Transcript #26 Kitchen Table Chat: On Anxiety with Steph, Charlie, Dave and Marcus
Steph: Anxiety... it's a bitch sometimes. One of the conversations we've had is the one that, obviously it's challenging having anxiety but I wouldn't want to change it because it is a side effect of good things as well. I feel that if I got rid of anxiety I'd lose some of the good things about myself, some of the things I really like. I see it more as a side effect of the way I am. I'm really good and efficient at doing a lot of things and holding a lot of stuff in my brain, which means I can get a lot of stuff done. But that also means that I have a lot of stuff in my brain and I don't always know how to turn that off.
It's something that I can learn to manage the bad side effects of but I don't want to rid myself of the things that cause it completely.
Dave: Do you still feel like that?
Steph: Well, going by the fact that I almost had an anxiety attack the other night... no, I do still feel like that. I feel like I've got better and better at managing the anxiety and knowing what the triggers are. I feel like, for me if I look after myself physically then I'm less likely to have an anxiety attack. Anyone that knows me knows that I have to drink water, otherwise I go through the stage of being grumpy and I get really anxious. So if I keep hydrated, if I eat well and I sleep well, then I'm much better at managing it. But I do still feel like that, because I feel it is so intrinsic. There are some negative triggers that cause it, but I think that there are some things about how I am as a person that makes me more susceptible to it. Perhaps? But i think anxiety is different for everyone.
Marcus: What are those negative triggers?
Steph: The period I had really bad anxiety for I think I was in a really dysfunctional situation. That was a massive trigger for me. Being somewhere that wasn't right, where I wasn't myself, where I wasn't able to be myself. I can definitely pinpoint physical triggers. Not sleeping for example. But I still don't necessarily know what the emotional triggers are for me. Sometimes I just don't see it coming... and then I stop and have a big cry in the middle of a cave path... for example! I don't necessarily know what has caused that or why. That's my experience of it. I think sometimes I can look back with hindsight and see why it happened. But that moment when I feel it coming I get a hum. A resonance. Once that process starts its quite difficult to stop. I can feel it coming now, and it doesn't usually come on completely unawares, but I can quite quickly go down that hole. I've had 2 or 4 anxiety attacks in the last year, so compared to where I was a few years ago that is a huge improvement.
Dave: Does it ebb and flow over long periods? Or is it always there?
Steph: That's an interesting question because until about 3-4 years ago I wouldn't have said I had anxiety either. I didn't recognise it as anxiety. I think my mum would have said that I was a stressy child. Always worried. But it don't think it was until I lived in Canada that it really manifested as quite a raw kind of anxiety. And that period that I had there, I've never had anything like that before. It's difficult to know because I went about a year without having an anxiety attack and then have had 3 in the last 4 months. But I also think that corresponds with the fact that I've been going to counselling, and I've been prodding things in my brain and a lot of things have been a lot more raw. So that probably has something to do with it.
How about you guys?
Dave: Well, today is the 2 year anniversary of my first anxiety attack. So it is an auspicious day to do this! Once I'd had an anxiety attack and had it diagnosed as an anxiety attack as opposed to a heart attack, stroke, brain tumour, which were the 3 things I went through at the time when I was wondering what this was, I suddenly saw countless times in my past that were vague versions of it. I started to see that what I thought of as being nervous or shy, or worried, was the same thing, just a lesser version of an anxiety attack. It was part of the same process. It just didn't push past that tipping point. At the moment, a lot of nights I'll still have mini background anxiety attacks, where my heart rate goes and I'll get a little explosion of adrenaline that I can feel in my chest and my fingertips and my toes. But compared to when I was having anxiety attacks every day... my head was completely full of the things that were or were not causing my anxiety. Since changing my life and changing my circumstances, that part of it went pffst and now when I have an anxiety attack it's just like, 'Oh, I'm having an anxiety attack. I'm not sleeping. This is annoying because I need to get up in the morning and go to work". But the emotional side of it, at least temporarily, has momentarily disappeared. But I would like the rest of it to go away! I'd really like it if I didn't have these things anymore, because I didn't used to. I did decide a while ago, while I was still really suffering, that on my path to get some sort of recovery I decided I would think of myself, like alcoholics are always alcoholics, I would think of myself like, 'Okay, I suffer from anxiety. I just haven't suffered from anxiety in a week, or two weeks. There was a time when to go a week without an anxiety attack was huge. It was only really when it was like, 'I've had one a day for six days, I can't do this'. It was getting to that level of unrelenting that made me finally take the huge risks, or what I saw as huge risks, to try and get out of it. I'm very attached to dates of bad things unfortunately. It was really interesting when I realised that I was doing this on the anniversary of my first one. I have a strong connection to various time cycles and for me a year is really important amount of time. I haven't had what I would consider to be a serious anxiety attack in the last year. One that has left me feeling drained and broken, but I've had so many anxiety attacks through this last year. So it's been two years of what I would call suffering.
Steph: I think that you feel it really physically. Talking to you about what it feels like when you have an anxiety attack, your experiences seem so much more extreme than mine.
Dave: I want to run away. It's pure flight. I want to run away. And when they were at their worst I would notice it. I would sit and my feet would be paddling. My arms would be like I was running away. There was a time when I was having an anxiety attack with friends, and a friend just gently held my feet, to stop my feet jiggling. And then it just moved up my body and everything above my legs was duh, duh, duh, duh, and walking was the thing that I needed to do. Sometimes I would walk for hours a day, and I had to walk slowly because anything that got my heart rate going was basically having an anxiety attack. I was a wuck walker traditionally, so I found this pace that was enough to make it feel like I was getting somewhere, but not enough so that it raised my heart beat. But as you say I would feel this explosion from whatever gland it is. I'd feel this tingle go out all the way into my fingers and my toes. Somedays, times when I was ssanguid about it I could just be like, 'Oh. I'm having an anxiety attack', and just wander off and find somewhere quiet to sit down and let it pass. They were good days. And the bad days I didn't do that and then it could go on for hours. One New Years Eve, 2016, I think I did 4.5hours of anxiety attack. I wanted to go out but I didn't want to go out. It took me 4.5 hours of anxiety attack to just go, 'You're not going out. It's alright. Yeah, it's NYE and you think you love NYE but no. Just don't go out'. Fortunately, I had a friend with a very young child who also wasn't going out. So I could go out and be looked after. Some of it I just look back now and think that the levels of internal conflict... I think that's where it came from. Internal conflict of this irresolvable, or apparently irresolvable conflict, between one side of me and the other side of me. And then that sort of expressed itself in so many other ways that learning to not create any extra conflict for myself was part of calming it all down. Accepting the conflict that I have no real control over. Don't bring it into the world in a like, 'Well, I want to go out for New Years Eve... I should be able to go out... Oh, but I can't go out... but I want to go out...'. After sometime I realised, just accept it at as a thing. There was that realisation that I would just shovel fuel onto it, and add to it and add to it.
Steph: I'd often find that the more I tried to fight it, especially when it goes down to a certain point, I just have to let it come.
Marcus: That's what I found. If it comes and it has got to a certain point then I just have to let it continue. There is no way for me to stop it, that I have worked out. Now I;m better at sensing a little bit before that... I basically just have to do that same thing and go and walk and walk and walk, until my mind is off that and it's okay. I think in about February or March I had quite a severe anxiety attack and I hadn't had one in a couple of months before that. I think I thought I'd passed that stage. I could still feel low levels of anxiety a lot of the time, but that time I was at my parents house, which I often find quite difficult, because I find it hard to explain what my lifestyle is to them! It's hard to do. I can't remember what it was, but there was some very minor conflict going on between me and my dad and it just sort of snapped. I'm not sure how to explain it, I've used the metaphor before that it's sort of like the tabs on a computer screen. It's like they are constantly opening and I'm trying to shut them. But every time I shut one down, five more open. I can feel my head filling with tasks and plans just piling up, to the point where I'm just frantic. So that time, something just snapped and I could feel my body starting to shake. I was trying to hold it and I just ended up punching myself really hard in the head... I'm not going to do it!... because my head was so full. And my dad stormed off because he thought I was being dramatic. I couldn't breathe and I ended up after a while rocking on the floor with my mum holding me. I was like, 'Wow, that hasn't happened like that for a long time'. And then it didn't happen again until August. I was in Germany, walking along the street in Cologne, and I could suddenly feel my hands twitching. I was walking and talking to a friend, but I couldn't really function. I couldn't really focus. All I could do was to try and hold my hand still. We were walking and after a while I could sense that I couldn't really talk to her anymore. The words were coming out weird. It got to this point where I couldn't really work out whether I was talking to her, or myself, or nobody. All of the building suddenly felt like they were really close to me and it seemed like all of the people and the traffic had suddenly turned to noise up. I had this image of again getting to a point where I'd be rocking back and forth on the streets of Germany, so I basically had to say to my friend I can't do this I just need to sit down. So I sat and stared at the horizon in between the buildings for about 5 minutes, and then it sort of went away. I could still feel it inside of me. It's weird because it is a very physical sensation.
Steph: How is it for you Charlie?
Charlie: For me it's really triggered by people around me and then how that makes me feel about myself. If I feel that I am not good enough. It was particularly in my work tour guiding, if I got someone who was unhappy with some aspect of the tour then I would immediately take it on as, 'That's my fault. It's something that i have done wrong. I'm not good enough', and it would spiral from there to not being able to give the talks that I'm meant to give. Because if I wasn't able to answer a question, it meant therefor 'I'm useless. I couldn't answer that question so now I can't do my presentation on... the 100 years war... because I'm useless'. It comes completely from how I think other people are viewing me. To the point that I can't even think what might be going on for them if they are unhappy about something. What is there paradigm? What point of view are they coming from? I just get completely blinkered and take it all on for myself. It creates these feelings of low worth. I can really feel it. Just low levels of shaking. I wouldn't know if I'd call it an anxiety attack, but it's a dropped stomach. Stomach ache.
Steph: Like general anxiety. Which I think we all get as well.
Marcus: Yes, I guess those examples, well especially my one, were the very extremes that happen... Well, they used to happen a lot, now they only happen once every 6 months if that. But that's a different story to just the general slug of general anxiety.
Charlie: I used to think, 'Oh, I'm really independent. I like to go to the cinema by myself, and I like to go to the theatre by myself and then sort of realising, after awhile of carefully analysing it, and understanding myself more through therapy, I realised that, no, I'm doing stuff by myself because there is no pressure. I'm not worried about how everyone else is feeling. My actions aren't going to affect anyone, and it's a break to be by myself. I’m rarely anxious if I'm alone by myself. If I'm thinking about other interactions then that might make me anxious, but it is so linked to how I am viewed by others. How my actions or decisions will affect others and how they will then view me.
Steph: I definitely get that general feeling of anxiety when I feel apart. If I go to something where I feel like everyone else is a part of something. I guess social anxiety is not feeling part of something. Walking into a room and being like, 'Hurgh!' and just wanting to leave. Just wanting to turn around and not engage with that. I think sometimes that can be a trigger for things to spiral for me. Sometimes it's just social anxiety, and I can bear it and push through it. And sometimes it spirals. It's strange the physicality of it though and how everyone feels it in a different way. I feel it afterwards as well. I can feel it for hours. I call it 'The Hum'. It just resonates and I want to get rid of it. I just want to shake it out.
Dave: I would get times when I would feel quite elated afterwards. I don't know if it was the 'Okay, calm down' hormones going but there were times when there was a feeling of purging. I think they were the times when I was more, 'Here it is, here it comes. I'm just going to let it happen to me'. There were times when I was able to think about it. There were times when I was able to talk about it. I remember one time I was on the phone with my best friend from school. They were phoning me so I thought, 'I'll answer it and see what this is like'. That was one where I was describing it down the phone and afterwards got this real sense that I had done something good.
Maybe, because there is a fundamental negativity to it. For me it was fear. It took me a while to work out what I was afraid of but for me it was just fear. I think there were times when I felt like I'd almost hust vanquished the fear and then i got the associated hormones telling me, 'Well done. You were brave. Didn't you do well defeating the thing you were afraid of', despite the fact that there was no thing. Sometimes that would upset me, that there was no bear. It was always a bear =for me. That was my paradigm. There is no bear. 'If there were a bear trying to eat me then this would make sense. I would be having an appropriate and normal reaction to the bear. But there is no bear.'
Marcus: But is there not a metaphorical bear?
Dave: Yes, there was a metaphorical bear. Which is much harder to see than an actual bear.
Steph: I think sometimes there is a metaphorical bear. When I was in Canada, I Basically had anxiety for about 3 months. Low level everyday anxiety. I had a few anxiety attacks for sure, but it was just like a hum, everyday and all the mental stuff going with it. That was definitely a metaphorical vear.
Marcus: But you were in Canada though so...
Steph: Yes, I was in Canada so there probably was also actual bears! But then I look at a lot of other stuff and I think I struggle from the not knowing whether social anxiety is something that I need to push through and fight. Is this something that I need to fix in myself of is this a situation where my brain is rightly telling me to get out of? I just don't know. I can't see what that situation is. When I was there I didn't know what that situation was. It wasn't until I left the situation that I was able to see, 'Oh, that was probably what was causing the anxiety'. It's really easy with hindsight but i think that a lot of the feelings of anxiety that I have I don't want to listen to them, because I think that there there is no metaphorical bear.
Dave: It's something small in a bear suit. I got my bear from a ridiculously fortuitous meeting sometime in the week or two after my first anxiety attack with someone that I knew who it turned out was doing a PhD in Counselling Psychology specialising in low and mid level anxiety. It was her. We just had a chat in the park, and she thought that the most useful way of conceiving of it was a huge overestimation of the level of threat to your actual life and your existence and your underestimation of your ability to deal with it. It took me a long time to take that concept and actually internalise it to the point where I could accept that I could deal with it. It took quite a lot of counselling as well, with a counsellor who really all she did was say, 'You can deal with that can't you? You'll be alright', but it was that. Once I tipped over to that point where I was like, 'Okay, I don't actually just believe this in the very top of my brain. I now believe this, that the threat is not that bad'. I really tried to focus on my ability to deal with it. I have no control over the threat, because that is coming from outside. Or that is the perception, that it is external. But I can do something about this. I was hoping, although I haven't really got this far yet, that I could use this for all the things that I hate. For all of the situations that I avoid because I can't really be bothered with that feeling of gnawing anxiety, as I would call it now, or worry or stress, as I used to call it. I hate being judged. I hate it so badly. But there are lot of situations that I think if you get yourself in that then you will get a lot out of it.
I started thinking that maybe I can use that. Maybe that is the bit I can rationalise. For a long time I made the mistake of trying to rationalise the fear. Eventually it reached the realisation that it's an irrational fear. That there is no bear. But it seemed like I'd start to be able to rationalise my ability to deal with it. I was specifically terrified of poverty, but I realised that I was actually in a relationship that was really the cause of my anxiety. It turned out that I was terrified of poverty and losing my friends and of not having a home. They were the sort of anxieties that were fighting the anxiety coming from the relationship. That was the conflict and once I finally admitted those things... I felt so ashamed of them. I realised that I have no concept of it really. Some people are genuinely in poverty. Some people are genuinely alone. I have so many layers of protection in my life. I'm very lucky. So I felt ashamed to admit that this what I was mortally terrified of. But gradually it was like, 'These are things that I can do something about and have power over. Maybe it won't work. Maybe I won't succeed how I want to be, but I have some power over earning money and finding somewhere to live. And I have friends and I should trust them that they won't abandon me. So when you were talking about social anxiety, which I feel I'm quite lucky to never really have had, my immediate thought was that leaving doesn't matter, staying doesn't matter... what is the worst that could happen? What is the problem? I understand entirely that when you are there that doesn't make sense, because I have it the same that, 'the worst thing that could happen is the worst thing that could ever happen to anybody ever. I learned from you, Steph, that it is okay to leave a party. It's that point when you realise that you have peaked. The last party I went to I was able to realise that, 'Okay, I've peaked now, and I'm on that slow descent. If I go now I will feel better than if I wait until the point where it's like, Argh this party is awful now I must go home'. I mean, it's exactly the same thing, just viewed from the happy side rather that the awful side. It's exactly the same concept but rather than feeling driven from it, I was able to be able to express my agency, 'I like it here... I like it less now so I will go home'. I could never leave parties before that and then you showed me the way.
Steph: Charlie, I was wondering how your training to be a counsellor has affected how you feel about anxiety? Obviously you are looking a lot about the theory and the stuff we've talked about together has been really interesting to me.
Charlie: It is really difficult to apply theory when you are in the middle of it! But then you take a step out and go, 'Oh, okay'. One of the things I like about being a counsellor is that if I'm with a client and feel anxious that's a really good thing. I can go to my supervisor and say, 'This client has brought up anxiety in me'. Being allowed to explore it and being encouraged to explore what feelings are. Whereas in my other role as a tour guide, or support worker, the anxiety was seen as something that I couldn't tell my boss. 'Don't tell my boss that I feel bad, that I don't feel good enough, because that means that I'm not good enough, and I'm not doing a good enough job'. I feel in so many places it's not seen as a positive tool even though, like you were saying earlier, the anxiety sometimes drives you to get things done. Like in the same way, as a counsellor it is a tool for understanding expression. In terms of the theory behind anxiety everyone is so different. I don't think there is one cause. For me I wouldn't go into a counselling room and say, 'You've got anxiety and it's this', but just using it as a tool to understand what's driving it.
Steph: Even around this table it's all different things that are the cause of it and different routes through it as well. Just the same way that there are different reasons behind it, something that works for one person is not going to work for someone else. I mean, someone else could drink eight pints of water a day and still seem a bit anxious! I think for me one of the things that has really helped is being able to talk about it quite openly. I think I'm quite lucky that in some of my work that has also been the case. I have quite a weird job situation, but some of the people that I work with I'm able to say, 'I'm feeling really anxious today', or, 'I'm having a really difficult week', and that's okay because it's with people I know also struggle. I also know that in my group of friends, for example, the first anxiety attack I had when I came back from Canada was on a coast path when I was walking with three friends. They were all ahead of me and I just sat down and started crying in a really narrow point in the coast path. And it was brilliant because they all just came and sat with me. Somebody passed me some water. Somebody passed me some biscuits and they just sat with me. Nobody tried to give me rational thoughts or anything like that. They just sat and waited with me, and chatted with me, and hugged me until I kind of came out the other side. Actually, again this year with some of the anxiety attacks I've had, I mean, Dave was there for one of them. Actually being at a friends house playing board games and having dinner and being able to say to the two people I was with, 'I'm just feeling super anxious', I think that was the first time I've ever been with people from that first stage going down the drain with people. As a result I think it's one of the least extreme anxiety attacks I've ever had because it was with two people that I know also suffer with anxiety. There was no shame. There was none of that. I wasn't worried about what was happening. I feel really fortunate to have friends who understand. Maybe not all of them have anxiety, but they have a good understanding of it and know other people who do. I have a lot of friends that suffer with depression as well, and it just being quite an open forum for that, which I think is really helpful for me because it normalises it. It doesn't turn it into a big deal. If I say to one of you guys, 'Oh, I had an anxiety attack last week', it's not like 'Hurgh... Oh my God! We have to fix you'. I'm able to say it in passing conversation without it being a huge deal and that is hugely helpful for me in normalising that. I feel that the more that I've talked about it, and the more conversations I've had about it, that the more other people have talked to me about it, the more normal I've realised that it is. But it was having that first step of starting to talk to people about it was a huge deal. Coming back from Canada to a group of friends that before I went away I'd never talked about mental health with and then suddenly coming back and people being like, 'How was Canada?' and I was like, 'Well, you know, there were some really great parts'... but how do I talk about the 3 months of crippling anxiety? Which I was still feeling the dregs of when I came back.
Dave: I think for me there seemed to be a real sense of the inseparable connection between talking or not talking and how bad the anxiety was, because it was such obvious fear in me. Talking about it was a risk, but also I don't think I ever had an experience of talking to someone and them dismissing it. I am quite persistent! So the act of talking to someone and having them apparently care, that takes away some of the fear. Just that simple fact takes away some of the fear, and that in many cases would halt the descent. It doesn't take it away but it takes away that sense of dropping and dropping and dropping. One time I was just out walking, pounding the streets and I bumped into two friends. I told them. They said, 'Oh hello! What are you up to?' and I said, 'I'm having an anxiety attack, and I'm walking'. And they took me to their house and talked to me and gave me tea. I think that's what I was searching for really. I was searching for compassion and concern. I was struggling, and any example of anyone caring about that took me one step to where I wanted to go. I was astounded at how many people I knew, but didn't know suffered from anxiety, suffered from anxiety.
Then when I met you, Marcus, that was a huge thing. Steph's birthday party was a huge thing for me to do. But I went there knowing that a lot of the people that I had never met and were frightening, also suffered from anxiety. So I went there with this feeling in my head that, 'I'm going to meet people and that's terrifying to me at the moment, but I'm fairly confident that I will be able to say as one of my opening lines, "I'm suffering from anxiety at the moment", and not be 'Oh God, who is this guy at the party', but someone who will be sympathetic and share something with me'. And that was amazing.
Marcus: I remember being really anxious before that because I basically only knew you, Steph, and your housemates. I didn't know anyone else. How many people were there?
Steph: About 25?
Marcus: I gave one of your other friends a lift from Brighton, I had this nice chat on the way, and I thought, 'Okay, she is really lovely and I think all the people that Steph is going to have there will be nice too'. So I went there and it was totally fine. But I do remember that thought of being, 'What am I doing? I'm going to the middle of nowhere to stay in a hostel with 25 people I don't know'. At that time it was the winter and I'd been struggling quite a bit inside my head. It was really nice to talk to people about it. Why I think it is so good for me to talk to people is because once I start to get it out of my head, and get it reflected back at me, I start to hear how unfounded or confused some of the things are. That is a really helpful part of the process. When I'm trying to deal with it in my head, all these irrational thoughts come round, there are just so many of them, with more and more popping up. It just becomes unmanageable, to the point where the whole world stops existing and it's just this really strong projection from inside of my head.
Steph: I know that in my head I see these thoughts go round and the logical part of my brain goes, 'This makes no sense', and the feeling inside of me says, 'I don't care if it makes sense, I can feel it!'. I remember just before I left Canada, when I got an anxiety attack I used to feel it so physically. I'd get a really tight chest, and I'd genuinely think that I was having a heart attack. But I remember worrying that I was having a stroke, and at the time I was living by myself on this bit of land with nobody else there. I just started panicking and the anxiety was getting worse and worse so I walked to the nearest house where I knew somebody and turned up at the door. My friend opened the door and invited me in for a cup of tea. I was talking with her husband. I said, 'I get this really physical anxiety'. And he is one of the warmest, calmest, most open people ever and he was like, 'Oh my god. Me too. I get this really tight chest, and I get this...' and I was like 'Oh my god. It's not just me. And that was one of the first times that I'd talked to someone about what it felt like and what I was going through and I just burst out crying. To have somebody who I consider to be a really happy, lovely person, to say, 'Oh yes, I know how you are feeling. I get that sometimes as well', just completely normalised it for me. That was a bit of a breakthrough that made me think that maybe I should try and talk to people more about how I was feeling.
I like your comment about my birthday, maybe that should be the tagline, 'Hey, come to my birthday. 2/3rds of my friends have anxiety!" It's probably fairly accurate.
Dave: It was good for me that's for sure. It was really good for me. It is totemic in my recovery. It's there as this beacon of corner turning. It's kind of rounded. That dark shadowy bit has peaked at the light again.
Charlie: Anxiety is trying to tell you something I think. I think that's why it's so different for everyone. It's not this one size fits all ‘this is an illness’. It's about what's behind it. It came out as anxiety, but what you wanted was compassion and care. That really struck a chord with me. That's what you were looking for. I think that is something that I really need to try and remember and certainly for me when it hits me... I've managed to control it more this summer. When I start to get really anxious telling myself, 'No, I am good enough. I am good at what I do', and that's my way of controlling it. Looking at what's behind it and what I'm looking for, and where can I get that from. Whether it is from myself or from talking to others. When I go back to the tour guiding example when I am by myself, with 25 people looking for me to be perfect because they have paid thousands of dollars for me to be perfect. Then you have to sit yourself in your hotel room and not so much give myself a stern talking too, because that's not helpful, but to relax into it. 'I'm anxious because I want to do a good job, and I'm worried that they're not thinking I'm doing a good job'. But I need to approve of myself. If I'm always looking for approval from other people then I'll always be anxious. I'm never going to get enough approval if I don't approve of myself first.
Steph: I think there is also a place as well for not putting yourself in situations that cause you extreme anxiety.
Charlie: That's why I'm no longer a tour guide!
Steph: You were saying that with the two tour guide companies you guided for, it was a lot worse with one of them because the expectations were a lot higher. That's a really good example of being, 'This is a situation that causes me anxiety. Maybe I shouldn't do that'. It's something that I really empathise with. It's something that I really struggle with. How much to push myself to overcome something and how much to recognise that something is not right for me and that is okay. It's not something that I need to fix.
I used to do a job which was target driven and that caused me huge, massive amounts of anxiety because we had to hit a certain amount of charity applications to get our funding. That just put me constantly on a feeling of having to achieve something. I was really good at it. I did a crazy amount of charity applications, but it pretty much broke me. It was terrible for me. Actually, I'm good at working in high stress environments, but working in high stress environments is not good for me. Realising that and looking at the life I've built for myself now where I'm able to manage my own time. Okay, there are pinch points where I may have a week of being really busy. But that is manageable. I can do that for a week and then the rest of the time I manage my time in a way that if I wake up really anxious one day then I can take the day off and go walking. I can do whatever I need to do to manage that and it's so much better for me. That is a massive realisation. And I know that is something we've talked about as well, Marcus.
Marcus: That's essentially what I found. I spent a couple of years basically in this period where I was so anxious, and also really depressed, and it was because although I was doing minor things to try and alleviate some of that depression and anxiety, but actually ultimately I realised, very suddenly really, that the three things that were causing me the most anxiety were the relationship I was in, the job I was doing and the place I was living in. They were all causing me really high levels of anxiety. I think alone each strand would have caused me a lot of anxiety. Together they were this superpower of anxiety and depression. I just flipped between feeling that the world was so futile that there was point to go on, because I couldn't get out of it. And on other days it would be more anxiety based where I would need to try and think my way out of it. Actually, in the end I had to really realise that those were three things, that painful as it was, I could change. And I did.
It was horrible, that process of dismantling my life. It was traumatic. I understand why people don't do it, and I understand why I had resisted doing it for so many years. But actually there were a few months when it was almost unbearable, but now if I look back to how I feel generally now... before I'd be say, 90% of the time I'd feel awful and a bit of the time I'd feel okay. Now I think it's flipped more or less the other way. That while, I'm broke, I'm single, I live in a van and I think my parents are probably horrified about what my prospects are for the future, I feel that to me that doesn't really matter. Nobody can tell me I'm doing it wrong because my metrics are that I felt awful most of the time and now I feel sort of okay most of the time. That says something to me.
I guess I tried to do it by meditating for 20 minutes a day... or going for a run... which are all useful things, but not when everything else around you is not working. That change is painful but I think maybe all real change is painful in some way.
Dave: Did you find it less painful than you thought it was going to be?
Marcus: Yes. It required a lot of sitting with all of these really uncomfortable emotions which I had been hiding or running away from, or suppressing in some way. That was a year ago, and there were only maybe a couple of months where I was really in a place where I felt that this feels like it is possibly the right thing to do, but it feels like I could also be doing this completely the wrong way. And only time will tell. But I feel now it was the right thing. It was really difficult, but not as difficult as continuing. Because I couldn't continue.
Dave: I had that. In the run up to this anxiety anniversary, I was thinking, because I was expecting it to come back because I tend to have little reruns of traumas, so this week I was trying to feel grateful to it. Because it was my anxiety that basically forced me to do what I needed to do. I don't know if I would have got out of the relationship had I not. For 4 years I'd been managing, coping. I'd been making the best of it and looking on the bright side and being positive, and all the time, slowly shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. It was the violence and the unremitting nature that at the time I just thought 'This is a part of me that doesn't care about me'. Now I look at it and think, 'No that was a part of me that really did care'. But I found at the time that the feeling I had was. 'In this space of serious anxiety, how am I able to take this leap into the unknown? How am I going to actually be like, 3/4 of my existence I'm just going to smash and leave? If I was feeling really good about myself this would still be terrifying and yet I am in a state of fear'. When I forgot about it it was fine and when I was not being distracted it was back. But then, everything that I was afraid of, the moment of doing it, the moment of separating was like taking all of the needles out. It was like everything that had been hurting me was just gone. That only lasted about 2 weeks before the reality of my situation started to creep back in about what I'd done, but I still remember and it's very powerful to remember, just how bad I was. When I'm feeling gloomy now, well it's so much better than it was. At least you don't hate everything that you do. I think a lot of it was just an expression of agency and freedom. It was just an expression of 'Okay, I'm getting out of one shit state of affairs into another shit state of affairs, but the new state of affairs I'm choosing. This is mine'. Whereas the other one I felt to some point that I never chose that. What I chose was what we used to have, and I certainly hadn't chosen where we ended up.
Steph: I recognise echoes of that from Canada, of finding yourself in a situation. It kind of creeps up on you, doesn't it? You wouldn't have got into that situation, but that isn't the situation you got into. It's the situation that it became. For me, I had no power in that situation. Now power, no nothing. The only way to move forward was to physically leave that. Whereas now I find myself in the situation where I have a bit of general anxiety and the occasional anxiety attack, but there isn't really one thing that is causing it. Which is better and worse. There is no massive bad thing in my life, which is a positive. I mean there are benefits to it. It's made me go back to counselling. It's made me prod things to work out what is underlying, because there evidently are underlying things that are causing it. It's made me take better care of myself as well. It's hard when you feel you are just looking into a bit of a gloom and thinking, 'Somewhere in there is the problem'. The day before yesterday, I started to feel myself going down the route of an anxiety attack. I was so frustrated. I was like, 'There is nothing wrong. I've just had 4 days off. I've been walking. I'm happy. I'm having dinner with my friend. What is going on? Please make yourself known!" Is it just that I didn't drink enough water, which I know pushes me to the line, or is it there something going on here that I need to address? It's the frustration of not knowing in that situation. Feeling that I don't have control of the situation. Needing to change something, but not knowing what I need to change. Great.
Marcus: We've been talking for an hour now, shall we try and think of a way to wrap it up.
Steph: It's difficult to wrap it up when this is really my life, just sitting around the kitchen table.
Dave: It's just a small window. But for me that was the key. Once I started talking about it and then all these people were talking about it. Then we were talking about it. I had a briefly set up Anxiety Club to talk about it. I don't feel at the moment anxiety is a thing keeping me from anything. It is a thing that happens, all the associated things I don't feel, because I feel like I am safe. I am protected from it, from my own sense of anxiety. I now feel like I have what I need to accept it. To be fine with it. To not be afraid of it. I think that was the thing, the anxiety anxiety was a real like, 'Oh God, how many circles can I go in, how many spirals can I go down?' I discovered when I hadn't had an anxiety attack for months and then had one over the summer that I was totally, 'Meh'. The longer it had been then more vague in the background concerned I'd got about 'What will happen if I have an anxiety attack? How will it affect me?" And how it affected me was, "I've had an anxiety attack and it's okay because I'm okay'.
Steph: I think talking about it has been a massive thing for me and I think I was so fearful about the fact that bringing mental health into my friendship group would cause damage, but actually what it has done is made it so much richer and so much better. I'm looking at the three people around this table with me and going, 'It's a pretty fundamental part of how we became friends'.
Dave: Would we even be friends without it?!
Steph: I think for me knowing that I have people that I can call if I;m feeling anxious. Or that I can turn up at an evening and say, 'I'm feeling a bit anxious this evening. I might stay for a bit or I might go', and also knowing how to be around other people and not being afraid to ask a friend if they are feeling anxious and asking what they need. Because everybody needs something different. And not being afraid to ask for what I need as well. So I might say, 'I might go for a walk now and come back a bit later', and feeling okay with being quite clear about that.
Charlie: Yes. Not being afraid of it and exploring it and trying to understand what it is for me. And that understanding comes from talking about it. If I'm feeling anxious and not doing anything about it it just gets worse and worse. But talking about it unlocks something that I wouldn't have necessarily have seen if it was just stuck in my head. But verbalising gives you more of a 'Oh! That's what that is'.
Marcus: I think that once you start talking and see that it is something that is not just exclusive to you but a feeling that so many people have, I think that took away some of the power that it had over me. And also I think changing my perception from it being that I am broken and I need to be fixed, to this is an experience I'm having right now, but it's not necessarily the huge problem I'm making it out to be. I think anxiety invites anxiety. You become anxious about feeling anxious so I think just to sometimes be, 'It's okay to feel how I'm feeling', and that I'm allowed to cancel stuff and it's totally fine.
Steph: I have a good place to finish on. It's the word 'self-full'. I invented a word. When looking after yourself you have 'selfish' and 'selfless'. But 'selfish' has horrible connotations to it and 'selfless' is the wrong thing when you need to look after yourself. So 'self-full' - looking after yourself and putting yourself first. Reclaiming the word as a positive thing. Take it to the world!
Thanks for reading! Each of these transcripts takes me at least a million years to type out, so if you find this useful then please do consider supporting my work on my Patreon Page. Thanks, Marcus :)