In support of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, we’ve put together a collection of essays on living with anxiety and our journey to managing it. This first essay is an introduction to our story and our determination to turn it all around.
I’m writing this at 42,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean; the hum of the Boeing 747 filling my cabin. According to the small map in front of me, I’m mid-way through my journey: as much ocean ahead of me as lies behind. The thought makes my stomach clench.
I look across at my sister, Claire, who is staring fixedly at the small TV screen in front of her. Inside a cheerful Diane Keaten is walking chirpily through the streets of London, the coloured doors of Notting Hill visible in the background. I feel irrationally envious. What I’d give to be Diane, walking safely on the terra firma of London’s streets, rather than here – miles above earth. For a moment, I imagine laying face down on that cold, concrete London road.
I try to focus again on putting words to paper. Earlier, Claire had struck up conversation with some fellow passengers: Bill and Sue from Hemel Hempstead. They’d asked if we were going on a holiday together, escaping the cold of winter as they were. “Sort of”, Claire had replied. “We’re travel bloggers, on our way to work with Florida’s tourism board. It’s become our job”. Bill and Sue were delighted by this news. Weren’t we lucky! Hadn’t we landed ourselves the dream job? If only they were forty years younger, ‘eh Sue?’
I listened to the conversation whilst chewing on the corner of my nail, a familiar swell of anxiety in my chest.
Professional travel bloggers indeed we are. Driven by a relentless boredom one lunchtime in July 2014, we had impulsively decided to start a travel blog, the idea appearing from seemingly nowhere. Settling upon ‘Twins That Travel’ as our headline act, we soon returned to our desks – our newly birthed enterprise a now active URL.
However, what Claire hadn’t shared with our new friends was the context behind our decision to start a blog; the unexpected backdrop to this story. On that particular July lunchtime, I was just a few weeks into a new course of anti-depressants, Citalopram already tinkering with my faulty serotonin transmitters. I’d left the country just once in the previous four years, an event dogged by anxiety and tears. Surrounded by all-inclusive cocktails and beach BBQs, I dropped nearly half a stone in weight; my metabolism almost superhuman thanks to my now feverish adrenal glands and a persuasive thought that I would be unable to fly home.
Yet even at home, my nervous system refused to rest – my suspicious brain now near hysterical. The gym, the office and the corner shop quickly became off limits; sinister places where I might be stabbed by a disgruntled colleague, or – apparently worse – have a panic attack and humiliate myself. A journey around Tesco became a white-knuckle ride.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the only place I felt safe was my home; a place I became reluctant to leave. Unfortunately, Claire’s situation was little different. Although the climax of her own battle with mental health would come some 18 months later, rising panic attacks and generalised anxiety meant that trips to London were regularly vetoed and invitations to the cinema declined. The creeping vines of anxiety were limiting her life just as they were mine.
In the space of just a few short years, anxiety had become our trembling, irrational triplet – the ugly stepsister we couldn’t seem to ditch.
We’ve often discussed where this extended member of the family came from and when it was we formally adopted her. Looking back and our lives seemed reassuringly unremarkable, with no obvious event when the neurotic seeds of anxiety might have been sewn. Born in 1986 in Milton Keynes – a town unremarkable in itself – we soon moved to Buckingham, Buckinghamshire, where we lived for most of our childhood. School proved equally routine: we did well and managed to avoid any traumatic incidents. By the time we reached 18, we both went to university, before going on to complete post-graduate degrees at the University of Oxford. We graduated, got good jobs and began our adult lives apparently happy, secure and confident.
Or were we? A few years later and I was the owner of a handbag full of anti-depressants and tranquilizers. I was in regular therapy and had managed to lose so much weight, I was mistaken for child at an adults-only gym class. Even a tropical, all-inclusive holiday had the ability to derail me.
What had happened?
Following intermittent bouts of therapy, I was able to understand that mental health is a mysterious beast; a repertoire of thoughts, feelings and responses that operate only in various shades of grey. Mental health is seldom predictable and never obvious – rarely do sufferers wake one day to find themselves declaring that the sky is falling, or seized by the sudden urge to flash their neighbours. For most – myself included – depression and anxiety comes on quietly, modestly – following behind like a small, harmless puppy, before eventually looming large as a Big Black Dog.
Having learned this, my therapy sessions soon became a neurotic version of Where’s Wally; a chance to identify and appreciate moments where anxiety had left its calling card. For example, aged five, I’d hide in the boot of our parents’ car if our Mum was going out; overwhelmed by a visceral fear that she may not come back. Aged ten, I developed an unhealthy preoccupation with vomit; having to clean my bedroom each Friday evening to ensure no classroom viruses could infiltrate my home.
By twelve, this ritual had expanded: each night I would have to touch the curling corners of a poster of Paul Nichols (one-time soap star) twice, before reciting a prayer that gradually increased in length. I can still remember parts of it today. Though not at all religious, I worried that if I didn’t say the prayer each night, then things would likely unravel: undoubtedly commencing with a vomiting virus and perhaps less obviously, culminating in the death of my cat.
Yet it was not simply vomit or fear of abandonment that fuelled my anxiety: but travel. Each year, as the summer holidays drew close, I would be overwhelmed by a sense of dread. As other children begged their parents to take them away, I’d ask to stay home. The idea of being removed from the safety and security of home, and the comfort of my (often rigid) routines, would leave me a neurotic mess. I remember once cutting my Barbie’s hair off from the stress of it all.
However, this was the 1990s and the Costa del Sol beckoned; my parents unable to resist the lure of timeshare villas and ‘now, this is authentic’ paella. To cope with being away, I’d often instate small rituals. Before I left the house, I’d carefully line up my toys and make my bed with military precision. I’d leave a pair of fresh pajamas folded under my pillow and straighten my furniture. While I was away, I’d think compulsively about this small scene back at home, imagining how relieved I would be to return to it.
On the day that we’d land back in the UK – whilst my parents suffered the dreaded post-holiday blues – I’d be ecstatic; telling my friends how good it was to be home, like a newly returned war veteran. I must have been incredibly irritating to be around.
As I write this, the signs seem therefore obvious. Claire and I were nervous children: anxious, neurotic, and clearly wedded to small behaviours that would now be labeled as OCD. Yet, these traits ebbed and flowed; a year of morbid anxiety about catching meningtis followed by two years of calm and contentment. It wasn’t until we became adults – dealing with the realities, stresses and disappointments of modern life – that these once smaller quirks, quickly developed into something more serious: anxiety and a crushing loss of confidence.
Yet, it was also around this time, that I – the travel-fearing, routine-loving, therapy patient – decided to start a travel blog.
This is something Claire and I have spoken about at lot over the last three years. Why did we start something we knew would make us potentially more anxious? Indeed, after starting the blog, we soon booked a trip to Washington DC. Overwhelmed with anxiety and a palpable sense of dread, I doubled my dose of anti-depressants (not advisable, unless with medical consent), in a bid to cope with debilitating panic attacks. The idea of travelling terrified me. Yet, I went – I did it.
I struggled, but I made the leap. Despite the incessant negative chatter of my brain – one filled with furious whispers of awful events and terrifying consequences – part of me knew that I had to go.
I remember my therapist once likened anxiety to a smoke alarm in your kitchen. It’s there for a good reason: one day it might save your life. Yet, more often than not, it makes mistakes: misinterpreting your burnt toast as a life-threatening fire. Anxiety is no different – it’s there to help you (save you), but more often than not, it gets things wrong.
“Next time you hear your well-intentioned alarm ringing”, my therapist had said, “do exactly as you would in the kitchen – understand that behind that rush of smoke and heat, there is no real fire: no real danger. You needn’t run, you needn’t panic – just grab a tea towel, open a window and continue as you were”.
On that day in 2014, and perhaps every day since, running our travel blog has been us doing just this: no longer running, but standing our ground – tea towel in hand. Despite my own over-zealous alarm promising that on the other side of the smoke waits a whole host of terrors (illness, muggings, murders, vomit), travelling has allowed me to stand my ground; fanning the smoke away and peering into that once frightening haze of anxiety, bravely.
Of course, to anyone suffering from anxiety, the answer to dealing with this frightening condition is not to simply start a travel blog. I can only imagine what a flight of overly anxious individuals-come-travel-bloggers (such as myself) might be like. In fact, even as I sit and write this essay – some 42,000 above the earth – I am still nervous; travel still has the capacity to make me anxious.
Yet I’ve learned to be comfortable with it, letting my alarm bleep quietly in the background. Since my lowest point in 2014, I’ve discovered that this method – acceptance and a willingness to face anxiety head on, is perhaps anxiety’s very own kryptonite. Medication can only work to dull it and listening to it only strengthens it. Acknowledging and living with anxiety– whether that be in the crowded and overwhelming streets of Marrakech, whilst travelling the frozen plains of the Arctic, or whilst sat quietly in the ballet theatres of St. Petersburg – can turn a once terrifying warning, into a manageable and largely harmless companion.
As Phoebe once demonstrated in an episode of Friends, you can’t simply pull the batteries out of a smoke alarm: it will still keep bleeping.
Your only option is to invite it along; hold its hand and take it out into the world with you. You never know, you may just find it as silenced by the beauty of it all as you are.
This week we’ll be publishing a selection of other essays in order to support Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 – so please stay tuned.
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