Well, my friends, what I learned these past couple of weeks is that anxiety is a hostage situation. I’ve often written about anxiety on this site, partly for the people who pass by here who suffer from it too, and partly for people who are lucky enough never to have experienced it (and who might quietly think that it’s a big old fuss about nothing). I’ll tell you what it’s like. Imagine that you are waking up one morning in your own bed. In the first dawning of consciousness, all is well, but then some almost imperceptible doubt creeps in; something feels different, unaccountable. The hair on the back of your neck rises, a shiver runs down your spine. You turn over and there, beside you, is an intruder, masked in black, pointing a gun against your head.

That’s how anxiety feels at its higher levels: as if you were actually in mortal danger. And because the lizard brain shouts long and loud and doesn’t much care if it’s wrong or not, it can be very hard to convince yourself that actually all is well, even if frustratingly, you are perfectly aware that there are no real threats in close proximity at all.

I used to dream about the gun man a great deal. He’d pop up in any old dream and turn it suddenly into a nightmare. But over the years, what was interesting was the way he gradually posed less of a threat. I reached the point where I’d have postmodern dreams, running the ending over and over in my mind, until the gun man was out of the house, or I remembered not to open the door, or I was in a place of safety or even, sometimes, until the point where I’d try to disarm him. My therapist at the time believed that the gunman represented my ability to force myself to do just about anything. Most people, he said, had a pretty fierce internal drive to self-preservation, where they would quickly stop doing anything they didn’t enjoy or found too taxing or that took too much time and energy out of their lives. Not me! Funnily enough, it was quite true that I didn’t have that instinct for most of my adult life, or was able to override it. It was useful. I got a lot done that way, and did all sorts of things I was afraid of, hoping that feeling the fear and doing it anyway would work for me. I have to confess that it never did, though. I just felt more afraid the next time I had to do it and I daresay those emotions accumulated and ganged together to mug me, as emotions will.

These days, of course, my life has changed completely. There is very little that I make myself do and I give myself a great deal more permission to say no. And of course, with typical contrariness, what does fate do? My son and my university career entered my life at almost the same time – I’d been a month into my PhD when he was born. Now, they are both leaving it, almost simultaneously. Rather than having far too much to do, and too many roles to juggle, I’ve suddenly got whistling wide open spaces. No university any more (and I still need to clear my room), and my son is impatient, as is only right and correct, to be free to start his own life. I used to feel too responsible, too important, and now I’m feeling oddly irrelevant.

Don’t think for a moment that I don’t realise what a great opportunity this is for me to try new things and redefine myself. I’ve been looking forward to it, and the time will come when I enjoy it. BUT. And it’s a big, big but, there can be no moving forward without some mourning, some processing of what has been lost. We concentrate far too much in our society on being happy all the time. I believe that the very insistence on skipping lightly and neatly over every negative is what keeps us persistently and quietly miserable. I can hardly say that I’ve enjoyed being anxious, but that anxiety took me by the scruff of the neck and reminded me that I’m in transition here, and there will be no skipping until a darn sight more processing has been done. Well, okay then!

So, the best news from all this is that I am finally feeling better enough to start reading again. It took me all week to get through a Lee Child thriller, that’s how bad it’s been. But I think I finally have my reading mojo back, and so I hope to be around next week with some proper reviews.


42 thoughts on “Recovering

  1. When did your son go and get all grown up? And that he and your university work have dovetailed together like they have, fate? But while your university work has ended you still get to be mom no matter how old your son is. I am glad to hear you are feeling better. I look forward to your bookish return next week!

    • I know! I feel like I blinked and it happened… though the evidence suggests it must have taken a while! I must say, being able to read makes everything better. I did think of you, as I know you’ve tended to suffer in the past from illnesses that stop you reading. You have all my belated sympathy!

  2. So glad that you are finding your way out and feeling better.

    I like how you say that “there can be no moving forward without some mourning, some processing of what has been lost”. I agree and think that recognizing the fact that you are sad/were sad/will be sad is important. Too often we gloss over those feelings of loss in an effort to carry on.

    I found your analogy about being held at gun point interesting. That really does help me understand how you might feel. Have you read or heard of Mr.Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt? It is about depression rather than anxiety, but she uses a black Labrador to represent depression in the novel It is an odd book, but I really liked it, despite its subject matter.

    • Ruthiella, I’ve seen that book in Heffers, and not known whether it was any good or not. I’m very glad to be encouraged towards it by you – I’ll check it out properly. And thank you so much for the lovely kind wishes. I get the feeling it’s often hard for our loved ones to see us suffer, and so they tend to push us on towards being cheery again. But it IS better to take the rough with the smooth. The only feelings that last forever are the ones that get repressed.

  3. So glad you’re on the mend. Timing is everything isn’t it? Your son going is such a positive thing (as it was meant to be). The other however just sits there, undigested, because of the manner in which it happened.

    • Mrs C, I do completely agree about timing. It is often amazing how that ancient adage, it never rains but it pours, turns out to be true! I find the hardest things to cope with are the things that are completely out of the blue. This is probably why I am manic, ahem, about anticipating things. And of course, you can never do that properly!

  4. I am glad things are picking up again and hope progress is sustained. I understand everything you are saying and time is always necessary. It’s also odd how things go, no matter how much you may have previous experience to draw on. Best wishes!

    • It’s so lovely to hear from you! Thank you for dropping by and leaving a message. I’ll live! And I keep hoping I’ll learn…. It will all be okay in the end, undoubtedly.

  5. Litlove, did you ever try Mindfulness? I find it a lot more empowering compared to psychotherapy, not that one has to replace the other. My experience is that mindful meditation helps me to focus on the task at hand, and so it reduces my worries – and I also find it very useful for dealing with fear.

    My favorite mindfulness guides are:
    Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield & Pema Chodron

    • Sigrun, mindfulness is one of those things I’ve done a bit of, and then dropped, and then done some more of, and then dropped, etc, etc. I should have a properly sustained go at it. I have read all three of the authors you mention and very much appreciated their writings. Thank you for the suggestion!

  6. Your posts are so heartfelt and honest; I quite admire the way that you become bare before us. I struggle with much of what you’ve written here: the inability to say no, the idea that I somehow can (and should) do everything set before me (and do it well!), and the way that my son, too, is adenturing off into his own life. As is only good and proper, but…there is a vacuum. There is a need for processing this cruel trick that we are meant to care for their every need and then one day, poof! We’re hardly needed at all. My son is off at Marine boot camp, I’m not sure where yours is headed,, but we pray for their safety and we pray for our strength. As to anxiety, oh my goodness! I don’t have the masked man in bed with me, but i do have him in the car beside me on these crazy American toll roads. What a nightmare! Some day i hope to kick him out in the midst of all the traffic so he can be thoroughly run over. Smashed dead.

    • Bellezza, I spent too many years of my life pretending everything was fine when it wasn’t. And so I’ve sort of grown allergic to that now – and am probably too upfront for comfort sometimes! I appreciate your solidarity enormously. My son is only headed to university in the autumn – although frankly he could do untold damage to himself there, if he wanted. Yours may have to face danger, but at least he’s being taught to look after himself fantastically well. Ach, we are in the hands of fate as soon as we have children – it is not fair at all! I do love what you say though about kicking the gunman out onto the road. I’m cheering! Sounds like an excellent plan. 🙂

    • Marilyn, I think of you whenever I write a post like this. I’m so glad you are there reading. What was odd this time – in a good way, I guess – was that I didn’t suffer any chronic fatigue, just lots of anxiety. I’m hoping this is progress of a sort, although in all honesty, the fatigue was almost easier to deal with. I’ll let you know how it all goes. Take care of yourself too.

  7. I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better. I suffer, occasionally, from mild anxiety, nothing like yours (I don’t think), but I can only imagine what it’s like, since I know all-too-well that horrible feeling of butterflies in the stomach when there is nothing, really, going on that should induce them. Interesting about your dream with the gun man. For years, I’ve had nightmares about, not necessarily a gun man, but some sort of threatening man who is breaking into my house, in which doors won’t close, locks won’t work, etc., and I seem to be powerless to stop him, but I have them less and less now.

    • Emily, that is exactly the sort of scenario my nightmares include. At first it was a hooded man just standing by my bed (we’re talking years ago – before I got married), and then those dreams mutated. But it’s intriguing to see how dreams are dynamic, even the repetitive ones, which must give us hope that we are growing and developing all the time. Thank you for your solidarity, my friend.

  8. I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better, especially after reading how horrible it has been. As you say, years of ignoring, circumventing, and stomping on emotions, doesn’t help one’s emotional climate. Reading ‘The Old Devils’ post I was struck by the lines: “Being an academic was a wonderful shield for me; I felt justified in existing, and it gave me a sense of value. I still feel a little exposed as… just me.” Pardon the presumption, but as you feel better and move on to explore your new opportunities, please remember that your self-worth is not in question, it never was; you don’t have to satisfy some preconceived expectations. Try to explore for exploration’s sake. The person you are and the words you can weave make certain it will be an interesting journey, for you and your readers. All of which you already know (though modesty may try to obscure some of that truth). Rationally knowing it is one thing, effecting climate change is another, of course, but perhaps a reminder wouldn’t hurt.

    • Dear Lokesh, you are always a wonderful tonic for my morale. Thank you for your kind words. It is amazing how anxiety is the one thing that really and markedly lowers my self-esteem. I am always troubled by the thought I should really have recovered from it by now, somehow, and that it is a failure on my part not to have done so. But it is only a part of my life, and it doesn’t after all, get in the way of my doing the writing at all. I should take more heart from that! Thank you for the encouragement.

  9. Having the opportunity to explore new avenues is all well and good when you have been responsible for the decision to close down the old ones and have made a choice to look for something new. You are still in control. It is the lack of control that comes about when other factors, be they people, institutions or health issues close down the old avenues for you without so much as a by-your-leave. I know that for me it was that lack of control that was most frightening and most damaging and my instinct was and is always to try and wrench control back in as many areas as I can as quickly as I can. Don’t do it – it’s fatal. “Take time to pause”, says Theseus in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. When I’m tempted to try and wrest back too much control too quickly, I try to remember that.

    • Oh I hear exactly what you are saying. I am not at ALL good when control is taken out of my hands. I’m sure my claustrophobia is all about not being able, of my own free will, to exit when I please. And I am sure that I’m trying to get control over whatever I can – word count, routine, whole entire life, to reassert some sort of balance after the other shocks. Thank you for such wise words – I’ll listen to you and to Theseus.

  10. What a wonderful description of anxiety! I am doing much better with mine this year (so far, knock wood), but your description of what it’s like is so apt. It’s that circling thing I can’t stand, when bad thoughts are just spinning around and around and around in my head and I can’t make them knock it off and give me some rest.

    Also, your recurring dream reminds me of this radio story, which I liked a lot:

    It’s about a guy who had a recurring dream of a gunman, and after a while he figured out how to do lucid dreaming (which, bleh, I would never want to do), and just addressed the dream in a new way. It was interesting.

    Also, you are marvelous, and I wish you all the peace of mind in the world.

    • Dear Jenny, I send big thank you hugs for all the lovely bits of this comment. The story is great – and sort of uncannily close to my experience (I do dream lucidly, though not by choice – I’m sure being surprised would be much better!). Oh I so know what you mean about the dreaded circling thoughts. Once they take off, it can be SO hard to throw a spanner in the works. My husband goes downstairs and watches TV when he feels like that, but somehow it doesn’t work for me. I know what I should have done! I should have gone visiting on the blogworld, which is after all still awake no matter what the hour and very comforting. There, that’s a really good thought, and all thanks to you. 🙂

  11. I agree completely with you on the focus on being happy all the time. I also find an inordinate focus on comfort. Everyone in California thinks I moved here to escape winter. I actually miss seasons. Life is more than a striving to always be comfortable, numb, and happy.

    • Indeed it is, my friend. Although I wouldn’t mind moving to California to escape the winter, particularly one as dreary and cold and horrid as ours has been this year. But still, you are quite right, and it isn’t just about the jolly-ness, as everyday life reminds us often enough!

  12. I like your description. for me it is a sense of clinging to the ceiling with just my fingernails and toenails with the absolute fear that disaster will happen if I let go.

    I am glad you are feeling better and hope that you remember to be gentle with yourself.

    • Oh that’s a good image. Yes, I can easily imagine how that would feel. Thank you so much for your solidarity and your kind words. I can’t tell you how much it helps to have my blog friends really understand the situation I’m in.

  13. Oh goodness litlove, that sounds so awful. I am very glad that this bout is receding a little. Keep getting better and reading Lee Child!

    I’m sure we’re all grateful to the prehistoric litlove whose anxiety over some crucial matter enabled the line to continue to this day, but it’s a shame she can’t relax her grip on you now. Strange to think how in some ways we have ‘progressed’ so little.

    A big hug to you!

    • Dear Helen, thank you for your lovely message and for the big hug. According to the psychologists the trouble is the big intelligent brain we’ve grown on top of the small lizard brain – the two seem to wind each other up, rather than calming each other down! II can vouch for this effect, sigh. Have you ever read Lee Child? He has this hero who is huge and invincible, so it’s sort of comforting reading, even if I will never be 6′ 5″ and 250 pounds… Well, thank goodness for books, blogs and blog friends. I could never manage without them! 🙂

  14. Sorry you’ve been suffering. I hope your spirits keep improving ..
    “Most people, he said, had a pretty fierce internal drive to self-preservation, where they would quickly stop doing anything they didn’t enjoy or found too taxing or that took too much time and energy out of their lives.” An interesting observation but I’m not convinced.

  15. I’m so glad you’re on the upswing! That makes total sense. People I’ve met who aren’t anxiety prone still felt anxious in that kind of transition. You’re so wise to see that this is not something to skip over but requires processing.

    • Dear Lilian – I’m all for processing on paper and then I find I’m a wimp about the real thing! But it IS a huge transition I’ve been in lately, the end of an era that’s lasted almost 20 years of my life. Thank you for your comforting words, dear friend.

  16. Wonderfully honest, Litlove. These kind of changes can feel like the ground has fallen from under you. The suggestion of Mindfulness is a great one and with it meditation and following the breath. I’ve learn I can use these tools to let go of anxiety and find the ground again.

  17. I’m glad you are getting better.
    The trouble with it all is the intensity of the experience. It sort of burns itself into the body and it takes a long time to “unlearn”.

  18. Good to see you’re recovering. I’ve been reading some of your posts and learnt a lot about anxiety. The image of the gun man really brought it home to me in a way that no other description really has before. Sent a chill down my spine, and then to imagine you living with that on a regular basis, at least at some times in the past, was terrible. Still, at least you’re seeing progress now. I’ve never been so happy to hear someone was reading a Lee Child thriller 😉

  19. I hope things have gotten a bit more calmer in the last couple of weeks since you posted this. Sorry it’s taken me a while to get over here and leave a comment–I read your post ages ago and have been thinking of you. If you managed to read Wolf Hall hopefully you are at least feeling better to get back to the books! 🙂 I have nothing but sympathy for what you are going through–it really is a lot at once in any case, but all the worse for the horrible anxiety you have to deal with on top of everything else.

  20. Litlove, I have the dark man dreams too, only they are usually Nazis, and I end up dead, or loved ones do (my family in this latest dream last week). I wake up feeling terrified, full of dread, and not feeling safe for some time to come. I know it’s anxiety, but it’s also a sign of creativity – the dream (for me anyway) is a dream that I need to get writing again, that something needs doing.

    I found this by researching dark man dreams, and this version of why we have it is in Women Who Run With the Wolves. I love how she uses fairy tales and myths to explain our psychological needs, and what we can do to heal. So I offer this to you in case you hadn’t read her, though I am guessing you have by now. Anyway, that awful dread, that awful heart-thumping, that awful anxiety – you are not alone, even though in the night, we are, it helps to know others have it too.

    Take care, and be gentle on yourself. And glad to know you are linking it to the changes ongoing in your life right now. Do you think it could have to do with the writing projects you want to do, too?

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