An ongoing battle with anxiety
A taste of things to come
I first experienced anxiety when heading into my Grade 8 ‘Cello exam. I knew from that day that I’d failed. I didn’t feel myself. I was under practiced and under prepared. But that didn’t stop the hopefulness my mum radiated. I’d progressed as far playing in front of hundreds of people as Lead of the Cello section of the Hastings Area Youth Symphony Orchestra. But here I was, stumbling. I didn’t do well with failure — of course I’d failed in things, like sports, before. But it didn’t matter much to me because it wasn’t something I cared about. Things we deem important matter far more. Even then if you’re having fun it doesn’t matter at all. I’d been playing ‘Cello since I was 4 1/2 years old. With a teeny tiny ‘Cello. It was so engrained in me. A huge part of my life. University was around the corner. I’d soon have to say goodbye to my friends in the Orchestra. Angry teenage me chalked it up to never having been my decision to learn it in the first place. Looking back I wish I could give myself a proper talking to. But I think everyone wishes that at some point. Here I am though, I wouldn’t be who I am today if that had been different.
I next experienced anxiety on a morning after a particularly heavy night out during my final year at university. I found myself huddled on the floor of my bedroom completely overwhelmed. This started a series of episodes during my final year exams. I was unable to eat breakfast on the morning of exams. I’d spend several minutes heaving over the toilet. People discussing their revision had me wishing the ground would open up beneath my feet. At least the cause for this feeling was clear and rational. Even if the extent of the effect was not. Since then it’s been an ongoing battle to regain my confidence, and accept that there would be things that I could not control during my life.
After my exams it wasn’t until I’d had a job offer and no place to live that I had any anxious feelings, aside the normal levels you’d expect when waiting for results. I’d always thought I’d have struggled with finding a job, it had never crossed my mind that finding a place to live would be the issue I’d face first. But there I was, distraught at the thought of living with strangers. Imagining the amazing job opportunity slip out of my grasp feeling trapped and incapable.
Thankfully a friend suggested that a friend of theirs was renting a room. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for a stop gap until I found my feet. I’d met them, but not everyone in the house. It’s surprising how much you get to know someone when you’re being plied with alcohol while playing a board game all in the name of research, but that’s a story for another time. So just days before I started work I moved in. Little did I know that this would be where I’d stay for the next 5 years. Sharing much of my young adult life with them.
The company I worked for was small, I was one of the first non-founding employees after a brief summer internship. My first day I had a nose bleed, which went down brilliantly with my new housemates, who had drawn up a welcome message on my whiteboard (left over from uni) when I got home, me with blood and all. The office was on the same university campus I’d gone to for 3 previous years. The company continued to grow as more work came in and several office moves, within the same building, later we had a sizeable team in both Reading and London offices.
This ongoing feeling lead me to decline offers to socialise — I made up excuses that were paper thin. On the occasions I felt able to venture out I quickly found myself overwhelmed, my throat feeling like it was tightening up. My appetite completely gone. Stomach churning. Normal glances felt like glares. I struggled to keep conversations going. All symptoms alleviated once I left and headed home. This regularly left me home alone, questioning myself. Why had this become me? Going from playing music in front of hundreds of people to crying alone at home. The thought of burdening anyone with it frightened me. I felt no-one could understand it. I wasn’t normal. I was alone. The spiral between anxiety and depression was vicious and prolonged.
At differing points since this starting work I struggled to find a means of coping. I consulted my GP, who was very understanding and helped to talk through my options for support. I opted for medication, a low dosage to see me through what I attributed to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Anxiety had taken my life firmly in its control and this was what I felt would bring me back to a norma level. The loss of appetite returned.
This became my life for several years. My mood would start to stabilise, though never quite reach what used to be normal for me. It took a while to change that perspective to adjusting to what now is normal. Acknowledging this as the new me took a long time. Sure I can strive to improve, and still do, but it doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no quick fix. Day by day. Little by little things would change.
Stumble and fall
One evening in February 2016 I was riding home. High visibility vest and shoes on. Wrapped up in a winter coat I free wheeled down the hill I cycled up each morning. Puffing heavily by the top. This was the one bit of no effort riding I had. Spectacularly ruined by a lady in a car who pulled out to cross the road in front of me. Whether she was ignoring my right of way or hadn’t seen me didn’t matter. She stopped fully across my side of the road. I had to make a snap decision to pull across in front of her car, hoping there wasn’t a car the other side. Or another car trying to cross. This didn’t end up with me smashing into the car and flipping over the roof. However, sadly I lost the fight with gravity and made quite a spectacular stop as my bike slipped away from under me.
I was sprawled on the road, unsure why I couldn’t move my leg to stand up. Or quite how I’d get out of the road. A car behind hers was a great level of impatient and drove around her, barely any distance from driving over me and my bike. As she got out saying “I didn’t see him” I couldn’t help but think to myself: “That’s not what matters right now.” I was angry, in pain, and in shock. She helped me up, her husband felt the need to put my bike chain back on, fat lot of good that would do me now, rather than see how I was physically. More cars continued to drive past, ignoring me. Before I could take everything in the couple were saying how they felt bad about leaving me, and that they had to get to where they needed to go. Clearly not bad enough to drive away. I still kick myself for not taking down their details there and then. But that was far from my mind. I struggled to walk my bike down the road, with a searing pain down my leg, my wrist, and my hand. After barely managing to call my housemate to meet me and help me home I went to A&E.
This was my first time in A&E. I saw many people in far worse condition than me. The staff were very helpful in seeing me. But professional, rather than friendly. A couple of x-rays later I was on a trolley and my housemates were there again. Supportive and hopeful. I felt exhausted. Well aware of how adrenaline felt this was on another level. The good news soon followed that I was fit to go home, no obvious breakages. That was a relief, but didn’t really make how I felt ‘okay’. After getting off the trolley I started to see stars, the sound seemed to melt away. I’d felt this many times as a head rush. I caught myself just shy of fainting and sat back on the trolley. Heaving, wanting to be sick, I felt jolts of pain. They took my blood pressure, it was low. 2 litres of saline later it was still a bit on the low side, but they let me go. 7 hours in hospital. Time I wouldn’t get back.
Work was understanding and sympathetic. It felt gruelling to be in pain taking a shower, putting on pants & socks, lifting a mug of tea. This helped cement some already present feelings of being pathetic, useless and incapable. Not to mention out of pocket for some nice outdoor gloves, a bent wheel and the damage to my already crumbling pride. It was 2 weeks before I felt almost normal, but longer to fully recover.
Work had started to change when my mentor, and friend, left for another venture. Other colleagues began to transition to other jobs at different places until ultimately I was presented with difficult choice, which the company didn’t like presenting. I could either take redundancy, or do something I’d sworn off all of my childhood, and work in London. Naturally my brain began to panic. I couldn’t eat. Being a Friday I had nothing to keep my brain distracted for days. Numb and dejected I sat back at my desk and stared blankly at my screen. It all seemed rather pointless to do work now.
Naturally, I went straight to look for jobs online. I found myself getting more and more worked up. I quickly dismissed listing after listing because of distance, my skills lacking, not enough experience, or the fact I’d have to drive (something I’d been qualified for for years). Seeing what had become my life listed almost as checkboxes, which I failed to tick was a fast track way to feeling useless. I’d recently been to visit family in New Zealand. Seeing how different it was. How happy I felt out there. Travelling solo halfway around the world. Life crashed back down to earth. Coming back to dark mornings, dark evenings, and now this. I started to question what I wanted to do. Was my passion gone? Had I chosen the wrong degree after all?
London, a city of opportunity, was final my choice. After weeks of battling with myself, arguing with myself, and justing myself. Again my GP was available to help, explaining that there was a more long term solution that I should pursue, but they understood the timeliness meant I could certainly benefit from more immediate help.
This time around though the medicine had a quick-acting adverse effect culminating with me rushing to the loo, and up late on the phone with my GP panicking. My electing to try a different type of SSRI proved to be the cause. I’d hoped to avoid the nausea, loss of appetite, loss of interest, and apathy that I’d found with others. It helped numb the pain seeing my colleagues, now friends, leaving one by one.
This time though, I didn’t see it as an imbalance, I saw it as the need for a more fundamental change in my view of the world. A short while later I was enrolled on an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course. Things I’d seen before, but needing to take it in and practice them. I was hungry for the knowledge and was soon told off by my assigned therapist for progressing too quickly. Seeing my mood levels mapped on a graph did little to improve my mood. I thought the more information I could give the better view my therapist could have of the situation. I was grateful for the phone calls with them. But it was all over a bit too quickly. Attending group sessions in-person would take months of being on a waiting list. So that was that. I was left with medication and practicing what I’d learnt. No more one-to-one help. I found the most interesting portion of my online course was ‘Thought Errors’ helping label different thoughts to the point of absurdity. I found almost all of my thoughts, and as a result feelings, were accountable for thoughts.
A key scenario in my decision between going to London or not was ‘Getting stuck in London’ not in any figurative sense, but a physical one. Being unable to get home for the night was something I dreaded. Within 2 weeks of commuting to London this was very nearly a possibility. I left work the normal time (5:30pm) and made my way to Paddington — taking a route that night I’d learn was far longer than it needed to be. Sat on my train I watched as delays crept up online until the dreaded cancellation announcement sounded across the speakers.
A sea of people made for the barriers. I sent a message to my project manager for advice. She helpfully let me know that another colleague would likely be at the same station. So I sent them a slack message, selfishly hoping that they were in the same situation. I didn’t realise at the time how much of a journey it would turn out to be, nor the friendship this would kick start. So I joined the wave and headed back towards the barriers. I felt awkward about asking for help, but I needn’t have been. Conversation flowed happily and help was forthcoming.
A whistle-stop tour of the western tube network later, as per advice of network rail we made for Ealing Broadway to pick up a train. By now we knew it was a derailed train just outside of Paddington that was the cause. The tube stopped running 2 stops shy of the destination. But feet carried us the rest of the way. Ultimately we found no trains were running. We parted ways there, and I headed back across London to Waterloo. Reading benefiting from both Paddington and Waterloo lines I was grateful for the alternative, albeit a journey three times longer. At 11:40pm after travelling for over 6 hours I arrived home. Shattered, but looking forward to the next day — a company outing to Crystal Maze. At least now I’d experienced some of the worst that could happen, and came the other side.
Dancing was something I’d sworn off as a teenager. Winning a competition at a school disco as a youngster hadn’t kicked off a journey. I was no Billy Elliot. Yet one conversation with my friend lead me to saying that they’d have to make me go at least once. It was looking forward to it, and apprehensive at the same time. It was Lindy Hop, which I’d heard them talk about, but it wasn’t until I found myself watching a video on YouTube that I saw how fun it looked. Happy faces, spinning partners but free, it looked more rebellious than strict.
The day of the first lesson came. So did the butterflies. Low and behold a dance warmup in a circle. I felt extra gangly then. But no-one here was judging. Nervous laughter from other first timers let me know I wasn’t alone. But this was going to ramp up. The lesson was on the Swing Out. The quintessential dance move. I found myself fumbling a little over the footwork. Let alone when it came to a follow taking my lead. But everyone shared smiles and laughter at the shared difficulty.
The next month I found myself going to the Christmas swing ball. My friend was playing in the live band. I was glad to have a free lesson beforehand (hand to hand Charleston). I still didn’t know quite enough to quite hit the social dancefloor with any zealous but I gave it couple of quick tries.
Before, I’d never seen myself dancing. But now it’s part of a regular routine. Breaking the monotony of work, home, and commuting. Chatting with people from all walks of life with a shared interest is great. It’s a confidence boost. Learning new things, continual improvement; not to mention the exercise. It breaks the sad social norm of not talking to people who’re commuting with you. Walking past each other in the street.
Compared little over a year ago I feel more confident, more capable of trying new things. But it’s still not quite up to where I was when I left secondary school. Moods fluctuate anyway, even for people who don’t experience anxiety or depression in the same way. But for me seeing the positive trend is re-assuring. Seeing the low points compared to where I am now, the experiences I’ve had and friends I’ve made I wouldn’t turn back the clock. Life will carry on with plenty of blips along the way. But it’s all about experiences.
Things I’ve found helped along the way:
Headspace — a guided meditation app. It’s not free, but the price paid is more than worth it for me. You can try it for free.
/r/anxiety — helped me just chatting to people. There were points I felt I was a burden to friends. Here everyone was a stranger. But with some understanding. They had experienced it before. You can remain anonymous and rest assured you’re not alone.
Rainy Mood — a background soundtrack.
Commuter Chronicles — a bit of fun with my friend. It’s been good to just escape to a world of writing. Bringing some creativity into what is otherwise quite a structured and rigid discipline that is software development.