23rd March 2020
The first thing I said to my CBT therapist on our skype call last weekend was: I’ve picked one hell of a time to deal with my health anxiety. Henry was pretty ho-hum about this. I expect he was thinking the same sort of thing my old therapist, the psychodynamic one from almost a decade ago, used to say about issues I shied away from because they seemed too hard: you’re dealing with it all the time anyway, so you might as well really deal with it.
And we are dealing with it all the time. In our village the shops have been empty and every day is a Sunday. Things that people would have said were impossible to change have changed almost overnight. We are seeing already the best and the worst in people. One finds out quite fast the best and the worst in oneself. Mr Litlove and I are, I think, fortunate, in that we both work from home and our village is very supportive. And yet I find myself in a state of constant partial stupidity because my brain is so busy assessing every moment for threat. A few days ago I decided to spoil us with watercress soup and put both my precious bags of watercress in with a tin of coconut milk that I then discovered had expired in 2015. I caught myself just in time as I wrapped my Mothers’ Day gift in paper that said Happy Birthday. And I keep thinking to myself that I could manage all this better if only the world would shut up about it for a bit. There is constant chatter and no real news and for people like me who are anxious and readily self-isolating, far too much frightening stuff designed to rein in the cavalier and the rebellious.
One of the things that upsets me foolishly this time around is being 51. The last pandemic, good old swine flu, was back in 2009 when I was only 40 and happily out of any real risk category. And swine flu turned out to be very mild for the most part and more hype than bother. I remember being in the porters’ lodge at college when the nurse came in with the most enormous box of thermometers. When we asked her what they were for, she said she’d sent an email around all the students telling them that they absolutely had to bring a thermometer to college when term began again and these were for all the students who thought that message didn’t apply to them. Well, plus ca change, but even while it was happening, we could joke about it.
When my good friend from the university dropped by last week to bring me some paracetamol, bless her, the situation there was quite different. Her husband is one of the key figures in the college organisation and he was having a huge headache reducing down to a skeleton staff while trying to get students home who couldn’t find flights out of the country. We stood about three meters apart while my friend lobbed the box of tablets to me. Her first attempt hit the wall of the house. The second made it through the door, I stretched out my hands, and watched it sail over them and into the cupboard under the stairs. Moral of the story? Don’t make academics play catch. But there was some good news, in that while the virus was going through the remaining student population fast, they were suffering only mild symptoms and were soon back on their feet. I think about that, how the virus affects people on a very wide spectrum, as part of my rule that any catastrophising must be balanced by a positive thought. Good things come out of bad things, because only bad things force us to make real change. So whilst it feels mad and disastrous at the moment, we must keep one eye on what positive change we want to come out of all of this. If I am forced to improve my anxious thinking habits, then that would have a significant and lasting impact. It’s worthwhile trying.
So where have I been these past months, you may wonder? Well back in October I was sent for a routine medical test, and over the fortnight between learning I had to have it, and the date of the test, I discovered that my medical test phobia had been growing in the dark and was now a bit of a monster. Long story short, I didn’t have to have the test in the end. But then there were a couple more (minor) incidents that provoked my health anxiety and each one brought with it greater and deeper angst than the last. By the time Christmas rolled around, I didn’t need the excuse of a minor incident any more. I was having white nights of overwhelming anxiety, sitting downstairs too agitated to be in bed and just waiting for the dawn. It takes a long time to come in midwinter. I wanted to get past it on my own, but in the end I rang my GP who allowed me to increase the anti-anxiety I take for four weeks. And he said it was time for some therapy, so here I am a few months later with online Henry, who likes to tell me I have to challenge my thoughts with evidence – as if reason had any real purchase on the irrational. I’ve had one bad virus that made me debilitatingly ill for well over a decade. It’s quite hard to be sensible once something like that has happened to you.
But, and here we come to the useful part of this post, I am beginning to see properly for once that when you are up against it, you must stop faffing about and actually attempt the difficult things that scare you. I am very guilty of thinking I can both change and stay the same. As someone who loves their routines and the old familiar and accepts powerful default settings, I have the biggest tendency to sit around waiting for everything just to come right. And this is not what happens. I watch what is going on in the UK and I can’t help but wonder how long it will take us to cotton on to the fact that we must change. That for the next three or six or more months, we cannot simply transfer the lives we were living into these strange new boundaries. How much time will we waste in frustration and resentment before we realise that we must take hold of our situations and alter them radically? And that this might be an opportunity for good things to come out of bad things?
25th March 2020
I was intending to get back to this post and finish it with some sort of normal conclusion. But last night my mother was taken into hospital. Not with the virus but with confusion following a migraine. She didn’t know her name and couldn’t understand simple questions that were put to her. She is currently still there and being tested very thoroughly with, thankfully, nothing showing up yet. So we know her general health is good, but the confusion remains an enigma. A special shout out to the doctors and nurses at Colchester hospital, who are taking such good care of her despite being in the middle of the corona virus situation. These people are amazing.
Eventually, tackling health anxiety in the midst of all of this will seem funny. Haven’t got there yet but I travel in hope.