Before we get going, let me take a moment to blow the cobwebs off this blog.
*whafts of dust clouds fill the room*
There we go, that’s better.
It occurred to me recently that for a professional writer person, I don’t actually do that much writing outside of my day job. And it lead me to reminisce about the days where as a teenager I’d sneakily scribble couplets in the back of textbooks, and carry a notebook with me no matter where I went. And lay in bed of an evening with my headphones on and the lights off, letting words flow out into a notepad document on my laptop or the memo app on my phone. And wouldn’t you know? The latter is what I’m doing right now as I write the first draft of this post. How much sense and how many edits it might go through is for future me to decide; hello, future me reading this right now! But in the present, getting words out of my head is the most important thing. Giving them a chance to exist, rather than telling myself they have no worth to anyone. Which is what I do far too often.
More on that later. First, story time!
Last Saturday, I was travelling home from a wrestling show, when the train I was on stopped at a random station in South London called Kent House. This was a station I’d never got off at before, in a part of London I’d never ever been to before, nor was this train scheduled to stop there. But stop it did, as trespassers on the line further south brought everything to a grinding halt. After an hour sitting on a motionless train, anxiety creeping over me as my fellow passengers got more and more angry and/or drunk – it was a Saturday night, after all – I realised I had to do something. It was fast approaching 11:30pm, and I was painfully aware that if the train waited till past midnight and then got cancelled altogether, I’d be stranded altogether and probably unable to afford the taxi fare.
I had to do something. So I did.
Despite my overwhelming anxiety, I jumped off the train, worked out an outlandish route home that involved three separate bus journeys, and set off. Through dark streets, unfamiliar surroundings and a rapidly diminishing phone battery, I eventually made it home by plotting a route to New Eltham – familiar territory from my university days – and catching the very last bus that ran back to my hometown from there. The driver must have wondered why I was fist-pumping so hard when I triumphantly flagged him down at nearly 1am on a Sunday morning. Or maybe, like me, he just really wanted to get home to his bed.
Now, why am I telling you this story? Simple. On bus #2, I had a revelation – as you do when rattling through Chislehurst at 12:15am, obviously. At the time, I was still unsure as to whether I’d make my connection in time to catch the last running of the final bus I needed. And I suddenly became aware of just how calm I was. I had made peace with whatever outcome might happen. If my plan failed and I missed my last connection? Not the end of the world, just a lengthy walk. I’d still made it that much closer to home than had I remained on that motionless train at Kent House station.
And as transpired, my plan didn’t fail. In fact, it worked to perfection.
Several months ago, my dear friend Jess (@Jetlbomb) asked me to externalize my anxiety. I thought about it for a moment, and pictured in my mind a little imp sitting on my shoulder. My anxiety doesn’t hover over my head or weigh heavy on my shoulders, unlike the ‘black dog‘ of depression. It just sits there, muttering insidious thoughts into my ear. Making me second-guess every social interaction and doubt everything I do. Convincing me that I will definitely forget to turn something off if I leave the house, and that the house will definitely be burned down and/or flooded when I get back. It’s even trying to talk me out of writing this very blog post right now. Sometimes the imp is quiet and merely whispers to me. Other times it is very loud. But all the while, it can seem very persuasive. It knows exactly what to say to make me sick to my stomach, or start shaking and hyperventilating, or break out in an ice-cold sweat. And it knows that the louder and more convincing it sounds, and the more energy I need to shut it up, the more likely I will be to just not bother. I won’t send that email, i won’t pick up the phone, I won’t leave the house, I won’t do anything. I’ll just sit on social media, watch as the world passes me by, and slip into the same old miserable cycle. By then, the black dog of depression has taken over, and the imp’s job is done.
But that night in South London, I stopped listening to the imp.
And suddenly, it didn’t matter what it was saying, or how loudly it was yelling in my ear. The imp had no power at all. I rode through the initial wave of anxiety. I wasn’t swayed by the imp’s very convincing-sounding words. And once I made my decision and started to act, the spell was broken and there was nothing my imp could do to stop me anymore.
And that’s the revelation I came to whilst riding along on a rattly bus at quarter past midnight.
Now obviously, I wish it were always that simple. In this case, I had a big motivating factor to help me silence the imp – the simple matter of getting home. And sometimes, there just isn’t enough strength of motivation or sheer levels of energy to shut the stupid thing up. But at least I know now that it IS possible. And if all I have to do to make a decision and move forward is to pipe the little git down for even the briefest of moments, that’s all the energy and motivation I’ll need.
What does your anxiety look like, and how do you break its curse and get through to the other side? Let me know in the comments below, or at @AJV1Beta on Twitter. And if you should ever see me brushing my shoulder off and wonder what I’m doing, worry not – I’m just swatting the annoying little anxiety imp off my shoulder.