was even out of the Cathedral I had the idea to turn the experience into a blog post. And the first, most obvious, thought I had was that it would probably take the shape of a story detailing how I, beat the anxiety to get through the day, a kind of heart-warming triumph over adversity type click-bait.

And then …

And then nothing about that plan sat right with me.

If I had written the “Here’s how I overcame my anxiety to enjoy a day out” post it would have been kind of true – but also kind of bullshit.

The truth is yes, I did it despite being anxious, but I didn’t want to turn it into some half-truth that glossed over the ‘real’ parts of a real-life story. Because, when it comes down to it, apart from the bit on the roof, and seeing the birds in their element, it was unpleasant, and I wish it had been easier.

How’s that for some inspirational lifestyle blog content?

But it’s the truth.

So why are you telling us all this Kirk? What exactly is it you’re trying to say?

Well, if you remember at the beginning (hours ago, I know, I just can’t write short posts – sorry about that.) I did warn you that there was no truly happy ending here. So I hope you’re not too disappointed with the weary conclusion that – even if you manage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ it doesn’t mean it will feel good.

But what would it achieve for me to end the story at the point where I look brave and wise and like I have all the answers without telling how it left me feeling?

Yes, I stayed until the end of the tour despite wanting to leave but I got through it because it ended. We moved locations, sitting down to hear the bell ring helped me focus on something else, the breeze on the roof top was life-giving and sweat-drying.

I didn’t ‘overcome’ it because I achieved some peak mindfulness (although Lord knows that was mixed in there somewhere) or because some catchy life-hack rewired my neurons in 10 minutes, or because I recalled the enlightened words from some gold-foiled motivational slogan.

I got through it because it didn’t get worse, not because I suddenly found “5 fresh ways to battle an anxiety attack”.

I got through it because, despite my body trying to convince me otherwise, I didn’t pass out, die or, worse still, do an explosive shit in the face of a total stranger.

And – rather than feeling elated, powerful, a changed woman … I just felt hollowed out and like ‘Oh, really? This crap? Again’.

I’m not saying I’m not pleased I stuck around but I can’t say what I did made me feel strong or brave …
  • Because when your mind and body are in turmoil trying to decide if you can cope with a perfectly normal situation - it doesn’t feel brave. At all. And that’s OK. If we wait until we’re brave to do thing we might never do things! And we’ll miss out. And we don’t deserve to miss out.
  • Because the idea of ‘brave’ whitewashes just how hard it feels to be present while your body and mind are in mutiny.
  • Because - what if I’d decided that, actually, y’know what? the best thing for me in that moment would be to practice some gentle self-care? What if the kindest thing I could have done for myself was to quietly take aside one of the guides and explain I wasn’t feeling happy about the rest of the tour and could I please leave? Would that have made me the opposite of brave. Would that have made me a coward?

If I’d spun this as a motivational tale of how you can hang on in there, get through a panic attack, and not miss out on interesting experiences – I worry that I’d be giving the idea that it’s (a) what you should do, and (b) suggest that it's easily done.

It’s neither.

It’s all hard and dirty and foggy and baffling and individual and changeable and challenging and draining.

I don't feel in any way valedictory about it. (Although, truth be told, I’m more sanguine about it now months down the line – but at the time – I did not feel proud of myself for keeping my head when all around me were quite possibly having no problem keeping theirs).

So is the moral of this story that anxiety sucks, and you shouldn’t even try to get through it because you’ll still feel like limp turd afterwards?

Firstly – ew, ‘limp turd’? Nice visual there dude. And secondly: no but also yes – a little bit. And no, of course not. And kind of.

Glad we’ve got that clear.

Mostly I wanted to share the story here partly because I thought the line "do an explosive shit in the face of a total stranger" was too funny to waste, but more so to say that:
  • if you too have felt like a quivering wreck for no good reason, if you too have been visited by the unexpected funfair goldfish, and if you too felt like why, for the love of Netflix, you can’t just function like everyone else … then … hey … me too. 
It’s not just you.  It feels like it is, but it isn’t.

I wanted to talk about it because often it’s the ‘after’ stories you read; the stories of how people came out the other side … and, as inspiring and optimistic as they might be … it’s not always realistic to think that there’s a ‘Other Side’ to come out of. 

Life’s messy and circular, it throws unexpected goldfish at you when you thought the funfair had left town for good years ago. Life doubles back, and drops you down wormholes, and you’ll be dragged backward and forwards in your ‘journey’ more times than Marty McFly …

Rather than share a clean and tidy ‘after’ story, I wanted to share a messy ‘during’ one, not to depress anyone, but to say something along the lines of: 
  • You know what? You can have anxiety and still do stuff, it might not always be fun, you might struggle, you might almost fall apart in public, you might sometimes feel like you might die, but – honestly-  you rarely do, and don’t let that put you of doing something you want to do, it can’t be just the bold and oblivious who get to see and  things and and, and, and ….

 And I’ve got so much more I want to say on this topic – the 1000 words I’ve cut out of this post for a start. But I’ve said far too much for one post already, and those other words can go towards my manifesto for all those anxious people doing stuff! (which, at the rate I'm spewing out this stuff could easily turn into a book!)

I’m going to be using #ananxiouspersondoesstuff on Instagram if I have another stressy tale to tell (chances are …) and you’re welcome to join in with it and tag me or get in touch via any of my online homes: 

  • Please add your anxious voice to the wobbly chorus if any of my messy life moments here struck a chord. Have your say in the comments.
The more we share this stuff the more we'll learn that there are lots of us out here focusing on our breathing, trying to ignore funfair goldfish and always carrying a packet of stomach-settling mints 'just in case'.

Let's speak loudly and elbow our way into the world, and not let the confidently oblivious types have all the fun.

And let's be kind to those we see struggling ... including ourselves. 


Tuesday 10 October 2017

Alright Teesside Blogging Workshop - link round-up

Hello there regular readers - and a special welcome if you've just popped in after attending the 'Blogging & Mental Health' workshop at the Alright Teesside World Mental Health Day event today.  Hello again!

If you were at the workshop:
  • Below are links to all of my mental-health related blog posts I mentioned during my half of the workshop;
  • Plus links to my 'Push-up Bra Blogging' online course (it's all free, you can just hop from one post to the next picking up tips as you go).
  • And the Instagrammer I mentioned to. Just keep scrolling for all the links ... 
If you weren't at the workshop:
  • Consider this a re-cap of some of the mental health themed articles I've posted here over the years.
  • If you are someone who's ever left a comment on one of those posts - thank you - and please know that I used you as an example of the power of the blogging community at the workshop today! 

Links to the blog posts I mentioned during the workshop:

Here's how I compared anxiety to having to look after a funfair goldfish:

Here's a post where I combined a regular post about a day out ... with being honest about the anxieties I had about going

And here's the post where I talk about how my anxieties nearly made me want to give up writing:

And this one's the post where I originally revealed how I'd experienced depression in the past, as well as explaining what a plastic zebra had to do with my recovery

And here's a link up to my guest post on the Mind blog.


Info on Instagram: 

  • Laura Jane Williams Instagrams at -  @superlativelylj - and she's a great example of how you can use IG as a micro-blogging platform.
  • And if you want to read through the Instagram posts I've written about my own dog phobia, you can find those on IG by searching for the hashtag #phobiatales - or by clicking here:  #phobiatales 
  • And, if you want to group together a particular set of your own posts, remember to create your own hashtag too. (Simply decide on the words you want >> hit the # key >> write the word with NO GAPS between them >> and that's it! It automatically becomes a link to click. Remember to tag all the similar posts with the same hashtag, and they'll all be visible when you click it! 

Links to my *free* blogging course:
If you're brand new to blogging some of this might be information to bear in mind for further down the blogging road - however, there's still lots you can pick and choose from to see what helps! (and - for the record - it has nothing to do with bras! It's just meant to be a memorable comparison!)
  • Here's the introduction - to help you get acquainted. There's a wealth of information in there covering: what the series is all about and what it isn't; who the series is for ... and who it isn't.

1. The 'Why?' Approaches: Why would I want to blog more? What's in it for me?
2. The 'What?' Approaches: But what am I going to find to blog about?
3. The 'How?' Approaches: Getting organised + streamlining your blogging. [Plus a note on blogging-pains!]
  • Chapter 9: The Kenny Rogers Approach: or 'you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em etc'
  • Chapter 10: The Freezer Meals Approach: 'making in bulk but savouring one at a time' IF YOU STRUGGLE TO FIND TIME TO BLOG THEN THIS CHAPTER INCLUDES MY #1 TOP TIP OF THE ENTIRE SERIES!! 
  • Chapter 11: The Dr. Who Approach'how travelling in time can come in useful'
And finally ...
  • A course summary, a round-up and a reflection on the other side of the screen ... your blog readers + community.

There's plenty of reading here to keep you busy for a while so ... I'll leave you to it!

I hope you find something here today that helps inspire you to:

  • start a blog of your own 
  • OR to join Instagram
  • OR to simply start thinking about the stories you tell yourself in daily life ... and the stories you could maybe share with others some time in the future.
Here's to exploring, explaining or escaping your mental health issues through storytelling, wherever and however feels right to you.