“When would you most like to have been young?” I asked one of my daughters a few months ago. I was curious to find out what she feels about this, given climate angst and the myriad of other global worries. She put her head on one side and gave the matter some careful thought. “Now…” she said “because people understand mental health so much better than in the past.”
“What do you think?” she asked. I hadn’t prepared a response but thought wistfully of my teenage years—frayed bell-bottom jeans, clogs, broderie anglaise dresses, ponchos, Cat Stephens, The Moody Blues and Focus. Music and clothes were what immediately came to mind—call me shallow if you like. “The seventies,” I said.
“Interesting…” I thought and parked the idea, intending to ask more friends and family what they would say. Maybe most people would end up choosing what they know? But just nine days ago before I’d a chance to follow up on this I found myself unexpectedly having reason to reflect on our conversation because out of the blue I became extremely anxious. And it was literally out of the blue. The sky was blue, the sea was blue, the woods were full of bluebells and I was on a walking holiday in Cornwall—a place I love—with a person I love.
We’d had a tremendous week but on Friday I woke up with overwhelming feelings of panic and dread. All I wanted was to stay curled up in bed with the curtains closed. I couldn’t eat and struggled to explain to Mike that we would have to curtail our plans on this last day of our holiday. I felt stupid, self-indulgent, overdramatic and embarrassed but he was kind and accepted what I was saying although neither of us understood what was happening. I texted my beloved cousin Rita for support, and later in the day Mike and I had a short walk but I was still feeling awful—my stomach was a churning sea and my chest was a pressure cooker. The next day we drove home as planned with me still agitated, snappy and fragile. Anxiety comes with despair and even though I had only felt like this for a short time, my mind was racing and I feared that I would never again feel confident enough to be out and about, enjoying the freedoms that I normally take for granted. It was frightening.
The next day I forced myself to go to my usual Sunday morning yoga class and found the stretching and distraction helpful. Maybe the mindfulness unlocked something as while I drove home I made a connection—the feelings I was experiencing were exactly those I’d had during a traumatic event that occurred nearly three decades ago when I was in my thirties. I was right back there with the same tight fears locked up and leaking out like corrosive acid. The worst thing about that previous episode was feeling that I couldn’t talk about it—I vividly recall in the midst of the worst stage having to go for lunch with some of my then-husband’s business contacts. I felt deficient and the idea that these strangers might think I was odd, filled me with shame.
When I got back from yoga, I googled re-traumatisation and found a useful article. It was a relief to find that everything I read there fitted what I was feeling. Just as trauma distorts and limits the sufferer’s behaviour, so does re-traumatisation. It’s not just a feeling of stress but it has a significant impact on day-to-day life. It made complete sense as even though it had seemed to come out of the blue there were in fact various sensory triggers that were reminiscent of the original circumstances.
I’m nothing if not proactive, and over the course of the week I’ve done many different things that have helped to hold the anxiety at a manageable level. No single thing does the trick but having lots to draw on has been vital—yoga classes, my Headspace meditation app, walking in the woods, audiobooks, listening to birdsong, knitting, sniffing clary sage and lavender on a hankie, concentrating on breathing, Rescue Remedy, baking some shortbread as a present, planting up pots for the summer, painting my toenails, and having some sauna sessions where I enjoyed both the warmth and eavesdropping—although the quality of the conversation wasn’t great and I learned more about mattress toppers and shared bathroom facilities than I ever wanted to know. I haven’t lost my sense of humour. And the cold shower afterwards was invigorating. I’ve also kept a gratitude diary choosing three things each day to write about. It really does focus the mind on what matters.
One of the things for which I am most grateful is that a counsellor agreed to see me at short notice for an initial chat to ease the pressure. She was recommended by a friend and with skill and astonishing rapidity she led me to make important connections between key events going right back to childhood—I left feeling much lighter and optimistic that I can make progress. She gave me things to work on and an appointment in a few weeks time.
I’ve hesitated before writing about this as it feels more personal than anything I’ve posted before and some people will be discomforted by it. There’s a (very unhelpful) voice in my head that reminds me that I haven’t been in a war or accident but I also know that human emotions do not benefit from comparison. It’s not a competition. A few weeks ago I got a book out of the library—The Myth of Normal by the eminent Canadian physician Gabor Maté—and that was fortuitous as I opened it this week and just when I needed them, his words leapt out at me. He reminds the reader that the word trauma comes from the Greek for wound and says it’s hard to envisage an individual who has not experienced some kind of trauma/wound in their life. It is a near-universal human experience but the memory of one or more events can come to taint and dominate the present and the problem is of course that it can be very hard to know what to do about it.
As it happens, and also by sheer coincidence, it is Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme is anxiety. I was unaware of this until a friend pointed out the special programming on Radio 4 and I made time to listen to it. There is clearly a lot of work to be done—life can be particularly difficult for young men and services are inadequate; I recognise my privilege in being able to afford counselling. But I was encouraged to hear people speaking so openly about their struggles with anxiety and the after-effects of trauma. That is so different from my experience thirty years ago and it’s a huge personal step forward that this time I can say that I refuse to feel ashamed. It’s been an uncomfortable, intense week but things are definitely looking up—I am getting out of the blue. And I’m heartened by the wisdom of the younger generation. My daughter may be decades younger than me but she has clearly got her priorities right.
Photos: Mike Poppleton
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