Thoughts on a surprising month


So I started jotting down some ideas for this entry and then I realised that most of the things I wanted to say, I’d said this time last year in this little post here. All the things about becoming a hermit. About struggling to concentrate and work. About not seeing people. About the rise of the anxiety. About how often I’d felt vulnerable.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt vulnerable over the past few months. The number of panic attacks, some small, some not so small, I’ve had. 2017 was supposed to be the year I got back on my feet; the year I got back into the PhD; the year I stopped feeling frightened. But it hasn’t quite worked out like that. In all honesty most of March and all of April were complete right offs. April, in particular, felt liked I’d been suddenly transported back into June 2009, both in terms of how physically and emotionally vulnerable I felt. I lost 95% of my independence; I felt nauseous and light – headed all the time; I was having frequent panic attacks; I become dependent on my little support network again to ferry me around, to come with me to places, to collect me if I unexpectedly needed it; I stopped talking to people.

Granted some of it can be explained by a change in medication but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with or reconcile myself to and was small comfort when I felt truly awful. If I’m being perfectly honest I think I could feel it creeping back in, even before the horrendousness of March and April. And, even though I have sorted things out medication wise, the knock on effects are still being felt. I, generally, feel physically better but I can’t say the anxiety is much better. And I feel so tired. I’d forgotten how tiring constantly feeling vulnerable was. How much of an effort it was just to function and to get out of bed, let alone do something with the day. And that was scary to feel because I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to be that vulnerable person again.

So a few weeks ago, I decided to set myself a little challenge and I made a plan. I decided to remind myself that I could and I would do this and beat this. No matter how much I achieved, no matter what I did or how I felt, May was going to be a better month. It wasn’t necessarily going to be a month without panic attacks or difficult days or days where I didn’t achieve much but it was going to be a better month. And you know what, generally it has been.

I am stil anxious. I am still tired. But….I am gradually reintroducing joy into my life – I have seen friends; I have spent whole days out of the house with those closest to me; I have read (post about books coming soon!); I have relaxed and eaten some amazing food.

I have become a bit more independent. I have had some really constructive days where I feel like I have made progress or where I have helped others to make progress. I have actually started used the Headspace app (rather than just staring at the icon on my phone screen) and started trying to see if meditation and mindfulness will help (so far so good I must say). I have been able to be out on my own and enjoy the sunshine. I have been up, and semi functioning, most days before midday. Yes things have still been very challenging at times and I wouldn’t say I’m back to where I was but I’m really proud of these small achievements. None of this is earth shattering stuff. And sometimes it won’t work and sometimes it will. But it feels so good to be doing something. To have some normality again. And I am looking forward to things again and thinking about reintroducing other things, like yoga and travel with friends, back into my life. And as an added bonus, I have made significant progress with my preparations for my return to my PhD in September. So clearly something about May is working and I  feel like I might actually be back in control again. And that feels amazing. Maybe 2017 will be ok after all.

StrawberryHillLight

A little reminder from nature and a historic house that it is good to get out and about every now and then.

 

A new chapter beckons.


This month marks the start of  a new ‘chapter’ for me. As I intimated in my last post, things haven’t been going too smoothly. And now a new decision has been reached. I am taking a year off from the PhD because of the problems caused by the anxiety and extreme/ excessive tiredness. Although I have tried to deal with things, especially as far as the anxiety is concerned (embarking on another course of CBT etc.) and feel that I have made some progress, the problem is I have fallen too far behind with my academic work. I’ve had more bad days than good days and the bad days have become something of a habit I suppose and as such are easier to pass off. At the moment I feel like I am celebrating the odd good day and living with the bad, but it should be the other way around – living with the good and accepting the occasional bad.

Naturally this has meant that my life has suffered somewhat, not only on the social side at times (I have become somewhat of a hermit again) but also on the work side. It’s become increasingly difficult to concentrate, on my reading, my source work, conversations. It’s hard to get up to town, to school or the library as the journey itself tires me out. And then because I’m tired when I get there, I feel so faint and dizzy and so it’s hard to motivate myself and not to just come home and rest or at least lie down. Sometimes it’s hard to get up. I can have one good day when I can get a little done but then I have three bad days and get nothing done. Or I can, at a push, have a good week but then it spirals again. Sometimes it is the anxiety that causes it; sometimes it is the tiredness. Either way neither is great.

I’ve tried so hard to fight it and to make it better but I think it’s only really made it worse in a way. I’ve tried so many different ways of tackling the problem. I’ve tried one day on, one day off; half days; breaking the day down into each single hour; forcing myself not to have daytime naps; setting myself small, supposedly easy to achieve tasks; focusing only on secondary or primary source reading, not both. I tried taking a month off. This helped a bit but obviously taking a month off every alternative month isn’t really an option! The summer has been a welcome break. I have forced myself not to work but just to have a proper break. And it has helped. I have properly enjoyed myself. I have slept a lot. I have read for pleasure and this has really helped. I’ve remembered how much I love reading (both academic and for pleasure) and this has definitely given me a boost. But again I can’t take summer holiday length breaks all the time.

I’ve made mistakes and I’ve tried again and again but it’s got to crunch time now. It’s getting too far into the PhD to be able to sustain this pace and progress (or lack of it!). It’s too financially risky, as sadly my funding doesn’t last for ever and I have to use my time wisely. But most importantly it is taking too much of a toll on my health, both mental and physical.

So, after much deliberation, debate and discussion, with my supervisors, family, boyfriend, friends, I have decided to take a year off. I’m not stopping with the PhD for the year. But I am taking an official leave of absence from Kings and my funding body. The idea is to try and buy myself some time. To give myself time to rest, recover and recuperate, physically and mentally. To give myself a bit of breathing space as far as the PhD is concerned. I’m still going to work on the PhD, trying to focus on getting myself as prepared for the upgrade as possible but I’ve removed some of the pressure and the immediate deadlines. Because I’ve delayed my funding for a year, I need to find some sort of part time job to support myself. But again I need to make sure it’s not one that is too tiring or time consuming as the main focus is my health and the PhD.

It’s hard balancing the two, my health and the PhD. Naturally both are very important to me. The PhD is something I have worked so hard for and something I have dreamed of doing since I was about 18. And I genuinely love it, I love the academic world, and who doesn’t love being a full time student for years(!). But I can’t hide behind the PhD. And I won’t lie, with everything that has been going on over the past few months, I haven’t been enjoying the PhD because I’ve been so worried about the impact of the anxiety and tiredness or because I couldn’t work. And this has been so hard to deal with. The anxiety has taken so much of my time already. It has already interrupted and delayed my education. I thought I had beaten it or at least, I thought I had it under control. I wanted so much to be able to do it and to carry on. To get on with my life. And this, I now realise, made me push myself too hard. To pretend everything is ok. It’s hard trying to explain to others, that it’s the tiredness and anxiety talking so to speak and it’s not because I’ve lost my motivation or that I don’t want to carry on with the PhD. I can understand why people think this. I do. But it’s also frustrating at times. And it makes me doubt myself even more.

Yes I know I have been here before and I know I can beat this and I can bounce back. I know I can, but it’s hard to remember that at times. Assurance is such a hard thing to give, not only to others but also to oneself. And I get less assured the longer things go on. It’s hard not to remember how bad things can get.

It’s been six years since I took my first leave of absence. It took me three years to build myself back up. It took so much out of me. It cost me so much, relationship, friendship and life wise.

But I have to try. I owe it to myself. I owe it to those who have stood by me, to those who have believed in me, to those who have held my hand along the way.

It took me a long time to be able to see the positives during my first time off and it will take time now. But I will stand up again
I will breathe
I will find a way
I will train my body to cope. I will train my body to cope with slow improvements.
Nothing will change over night but every day I get a little closer to my goal.
Every day I get a little more done and feel better is an achievement.

I will fight this and even though I have a fight ahead of me, I have so much worth fighting for.

She is a little explosion of hope


The chorus in my current, constantly on repeat, favourite tune, ‘She Burns’ by Foy Vance, goes something like this:

And I’m burning, I’m burning
I’m burning so deep that just breathing hurts
I’m melting darling and I can’t let go

I’m sure this song is meant to be about love and a relationship, but to me it speaks of my anxiety and depression. Both can be so pervasive at times that I literally can’t breathe. I am so deep in them that I can’t see straight, my mind is on fire and I can’t let go of the fear, of the pain. I am weighed down; by physical obstacles and responses, by such huge self doubt that I’m convinced it must by visible on my face, by such strong fear that I physically shake, by thoughts that are irrational and irrelevant. Every stupid and irrational thing that you can think and say to me I have thought, believe me.

I am also weighed down by practical real life burdens that we all face: money worries, work stresses, friend/ family issues and sometimes, even just deciding what to have for dinner. But these are all magnified by the anxiety. The money stresses become another sign of the fact that I am spending too much money distracting and comforting myself from the anxiety or to cheer me up it to ‘help’ me be productive (hi, pretty stationery I’m looking at you); the friend/ family issues become a sign of my selfishness and realisation that really things aren’t too bad for me, or they are a sad reflection of how cruel and unsupportive people can be. Sorting out dinner becomes a mindfield when you can’t be bothered to eat but know you must or can’t eat because you feel so physically sick or can’t safely cook because your hands shake too much.

The work stresses multiply when I realise how much time I lose because of the anxiety and the excessive tiredness I am still fighting, and I quickly spiral into questioning my motivation and ability, whether I will be able to do the PhD in the first place, whether I should be part time, should I be focusing on X instead of Y, how do I make being in the library and battling my mind easier, how do I become more productive so I can get done what I need to and I can actually enjoy it. You might have thought that these real life, rational issues, would be a distraction and odd beacon of stability during times of anxiety, but they really aren’t. They just add to the pain, anger, frustration and upset. I’ve felt so disappointed in myself over the past weeks and it’s proving really hard to pull myself out of it, even though I know it would help me feel better, if I could think better.

I don’t want to sound like in seeking pity (I can have my own little self pity party thanks!) and I’m tired of making excuses and seeing explanations for why X or Y hasn’t been done but I do want to try and illustrate all that goes on in an anxious mind or someone with an anxiety disorder. To expose the almost constant state of fear, the really strong sense that it would just be easier to sleep or lock ourselves away, or the tiredness, both mental and physical, that comes with just keeping ourselves going, whether that be to do work or to see friends. Sure some things are easier to do than others, just as some are more pleasurable and yes there is a tendency to chose to do those/ to save your strength to do those, but please don’t think we are deliberately avoiding other things, whether it be work or seeing you. Sometimes it is just too much to do all of them. And sometimes it totally depends on the moment and day and how we feel. Yes it is easy with hindsight to look back and say if I had done this or that I could have done this or that or I could have been more productive but 90% of the time we are doing what we need to do in the moment to just keep us going and to try and alleviate some of the suffocating feeling and voices screaming in our heads. It is all so dependent on the day. Please try and remember that.

In the Foy Vance song there is a juxtaposition between his desires which are cold and buried, and hers which are hot and real. Similarly his desire for her burns so deep and strong that he can’t let go and it becomes physically painful. There are lots of juxtapositions with anxiety and depression as the above paragraph perhaps illustrates. I know that I have it, but I still think and believe all of those thoughts, because nothing about the thoughts seems false. I know that the physical sensations don’t mean anything serious but I still respond to them, I still fear them because they feel so threatening in, and even after, the moment. I beat myself up for not being perfect and for being different and having limitations when I know I can be happy not being perfect and I can succeed and do really well and most importantly, enjoy myself.

And I need to try and remember that. To try and remember it so I can use it to help untangle my anxious and rational thoughts, fears and concerns. To separate the everyday from the anxiety. To remember to smile and remember that things will change in time, even though it might take longer than you think. At the end of the day, all these bad pressures have the potential to push me down but all I need is one positive pressure to pull me forward. So here goes. Wish me luck with getting rid of those juxtapositions and fears. With finding that positive pressure.

As Foy says at the beginning of ‘She Burns’: ‘She is a little explosion of hope’.

And I am going to hold onto that with all my might.

Trying to tackle my (admittedly muddled) thoughts


Perhaps the most common question I get asked about the anxiety is ‘but why’? Often followed by ‘and how?’ And then, my personal favourite, ‘but can’t you just stop thinking like that’? or some variant on that. To the ‘why’ question, I am often at a loss for words when it comes to the anxiety and explaining where it comes from or why it suddenly hits me at different times of the day or in different places or why I think as I do. The ‘how’ is a bit easier to answer as my anxiety is so physical – while some may respond to thier anxiety by becoming very quiet or hiding themselves away, my body (like others) responds physically – I get very shaky and jittery, I  get really warm, I often feel dizzy and sick and, perhaps most difficult of all, I feel like I am about 10 seconds away from passing out at any given moment. And that in turns leads me to respond in a certain way mentally – I either decide I have to get out of the situation immediately and then do so; or I take steps to try and alievate the fear and sense of impending danger – I go to my safety behaviours as my CBT therapist calls them; or, and this is happening less and less at the moment, but is the end goal, I try and let the anxiety wash over me and not disrupt what I am doing.

As for the ‘but can’t you just stop thinking like that?’, my response is more often than not an internal sigh and attempt to compose my face into one not of increduilty and to stop myself from screaming ‘you don’t think I haven’t tried’. The thing is I know that most of the time that, for some, that question comes from a genuine place of care and concern but also, in most situations, a complete unfamiliarity and experience with anxiety. From other people, however, it doesn’t feel so kind, for want of a better word. Especially when it is accompanied by a ‘startled deer in the headlights look’ and then swiftly followed by some sort of response revolving around me pulling myself together or them ‘not wanting to suggest things but maybe, you know, if you just stopped thinking about it and carried on with your work, it would be fine and go away’.

But that’s the whole point and problem, if you will. It doesn’t go away, even if I am working or researching or just relaxing. It is back to the stage of always being there. Of me not being able to turn my brain off. The thoughts are automatic, a habit. All day, every day, these thoughts enter my head without me even realising or before I have even had time to think them. And so I can rarely stop feeling anxious. All the time. And that has huge physical implications in itself, without adding on top of that the physical manifestations of my anxiety. I am so unbelievably tired, both mentally and physically. And that’s a problem because I am not getting enough PhD work done (which in turn adds another layer to the anxiety). And I’m just generally being semi ok at life, at being a friend, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister. And I can’t see a way, at the moment, to change my thoughts and to unlock that part of me that desperately wants to get back into a productive work routine and to enjoy life again. My mind is so tired that it just grabs hold of every negative thought or emotion I have, pulls them in and makes them stick. And that makes me really sad.

I try to be rational. Ala CBT, I have tried to let myself follow negative/ scary thoughts and not to fear them but to observe them. I’ve tried asking myself what is the worst thing that could happen? And is it likely to happen? Believe me, I’ve tried all that. And sometimes it works, sometimes it really does. I am able to rationalise the thought and to break it down into smaller segements that are easier to manage and to conquer so to speak.

But sometimes it doesn’t. And it is at those times, not unsurprisingly, that I feel most vulnerable.

But over the  last few days, I have realised something, that I don’t think I really took away from my previous experiences with anxiety, or from the therapy or CBT I had, or from just talking to people. And it is this.

Yes there will be times when I won’t be able to stop myself thinking (and potentially acting) a certain way. But maybe I don’t have to stop it completely. Surely it would be better for me to be in a situation where I didn’t try to fight the thought or push it away but that I give it space  so to speak. I allow it to be there but I don’t identify it. This might seem similar to letting the anxiety wash over me. And I suppose it is to an extent, in that I am giving myself the space to feel and react, but I think it is slightly different too.

Maybe if I break it down it will make a bit more sense. So…

Step 1: Give the thought space. Let it be there.

Step 2: Let it wash over me; immerse myself in it, as ludicrous and scary as it may sound.

So far so good and similar to the idea of letting the anxiety wash over me.

But Step 3 of letting the anxiety wash over me would involve letting the physical sensations wash over me without reacting and waiting for them to albeit. Which they will do. Trust me (more on that in another post to come). What it doesn’t really do however is let me process the feelings and thoughts that come with it, so means the same thought triggers will trigger the same response next time or I come out with a ‘well I survived that time’ kinda mentality. And then I’ll begin to dread the thoughts and symptons and then begin to panic when I feel them coming on and this starts the circle of fear off all over again.

Whereas Step 3 of the, as of yet unnamed thought process in my head (!), stops that cycle if (and it’s a big if!), if I don’t even let myself identify the thought/ trigger as ‘scary’, ‘likely to make me vulnerable’ or ‘stupid/ embarrassing’ etc. That way, hopefully my body won’t even respond, so I won’t have to let anything wash over me. Yes I can have the thoughts in my head but I try not to turn them into catastrophic or scary thoughts. Fighting my thoughts and trying to rid myself of them is a battle I feel like I am constantly losing, so to answer the question  I raised at the beginning of ‘why I don’t just stop thinking about it?’, a). please understand it is not that easy and b). perhaps thinking about it is ok, if done in a certain way. For after all if it’s not important whether my thoughts are scary or not, why should I try to stop them or give them their space. Only that way, so it seems to be me anyway, will I properly lose them and be able to stop thinking about them.

I don’t know whether that makes much sense but it’s kinda where my thought process is at the moment and I’m willing, at the moment, to do pretty much anything to try and beat this once again. I’ll keep you posted!

P.S. A lot of people have asked about my experience with CBT so expect a post about that soon.

Reading to breathe


There are lots of things I haven’t done recently – I haven’t seen some friends and have cancelled on plans; I haven’t cooked anything particularly exciting; I haven’t really liked to venture too far out on my own; I have avoided certain places because they might make me feel uncomfortable. I haven’t really challenged myself.

I have fallen behind on work, behind on admin jobs, behind on domestic life, etc etc.

You name it and the chances are I haven’t done it.

What I have done however is read. I have read a lot. Not work/ academic books mind, but books for pleasure. Books I have wanted to read. Books that have sat on my bookshelf for a long time looking accusingly at me, or books that people have recommended or that I have simply stumbled across.

I have remembered the joy of reading again. The ability to get completely lost in a book. To drown out the world and escape – escape to somewhere where people are safe, loved and cared for; or where they face challenges but have strength and courage; or to a place of pure imagination and fantasy.

I have got completely lost in some of the books that I have read that I have felt myself properly relax for the first time in a long time; for my chest to uncurl and loosen so I feel like I can finally breathe again; for my hands to have something solid to hold on to and to welcome the soft embrace of the sofa.

Yes there have been days when I should have spent more time working and less time reading. But I have tried to be kinder to myself recently and to not push myself too hard – recognise that there are days when it will be hard to work, either because I feel physically uncomfortable or because I can’t concentrate. My anxiety and depression does not stem from my work or concerns that I am not good enough or questions about whether I should be doing the PhD etc, but it does have a major impact on it and one, which until this morning, I hadn’t really realised the full extent of.

I have downloaded a new piece of software called Pomodoro which aims to improve your techniques of time management and productivity. It allows you to divide your day or work up into 25 minute sections, after which you then take a break, before starting another 25 minute session. So far I have found it quite useful and it has, at times, been quite a good motivator.

That being said I am very conscious of the 25 minutes during the sessions and sometimes it feels like an awfully long time to concentrate and focus and just stay in the moment and not let my mind enter anxiety territory. This is to take nothing away from the app and the technique which I think is a very good thing, but it is more to say that, all of this, for me at the moment, takes up so much energy, both mentally and physically. I have come to realise that it doesn’t matter how many coping strategies you have or things you download to help, sometimes the anxiety is just too much and you need to take a complete break. That for me is where reading comes in, and so with that in mind, I thought I would give you a little list of a) some old time truly wonderful, lose yourself in the story, faves as well as b) some books I have been reading recently which have offered me that break, that escape and the chance for me to forget about time, albeit briefly.

Old time faves:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – I cannot cannot cannot recommend this book enough. It is just wonderful. It’s up there with Harry Potter for me. So beautiful and imaginative and immersive and I re – read it every year if that’s any clue as to how much I love it. It makes me so happy.

Q: A Love Story by Evan Mandery – a really nice book. Similar idea to The Time Traveller’s Wife and I think just as good.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan Philipp Sendker – this is an oldie but it is still one of the best books I hav ever read. It is an absolutely beautiful book about the power of love and was easily the best book I read back in 2012 during the Anxiety part 1!

And more recent, in no particular order of preference:

Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi – a very evocative look at a fascinating period of history, set against the backdrop of a dark and dangerous Paris in the 1800s. Very very gripping, if somewhat unsettling at times. Great if you like to be transported to a different era or want to delve into a period of history you aren’t familiar with.

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels – refreshingly different from anything else I have read recently but absorbing and very moving. A good read if you like slightly different and quirky reads.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – I was completely and utterly gripped from the word go, so much so that I read it in less than 24 hours. Brilliant and slightly chilling thriller. Great if you like things like Every Contact Leaves A Trace, Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep, The Widow etc.

Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman  – a  tale of hope, love, human courage and endeavour. Richly imagined and just as beautifully written. Great if you love anything by Elif Shafak or just fancy a great book.

The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo (the first book in the trilogy is called Shadow and Bone) – this was one of those books that sat on my bookshelf for donkey’s years it seems and I’ve never read it. But inspired by a friend’s post about the book (incidentally said friend writes great stuff about books and goes on exciting sounding literary walks which I think I may well copy soon – see more here!) I decided to pick it up and I was not disappointed. It was so nice to get instantly lost in the fantasy world Bardugo creates but more than that, the trilogy is a beautiful portrayal of friendship and love, interspersed with lots of excitement and real edge of your seat stuff at times! Go read some brilliant YA fiction!

Hiding among golden threads


I was supposed to be on a train tonight. I was meant to be travelling up to York to celebrate my graduation but instead I’m sat in bed trying not to cry.

The anxiety has won. It is stopping me doing things again. It is taking my freedom.

Yes I will still get up to York, just not independently and I have had to sacrifice seeing people because of it. People I don’t often get to see anymore and that males me sad.

And yes I know that it is not the end of the world. I know it’s not.

But it feels awful because my little world is contracting in again; it is folding in on itself. Meanwhile the fears and darkness multiply. The all consuming panic returns. The inability to act with spontaneity or without coping mechanisms vanishes.

Someone told me the other day that I shouldn’t hide my cracks and weaknesses but try to see myself as someone who has been carefully and lovingly put back together, bound by golden thread. While I really like that idea, sometimes hiding the cracks and weaknesses is so much easier and I would argue, at times, necessary. Although I have largely come to peace with the anxiety and fact that it will be part of my life, it is still so hard and debilitating.

Hiding away seems easier somehow then accepting compromise. I don’t want to make the best of things as they are. To continue functioning, albeit at a slower, anxiety dominated pace. I don’t want to spend two and a half hours on a train panicking about getting off in the middle of nowhere because I can’t take it anymore. Yes things have to be managed and it is good to see the positives and to always try. But sometimes, like tonight, it would take too much. Too much energy. The potential for pain and fear is too much. Too much for my limited resources and hope level.

So I hide away.  And right now that feels necessary. I just hope I don’t judge myself too much.  And that I manage to keep hold of those golden threads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little steps forward


Hi there… long time no see! I apologise for the lenghty absence – it was somewhat expected but also unexpected. I was finishing off my Masters dissertation over August and September and then settling into my new PhD programme and life in London so that explains those two months. As for October and November well that one we can thank the anxiety for!

The last two months have been really really hard. Like old anxiety levels hard. I know I’ve mentioned before about the anxiety being worse at times and it all feeling like it was spiralling but that was nothing compared to what the last two months have felt like. I have days where breathing is painful and my whole body hurts. Days where I am so tired by the time I get home because I have been running on adredaline and constantly fighting to keep myself in one place. I have had times when I have found myself falling back into my old routines – getting off trains early because I feel really uncomfortable and the wait until the next station is just that little bit too long; walking everywhere instead of having to be on public transport; walking close to walls just in case I feel especially lightheaded, that way I know I can lean against something; having someone on standby nearly 95% of the time; contemplating restarting some form of concentrated therapy to try and knock this on the head… again. I’d forgotten how horrible it feels. And how bloody scary.

To add to it all, this is the first time that many of the people I have met over the last two months will be hearing about this…. or reading about it rather. The ones near me now probably think I am madly typing away about something to do with pre Reformation religion….! And this is also the first time that other close friends will know how the last few months have been as well, as I haven’t really talked. That’s all kinda scary in it’s own right.

But then on the other hand I am surviving. Admittedly it feels like I am only just doing so but I am still surviving. I have not stopped doing things. As I write this I am sat in the History PhD study area at KCL having just had a meeting with my supervisor. But the bus journey up today was hard. Very hard. I nearly got off at Elephant and Castle because that felt like the necessary escape route. But I didn’t. I’m not sure why I didn’t to be fair as my brain and body was screaming at me to get off the bus. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to let my supervisor down. Or because I really don’t like Elephant and Castle. Or maybe I didn’t feel like I could cope with the sense of failure and feeling that I had let myself down. I don’t know.

I’m not sure I can really say I have learn’t much over these past few months in relation to the anxiety. All I seem to have realised is that it can really come back with avengance. And that I still beat myself up if I don’t do things and if I give up. But maybe… just maybe… I am only convinced it is worse because I am so scared of falling back to where I was. Maybe it isn’t as bad as it seems. Or as scary. Perhaps the setbacks are some (admittedly slightly convulted and scary way!) of me recognising that to some extent my suffering is still raw and it’s just taking me a little bit of time to regain my balance, both literally and metaphorically.

I don’t want to sound like I am bellitting ther anxiety, because believe me I am not, but somewhere I have the coping mechanisms. They may be harder to find or feel at the moment but I do know I have them. And as hard as each day has been I have come through it. And I will try again tomorrow. Maybe I won’t make it, but I will try. And hopefully it will get to the stage where I am doing it for myself again, rather than with the attitude of keeping the anxiety at bay. But that’s for another time; for now it’s baby steps forward. Writing this is, I hope, the first of many.

Little lights in my heart


Sometimes it feels like the anxiety will never get any better. That I will have these thoughts all the time. That they will be all that will occupy my mind on some days. That I will always feel tired. And scared. So scared that it won’t get any better. That I’ll have days when I am so floored by it all that I can barely breathe. That the smallest thing can trigger a cascade of negative thoughts and a cycle of fear and sadness. That I’ll always feel like I need someone to save me but no matter how much they try, there will always be that little bit of danger. That little bit of darkness. That I will only be able to hear the reassuring calm thoughts as a distant echo. As a silence. While everything else drowns it out.

While the fear and questions scream at me.

Always the unanswerable questions. Why do I react this way? Why do I react this way to a certain thing, while someone else reacts in a more rational and helpful way? Why do I feel this way? Why do I do X or Y? Why do I feel like I spend my time endlessly running?

And I worry about the impact on the future. On how people perceive me. On how they interact with me. I worry about whether I should be so open, but then I remember I don’t want to hide. But I still worry. Worse, I worry about how those who love me deal with it. How they can help me. What happens if they can’t? What happens if they don’t want to anymore? More questions.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been searching for years. And I feel like I’ve found it (whatever it may be) and then I lose it. I lose the little bit of strength or hope I feel like I had. I lose the confidence. I lose the ability to speak, to believe. I lose a little bit of me. I lose someone.

11377150_10155619591185501_9097981935514093820_nIt is hard to see inside yourself or to move forward, when you can’t see a way out or when you feel like you’ve lost your way out. But maybe I haven’t lost it yet. Maybe I just can’t see it or hear it. But I know that everytime I carry on despite the anxiety; everytime I speak or write; everytime I try; everytime I let someone in, there is a voice. And I know that there is a world that answers back. And I know that when I do, I don’t feel so helpless. Some days it helps. Some days it doesn’t. But at least it is there. At least it is a little something to chip away at the fear and darkness. A little light in my heart.

Spicy Chicken Mulligatawny Soup


I know this may seem like a strange thing to be making given that it looks like spring is finally arriving to the UK and we have been blessed with some lovely sunny days as of late (minus the hail and torrential rain yesterday, but you know!). But a couple of days in the weeks just gone were, by and large, pretty horrendous for me, both from a personal and anxiety point of view. I didn’t feel much like doing anything, let alone eating. And that’s where this soup comes in. I made a big batch of the lovely stuff a few months ago and mercifully still had some left in the freezer so it suited those days when even moving seemed like a massive effort. It required no prep, no chopping with shaking hands, no standing up for too long, no thinking, no nothing. Just the microwave and my bowl.

Ingredients for the chicken

8 chicken thighs

1 teaspoon dried coriander and chilli

Salt and pepper

For the soup

25g butter

1-2 medium-hot red chills, deseeded and finely chopped

A thumbs worth of finely chopped fresh ginger

1 large onion

3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced

2 carrots and 2 sticks of celery, cut into cubes

1 teaspoon ground turmeric, cumin and coriander

1 tbsp medium curry powder

500 ml chicken stock, already prepared

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp mango chutney

500g wholegrain rice

1 can of coconut milk

To garnish/ stir through at the end

spinach

spring onions

sweet red peppers – I used Pepperdew ones

Method

First things first you need to deal with the chicken. Put the chicken thighs in a large saucepan, add coriander and chilli and cover with cold water. Bring this to the boil and then leave to simmer for 30 – 45 minutes until the chicken is cooked.

Once this is done, remove the chicken from the pan and remove the skin. Take the meat of the bones and then shred it using a fork.

For the soup itself heat the butter in another saucepan and then add the chilli, ginger, onion, garlic, carrots, celery to the pan. Cook until softened and stir occasionally. Add the spices, stock, lemon juice and mango chutney and leave to simmer for 10 minutes or so, and let the smells permeate into the room and calm you as you breathe deeply.

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My soup and beautiful spoon

Then add the rice and coconut milk and bring the boil once again; leave to boil until the rice is cooked and softened.

Return the chicken to the pot, season and then ladle into bowls. Stir through the spinach, spring onions and red peppers and enjoy, safe in the knowledge that you have cooked something that is going to warm you and provide comfort for the next few hours, or perhaps even days/ months ahead when you remember you have a batch in the freezer. If you are freezing it, allow it to cool, before portioning it up into ziplock bags and freezing.

Laughing away the fear


Sometimes, just sometimes, not many times mind, but sometimes, the anxiety and everything that came with it could be quite funny. Often the humour only came about with hindsight and a bit of distance from the event, but nevertheless sometimes I did laugh.

Take for example one of the first times I tried to leave the house on my own after a couple of weeks stuck behind the barrier of the front door. Having taken about 10 minutes to muster up the courage to open the door, I gingerly stepped outside and very very slowly made my way down the footsteps. I was shaking so violently and felt so sick that I cling to the railings with all my life and practically crawled down the steps. Doesn’t sound fun does it. Well it wasn’t until, as I was attempting my feat of mountaineering, a little old woman walked past me, with her mobility/ walking frame.  Two things struck me, firstly she was walking a lot faster than I was and secondly, in my cloud of self imposed torture, it took me a moment to realise she was talking to me. Turns out she was asking me if I wanted to borrow her frame, as apparently I looked like I was struggling a bit. Despite everything I burst out laughing and somehow made it to the end of the path and opened the gate. I didn’t get much further that day, but every time after that first trip was a little bit easier.

Or how about the time my CBT therapist decided it would be a good idea to simulate the sensations of feeling lightheaded and dizzy in a ‘safe and controlled environment’. Hum brilliant idea thought highly sceptical me. I certainly wasn’t very keen to play along. Apparently it was meant to help me learn to try and deal with the physical sensations and symptoms of my anxiety in a safe environment, knowing I could stop anytime. The idea then was that once I could deal with that, it might be easier for me to deal with the sensations arising at other times, out and about. That was the theory anyway. I’m still not 100% convinced about it, and I’ll be honest I never practiced it outside of the sessions despite promises to do so, but perhaps somewhere, somehow it did help.  Anyway, one of the first times we did it, my therapist ended up making herself feel so lightheaded and dizzy that she had to go and lie down for 10 minutes to recover, which again, despite everything made me laugh and smile. For once I wasn’t the one feeling like this and having to lie down. That was enough to make me smile. Once my therapist had recovered enough and seen the funny side of it, she quietly confessed that she had a tendency to feel the same sensations if she panicked and therefore hated doing this exercise. Needless to say we never tried it again but smiled about it at other times  and it made me feel a little bit relieved that I wasn’t the only one who felt like that at times!

I know these aren’t the most hilarious things you may read today but for me they were important little reminders that there was humour in my situation at times and that struggling like I was didn’t always have to be embarassing and frightening. Being frightened is an embarrassing emotion for someone with anxiety because what we fear often seems petty or silly to other people. They aren’t really big or noble worries, like global warming or human suffering, but rather seem more mundane and small. But to us, these personal fears might as well be as big; for the amount of space they take up in our heads and the amount of energy they zap, is huge. And so sometimes a little bit of humour and a laugh is a great release and they make us realise we are not alone, and that people will help or that they feel the same way. And sometimes this is enough to make us try again next time.