Previously anxiety was a private thing for me. A shameful secret which had no name.
One that would keep me home alone, waiting for the clouds to pass over.
With the launch of another book – Burning Woman – anxiety has hit me hard once more. The irony of being engulfed in the flames of terror of which I write does not escape me. I also note the irony that I never share my book launches here on my blog. Instead I always write about my fear.
Since I have begun sharing my anxiety, I am often met with the response – how can you be anxious? – you always seem so confident. Or – there’s nothing to be anxious about, your work is going really well.
Anxiety doesn’t care.
Believe me I am not doing it for the attention. I would rather suffer alone in silence, gradually strangled by the cellular terror which is consuming my body. But I feel a responsibility to share that my creativity comes at a cost. That the books I write, the successes I achieve in public, have a very private toll. They do not come cheap. In fact the terror is so great, that I often teeter on the verge of no creating any more, so that I can live in peace.
Instead I teetered the tightrope between needing to create and barely surviving the creative process. It sounds so dramatic when written like that.
It is not.
You do not see me when I stay up late watching TV to try and numb my body. You do not see when my mind goes for the bottle of gin at 3pm, or the chocolate that will calm me and give me a migraine, you do not see the car journeys I am unable to take because I cannot drive without having a panic attack, you do not see me lying awake in the dark of the night sobbing in terror, you do not see me jolted awake in the morning by nausea. You do not see me doing constant mental battle with these urges.
Anxiety is a lonely condition. It flourishes in silence. Seeping in shame. Wrapping you round with fear.
But it is not all in my head. That is what most frustrates me with people who do not experience anxiety: the misguided belief that if you stop worrying you’ll be fine. It is not my brain worrying. I know logically I am not just about to die. But every cell in my stomach, diaphragm, head and heart are on high alert. My physical body is in fight or flight mode. Adrenaline is pumping.
The feeling that any moment I may either vomit, have a panic attack, pee myself, do nervous diahorrea or burst into tears has a certain effect on me: I tend to stay home so I don’t do that. Vomit on strangers is never really the done thing. Panic attacks at the side of the road are embarrassing – though living in a small community tend to mean that those who don’t know you pass on by, and those who do will take your kids off with them whilst you take a few moments. Bursting into tears at shop counters is… umm… not a rarity for me.
For each of those the effect is the same – the loss of what we fear most, which shames us most – a loss of physical and/ or emotional control. These are the things that mark the sick from the well, the immature from the mature. Our culture makes us pride ourselves on the solidity of our individual boundaries, our self-reliance.
Anxiety shatters these.
Anxiety shakes your soul through the cracks in your body for all to see. In other cultures or other times this was perhaps a sign of growth, transformation, but in ours it is a sign of sickness and weakness.
We may inhabit anxious times, but admitting to anxiety is very hard. Because the only options offered to us are pull yourself together, focus on the positive and stop worrying. Or medication. Or mindfulness.
I’m not sure if Buddha would have managed to meditate in the preamble to a panic attack. And nor can I. My body hates medication. And so I am here, once again, surfing its waves. Trying not to be pulled down. Alternating between listening to the voices and allowing them space… and distracting myself so they will quieten.
But I know I’m not alone.