This is a title I wrote a while ago, when I was feeling strong. This title was written on a day when I felt like there was no problem too big and nothing I couldn’t overcome.
I have lots of days like that. Days when I am confident, self assured and happy. On these days I feel like the me I think I am, and the me I want other people to think I am. On days like this I find it easy to believe people who tell me I am brave and adventurous, and I can’t imagine wanting anything more than the life I’m living right now. I try not to take these days for granted any more, because I know how quickly they can be over.
It comes in waves, this sinking feeling. It takes me completely by surprise and throws me off guard. It isn’t invited and it certainly isn’t welcome, but it comes anyway, forcing it’s way into where ever it can take hold and clinging on for dear life as I toss, turn and churn it out.
I wanted to remember feeling brave on days like today, when the slightest bit of wind in the wrong direction has me up all night, writing at four in the morning because I can’t sleep. Because if I’m asleep then something bad might happen that I could have prevented. Because it’s my fault that we’re on a lee shore. Because it’s my fault that after six months of the weather forecast being completely wrong that I didn’t see this wind coming. Because it will be my fault when we drag anchor, or when the wind picks up more and waves wash us onto shore, it will be my fault we didn’t predict all this happening and leave the anchorage sooner, my fault we lose the boat and my fault we put ourselves in danger.
Of course there is a reason to be cautious on a boat. But not this cautious. We have been anchored here for two days now, in equally strong winds. We are in the most sheltered anchorage we could find in this area. We have out scope of 10:1. We have checked and double checked as many different forecasts as we can. We’re a little uncomfortable, and we’ve been a little caught out by the higher winds blowing into the bay, but we’re ok. And the main thing is, if something bad does happen, it won’t be my fault, and we will deal with it.
Perhaps there is another post to be written here. Something about the blame culture we live in, and how poisonous it really is. How it is rare to read sailing advice forums where at least one person hasn’t written ‘well if you did it like this, or didn’t do that’. But I will save that muse for another day.
I’m not sure when my anxiety started. It isn’t a label I am comfortable giving myself, it’s not something I associate myself with, though I am sure others I am very close to use the term freely to describe me.
Now that I have admitted to suffering with bouts of this disease I can recognise it forming a long time ago, back in my childhood, when I would seek constant reassurance from my parents for fear of getting my ‘funny tummy’. Anxiety. It doesn’t wait until you’re old enough to know what worry is, it likes to sink its teeth in early before you have the tools to deal with it.
I was a happy, confident child. I was one of the lucky few, who grew up with loving, supportive parents that encouraged me to chase my dreams and siblings that I adored, who were the ultimate playmates and who have become amongst my best friends. I had money, but not too much. I had friends, but not too many. I was (am) blessed, fulfilled and challenged and so happy.
What did a child like me have to feel anxious about?
Nothing. That’s the honest answer. I had absolutely no reason to feel anxious about anything, other than trips to dentist or spelling tests or my line in the Christmas nativity. Anxiety didn’t like that all too much though, how dare I be carefree. On days of it’s choosing it would create things for me to worry about. It was good like that.
Something I had said or hadn’t said to a friend, how I forgot to brush my teeth one morning, getting a maths question wrong. These minor mishaps would completely take over, becoming all I could think about and making my tummy hurt in a way like no other. Give me full on sickness and diarrhoea over a ‘funny tummy’ any day.
There it is, I think. The earliest memories I have of anxiety, though I wouldn’t recognise it as this for years to come. I adapted, as we all do to problems we don’t realise we have. We squint to see better, we walk strangely to correct shoes that don’t fit properly, we learn not to notice aches and pains we live with for a long time. We cope. My parents became my unqualified therapists. I realised that by sharing my anxiety with them, they became responsible for it instead of me. Talking it through was my cure, and doing it early was key.
I had made myself a plaster, one that I kept stuck firmly over my wound for years and years. When I skipped a class at college I called my Mum to make sure that was ok, when I said something stupid in front of the class I sought hours of reassurance from friends. Even now I’m doing it. Thanks to our friends The Sailing Nomads for answering my random ‘what would you do?’ questions and sense checking our anchoring decisions! I learnt to share my worries fast so they couldn’t take hold, and it worked.
But I think that years of hiding under that plaster did no good at all. Falling head first from a mountain path on a trekking trip in Nepal and surviving against the odds was what it took to rip that plaster clean off, and add a few more cuts and bruises on the way down.
Anxiety returned first in the form of eczema. An itchy patch of dry skin that formed a week after my accident and demanded to be scratched. It was something I hadn’t suffered with since I was a child, since before I found that plaster. Luckily eczema is something the doctors can see, and I was offered treatments galore. It’s a pity I wasn’t offered anything for the unexplained tears I cried while I explained my ailment. But then anxiety prefers to stay hidden.
With fresh cuts to seep into, anxiety took hold before even my well trained brain could detect it. I became obsessed with the news of terrorist attacks that had been dominating the press and convinced that one was imminent. I planned the escape route of every bar I went in. I avoided travel by train and I experienced my first minor panic attack on a short haul flight. I know, to this day, that had I been offered the choice I would have jumped from the plane rather than sit there and watch it be flown into a building, as I so wholeheartedly believed was about to happen.
I saw myself vanish into a scared and unhappy shell. I am embarrassed to admit the evening I spent hiding in a cupboard in my house, barely breathing, because someone was setting off fireworks outside that sounded like gun fire. This wasn’t me. I felt like I had lost my mind, and I had no idea where to find it.
I had developed huge anxieties over my accident, blaming myself for being too adventurous, for being reckless. I was an idiot to fall off that mountain, it was all my fault, and because of my stupid behaviour more bad things were going to happen to me. I watched the avalanche disasters in Nepal on TV and couldn’t breathe as memories resurfaced. I called my Mum, barely able to talk through trying to snatch desperate breaths. Luckily my parents convinced me to get some help, putting it down to post traumatic stress. This was a label I could accept.
Seeking professional help was one of the best things I have ever done. It was a long process, and often very painful. I thought I had all the help I needed in my support network of family and friends, but seeing a trained counsellor was life changing and I wish it was something everyone had access to. Perhaps we all need to train, so we can all help each other.
I worked through insecurities I didn’t know I had and learnt about behaviour traits I had never noticed in myself before. There was no singular cause to my feelings, it was all part of a picture, sketched out of genetics and experiences and choices. With every little bit I unpicked I would leave feeling a little better, a little stronger.
Eventually and without me even really noticing I became happy again. I started to take more risks, throwing myself into hobbies I loved and learning new skills. I took the diving course I had always wanted to do, I went to bars without choosing the seat furthest from the window and I met Adam.
An unhappy work life inevitably took over when I was finally feeling settled. I was working longer and longer hours in an extremely unsettled environment and the job I had once loved became stressful and unfulfilling. The decision to leave a place I had loved so much was heartbreaking, and my anxiety was thrilled. Why feel sad when you could worry instead, it whispered invitingly. So it took hold again and I spent the next six months trying to convince myself that I, or my family, didn’t have a serious health problem that had gone unnoticed.
I was determined though. I was going to follow my dream to run away to sea no matter what. And it has been the best thing I could have done for my mental health. Sure, I have way more things to worry about here. I worry about the boat sinking, I worry about lightning strikes and man overboard, or huge ferries or running out of money and having to return home when I’m so happy. I worry about normal things (normal if you live on a boat), and I worry about them so much less than I should.
Living this life for the last six months has given me time to breathe. I thought time to think was bad for me, but that was never it at all. Time to think while sitting in front of a TV screen was bad for me. Time to think while watching the sunset, or on the look out for dolphins, or even while listening to wind howl outside is what I needed.
I also needed the space to throw myself into something completely. I have Adam and I have a boat. Keeping them safe is priority, and everything else is a bonus. I don’t have time to worry about anything else.
I’m not sure anxiety is a wound that ever heals. I know it well now, better than it would like, and I am armed with bandages and antiseptic wipes and antibiotics.
Tiredness is a trigger for me. I know that when I’m tired my anxiety can get stronger than me, and I can sometimes feel it pushing it’s way in. Recognising that this is the reason is helpful, because I can rationalise. I’m tired, I need to eat and drink and get some rest, and when I am refreshed I can decide if I need to feel worried or not. My worry can wait until I am more equipped to deal with it.
I know that lots of small ‘worries’ can turn into anxiety. If my brain has too many different things to deal with, anxiety says ‘let me sort that for you!’ (sneaky), and my way too lazy brain lets it. I write lists and prioritise. I hand out responsibility to others where I can. I say no.
I have become a master at self censoring. Google is anxieties best friend. Worried about the headache you’ve had recently? A little research will prove it’s definitely a brain tumour, and because you searched for it, you will see it over and over again. It will show up in your Facebook ads, and ping into your junk mail folder. And if anxiety is really lucky, you won’t even connect it all, and you will just see every reminder as a sign. The universe is telling you that you’re dying, and it’s all your fault. I had to force myself not to read the news, or search for anxiety triggers online. Even now it’s sometimes a struggle not to read the ‘Top ten signs you have leprosy’, or ‘How to bomb proof your house’.
I know what it can do to my relationships. I know how my Mum must panic a little when she sees my name on the phone. A quick catch up or a long, drawn out analysis of whether I could have prevented the problem if I’d done something differently, she doesn’t know which one she’ll get (sorry Mum)! I can see Adam worrying that he might have said the wrong thing, when I ask him for the 100th time for reassurance about something that hasn’t even happened yet. Yet. Because for me that’s always what it is, an inevitable disaster that hasn’t happened yet. Controlling my anxiety is important for the people I love, not just for me.
Life is full of wonderful ups and downs, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Struggling with anxiety hasn’t been one of lifes highlights, but the old cliche ‘it’s made me who I am today’ is so true.
People have always said I feel too keenly. If something goes wrong it can be the end of the world for me. At the same time though, when things are good I experience so much joy. I don’t ever want to lose that, and if it means battling through anxiety then so be it. And it had better be prepared, because I am going to put up one hell of a fight.