A Letter To Anxiety
And How You Led Me To Joy
In sharing my personal journey with, and through, anxiety, like a parental advisory label slapped on a rap CD warning of explicit lyrics contained within, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t advise you to please take responsibility for your emotional well-being while reading this. If in doubt, leave reading this one out.
My anxiety was the sofa surfer that wouldn’t leave. It arrived unannounced, bags in hand — nothing stylish, just black refuse bags full of useless rubbish. After a while, it became part of the furniture and I ceased to notice it. I just felt the constrictions; the more space it took up, the less there was for me.
I was in my early twenties, at university; my life was back on track… Things were finally going right and it felt good.
Anxiety can be very debilitating. Up to one third of the population are affected by an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. By 2030, up to 12 billion work days may be lost to mental illness each year (World Health Organisation cited in The Guardian).
You courted me like an ex-lover. As Amy Winehouse sang, “You know that I’m no good.” I know that a short visit, like an overnight stay, can motivate me to meet work deadlines, which is great because then, I can happily show you the door. But your insidious nature means I can’t risk having you around. If I’m not mindful, you could be here for months, like the relative who needs a place to stay, “just ’til I get back on my feet.” That could land me on my arse and that’s not a fair exchange, nor is it self-caring.
Alarmingly, there are reports that children as young as 4 years old are affected by anxiety. Back in 2013, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) stated that in the UK, as many as 80,000 children and young people suffered from depression, and 8,000 of whom were under 10 years old. They will make up the entrepreneurs and employees contributing to global economies by 2030.
I don’t even remember how we fell into a relationship, but, before I knew it, we were inseparable. You went everywhere with me; and then, it happened.
I lost myself.
As I walked past the station manager’s office, fresh off the 8.53 train arriving in Preston, I didn’t even recognise the young woman staring back at me in the reflective glass window.
She was skinnier than my usual ‘thickness’. I remember looking behind me to see who had the same idea to ‘check herself’ in the window, yet lingered long enough to catch a passing commuter’s projection of conceitedness, if they weren’t as self-absorbed as she was right now. But she, like my own reflection, was absent. I stood there until my mind adjusted. I was both shocked at the stranger, and secretly pleased with my new figure.
I had stopped eating — not in an attempt to lose weight or any form of control. No; my stomach was full with nervousness and so my body did what it had to do to survive. It ate away my fat reserves and probably muscle, too. To be fair, I was teased as a child for being stick-thin with a stick-out bottom. That was until my mother took me on my first holiday to Jamaica and my relatives saw it as a six week challenge to “fatten me up.”
The picky eater was plonked on an ‘emotional eating to please others’ rollercoaster. Aged 12, and 42 days later, I came back, 14lbs heavier, feeling like a turkey stuffed too early for Christmas.
As I stood there, associating with the new image, my mind justified the unhealthy stress-induced changes as my body returning to its natural shape. The mind is a beautiful and dangerous conspirator in denial.
There have been a couple of times when anxiety grew larger than life. Anxiety often brings a friend to the ‘party’. According to Mind the mental health charity, the effects on your mind can include:
- feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
- having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
- wanting lots of reassurance from other people
- rumination — thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
And effects on your body can include:
- a churning feeling in your stomach
- faster breathing
- a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
- grinding your teeth, especially at night (Mind)
I knew them well and the nausea… God, I felt sick all the time. That’s why I could only manage morsels of food instead of regular meals. In a selfie-obsessed photoshopped world I am NOT advocating this as a way to obtain whatever ‘perfect’ and unrealistic body image young women may be aspiring to achieve. Goodness knows what damage I was wreaking on my deprived organs. I needed help; but I didn’t seek it.
Instead, I went for test after test for HIV. I was convinced that sexual activity in my younger years had infected me. I was teenager during Britain’s “AIDS — Don’t Die Of Ignorance” fear-inducing public health campaigns of the 1980s; and I’d never been tested.
In search of love after loss — my parents split before I was born; my father died when I was 12; my mother moved me from my home town, school, friends and life I loved to a large city, four months after we buried him - I went from model pupil and child to every parent’s nightmare.
I fell in with the ‘wrong’ crowd and went off the rails. Taken under an older girl’s wing, and desperate to fit in, I morphed into an alcohol drinking, weed-smoking teen who truanted school and pretended she was badass. I didn’t have my siblings around to protect me. No more, “I’ll get my sister on to you,” playground fighting talk in the hope of dampening arguments that had escalated out of hand; I ‘needed’ to create a persona that people would not mess with.
The pursuit of proximity is one of the primary emotions that drive our behaviour and closeness is through the senses — being physically close; the most primitive way of attaching. On the heels of closeness through our senses is being the same as. By being the same as the person they are seeking contact with, they are holding that person close. This is also an immature way of attaching, for it doesn’t allow room for individual expression.
Following sameness, closeness is pursued through belonging and loyalty, still a rather shallow way to hold a person close as it does not leave enough room for your own personhood.
Adolescence is a time of becoming a sexual being. Teens have a new awareness of themselves, and touch itself becomes sexualised. Sometimes the only way teenagers can experience contact and closeness is through sexual interaction — when they have not developed the capacity for deep relationship.
A large part of teenage sexuality today is about sameness, being alike.
from Teens and sex from an attachment perspective by Shoshana Hayman
I had a distinctively different accent and wasn’t street smart. I threw myself into this alien disaffected young behaviour, adopting a total immersion method so I was no longer an identifiable outsider.
Looking back now, I realise I didn’t love myself enough to protect my sexual health. Back then, in my twenties, I convinced myself that I’d been dancing with ‘death’. Now, thankfully, the focus has shifted to people living with HIV, but I’d self-imposed a death sentence in my mind and if that wasn’t going to kill me, I was literally worrying myself to death, anyway.
Everything was going well. I was at University; back on track, after screwing up at school. Life was a little “too” smooth (which made me nervous). I wondered how long my luck would last before it ran out? So, in my mind, being infected, was my way of things going wrong… because they always did. It was this obsessive thought that made anxiety my housemate.
I don’t remember the details, that resulted in going back time after time to be tested. I must have created a cycle: everything is going well — sabotage by engaging in unprotected sex — worry that you’ve ‘caught’ HIV — get tested — followed by relief, as the test was negative (“this time”). Then I’d allow myself to relax into enjoying life going well.
One day, a perceptive counsellor shone a torchlight on my behaviour and thinking. He or she — I can’t remember — asked why I thought I may be infected with HIV and reflected back to me that it was like I expected the Grim Reaper to be waiting around the corner with his scythe… waiting to cut me down. S/he was right. I was expecting my joy to be killed just when I allowed myself to get comfortable with life being good. So, I was vigilant. Hyper-vigilant, ready and waiting.
The older I became, the more I realised it was true — I wouldn’t allow myself to fully relax. It felt like I had borrowed someone else’s life, filled with good fortune. I know now that what the Grim Reaper symbolised in my life was a limiting belief. A belief that wasn’t even mine, but based on my mother’s own forewarning instilled at a tender age.
At school, I played various instruments and music came easily to me. Aged 7, my mother took me and my sister to piano lessons. As I began to love playing, it was taken away from me. The reason I was told was, “I can’t afford it” (the room was heated by a coal fire. The price of coal had increased; the teacher increased her prices accordingly).
Limiting money beliefs are bountiful and it took me 30+ years to find and clear that one, but to explore those here would go too far down a rabbit hole. Needless to say, people who feel guilty spending money on themselves probably heard those sayings growing up in an era when parents were striving, not thriving.
At secondary school, I played the flute, was in the ‘top’ classes for all my subjects. I even enjoyed learning Latin. At the end of the second year, came the move across country, into a school that had no pupils below me, and no future. It was to be a sixth form college. Three years later, I left school with 1 qualification — the only exam I got a decent grade in without revising (being naive, I believed the other pupils when they said they weren’t going to revise); a history that included a two-week suspension — which my old school was surprised at, as they expected me to achieve 10 ‘O’ Levels; and I’d been threatened with school expulsion.
OK, so as far as the major stressors in life, it wasn’t redundancy or divorce, but in 4 short months after my Dad — who I’d see once a week on a Saturday (took ill on the Monday, was hospitalised by the Friday and was dead by Sunday morning) — passed, it felt like I’d lost everything. My friends, my beloved school and even my 5 siblings. My mother, who’d chosen never to date while raising her children, had met a man and we were moving to his city. I became an only child and had to fend for myself.
But now, at university, everything was going well and I was enjoying life.
Knowing what I know now, I needed a way to bring into reality a belief that was my truth — not THE truth, but my pattern, based on old stories . Little did I know that my childhood experiences had left a firm imprint in my unconscious mind that would lead me to behave in ways that would sabotage success.
That awareness gifted by the counsellor was profound. I didn’t allow myself to be happy for too long. In other words, I believed I wasn’t deserving of joy, because if I was, it wouldn’t be snatched from me.
I stopped taking tests and my gut eased.
No longer full of anxiety, my appetite returned and I was able to eat normal portion sizes again, instead of forcing morsels of food through nausea.
I finally allowed myself to enjoy good things happening in my life, without fearing it wouldn’t last.
Though I relaxed and stopped saying “Good things don’t last long!” and shifted my focus to expecting good things to happen. It took two more decades before that belief resurfaced when I worked on clearing the emotional trauma from my abusive marriage. I’ll leave that story is for another day.
So, what helped me let go of anxiety?
Understanding — with the help of a counsellor, albeit a HIV counsellor, I was able to see why I’d created the doom lurking ahead. If you experience anxiety that is affecting your quality of life, consider reaching out to a qualified and registered counsellor, especially if they practice energy psychology techniques, such as EMDR. If you do seek professional support, may sure it feels right for you, and that it is effective on an energetic level. If a client can locate in their body where an issue would be located, after exploring it with talking therapies, I know that it is highly likely that it’s still residing in the body as a felt sense; trapped in their cellular memory.
Awareness — I wasn’t consciously aware of what was influencing my behaviours, nor the purpose it served. I was merely perpetuating a pattern of discomfort that was familiar to me. Now, I can take a meta-position to observe how I am ‘doing’ me, but there will always be things lurking in your blind spot that requires external input. That goes for Oprah, as well as you, and me. To gain insight, you may wish to ‘safely’ explore, through journalling, areas in your life where similar patterns may exist? If you have emotional trauma in your past that you’ve not resolved, I’d only do this exercise after consulting your doctor and when working under the guidance of an experienced practitioner, who can hold a safe space for you.
Recognise where your anxiety is based on an irrational fear — I could relax knowing that nobody was going to take my joy away, at least, until that belief showed up in my marriage.
Forgiveness — When I was searching for the meaning of life in books and conversations in my local supermarket with friends who wore washed out faces of divorce and jobs they hated, I found one that offered me awareness and the potential to forgive myself. A General Theory of Love by psychiatrists, Thomas B. Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon.
I now practice forgiveness towards myself and others, as a way of letting go, as well as focused breathing to take myself out of my head and ‘drop into my body’. If sitting still with anxiety means meditation feels like a challenge to you at times, you may wish to consider a meditative practice that involves movement, such as yoga or tai chi.
In writing this, other thoughts are surfacing, enabling me to connect the dots between the stories I’ve been told with what I know about childhood trauma. I will write another post soon about how the roots of my anxiety and my heightened sense of survival — coupled with a root chakra that always needed attention — probably began much earlier, in the womb.
Remember, we can choose how we want to feel. If anxiety has overstayed its welcome, turf it off the couch, get some professional movers to eject it and dispose of the black bin bags it left!