Tag Archives: anxiety

All My Friends: Jason

I was pretty drunk but that was not unusual so I had no problem catching Lizzie’s arm, steadying her as she stumbled over her dance steps. It was like I’d re-calibrated my own sense of sobriety over the past couple of years; no drink at all left the world too sharp, too acute and I needed a few units to take the edge off it. Otherwise there was just too much of everything. I suppose I was aware that it was taking a little bit more, steadily month by month, to blunt the razor. I was aware but I had no interest in stopping.

It had been an effort to come. Lizzie was hard to say no to, just like old times. Somehow she’d worn me down, stalking me on social, filling my mobile with texts, piling up mail in my in box. I wasn’t really in touch with the others and so perhaps curiosity had gotten the better of me. They’d all sent messages after 7/7 but Lizzie was the only one that I’d seen in person, insisting on taking me out to various pubs in Highgate, plying me with gin until I’d loosen up enough to talk about it all. Most of those nights ended in tears – my tears – and her arms around me, whispering that I needed to let it out. She meant well but I always felt like her therapy 101 approach to my psychological welfare was akin to her approach to parties when we’d all known each other as students: she was brilliant at making a mess but lousy at clearing up afterwards.

In the end it’d been the promise of some peace in the country that had convinced me. I think Lizzie had sent everyone an invite with a screen grab from Withnail & I on it underscored with a stolen line from the film: “what we need is fresh air, harmony, stuff like that”. Maybe she didn’t realise quite the extent to which I’d been drifting into the arena of the unwell, to steal another line, but seeing Richard E Grant’s disheveled indignance stirred something in me; one washed up, booze soaked loser calling to another. London wasn’t good for me anymore, I knew that. I was double dosing on beta blockers and citalopram just to function, slooshing the pills down with a glass of red on a good day and a bottle on a bad one. I’d started travelling in the rear of tube trains because I figured if someone was going to blow themselves up they’d be near the front, cause more damage as the momentum of the trailing carriages concertinaed into each other. I’d started applying rational assumptions to irrational acts carried out by lunatics. What did that make me?

If you’d have asked me before that day, before the smoke, before picking my way through darkness, nostrils filled with the scent of charred flesh, mouth stung with the iron tang of blood, before the starter-gun blast that had left my ears permanently tuned to a constant background of static, before hearing the confused, frightened cries for help, if you’d asked me just before then I’d have said I missed them all. Lizzie and Jo and Neil and Clare and Richard and Jon and Gina. There had been a time when that was our little universe, each of us orbiting the others. Afterwards a distance opened up. I guess the explosion pushed me out, gave me enough velocity that I just flew off into the darkest reaches of space. How do you break orbit? What would I know? Neil could probably explain it but none of us ever really had the patience for listening to him explain his degree except Jon. And even Jon seemed to give up on him after a while. Everything changed that day. I changed that day and they became, pretty much in an instant, strangers to me.

Nothing in the weekend had caused me to change my view. I saw all of the old routines play out but felt detached from all of them. I used to be a part of it but now I just felt like I was watching a bad remake of The Big Chill or, worse, Peter’s Friends. Jesus, let it be me that’s saved up for the end of the film as the big reveal: I’ll be the one with the incurable disease or the one that died or the one that’s about to be murdered. So I did what I always did lately and I drank. It made the movie more bearable. It slowed things down enough, dialed down my twitchy anxiety enough, to catch Lizzie’s arm as she faltered. I watched her dancing, the others calling her name in time to the song, and watched her unhook her bra, drop it to the floor. Everyone cheered. Same old Lizzie. It reminded me of something we used to do and I thought this was her last attempt to bring me back, to tractor-beam me back into their constellation.

I dropped my jeans, swung my hips in an exaggerated fashion. Lizzie mock spanked me just like all those nights a lifetime ago, all those nights before, and the others laughed and called out encouragement. I fixed a smile on my face and tried to tune in to the joy, to the nostalgia, concentrating on gyrating my hips, forcing as much comedy as I could from the simple act of removing my trousers, but it was drowned out in my head by screams and fire.

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Stage fright

He stood with his arm on the mic stand, elbow jutting out, as if it might prop him up like a crutch. He clutched the microphone in his other hand, head bowed to meet it. Hunched and bunched. Words swam in his mind but not the ones he’d sat up, late nights and early mornings, scribbling, scrawling in endless notebooks. Rhymes taunted him. Hunched and bunched. Clutch and crutch. He couldn’t see them out there in the darkness but he could hear patience running thin, the scrape of chair legs, glasses on tables, voices that began in whispers growing in volume. He stood framed and still in the spotlight. Hiding in plain sight. Light and sight. Clutch and crutch. Hunched and bunched. Words and rhymes, just not the right ones.

Come on, man. Give up the stage, buddy, let someone else speak. We wanna hear some verse.

The restlessness in the room has a shape now, an edge. It’s been given voice and all he can hear is chatter and disappointment and a room full of wasted Friday nights. There’s a hand on his arm and the compere is leaning into his ear, urging him to speak or sit down. He’s seen this before and there’s a note of understanding but the grip on his arm is getting tighter and he can feel a distinct tug away from the microphone. Some people just can’t do it up here. It’s all in their head and all on the page but not here, not here where there’s nowhere to hide.

He closes his eyes. Whatever he wrote in all those dripping minutes and sweeping hours has gone. Now or never. He speaks.

 

Life writes faster than I can write:

 

If I really – really – committed and held myself to the words,

A thousand words, every day,

Two thousand, three thousand, four,

I’d be too slow and too far behind the curve, the swerve.

Even if I lost some of my reflexive reserve I just don’t have that kind of verve

And maybe I don’t have the nerve.

 

Maybe I’m not ready to bleed.

This ain’t no magic trick, there’s nothing up my sleeve,

No facade or screen or Wizard of Oz behind the scenes and

No filter between you and me: you ready to hear my dreams?

My screams?

My brain and guts and heart and all the viscera in between?

 

‘Cos you might have met me tonight, or any night, any day

And all that stuff we learn to protect ourselves with would have been in the way,

All those masks, those crutches that keep me from your clutches, that suit of armour I lug around,

Each step heavier than the last as it drags me down.

Hunched and bunched and scrunched and out to lunched.

Gut punched.

And all the stuff would have been in the way and would have done its job.

Its fobbing off job: it would have said I’m okay.

 

But I’m not okay.

Not tonight, or any night, any day.

I learned too much of that stuff to protect myself with and it gets in the way.

I got to learn to bleed.

I got to learn to write faster than life.

 

‘Cos lately life’s been writing faster than I can write and faster than I can stand to live.

 

Later, when they buy him a drink, they tell him there was applause. Later, when he puts that armour back on, it feels a little different. A little lighter.

Words nobody reads

We are the words nobody reads,

The wounds you don’t notice because they don’t bleed.

We are the sentences you ignore, paragraphs you discard,

We are the hidden, the invisible, the scarred.

 

We are the words nobody reads,

Scratched and scribbled on pages, the messages you don’t heed.

We are the letters you never opened, emails you ignore,

We are the broken and damaged in search of a cure.

 

We are the words nobody reads,

The maddening march of madness our self chatter feeds.

We are the fractured fragments, the anxious and edgy lines,

We are the imperfect, something remiss between execution and design.

 

We carry our words unwritten and unread

But they shout to us within self-sabotaging minds: louder than peace.

On paper, untrapped, they lie benign and quiet,

Released.

You read.

The Faceless

Don’t fall behind. Don’t stop.

The snow is everywhere, in piles around our feet, stinging our faces in the wind, and seeping through clothes, through skin, through bone. The cold is the only thing we are certain of now, infinite in time and place; we have no memory of not being cold and no sense that there is anywhere it does not reach. Walking in that snow, in that impenetrable cold, is the hardest thing any of us have ever done. Don’t fall behind. Don’t stop.

The rules are simple. Walk and live. Fall behind and die. They pursue. So we don’t stop. Even if our living has become mechanical, functional – left foot, right foot, left foot – it is all we have and so it is all we do. We are not sure if we still feel, soaked in frost and numb to our core, but we maintain the trudge through some unconscious autonomic impulse. The impulse to live. Don’t fall behind. Don’t stop.

The longer we walk the thicker the snow drifts and the more numb we become, the fire in our heart that kept the chill at bay dying to embers. Our steps slow until movement is almost imperceptible; the weight of snow on our boots too heavy to lift. It would be easier to stop, to lay back in the freezing embrace of the white blankets that surround us, close our eyes, and be swallowed. But there is some heat yet in the ashes. Some flicker that we once remembered as hope. Don’t fall behind. Don’t stop.

We are lost now. Our eyes blinking against driving, whirling flurries of sleet and powder, tears long frozen clinging to our cheeks. There is nothing to see beyond white oblivion: we don’t know where we are. We don’t know how we got here or how we might reach somewhere that’s not here, just that we must put one foot down in front of the other and walk. We walk not to find our way out: we walk because to stop signals defeat. They pursue. Don’t fall behind. Don’t stop.

We walk to escape. We don’t stop because they are relentless. The faceless stalk us.

The faceless do not weep for they lack eyes with which to cry. The faceless do not speak for they lack mouths with which to talk. The faceless do not hear for they lack ears with which to listen.

No tears. No voice. No sound. But they know. They know, they mourn, and they pursue. And their mourning will only know peace through their vengeance on us. Us that see and shed tears. Us that shout and laugh. Us that hear so much. So much and yet not enough.

The faceless tread soft, as silent in their coming as the over night frost, as the snow ‘neath our feet. We do not hear them; as they do not hear us. But they do not rely on such things. They know. They mourn. They pursue. And their vengeance will be without mercy.

……

This is the eleventh story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. This one is a slightly abstract attempt to express how depression feels to me. Please share it if you liked it (or even if you didn’t…). If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

Are you alright there ?

“Are you alright there ?” asks the girl with the green hair behind the till.

I set down the books I’m buying on the counter: “Overcoming Anxiety”, “Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World”, and “Man’s Search For Meaning”. Oh, and Robin Hobb’s “Ship Of Magic”. Three parts self help, one part pure escapism.

Her question isn’t literal. I know that. It is a very British way of wrapping up “hello” and “can I take some form of payment for those books you’re holding ?”. It doesn’t need a response. Certainly not an honest response; that would be a clear violation of social etiquette. You don’t really tell someone whether you’re alright. Particularly someone  you’ve never met.

But the books… It’s so obvious. It seems too absurd to be asked that question, lay down those books, and not say anything. And she has green hair. I had already decided, in a distracted moment in the queue, that nobody who had green hair could be a bad person.

“Evidently not…” I offer apologetically. “As you can see by my choice of books”.

It hangs there uncomfortably between us. As soon as I say it I feel awful. She clearly now feels desperately awkward. There had been nothing in the Waterstone’s customer service training that covered this terrain. Nothing, frankly, in much of our usual social intercourse amongst strangers that covered it. I was in clear violation of all of the unspoken rules and I knew it and regretted it.

“Well I hope the books help…” she starts. A pause. “I suffer a little with anxiety too so I know what it’s like…”

She leaves it hanging there. What had started as a straightforward transaction – small pieces of paper handed over for larger, bound ones – had turned into a mental health confessional. A tiny, strange connection.

“Books help most things, don’t they ?” I offer back.

“Yeah” she agrees. “And it’s good you’ve got the Robin Hobb. Bit of self help and then a big story to get lost in”. We are silent for a moment as she scans the books and I pay. “Hope they help” she says again, putting the books into a bag, folding my receipt, and handing them both back to me.

“Thanks” I say. Not just for the books but for forgiving my intrusion, for acknowledging my admission, for showing some empathy, some vulnerability, and for liking Robin Hobbs. I didn’t say those bits. My ingrained social etiquette is back in control.

I hope she knew that was what I meant anyway. At the very least I hope I didn’t mess up her day. Our briefest moment of recognition was pretty much the highlight of mine.

It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up

38. Wise Up – Aimee Mann

If there was ever a movie version of this blog – just suspend belief for a moment – then it’s becoming apparent that the director would need to change the ending. There are five records left to cover, including this one, and in the movie you might reasonably expect those final musical musings to build to some sort of rousing conclusion. A happy ending.

However – *spoilers* – we are probably not headed for a neat and tidy finale in which our hero (again, suspend some of that belief for me) unravels the question to the life, the universe, and everything, unpicks whether the answer really is Deep Thought’s 42, and achieves a deep and abiding sense of contentment. It’s going to be more like the end of Empire Strikes Back than Return Of The Jedi, put it that way.

All of which is a slightly convoluted way of ‘fessing up that the road back from anxiety and depression – assuming optimistically that there is a “back” – seems to be a difficult one. In the neat and tidy version of this blog I returned to work after my sabbatical with a renewed and refreshed perspective on how I wanted to live and floated through productive days in a state of Zen like calm. In the real version I’m still artificially moderating my adrenaline levels with pills, still struck with irrational panic in seemingly innocuous scenarios, and still sometimes hating myself for what has happened to me. Or what I seem to be doing to myself, albeit subconsciously. I’m not even really sure which it is. I guess it’s what I’m doing to myself.

I’ve never really been very good at expressing how I feel. Turns out I may not even be very good at feeling how I feel. I seem to have something of an aversion to fully experiencing how I’m feeling and being okay with it, in all its glorious, uncontrollable, maddening cadences. Just for clarity, I’m not a psychopath, I haven’t lost the capacity to feel, it’s just that I seem to have stopped allowing myself full range of expression without even realizing it. It’s almost as if I have become distrustful of giving free reign to experiencing emotion and have tried to lock it away, either to project some notion of strength or to protect against something painful. It is a very difficult thing for me to admit to vulnerability. I realise that sentence looks somewhat incongruous written on a publically viewable blog, somewhat contradictory, but there’s a distance here – between me writing and someone reading, even if it’s someone that knows me – that feels okay in a way that telling someone the same wouldn’t. Put another way, possibly more simply, it is not too difficult to write here that I cried on my way home from work this week because I felt so defeated by my illness (if that’s what it is – I guess that’s what it is) but I would almost certainly never let you see those tears.

For a long time I have tried to keep a lid on it. Keep it under control. Inevitably it’s all still there, bubbling away under the surface – constant maintenance of which requires no little effort (the Manic’s “No Surface, All Feeling” was on my long list of songs for this blog). That’s not to say that I think that everything would be okay if I magically transformed into a creature driven entirely by its emotional impulses, that would seem to me to just be a different kind of hysterical mess. There’s a balance somewhere and I haven’t found it, don’t seem to know quite how to find it, and the consequence of that is that stuff (eat your heart out Jung) builds up inside me, isn’t given expression, and ends up popping out in other ways: lately in anxiety, previously in depression. In that context anxiety really is a fucker (eat your heart out Freud) as it becomes like a loop – repressed emotion feeding an anxiety response which in turn provokes a repression of emotion for fear of an anxiety response. Rinse and repeat.

Even this post is telling about my essential modus operandi. It’s a pretty rational, balanced assessment of something that is happening to me – or something that currently is me – rather than a splurge of feeling. It’s fairly dispassionate and detached. And that might well be part of my issue. The point of it, I guess, is a recognition and acknowledgement of that fact. The process of actually giving up the barriers I duck behind emotionally may take rather longer.

All of which 6th form psychology brings us to Aimee Mann. I’ve alluded to the fact before that there were a number of artists whose place on the list of my 42 records was never in question and she was absolutely one of them. I first heard her properly via the film “Magnolia” (and this song is part of the soundtrack) and the album she released around the same time, “Bachelor No. 2”. She is consistently smart, sharp, wise, funny, melancholic, warm, and melodic. There are very few wry observers of the human condition via the medium of three minute pop songs that I admire more.

“Wise Up” is a pretty simple song – a beautiful song but pretty simple. In the context of “Magnolia” it works to tie together the stories of the various lost characters in the film, asking each of them to recognise that things won’t improve for them unless they acknowledge some things about themselves and change. It’s about as straightforward as it gets in terms of wrapping a record in to my own personal narrative. The last line of the song might be heard as ambiguous – it’s not going to stop so just… give up – but I have always heard that line as “giving up” modes of behaviour or habits that are damaging rather than the more blunt sense of just giving up entirely. It’s a hopeful giving up rather than a fatal one.

So I suspect, in four record’s time, that not all of this will be resolved; there will be room for a sequel (although I’m not committing to writing about another 42 records). It may even turn into a saga – perhaps I could franchise it and sell tee shirts or something (“keep calm and take propranolol hydrochloride” or something equally snappy). I will try at the very least to ensure it remains a story of wising up and giving up.

Lightly tapping a high pitched drum

33. Less Than You Think – Wilco

About three years ago, over the course of a weekend, I started experiencing the sensation of fullness in my ears, as if I was sat on a plane endlessly circling whilst it waited for clearance to land at exactly the altitude where pressure builds in the ear drum but you can’t release it. When that sensation abated I was left with a faint fuzzy white noise in my left ear, mostly noticeable at night when everything was still and quiet. It was the start of tinnitus and it has never gone away since. I’ve kind of given up thinking now that it ever will.

My tinnitus almost certainly arose as a symptom of dysfunction in my jaw joint (if you find the place that the two parts of your jaw join you may be surprised just how close to the ear it is). To cut a long story short I was a serial teeth grinder and clencher which, over a sustained period, had effectively forced my jaw to try and compensate for a loss of height in my teeth by sliding into a new position. Finding this out was a mixed blessing I guess – my ears themselves are fine, this wasn’t tinnitus induced by loud noise (as per the infamous Pete Townshend example here) – but the underlying problem turned out to involve quite a lot of pain.

Or maybe I should put that another way. Quite a lot of low level but continuous pain. Nagging discomfort in my face, down my neck, sometimes into my shoulder, sometimes up to my eye socket. Nothing that stops me in my tracks but enough to distract, to act almost as a permanent stop on properly relaxing, or properly being present in any given moment. It kind of takes over, or at least it did for a while. Even writing it now I feel kind of whiney, there’s a part of me that keeps saying “ah just get on with it, there’s plenty worse off than you” and whilst there’s a deal of truth in that it’s undeniable that living with constant pain profoundly affected me.

It’s not coincidence that shortly after this all started that I suffered my worst period of depression. Not the twitchy, slightly hyper anxiety of recent months but just a numb withdrawal from the world, a dislocation from everything because it had become too overwhelming. Neither are much fun to be honest but if you made me choose I’d probably settle for the anxiety over the depression; an over stimulated fight or flight response at least means you still have some fight. I went through a period with no fight whatsoever: I think I’d just had enough.

Around the time that the tinnitus started I listened to a lot of Wilco’s album “A Ghost Is Born”. I particularly remember listening to it on the way to and from my frequent visits to a specialist dentist near Marylebone who helped (for now at least) realign my jaw (the problem being temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ for short). I’m a long time fan of Wilco, not quite from the “A.M.” days but I had second album “Being There” shortly after it came out, but had struggled a bit to find a way in to the somewhat more oblique “Ghost Is Born”. There’s melody and songs but there’s dissonance and noise too. It’s not the Wilco record you’d take home to meet your parents unless your parents were Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.

At the time I don’t think I knew a huge amount about Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and song writer, and certainly didn’t know the circumstances surrounding the recording of “Ghost…”. However, listening to it repeatedly it seemed fairly obvious to me then – and definitely now – that the record had pain as a theme running pretty centrally through it. Not even, funnily enough, necessarily in its lyrical preoccupations but it’s just sonically jarring: there’s almost a constant thread of background distortion and regular slashes of noise. In particular, towards the end of the record, is “Less Than You Think” which starts out as a sombre, quiet thing, Tweedy mumbling about “your mind’s a machine, deadly and dull” before shortly collapsing into a twelve minute drone; a background hum punctuated with pulses and whistles and clicks.

It’s not a comfortable listen but it is a stunning attempt, I think, to capture the essence of constant pain through music or sound. It resonates very strongly for me as a straight articulation of tinnitus, of my TMJ problems, and of depression. To be honest I don’t listen to it that often anymore, I find the early part of the drone quite raw now – in fact I’m sat listening to it now and it’s physically uncomfortable. Takes me back to a time and place that I don’t really want to revisit albeit I think that sometimes, in seeking understanding, that I should.

More recently I’ve dug a little into Tweedy’s history and it transpires that, as suspected, “Ghost” had a difficult birth. He has suffered most of his life with migraines as well as anxiety and depression; he believes the former was probably a manifestation of the latter. Whether some of my physical issues – teeth clenching and grinding – have been manifestations of something psychological over the years I don’t know but there’s definitely a temptation to conflate the two. Tweedy ended up addicted to pain killers before getting clean, this record was written and recorded just before that happened, so pretty much at his lowest point. There’s a long piece that he wrote himself for the New York Times (link here) on his health issues which is well worth a read, from that here’s what he says specifically about “Less Than You Think”:

In particular there’s a piece of music — “Less Than You Think” — that ends with a 12-minute drone that was an attempt to express the slow painful rise and dissipation of migraine in music. I don’t know why anyone would need to have that expressed to them musically. But it was all I had.

He also says this on the role music has played for him as a buffer against pain and depression which largely captures, I suppose, what writing the 42 has been about for me:

On a creative level being able to play music and disappear into something as meditative as music can be has been a real blessing in my life.

So, in some respects this is an odd choice. A song that’s mostly not really a song, it’s an extended collage of sounds that try to represent pain that, by my own admission, I can’t listen to very often. It’s telling that I can’t find a video clip of the full track anywhere – the link at the top of the post snips off the drone entirely. If you want to hear it then you’ll have to go and buy (or stream) “A Ghost Is Born”. There’s a ton of other Wilco songs that I love and listen to all the time. You want straight forward Americana tinged rock and roll ? Look no further (Outtasite). You want a sweet poppy love song ? Here you go (You And I). West Coast sunshine harmonies ? Yep (Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway). And that’s before you even get to the masterpiece that is “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” or the rootsy, stripped back “Sky Blue Sky” or the back to basics fun of “Wilco”. They are a brilliant, brilliant band. But this is my choice because it so specifically articulates a part of my life and it’s almost miraculous to me that it came from a set of circumstances that had such strong echoes of my own. I’m also slightly in awe of how Tweedy, in that state of mind, could express himself so cogently.

Is there a point to this post ? You know, a point beyond my odd need to strip away the façade I seem to have built for myself of being a “strong” person, whatever the hell that means. Stoical. Stiff upper lip. Bollocks to that. I guess the point is just to try and tread lightly, treat people with some kindness: they might be carrying burdens they’ll never let you see.