anxiety, Health, Home, Lifestyle, Mental Health

Emma, in the park, with the iron bar.

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In order to get a good title, I may have twisted the truth. It was not me who brandished an iron bar in this board game life event. In order to paint an effective picture of the scene though, I need to rewind the clock a little and give you a brief but thoroughly illuminating insight into both my mental health and state of training for a half marathon.

Anxiety has been bothering me as an adult for over half a decade but I think it’s been going on a lot longer than that without me realising. As a five-year old, before swimming lessons, I used to bite the skin around my fingers until they bled all over the changing room floor, and the smell of antiseptic cream can bring it all back in an instant. As a pre-teen I started biting the inside of my mouth without even realising – until I saw it on a poster on the inside of a toilet door and became aware it was a thing. The butterflies, the bad habits, they’ve been around for as long as I can remember.

Fast forward to 2018, and I’m a month away from turning 28. I still bite the inside of my mouth and I live in fear that it will end up being the thing that kills me, from infected scar tissue, a jaw that slowly crumbles from friction in the wrong places, or that I’m so focussed on trying to loosen a bit of skin from my bottom lip when I’m crossing the road, that I accidentally get hit by an ice cream van. I stay in a coma for six months, then go to hell, not heaven, because no kids got ice cream that day and that’s a punishable offence, and hell is just one giant mouth, and now I’m the skin inside, being chewed for eternity, that is my sentence.

Most days, though, in spite of my wild, uncontrollable imagination, I’m functioning. I’ve had a good dose of therapy, although it’s been over eighteen months, and I think I should probably go back for more. I get my eyebrows tinted and waxed, I should probably keep an eye on those wayward thoughts of mine too. They’re just as invisible as my eyebrows but equally worth a look at. Too bad my “luxury items” budget on my four day a week salary covers eyebrows only on a good month and mental health is somewhere under “Sensodyne even when it isn’t on offer.”

I’m a strong, independent woman. Not superwoman by any means. Strong enough, say, to hang the washing up on the line without getting achy arms, and independent enough to put a tampon in without supervision. And it was in a moment of feeling particularly confident in my abilities that I signed up to a half marathon. I wanted to do something for charity, challenge myself to do something big, prove to myself I can do anything. I’m running for Mind UK, who do incredible work supporting people who are suffering with mental illness and fighting the stigmas that surround it.

Anxiety can be really inconvenient. Usually I feel the warning signs coming on, and when I do, running is one of my go-to remedies. It makes me feel strong, fills me with the good kind of adrenaline, gets me outside, often results in a return journey via Co-Op where I can pick myself up a well-done-for-exercising white Magnum. Sometimes though, events or situations happen that take me by surprise – from unexpected smear test results to anonymous phone calls – and there’s not a damn thing I can do to control it. And when these things happen during a run… well, see for yourself.

Picture the scene.

Eduardo and I ate our weight in carbs on holiday. Ed is also running the half marathon in October for a different charity. We have two months of training to go and have not yet run over 10km in training. We have some serious work to do. So we decide to run 11km on this sunny Sunday and to my surprise it’s going well.

We reach 9.5km, and we’re on the final stretch of road before the park that lies between potential asthma attack and home, and I’m feeling positively resplendent when a car reverses along the pavement in front of us. It’s fast, so we stop and hop to one side, to avoid, you know, a spine-crushing entanglement with a Vauxhall Corsa. We’re in marathon-mode, so we don’t stop, and instead run along the side of the car, whose driver still hasn’t seen us and decides to accelerate in front of us to get into the football grounds to our left. At which point Ed (not me, when I get to over 6km on a run my ability to form words is diminished significantly) yells at her (maybe with some expletives, he’s not an angel) to look at where she’s going. The driver is ultra defensive and wheel spins towards Ed telling him to get out her way.

It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had, but that could also be because I’ve stopped running at this point, and the inside of my groin is seizing up. I feel slightly anxious, because in a fight or flight situation I usually run off, apologising over my shoulder for no reason, but this woman is turning her car around and has followed us down the road, where she proceeds to get out her car, with a two foot iron bar in her hand.

Of all the things I thought would prevent me getting to 11km on a post-holiday slump, it’s not a real life Cluedo weapon being brandished at me by an angry driver. In her words, we “could have damaged her car” when in reality, as we explained, she could have damaged all of our limbs and maybe our skulls too. It went on a bit and in the end she got back in her car, still holding the bar, and said she was “going to watch out for us and we should be careful where we run in the future.” All very comforting stuff.

I got through the final kilometre and a half but all joy of running the furthest I’ve ever run in my life had dissipated. I felt sad, and stressed out, and a bit lost for words, and could feel something inside my chest getting tight. What if she has a son who is in a gang and they find out where we live and batter us to death? What if I never feel safe going on my normal long-distance running route again, because she could turn up in her Vauxhall with the same iron bar, or worse, the rope, or the wrench, or the fucking candlestick. What if she calls the police and somehow makes it seem like we were in the wrong? Were we in the wrong? And, please, God, don’t let her get Colonel Mustard involved.

I get in the shower to try and clear my head, I have somewhere to be. When I get out the shower, I almost cheer up because my tan hasn’t entirely disappeared on the plane, and I decide to moisturise so I don’t dry out like a fig, and then I notice my ribs hurt. They feel bruised, unusually painful, and this is new to me, and number one trigger for anxiety attack for Emma = unusual pain. So I do what I never, ever let myself do when I’m functioning sensibly, when I haven’t been threatened by an iron bar in the previous hour, when anxiety strikes and I start to think about cancer. I google it.

No one is ever reassured when they google symptoms. Everyone knows this. It’s one of those facts we have inside our heads, and we don’t know when we learned them but we know they are true, like “don’t put metal in the fridge” and “George Clooney is gay.” I enter a rabbit hole death trap called “symptoms of bone cancer and how to spot them” and start to have a panic attack.

What a day. We should be celebrating our half way point in training, but somewhere between feeling fit and feeling frightened, I’ve lost my mind and think I’m about to die. One of the many reasons I’m marrying Ed is because when I come down to the kitchen in tears explaining I’m worried I’m dying, he takes me seriously – my anxiety that is, not my imaginary cancer. Eventually I begin to rationalise. Obviously there is a small, small chance I do indeed have Ewing’s sarcoma, but more likely than not, my brain has latched on to a pretty easy trigger and let rip.

Needless to say the afternoon is a write-off. There are many things that make anxiety the absolute balls. Intrusive thoughts, yes, inability to make decisions, absolutely, sense of overwhelming dread, my personal favourite. Logistics, speaking on the phone, social situations, driving, crowded places, dentists, hell, even the hairdressers. But it’s the physical effects that wipe me out. The headache that lasted until bedtime, the hoarse voice that’s a happy after-effect of your throat restricting, and the butterflies that turn into stomach pain and discomfort and zero appetite.

I wanted to write this post because, even though I feel embarrassed, a lot, about my own irrationality, you can pretend everything is great on social media, or you can be honest. I still feel shit this morning – probably because in all the madness I forgot to stretch when I got home, and my muscles currently feel like lead (if you read lead pipe, well done). I promise this isn’t emotional blackmail to get you to donate to my funding page, but if you do feel sorry for me right now, then I’m linking the fundraising page at the bottom of this post. But, I implore you, don’t pity me for my anxiety. These things happen and there are a lot of things I have to be grateful for – my limbs, my fiancé, and the inspiration to write a blog, for instance. If you want to feel sorry for me, just join me in feeling gutted that in all the commotion neither Ed or I managed to use a Cluedo reference as a retort or (my personal favourite) “pipe down, will you?” to the driver of the Vauxhall. A missed opportunity, and one that we have to live with now.

August is an expensive month. If you have any money left after holidays or Edinburgh Fringe or that aircon unit you invested in for your bedroom during the record-breaking temperatures, then may I direct you to my fundraising page, right here. It’s for a genuinely brilliant cause and the only thing that will get me back out there, running, praying I don’t encounter any more weapons. Other ways you can do good – look after each other, look after yourself, and never drive on the pavement.

 

 

 

 

Health, Home, Humour, Lifestyle, Mental Health

Roundabouts.

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Sometimes I think I’m in control of my life. I look at my impressive selection of Tupperware. I regularly buy courgettes. I think about insurance from time to time. And often I feel in control of my life when I’m driving, even if it’s just to the local swimming pool. I feel content, have a purpose. To be honest, I probably enjoy any mode of transport that isn’t the tube, but cars are the best. I can play music out loud, fill the passenger seat with snacks, feel the sun on my right arm and hope I get a lopsided tan.

It must be something to do with the fact I’ve made life decisions that mean I lack stability and a sense of direction in a general way. Sometimes, genuinely, I feel like I’m more likely to win an international snooker championship than ever actually write for a living. Sometimes I’m okay with that. Sometimes I feel happy in the decision I’ve made to chase a seemingly impossible dream and never pay off my student loan. And then other times, I pretend I’m fine and then I have a breakdown at a roundabout for no apparent reason, in the vehicle that’s supposed to represent me at my most sane (a Daihatsu Charade), and realise it’s all got a bit too much.

Recently I lost the plot at a roundabout and realised I’m not superwoman. And I learned that the biggest risk behind being in denial is finding yourself crying in a farm shop car park on the phone to your dad on a Saturday morning. I should have realised, by the level of anxiety the thought of filling my car up at the petrol station on the motorway was causing me, that I wasn’t in a good frame of mind. I should have known, from the fact I woke up, wondered why Ed hadn’t texted me from Scotland to say good night, assumed he’d died and started planning his funeral, that perhaps I wasn’t in the most balanced of moods. Nevertheless, I persisted, and it didn’t go so well.

Of course I’m no longer at the roundabout now, because I drove home, made a cup of tea and called it a day, but I am at a roundabout, permanently it feels, going round in circles, and I don’t know which way to go. I’ve talked before about coming out the other side of a battle with anxiety, dosed up on therapy and ready to rock the universe. And to a degree this is true – most of the time I’m much better than I was before. But right now, it’s not as good as it could be. Part of me wonders if it’s ironic, a twist of fate at work, because in a moment of ambition I signed up for a half marathon to fundraise for Mind UK, and since deciding to try and run 21 kilometres through the city of London in the name of the country’s biggest mental health charity my anxiety has gone through the roof.

One of the most frustrating triggers is a sense of restlessness, boredom or loneliness. It makes me feel like a failure, it makes me panic, it makes me cry. It’s why I don’t spend much time alone in my house. I see plays. I do classes. I run around the park. I see friends. I fill my time with work. But this is complicated because another trigger is exhaustion, doing too much and high levels of stress, and so I often find myself trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. I suppose this is the reason why I seem to have developed a perpetual fear of making decisions and a rather debilitating sense of potential regret or guilt. I’m constantly over-thinking what I should and shouldn’t do, with my day, with my job, with my life.

I’ve become slightly allergic to people asking me ‘How I am’ and ‘How things are going.’ Something bottles up inside me. Genuinely, I have no words, and this is a scary thing for someone who enjoys words. Succulent. Discombobulated. Refrigerator. I feel like I have nothing to say – or that if I did start to actually try and describe how I feel it would be extremely inappropriate in the theatre green room, or during a smear test. But that’s why I have a blog – to open a lid on things unspoken. The other day on Twitter I saw the description for the 19th century equivalent of “meh”; “flobly-mobly,” which means somewhere between well and not-well, and in need of sunshine.

I am extremely flobly-mobly right now.

I really hoped that I could start referring to ‘my anxiety’ as just ‘anxiety’ – something separate from myself, like ‘crunchy nut cornflakes’ and ‘nuclear war’ but I can’t, because it’s a part of me, like my ability to play on words, and my hair. And just like my hair, sometimes my brain behaves, and sometimes it gets a bit frazzled. My anxiety means I spend a lot of time thinking about cancer. It means stomach butterflies. IBS. Chewing the inside of my mouth every day. Not picking up the phone to unknown numbers. Thinking about getting home before I’ve even gone out. Fearing decision making. Intrusive thoughts. Thinking about cancer some more. Restless nights. Palpitations. Distraction. Procrastination. Dread.

However…

My anxiety makes me a caring person. Empathetic. Forward-thinking. Organised. A good party planner (even if once everyone arrives and has a great time I go upstairs to bed). Without anxiety I doubt I’d have acquired my sense of humour. My cynicism. To be honest, I doubt I’d have such good Tupperware, because I’d probably just chill out about routine and money and just buy lunch out more often. My anxiety makes me hungry – for success, for fulfilment, for crème eggs when I’m feeling really low. My anxiety makes me me – a Wednesday’s child, a good friend, a funny person, a writer.

It’s 6.50am. I set my alarm to go on a morning run.* I’m trying to break through this distaste I have for running first thing in the morning. I once had a terrible experience involving a Park run and hay fever and it put me off. But most half marathons seem to be at the crack of dawn, so I need to somehow get through it. I’m in bed, having a cup of tea, waking up, writing, and then I’ll leave the house. It’s sunny outside. This week, I’m doing me. I’m doing the things that make me happy, and giving myself a pat on the back for just getting through it. Often I fall into the trap of thinking anxiety is a weakness, a failure, a system breakdown of sorts. What I forget when I’m panicking, and remember when I’m calm, is that it makes you strong. It’s not easy getting up and going to work on an average day, let alone when your brain has spent all night telling you you probably have HIV. Sometimes it’s really hard just to get on the damn train.

I am lucky. I live in a world where we are beginning to talk about mental health openly. The sun is shining outside. I have a support system. Freak shakes exist. This is a reminder to myself that I need to get back to operating on a scale of gratefulness, love and joy, and not a scale of fear, pressure and guilt. I’m running this damn half marathon whether I like it or not, and I’m running it for brains, and health, and honesty. So you can expect some more from me on this topic. I’ve shut it off for a while, because sometimes it’s quite nice to think you’re chill all the time and crack on like a normal person. But the door’s wide open again. Because I’m hardly normal. I have two pet sharks. And normal is boring.

*I wrote this blog post yesterday and forgot to post it. I’m not going on a run this morning. I have an 8.30am hospital appointment for a colposcopy. The third year in a row that my smear test has come back abnormal (told you I wasn’t normal.) Don’t want to sound like a preacher’s daughter, but go get your vaginas looked at, mates. It’s not the most fun I have on an annual basis but I’d rather this than, you know, my vagina falling out or something. Book. Your. Smears.