Armageddon Tinsel

Last year, I wrote this piece about what living with generalised anxiety disorder felt/feels like, after I was diagnosed with it in the summer of 2018 – but in the end I was, hilariously, too anxious to actually publish it. *facepalm*

It’s been living in my saved drafts, taunting me, ever since.

I’m still anxious about publishing it, but I’ve reached a point where I’m as at peace with that discomfort as I’m ever going to get – and, seeing as this week marks two years since I ended up in floods of tears opposite my GP trying to explain the amount of chaos and confusion and fear my brain was drowning in, it feels like a good time to finally share it. It took an embarrassingly long time to write (and it’s probably going to take a long time to read as well, sorry). I kept having to take breaks away from it because the line between catharsis and relapse turns out to be quite a thin one. I’ve left it how I wrote it last year, so the timeline is all wrong and there’s one word near the end that made me cringe when I reread it (you’ll see why when you get there). Also, as of March this year, I’m back on the SSRIs and back in therapy (yaaaay) to try and address the body stuff I’m still struggling with, so my “therapy free life” comment at the start definitely no longer stands. Aaaaand lastly, I know some parts of this post might sound self-pitying or pity-seeking but that’s really not what I wanted to get out of writing it – I just want to share some of the experiences I’ve had. The more I read, the more I listen, the more people I meet, and the older I get, the more I realise that we’re all struggling with something, we’re all just winging it, and we’re all just trying our best with what we’ve got – and that growing sense of perspective has been invaluable. My only hope for this post is that by sharing these things I can help anyone who’s been through or going through similar experiences to feel a little bit less alone.


Armageddon Tinsel

What Life With Generalised Anxiety Disorder Feels Like

MudTightrope

Back in February, after five months of CBT, I was officially released back into the wilds of therapy free life.

I was treated for generalised anxiety disorder, which – at the time – felt like a rubbishly undramatic and pathetic name for what was happening inside my brain. But, to give the name its due, it means exactly what it says.

everything + anxiety = disordered thinking, disordered behaviours, and a disordered life.

This is what it feels like…

Your brain is wired all. the. time. but it’s not wired for useful things or happy things or things that will improve you and your loved one’s lives – it’s flaring like a nuclear reactor siren for all the things that could go wrong, all the things that have gone wrong, all your failings (recent and ancient), and all the world’s failings (recent and ancient). And that anxious inner monologue is like a dog that just won’t stop barking – painful and mind-numbing to listen to, incredibly annoying, and unbelievably distracting.

You can’t sleep because, although your body is dead to the world, your brain is busy convincing you that you might never wake up; that maybe the hob is still on; that maybe all the doors and windows are unlocked; that maybe you forgot to put your car’s handbrake on (not weird worries); that maybe you said something unforgivably nasty to someone during the day and just can’t remember saying it; that maybe you ran over a cyclist whilst driving home and just didn’t notice (getting weirder worries); that maybe your foot is itchy because you scratched it on a syringe and just didn’t realise and now you have HIV or hepatitis or both; that maybe you’re the ugliest human that has ever lived and should stop leaving the house in case you make people unwell with your disgusting face; that maybe you put bleach in your cup of tea earlier and just can’t remember doing it; that maybe you randomly wrote the c-word in the middle of an e-mail, maybe wrote a whole paragraph’s worth of them, and just didn’t realise (definitely weird worries); that maybe there’s a sinkhole under your house and you’re about to die; that maybe there’s a plane tumbling to earth above your house and you’re about to die; that maybe another world war will break out and you and all your family will die; that maybe you’ll start sleepwalking and accidentally kill your family (triggered by this story in the news – fully fledged weird worries); that maybe someone in your family will start sleepwalking and kill you; that maybe you’re not real and the world isn’t real and that there’s no point to anything.

You struggle to make decisions – big and small – because you’re sure whatever you decide will end in disaster – big and small and all shades of disaster grey. You can’t concentrate and sometimes struggle to even talk because your brain is too busy processing absurd scenarios that it thinks it might need to deal with to focus on the actual task in front of it or to focus on the sentence it was half-way through saying. You stop trying new things and stop practising old things because you’re afraid of failing and afraid of ruining things that you love with your rubbishness. You refuse to put your heart on the line – refuse to put it anywhere near the line, eventually stop noticing/believing other people might be close to the line – because you’re embarrassed by your mental messiness and convinced of your physical ugliness, and you’re sure if anyone gets too close they’ll just hate you like you hate yourself.

Your memory is shot to pieces. You nod along blindly as people reminisce about events you were physically there for but mentally absent from – absent from because you were too busy trying to locate all the emergency exits; too busy wondering if there were glass shards in your drink or in your dinner; too busy imagining all the fat in your body tearing through your clothes; too busy trying to figure out how hideously disgusting you looked from 360 different angles; too busy assessing people’s faces for signs that they were repulsed or sickened by your physical appearance; too busy scrutinising an awkward moment from three minutes/days/months/years before; too busy picturing your house burning down; too busy working out if the ache in your head was actually a headache or if it was a brain haemorrhage in headache disguise; too busy praying that the sirens in the distance weren’t the police coming to arrest you for a crime you couldn’t remember committing; too busy contemplating the likelihood of gunmen appearing, which direction they would most likely appear from, and the chances of everyone’s survival.

You become vulnerable to bad people doing bad things to you because you stop trusting yourself and stop knowing which instincts you should believe in, because you blame yourself for those bad things when* they do happen, because you feel so worthless you assume no-one could be bothered to do anything bad to you anyway, because your default reaction is to shut down and convince yourself that the bad thing can’t have been real, that maybe it was just an anxious thought slipping into your perception of real life and that what you really need to do is just get a fucking grip (THIS issue is the biggest fucking kicker, I swear).

*and, unfortunately, it’s most likely when and not if – bad people know who to pick on.

AnxietyScreenshot
This is the delightful mindfuck my brain decided to treat me to after I was assaulted by a customer at work in May 2019, and this message was sent to one of my best friends as I sat crying on my sofa unable to face going on a night out to a crowded festival. I spent weeks not only worried that I might be assaulted again, but – after I reported it to the police – I became terrified that people would randomly accuse me of the same thing. It was the shitty cherry on top of an already shitty cake.

You startle constantly at the smallest things: a customer walking through the door, a friend’s hand on your shoulder, a cute little butterfly fluttering passed on its cute little way to do cute little butterfly things. You cry and you cry and you cry because you’re exhausted and don’t understand what’s happening to your brain, because you’re frustrated that you can’t just pull yourself together, and because you feel unbelievably pathetic. You hurt yourself because it puts some of the pain in your mind onto your flesh, and flesh can’t think and chitter-chatter and babble away like a mind can; and because you’ve reached a point where you really don’t care about mistreating your body anymore – burning, bleeding, and bruising feels like all it’s good for.

You’re so, so ashamed because you don’t know how one person can be filled with so much negativity and badness and horribleness, and you feel guilty because you don’t know how you’ve wasted so much life – life that could have gone to someone else, to someone who would have done something useful with it.

Round and round in circles you go – minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Weeks, months, and years pass. The circles get smaller, but they, somehow, encompass more worries. They, somehow, spin faster. Your centre of balance tries to shift, tries to keep up, but the dizziness balloons and grows and morphs until you’re bursting at all the threadbare seams that are, somehow, still keeping you together; until you’re pitching left, right, forwards, and backwards on an ever shrinking life tightrope; until you’re actually not sure if just giving up and falling off that life tightrope is really such a bad idea anymore.

You realise you maybe, possibly, perhaps (desperately, desperately, desperately) need some help.

You wait months before actually phoning the doctors because you’ve invented a scenario in your head where the receptionist will tell you to stop wasting their time and strike you off the surgery’s list and then that’ll be the sign from the universe that you definitely have to die. They don’t strike you off the list when you eventually ring (funny that), but you do have to wait a month for an appointment. Then you finally, fina-fucking-ly, get to the appointment – the day before your 26th birthday – and break down the second you walk through your GP’s door. You cry, and blubber, and soak the whole lower half of your face in snot and tears (classy).

You’re lucky – so, so lucky – and have a doctor who listens through your incoherent sobbing; who politely ignores all the stuff dripping from your eyes and nose, and quietly hands you a box of tissues; who takes you and your misfiring brain seriously; and who – most importantly – comes up with a plan that gives you hope that things can change, a plan that doesn’t involve you dying.

Phew.

Replace all those ‘you’s with ‘i’s and – tadah – there’s messy old me.

*waves awkwardly*

*also makes preparations to go and live in a cave to avoid facing family/friends/colleagues who didn’t already know this story*

There’s no start date for me plus GAD, no stressful epiphany, no big trauma, no pantomime villain. My therapist and I raked through a lot of things, and the words “perfect storm” are the only ones that fit – no matter how clichéd they are.

I love, love, love a cliché.

Lots of little things led me down the anxiety-brick road. I had all the life ingredients and all the personal traits to go right ahead and make myself a big old anxiety disorder cake. And I baked that cake to perfection.

What can I say? I’m a good baker. *flicks hair over shoulder sassily*

Generalised anxiety disorder is addictively habitual. It’s superstitious – if I worry about it every second for twenty four hours then maybe the bad thing won’t happen because I’ll be ready? But maybe I’m making the badness gravitate towards me by thinking about it? Fuck, which one is it supposed to be?’ – and it’s so, so delusional. Painfully delusional. It’s a hall-of-mirrors lense that tricks you into thinking you’ll see the world more clearly – in beautiful, crisp focus – if only you just take a look through it. But once you’ve leaned in to see what’s behind the glass, once you’ve leaned in to take that sneaky peek, it shows you a kaleidoscope of horribleness instead – and you don’t know how to tear your eyes from it, don’t know how to unscramble the picture that’s being painted before you.

Being painted by you.

That lense is all you think you have. It’s all you think you can rely on.

With each day, week, and year that passed GAD became inseparable from my whole sense of the world. I decorated everything I loved, all the things I dreamed of, all the hopes I had for my life with its awfulness – some Armageddon tinsel here, a few epidemic* baubles there, plus a sprinkling of sudden death glitter on top.

*okay, so let’s not talk about this prophetic word choice. 2020 is turning out to be some epic exposure therapy. *laughs awkwardly, breaks down in tears*

Every day, my brain still tries to get out that sudden death glitter and make the world sheeny-shiny with horribleness. Every day, I have to remember to put the GAD goggles down and back away from the black hole of worry lurking in my heart.

I think I’m getting better at it.

Obviously, I worry that I’m not. It’s a hard habit to kick.

But mostly I’m finding it easier to dismiss the anxieties that before would have hijacked – hook, line, and sinker – my mind for hours and days and weeks. Mostly I’m able to get on with doing the things I need and want to do. Mostly.

And for now, mostly feels like winning.

For always, mostly is winning.

*

Some links, tips, and resources that might come in handy:

  • I was helped by Steps 2 Wellbeing (a NHS service based in Dorset and Southampton, UK).
  • The Samaritans – you don’t have to be feeling suicidal to call them (maybe this is stupid of me, but I didn’t know that before I went to my GP), they’re there to help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year if you’re feeling bad and need to talk to someone.
  • Mind have lots of useful information on their website.
  • And so does the NHS.
  • Made of Millions have loads of great information, advice, and resources on their site too.
  • There are useful links for support on the Heads Together website. Heads Together is a charity founded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to tackle the stigma associated with mental health issues.
  • Arm yourself with knowledge. Whether it’s through books, tv documentaries, podcasts, or radio programmes – learn more. It’s comforting to know you’re not alone and gives a sense of perspective that is invaluable. I find authors like Bryony Gordon, Rose Cartwright, and Matt Haig helpful. You might not have the same symptoms or diagnoses as them or me but it’s remarkable how similar the patterns of mental illnesses are, and there’s no harm in learning more about other people’s experiences.

HelpfulBooks

  • If you work for a larger company, they’re likely to have a helpline for their employees to ring (that should probably be anonymous, but double check if you’re unsure). Ditto unions.
  • And please, please, please contact your GP – don’t let make believe scary receptionists put you off.

If anyone has other charities/organisations/books/tips they can suggest, please do!

Green

If you look too long into the green the green will eat you up. It will wind its way around your heart and its splintered roots will lodge inside your bones. Underneath your skull, a whole forest will unfurl and make your thoughts a muddle. You’ll try to leave it, try to live beyond it, but you’ll find your soul ensnared, find it calling you back, pulling you back, painting your blood and staining you through.

Smoky light beams in a woodland, Dorset.

Paddling

Antique Edwardian photograph, inpsiration for a short story. Paddling at Mudstone.
Antique photograph captioned “Paddling at Mudstone” found in an old album from a flea market.

The water is cold between Esme’s toes and the shingle is prickly against her skin.

The others giggle all around her, but she is silent.

Something isn’t right.

She can feel it in her feet, feel it tangling up her calves, growing over her knees. The sea is bleeding into her, melting to her flesh. Soon, she will not be able to leave.

She stumbles back and the others stop giggling. They ask what’s wrong.

She stumbles back and saltwater sloshes against her skirt. Worst of all, it sloshes in her heart. She feels the weight of it swim left and right inside her chest, feels it splash against her lungs.

She stumbles back and suddenly the cold is all around her. She closes her eyes and holds her breath – sinking and sinking, baptised.

Everything under is quiet. Everything under is calm.

Only her and her fuzzy heartbeat.

Before she feels them, she hears them – their shouts, their screams. And then their hands come – grasping, pulling, dragging her up until she is drowning in air.

Before she feels the sand, she hears the sand. It crunches against her ear and suckers to her face. Voices babble all around her but she cannot understand what they say.

Before she feels it, she sees it. She holds a leg up in the air and watches as her skin shimmers in the light and flashes in the sun. Blue and purple and green and silver. Scales.

She must get back to the water.

Land is not enough.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<

Sky Painter

Some nights she found it hard to paint the sky – matching it just so to how everyone had come to think it should look. Some nights she didn’t have to paint it at all – those nights were hard too, hard on her itching painter’s hands. She would stare at the top of the clouds and wonder what to do. Sometimes she would doodle across them, patterns of all different colours and shapes, patterns only she could see. Sometimes she would burst with anger and boredom and tear great, bright gashes through the air. She always regretted those and erased them as fast as she had made them, roaring with all the air in her lungs. And sometimes she would paint it just the same as on a clear and crystal night, because practise makes perfect and perfect was how people thought it should be.

There were nights, however, that she could paint the sky just how she wanted to, nights when no-one would notice the stars were missing.

Those nights, she would pour her whole soul into the moon, big and bright and shining. She would swirl the glowing, glossy emulsion round and round until she was dizzy and heartless and soulless, and when there was nothing left to paint with she would fall, swoop, glide to the ground and walk until her feet were sore – which happens quickly when you hardly use them – glancing up at her whole life, hoping, when the time came, it would fit back in under her ribs and skull.

Mostly, it did fit.

Some nights, there were pieces of it that didn’t.

And on those nights, she would scoop up the pieces of her life and soul and heart she had no room for any more and scatter them across the ground, hoping, when the time came, they would brighten someone’s dark.

Always, they did.

Full moon on a misty, foggy night in Dorset, England.

Snapshots

One of the habits I’ve been trying to get into this year is to write down at least one moment, one little snapshot, from every day before I go to sleep.

It could be something that made me happy or sad, something I overheard or eavesdropped, a decision I regret, the gist of a conversation, an idea. Anything.

I haven’t actually managed it every day, but I’ve managed it enough so that reading back over some of them – even though it’s only February – has reminded me of things that I otherwise would probably have forgotten. (The good things especially – for some reason the less good things seem to stay in my head of their own accord.)

Some are a description that I’ll use again. Some are feelings I can plunder. Some, to be honest, are pretty boring. But then maybe they’ll become less boring as time goes by – maybe they’ll be something that’s randomly significant – or maybe they’ll just become more boring. I don’t know.

All I know is that I’m really enjoying it.

And my snapshot from today will more than likely have something to do with feeling happy about finally writing another blog post.

Have a lovely weekend!