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. 



  1. I feel your pain, well, not the stomach pain, I don't tend to get that, mine is that I'll pass out & then probably wet myself.

    Hi, I'm K, & I live with social anxiety & agoraphobia. It sucks! It's not logical & it is exhausting.
    Currently my anxiety is high, it's going to be for probably the next month. On Sunday there's a large family reunion, my other halfs family. I haven't met most of them, nor has he! Everyone else is acting like it's a hugely exciting event, whereas I'm over thinking literally everything, & panicking.
    So why is it month long anxiety? Because afterwards I will go through every moment, every conversation, every time there wasn't a conversation, over analysing and beating myself up over it. This is likely to continue for years but more predominant in the first month.
    So facing my "fear" is unlikely to get me over it.
    On the other hand I have been to the point where I couldn't leave the house before, in that case facing my fear was essential. I wouldn't say I got over it, more like I've learned to live with it.

    1. Hi K - I absolutely agree that there are levels to anxiety that require different approaches. I too had a period (at 16) where I couldn't leave the house and had a combination of therapies to help me conquer that one. Other stuff, like you say, is more day to day stuff, stuff that crops up and that we just have to get on with somehow - even when it's hard. And there's other stuff which we can just forgive ourselves for not enjoying and not torment ourselves with it. Best of luck with the reunion - I hope you take it easy on yourself afterwards.

      Thanks so much for adding your voice to the anxious chorus!

  2. Heaps I could write here, but it's mostly just head-nodding, because everything you've said is so relatable. It's especially good to read a story like this without the prerequisite triumph or object lesson at the end, not least because I often think those tales are only half the story anyway. Overcoming anxiety to do a thing, doesn't automatically mean you'll be fine doing that same thing again the next time. That kind of logic (any kind of logic) rarely applies to an anxiety-ridden brain, right?

    Maybe it's partly about pushing your own boundaries to see which situations are worth the anxiety, and which ones it's genuinely 'brave' (a loaded concept, for sure) to avoid? I think there's a subtle difference between the levels of anxiety which stop you *doing* things and the levels which stop you *trying* things.

    Also, randomly (or not...), I can SO empathise with your actual, practical situation here. It's happened to me twice - once as a kid and again about 10 years ago. Coming down was much harder than going up for me, and at one point, I think I might have said 'can we just live up here now?'. (Spoiler alert: we didn't.)

  3. I love the idea of #ananxiouspersondoesstuff and how much we actually do do hidden behind our well rehearsed actions and carefully constructed face masks.
    A goldfish appeared in my lap today [I didn't have to hold it; I was sat down at the time] but there he was, unexpected, fishy and most definitely awkward. It was during a staff training session [whoopee! There's an anxiety inducing three words before we even start] We had to work in pairs with someone we didn't know - trigger 1. We had to discuss our thoughts on a certain topic - trigger 2. My brain immediately shouts at me that everything I will say will be wrong or stupid. The tutor walks past my answers and highlights what I have written, to the whole group using words like 'brilliant, excellent, such a good example'. 'Hurrah - go you. You do know stuff' My low self esteem, perfectionist-seeking brain shouts, followed instantaneously by 'ahh but now everyone is judging you thinking you're such a swot, who does she think she is writing such a good answer?, teachers pet'. The next 5 minutes pass and we have to share our answers with the whole group. People start speaking up and I sit there frozen, and like you say Julie contemplate all the ways out of getting out because I know there's no way this activity is going to end without her asking me to share my 'brilliant' answer. I stayed at in my seat because of the fear of social embarrassment if I leave, what other people would say or think. I sat twiddling my hair till it nearly snapped off, playing with my nails, twisting my hands, repeating over and over in my head what I'm going to get asked to share soon, rehearsing what I'm going to say so much that it all becomes a jumbled mess and then the moment comes. I feel like I'm sweating as though I'm in a fifty degree heat and I try to get the words out. I did. In fact I'm pretty sure that I repeated the same thing three times because it was a pretty abstract concept that I was trying to explain and all those blank [judging but not really judging] eyes were focused on me. What felt like forever passed, I got asked to explain a bit more, got praise and the activity moved on. It was over. Was I relieved? Yes. Did the anxiety go away? No. It just shifted to me being anxious about whether I'd explained myself well enough.
    Stupid goldfish.
    It was still sat in my lap just a different part.
    I used to like goldfish.
    Not so much when they just appear at random.
    #nomoraltothistale #dealingwithgoldfish #

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Julie, it was well worth procrastinating over your novel for ��. You have so much worthwhile stuff to say and share. I feel like I'm rambling all over your post but anyway you're awesome. *fist bump the anxious folk*. ����

  4. Great post Julie. I can so relate to what you have written!

  5. Oh my goodness Julie - what a brilliant post. Brilliantly written and ... well, just brilliant. It struck such a chord with me. Having time to worry about something is just like doubling the worry. The difference between having that bag of goldfish in your hand for weeks on end before someone giving you a second one on the day. From your photo it does look pretty claustrophobic conditions and I'm so proud of you for a) getting to the top and b) getting back down again! I think I may have chickened out and said 'you know, I think I might just wait down here for you all to go on up and tell me all about it and show me your photos when you're back'. Or suddenly develop a 'dodgy ankle' and 'not want to risk it.'
    We had a training day at work yesterday, with lots of other schools' staff invited as well. Over 300 people in one hall. My first issue was 'what if I have to sit in the middle of a row, in the middle of the hall and need to get up to go for a wee? Everyone will look at me, interrupting the talk, I'll be 'that woman we all had to stand up for so she could get out half way through'. Oh the relief to find the entire back row was free with just enough seats for all our office staff to sit together. Oh the panic when the Deputy Head said, 'can H&E staff please fill up the rows from the front first?' and that 'I'll just look at my knees so she can't catch my eye and make me move'. Then the relief when the teachers did as they were told and sat in the front to middle of the hall. Then the panic when the speaker starts and picks on random people in the audience to say 'what brings you joy?' 'which superhero would you be if you had a choice?' or 'describe yourself in 3 words'. More knee watching. So I got through the day. But only because my coping strategy of sitting where I had an easy exit if panic set in, and having fascinating knees worked. It could easily have been a very different story!

  6. All that time before is a bitch! We had to travel from South Wales to Liverpool to a funeral. The itinerary was set and Mr M mentioned it to me. My brain went into flight mode and I spent the next few days trying desperately to think of a reason why they would have to go without me. Travelling for me is like a roller coaster ride and motorway travel is the ghost train. We went up the M5 and M6 and M57. I was still able to nod and say hello when we got there so this has to be a win but my mind was already processing the journey back home the following day!! You never come through to the other side you just realise that this time the worst case scenario that you thought up didn't happen and survival smells sweet. Doing stuff even with the threat of farts or worse is infinitely better than not doing stuff.

  7. Yes. That. That EXACTLY. Thank you.

  8. You know what? You can have anxiety and still do stuff.

    I will try and carry this with me.

    Anxiety has paralysed me for years. Played hell with my thoughts, bowels and back. It’s a vicious circle. I wish I could offer some words of wisdom but I can’t apart from the fact that I’m still here and when I’m feeling “normal” wow that’s good


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