I am not a “chilled-out” person. I come from a long line of “not chilled-out” people; our family tree has grown (almost exclusively) nail-biters, insomniacs, depressives, alcoholics, worriers, fretters and panic-attack-havers, leaving me with a strong, genetic need to chill the fuck out.
However, my anxiety does not always show itself as peaks of nervous energy, it has always just been a misty haze of foreboding that crept into everything I do. It speaks of terrible events that lie just beyond the horizon, a harbinger of melancholy that seeks to ruin the present by creating an imaginary, awful future. It has been there for as long as I can remember.
As you can imagine, this makes for a very serious child. I worried about everything, and I mean everything. Some of the concerns that I can still remember fretting over include:
What would happen if everybody I knew all died at once? A valid worry in its abstract form, but unlikely. I actually used to play this one as a “game” in which I would play in the garden on my own and imagine I was the only person left. What a fun and normal game.
How do blind children read the Bible if they can’t see? I should point out here that we weren’t a particularly religious family, but that didn’t stop me recording the Bible onto tapes aged 6 to try and combat this worrying issue. Can you imagine anything creepier to listen to than a little girl solemnly reading Bible stories into a cassette player? Because I certainly can’t.
What if the clouds are actually the floor of another world and one day it crushes us? I mean…
What if I find a dead body in the woods? This one really begs the question – how did I know about bodies in the woods? That is a question for my mother and one I will be asking her shortly.
What if we are bombed like in the war? Again, I am lucky enough that that wasn’t a realistic threat, but that did not stop me worrying about it incessantly as I lay in bed at night. I feared the bomb would land specifically on me in my bed, Donnie Darko-style.
A fascination with the macabre ran side by side with my anxiety. The horrendous situations that I would obsess over were the fodder for my panic. My brain would create abhorrent situations for me to worry about, it created characters, situations and whole worlds of things to be scared of and played them to me on an incessant loop. I had nightmares as a small child that still chill me to my core even now; it’s no wonder my parents used to call me Wednesday…
Then of course there was “the illness”. I have vague memories of symptoms as far back as primary school, so I think that my neurons were a slight mess from the start (an opinion shared by doctors). One of the main symptoms is feeling “out-of-body” which is damned hard for an adult to articulate, let alone a small child. Even now I know what it is, and know that it will pass, it still scares me. It is very unnerving to suddenly be watching a film of your life, feeling like you have been sucked out of the reality of it and are now simply observing from the side-lines. I remember feeling like this on a couple of occasions when I was little and being very scared about what was happening. Maybe this was something to do with the worry, although I’m not sure - it might just be that I was a gloomy little thing.
What I do know for sure is that as I got older and my health worsened, my list of symptoms became a constant terror at the back of my mind. I was undiagnosed, and I was concerned that something was very wrong with me, yet nobody seemed to know what it could be. It was the biggest source of my anxiety because it was something nobody could relieve me of; nobody knew if it would pass, nobody knew if it would get better, nobody knew if I would die. The not knowing tortured me. This was not helped by doctors saying things like “it’s probably not a brain tumour” which may well be the least comforting phrase in the English language.
The anxiety mostly manifested in a bit of nail-biting, hair twisting and crying at the odd social event until I was about 16, but during the summer after taking my GCSEs I tried to board a plane to Greece and had my first panic attack. I was gripped by a swell of animal fear. It was visceral and physical, and every fibre of my body was screaming at me to leave the situation I was in, all the while anchoring me to the floor.
The panic attack, of course, triggered an acute flare-up of my illness on the spot and they continued to exacerbate each other to fever pitch. I became convinced I would die on the plane. In reality, the recent stress of GCSE exams, and a constant low-level flare-up of my illness for the same reason were clearly the logical causes of what happened. It is easy to say that now, 12 years later, but at the time dying felt a very real possibility. It was like my toes were on the edge of a precipice and I was being forced to jump.
Luckily, my mum took charge and managed to get me onto the plane with the help of some mild sedatives from a very helpful woman in Boots who had to try and talk to me rationally whilst I stood there wild-eyed and confused. Mum also whipped out some breathing techniques she had picked up from dealing with the panic attacks my grandma had had when she was younger which helped me to focus whilst the medication started to work. On the way home, after a week of relaxation, the journey didn’t bother me at all, but of course, your brain does not always remember the good…
I did manage to get on other planes over the next few years, but as I became sicker, the disruption that travel caused to my routine, the strip lighting of airports and planes, the noise and the motion of travel itself would often upset the delicate neurological balance in my head, meaning journeys became punctuated with vomiting and passing out. This reinforced my association between travelling and being unwell, which was itself associated with huge discomfort, pain, embarrassment and a fear of dying.
A few years later I had a catastrophic panic attack at Heathrow in which I was unable to even get through check-in. I did the most self-destructive thing you can do, and I turned around and left the airport. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the plane I was meant to get on was cancelled, as were all other flights to the country for days, due to a giant ash cloud. That was all I needed to confirm that I had been, in fact, correct. Some sort of messiah complex came hurtling to the front of my consciousness: I had known that the flight was cursed. My anxiety had been vindicated and it drank in its reward - I swore off all long-haul journeys, just like it wanted.
I had always known it wasn’t a fear of flying – the actuality of being in the air was never the issue, the issue was my lack of control and an inability to escape. Sure enough, over the years, the panic started to creep into other situations where I felt trapped; middle rows of the cinema and theatre, long distance train rides, tubes held at red signals. Every time I was in a situation where I couldn’t run out of the exit, I wanted nothing more than to run out of the exit.
However, I write this having travelled for 17 hours on an overnight ferry a couple of days ago. I felt the rush of blood to my head as the panic tried to stop me boarding, but instead I stepped over the threshold and found my cabin. I watched TV and listened to music and made myself some dubious “pasta in a cup” (this was probably the most horrifying part of the whole thing). I was surprised about just how fine I felt. The jolt of fear that was sent through my veins at the noise of us departing quickly subsided, and I forgot I was even on a boat. I won’t lie and say there weren’t little swells of panic at points during that journey - like when Google maps told me I was in the middle of the ocean - but I bounced out of the ferry 17 hours later feeling a real sense of accomplishment. I have taken 3 flights in the last week, and whilst all of them were short haul, none of them came with even the slightest flinch of worry.
This was all made possible by the wondrous thing that is cognitive behavioural therapy, something I was lucky enough to access through the NHS. I did my therapy online and had contact with my therapist once a week via email or an online portal. It wasn’t always plain-sailing; I started my therapy with a face-to-face counsellor who I felt dismissed my issues and I didn’t ‘click’ with. However, the online therapy was hugely helpful and has got me to where I am now (somewhere between Stockholm and Copenhagen to be precise).
That’s because I am sat writing this on a 5-hour train journey, and by the end of the week I am hoping to grace Instagram with a picture of myself standing outside of an airport terminal having returned, by plane, without anxiety ruining the journey. Even as I type this my brain is screaming at me that it will be with a sense of sad irony that it will only be read at my funeral, that my last written words were about how everything would be fine, and it was not fine. But I am trying to silence that voice, and it is getting a little quieter every day.