It’s the middle of the day and I’m lying on top of the bed, curled up as if I’m a foetus in the womb. It’s a defensive position which is not working. Fear is all over me like a rash.
To be specific I feel it in my chest and stomach, spasms of anxiety which rise out of my gut and seep into my limbs. I watch my hands tremble. It’s like I’ve taken a bad drug and I just can’t get it out of my system.
I’m terrified that someone might call at the door, or send an email or a text. I can hear my mobile buzzing in the next room and the noise unnerves me even more. I just can’t deal with human contact now. I’m not really capable of rational thought either, emotions are crushing any attempt at logic. But, as I bury my head in the pillow, there’s the beginning of an attempt at understanding. A question. How have I ended up back here again?
It’s been some time since I’ve written about mental health issues on this blog. That’s been quite deliberate. This forum was never set up as a voyeuristic glimpse into the workings of a troubled mind. Rather it’s a medium for me to write about what is currently going on in my life and I’ve been enjoying a long period of stability and contentment. Enjoying the responsibilities of looking after my young son.
For more than a year I’ve felt my old confidence and authority flooding back. I’ve been able to take on more professional tasks and balanced them with domestic duties. I’ve been sleeping and eating properly and even found myself looking towards the future with hope. Making plans. Perhaps I put too much faith in my defences and assumed that the road would always be straight and flat. Just this morning I was thinking it was going to be a very good day.
So what happened? Well, it’s difficult to say. Perhaps it was merely the tone of voice of someone at the other end of the phone? Maybe a plan that did not turn out quite as I’d hoped? Possibly just a change in the weather?
The point is not the trigger, but the reaction. And how drastically out of proportion it is, how easily I can be destabilised. How the mud that other people are able to shake off without a second thought when it is thrown by life sticks to me and burns deep into my skin.
And it all falls apart from there, the old demons rushing back into the vacuum and paralysing me with terror, attacking again and again until soon I’ve got no idea what set them off in the first place. I just have to try to cope today, not to ask why.
I attempt to distract myself with work but the words on the flickering white computer screen are swimming and I can’t find order in them today. Plus I feel worse when I’m sitting upright, the weight on my chest is like an ache that won’t go away. The crippling anxiety sends dizzying, multiple thoughts crashing around the interior of my brain at a frightening speed. I feel out of control and I need to move elsewhere in the search for relief.
I try to make a coffee but this only reinforces the scale of the tremble in my hands as I pour the boiling water from the kettle. I can’t bear to look at them and I walk into the back yard. The house and garden are quiet, my son is staying with family members for a few hours, ironically a well-intentioned attempt to give me some peace and quiet to work.
Toys are scattered in the little paved area at the back of my house. There’s a brightly coloured basketball and plastic hoop at the top of a thick pole, a set designed for young children to learn the basics of the game. I lift the ball and begin to bounce it on the hard tiles. There’s something pleasing in the dull hollow repetitive smack of plastic on stone. Then I throw it towards the hoop. I miss. I recover the ball and try again. Once more I miss. My shaking hands are not helping but soon I’ve got myself into a rhythm of throwing. And missing.
I invent a game where I challenge myself to get better. I take ten throws and see how many times I can score a basket. Three at first, then four, then six and eventually seven. I try for what seems like a long time but seven seems to be my limit. I’m certainly not Michael Jordan but as I line up each throw the outcome takes on an importance in my mind beyond that of the NBA championship.
It begins to rain but I keep going until the drops of precipitation are mixed with my perspiration. Hundreds of times I take the little plastic ball and hurl it towards the hoop. Until. Until eventually I score eight and, rather pathetically, in the rain and in the middle of a sea of toys, I clench my fist and let out a deep gasp of satisfaction.
I go back inside, noticing for the first time that the tremble in my hands has disappeared. But I’m not naive enough to think I’ve been able to cure myself with a game of basketball. Within minutes I can feel the anxiety beginning to return like the persistent crow who won’t leave the crops alone. I know from my experience that an episode like this will take several days to overcome.
I go to pick up my son. With him I have to use every part of my knowledge and guile to disguise that there is anything wrong, determined to keep my inadequacies hidden. We play an imaginary, improvised game where he is a superhero and I’m a villain. This ends with him repeatedly banging me over the head with a foam replica of Thor’s hammer. It’s such a clunky metaphor for the day that I’m enduring that I start laughing, each thump on the skull pushing me further into a state of helpless mirth.
Soon it’s time to make dinner and I force myself to concentrate on the task. Then my wife comes home from work. I’ve already told her I’m suffering and she brings me a little present, a turquoise armband bearing the word HOPE in white letters. It’s a distraction tool, something to remind me that there’s always a better day coming soon. It also works on the level of providing the comfort of just knowing that there are people who care about me.
The truth is that the armband will not change my life. Nor will playing a basketball game in the rain or getting bumped on the head by Thor’s hammer. But together it’s just about enough to get me through the day.
In the evening the blanket of anxiety is still over me, making it difficult to concentrate on the TV or to unwind and slow my breathing enough to be able to sleep. The truth is that it will probably be like this for a while. And then it will pass and I’ll return to my state of easy contentment, wondering why I allowed myself to get into such a state in the first place. I’ve been through it before and come out the other side. That’s just the way it is and there’s no room for complacency in this battle.
So I do what I usually do, which is to write about it. Not as some sort of cry for help or to present myself as a suitable subject for pity. But rather because that’s just what I do, whether it’s a good day or bad, trying to meet it face to face with the same level of honesty. That’s the point of the bog, striving to make sense out of all the confusion and mess.
I’ll write another post soon, hopefully it will be a bit brighter, filled with my characteristic bad jokes. But there will inevitably be another blog to be written about depression and anxiety. It might be next week, or in six months or six years. We’ll see.
But when it comes I’ll meet it head on and do whatever I have to do to cope. My brain puts me in this position, but it’s also what I have to use to get me out of it. Plus I have my wonderful wife and son to help me. And, just in case I ever forget, I just need to look at my arm to remind myself that there is always HOPE.