I apologise for the depressing title of this blog post.
Wait, no. I don't.
It's December now which means we're cracking open our advent calendars and putting up trees in our homes, amid a spray of pine needles and tinsel. It's supposed to be a happy time. And it is, except that it's still the middle of winter and it's dark at 4pm and no matter how much you sit in front of your SAD lamp, if you have Depression and Anxiety, this time of year is grim. Thoughts poke you in the sides of the head at any time of day or night. Bad thoughts. Thoughts about all the horrible things you've ever done and said throughout your life, and why these make you the world's worst person. It can happen at any time of year but around this time it gets worse, because dark thoughts breed in dark places, and it's dark pretty much all the time right now.
Around December, traditionally a time for family and togetherness, my thoughts turn to all the bad stuff I did as a kid, mainly the bad stuff I did to my younger brother. I was not a nice kid. Let's not go into the reasons for that. But I was selfish and self centred and mean. I *hope* I've grown out of it. But back then I was kind of a brat. The inside of my head wasn't all roses then, as it isn't now, but all I knew how to do was take it out on the one person in my life who I wielded any power and influence over - my little bro. I'm sure he won't mind me writing this- hell, he wrote a novel inspired in part by the experiences we had with depression as teenagers so I'm sure he's cool with it. And I won't linger too long on the specifics - I teased him, bullied him, there was punching and hitting....until the day he got bigger than me and punched me right back. But the worst I did to him, the very worst, was not anything to do with outward meanness or spite - I can't blame it on being a mixed up kid who didn't know who to take her temper out on. It was devious. It was sneaky. And it happened around this time of year, over 20 years ago.
He still reminds me of it every December. And now it's time to tell that story and own up to being the demon child that I was.
In the early 1990's, Gladiators was the most exciting thing ever. It was on ITV on Saturday nights and even though it was tacky and completely staged, in an age where there was no internet and only 4 channels to watch, it was everything. My brother and I loved it. One year, mum bought us both the official Gladiators advent calendars and we were so excited! Because we loved Gladiators and we loved eating chocolate for breakfast and it was nearly Christmas and woooooo! So much excitement! It must have been about 1993, making me about 9 and him about 6. I should have been setting a good example and generally being an awesome big sister.
Instead, I was a fiend who wanted more chocolate than she had been allocated, and I discovered very quickly that these particular advent calendars were shoddily made, and if you shook them, the chocolate would fall out of their designated places behind the advent doors and down to the bottom, where they could be fished out through a gap in the cardboard. This meant that I could eat extra chocolate! But I couldn't do it to my own calendar because if I ate it all at once there would be nothing left for the rest of the month.
...So I did it to my brothers calendar.
I would wait until nobody was in the room and sneak over, shake the calendar until the chocolate fell down and then I would scoop it out and eat it! Success! Noone would ever know! Except for the next day, when my brother excitedly opened the little door on his calendar to find a hole with nothing in it. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Can you imagine the disappointment on his little face and in his little heart? All he wanted was a pre-breakfast chocolate to eat, as was his right as a child of the 90's, where no one thinks twice about feeding their kids refined sugar and additives all day long. But no chocolate was there. Meanwhile, I would open my own little door to find the chocolate waiting for me in it's rightful place, and I would pop it in my mouth and enjoy it, while my brother (and I did I mention he was 6? SIX! Think of the innocence!) would be left empty handed and sad.
My mother, of course, naturally assumed the calendar was faulty and when this happened day after day after day - well I don't know what she did actually. I think she bought my brother a packet of Malteasers or something, so that he could replace each chocolate with something. But it wasn't the same thing. Because those little plastic flavoured chocolates are everything, aren't they? Nothing is quite as good, and you can have Malteasers on any bloody day of the year. So it was no fun for him.
I kept my mouth shut.
I don't know at what point he found out it was me. I must have confessed in later years. There's a show on Radio 2 around 6pm on weekdays where they read out letters people have written, confessing various misdeeds, and then there's a panel who decides whether or not they should be forgiven. I've always thought I should write in to that show, except that it doesn't matter, because my now adult brother knows full well what I did, and at 30 years of age, he still hasn't forgiven me.
Which is fair enough. I stole candy from a baby (kind of) and I did it purely so I could have more of what I wanted, of what I already had.
It might be a funny story if told around the dinner table in the right sort of way, and we joke about it amongst ourselves, but I still can't look at an advent calendar through eyes of joy, only through a telescope of guilt. Which is classic Depression really - always telling you that you are bad. And classic Anxiety - always telling you that you should worry about things you have no control over, that happened years ago.
Try to make it funny. Then let it go.
When I went Storm chasing in the USA earlier this year, a lot of people said to me 'aren't you scared?' and I said no, I wasn't. Because even though huge American storms with lightning and tornadoes are not only frightening but also deadly, I really wasn't bothered. I did not get anxious about doing that. Not in the slightest.
Here is a list of things I get anxious about (list is not exhaustive, although it is exhausting):
- waking up in the morning
- going to work
- speaking to people I don't know
- speaking to people I do know
- whether or not I am going to fall in front of a train even though I am standing really far back from the platform edge
- whether or not I am going to get hit by a car even though I am standing really far back from the kerb
- whether my face is making the appropriate expression for the situation
- public speaking
- non-public speaking
- whether or not the cat has been killed by a fox or a car even though she's only been out of the house 2 minutes
- whether or not the cat has died in the house and I am going to find her when I come home
- whether or not the cat has somehow fallen out of a window even though I KNOW I've closed them all
- whether or not the car is locked even though I KNOW I just locked it
- whether or not I set my alarm for tomorrow even though I KNOW I just did it
- whether or not I set my alarm for tomorrow even though I have now checked it 5 times in the space of 30 seconds
- whether or not I am going to need a wee on the train/bus/in the car/on the 5 minute walk between home and the place I will arrive at, which has a toilet
- going to bed at night
- what that really loud noise was
- what that noise was that wasn't even that loud
- that noise that happened just now that I know exactly what it was and whether or not I am going to have a heart attack because of it (even if all it was was someone whistling or a dog barking)
- whether or not someone is going to break into the house at night when we are asleep (I have gone over all possible egress routes many MANY times in case this happens)
- what if a disgruntled customer is waiting outside my work wanting to hurt me
- what if a disgruntled customer is waiting outside my home wanting to hurt me
- what if there is a terrorist attack here and now, how will we escape
- what if I get hungry and my tummy rumbles and I feel sick and there is nothing to eat or no time
- what if I have eaten and now I need to go to the toilet and there is no time
- what if someone hears the noises my tummy makes as a result of either of the above two things
- what if I get fired for *insert ridiculous reason here*
- what if I had seriously hurt myself or someone else because of *insert tiny, tiny error made when driving recently*
- being late for anything
- being too early for anything
- people not liking me
- people thinking I'm ugly
- people not wanting to talk to me but having to
- people wanting to talk to me but I don't want to, how do I get out of it
- any social occasion
- the state of the world
- the state of this country
- what people might think about what I think about the state of the world or this country
- is there a spider in my hair
- is there a spider in my ear
- did a spider crawl in my ear in the night, is it now having babies in my brain?
- that thing I really want to do that other people think nothing of just doing - for example exercise class, class to learn a new skill. volunteer work
- what happens if I open my mouth and speak
- what happens if I don't open my mouth and speak
- what happens if one or all of my loved ones die in freak accidents
- oh God I haven't heard from Dan in 3 whole hours, what if he is dead
- oh God my mum's phone is going to voicemail. What if she is dead
- oh God something has happened in London, I know several people who live/work/go out anywhere in a 20 mile radius of there, what if they are dead
- am I going to get yelled at
- am I going to get told I did something wrong
- are people talking about me
- are people going to ask me to do things that I can't do right now, because I will say yes and then feel more stressed, how do I deal with this without them hating me
- oh God, how do I make every single person on the planet that I meet like me
- even though *insert thing here* has already happened and it was fine and I/my loved one is safe, what if it had gone differently and I/my loved one got attacked/was in danger/died?
- what that person meant by that
- what that person was thinking of me when they looked at me like that
- that person is upset, it must be my fault
- that person just complimented me, oh God now I must be perfect otherwise they might think less of me
- that person seems to like me, oh God what if they stop
- what if I'm not capable of *insert thing here*
- what if that car that's driving along really innocently suddenly ploughs into me and/or other people?
- what if that car that is driving along really innocently has a gunman in it?
- I am walking along, what if I get mugged/attacked/killed?
- what if everyone hates me
- what if I'm not good enough
- About six million things that I cannot name or put my finger on
- I better not do that in case something bad happens
- I better not do that but I can't work out why
- Oh no I feel tired but I've still got work to go OH NO THE WORLD IS ENDING HOW WILL I COPE
- I just felt a transient and minute pain in my ear/toe/hip/nose/tummy/shoulder OH GOD what does it mean?
- I have *insert tiny and easy errand here* to do but I can't because for some reason I cannot bring myself to leave the house
- I organised this event/party/night out and that person is not smiling oh GOD they are having a horrible time and it's all my fault
- I don't feel quite right
- I feel quite good
- I feel fine, something must be wrong
- Everything seems to be going well, something must be wrong
- I can't think of anything to worry about, I MUST HAVE FORGOTTEN SOMETHING
My brain never really switches off. Except sometimes at night - but getting it to switch off is an uphill struggle. It's a bit of a contradiction really, when you think about it. Being near extreme weather = fine. A normal Tuesday = ARGH.
Sometimes the anxiety is worse than at other times, and when this happens it is important to try and remember all the things you have done and achieved that you pushed through DESPITE having crippling anxiety. It is equally important to reward yourself for all the little things you manage to accomplish when in this heightened state of anxiety, because even tiny things can seem really huge when just making yourself stand still long enough to do them feels like climbing Everest. Today I did a load of laundry. Hooray! Get the flags out! Today I sat down and wrote a blog post for half an hour - that deserves a party, with a cake and some bunting. What will tomorrow bring? I'd like to get out there and start keeping up with everyone else but in the meantime I'll work on telling myself there is NOT a spider in my ear and that if some days there is nothing to worry about, it is because THERE IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT!
Climbing a Mountain in a Rainstorm in Wales, and All That It Signifies (Hint: Life is a Bit Like Climbing a Mountain in a Rainstorm)
'THIS IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL!' the mountain leader is yelling somewhere to my right. I nod and hope I am not required to say anything in response. I am too busy putting one foot in front of the other and concentrating on not dying. We are halfway up Mount Snowdon, it is 3am, and the reason he is yelling is because the wind is hammering itself so heavily against our bodies that it is all we can do to not get knocked off our feet and blown into Ireland, which incidentally, you can see on a clear day from the top of Snowdon.
Tonight, when we eventually get to the summit, I will not be able to see more than an arm's length in front of my face. In fact, it will be so foggy at the top of this relatively tiny mountain in north Wales that I will squat down on the path and do a wee only feet away from the rest of my walking party. And it won't matter, because they won't be able to see me. The alternative is holding on for the next 3 hours as we try not to get swept away by a river that was once a path. For months leading up to this climb I had rose-tinted visions of myself, rosy cheeked and bright eyed, triumphantly arriving at the top of my Welsh Everest as the sun rose, lighting the glorious hills spread out below me so that I might gaze down on all humankind, bathed in this warm morning glow, as I reflected on all that I had achieved in the last 4 hours, and the last 5 months. And the last forever.
Of course, real life is not like that, and my moonlight mountain climb was not like that. On the ascent, the wind did it's best to hurl us off a cliff and on the descent sideways hail burned my face and my walking shoes became lakes of rancid mountain water. My knees cried out in agony as I forced them to steady me against the slippery rocks that had become our way back to safety. And when I arrived back at base camp there was not a part of me that was dry, and I looked like I had recently fallen into a ravine.
The whole time I had not seen a single gorgeous view - just a few shivering sheep and the light from my head torch falling on the craggy ground in front of me. And rain. So much rain. The week leading up to this was glorious sunshine and the week following it would see temperatures rising to the high 20's and skies as blue as your hat. But here, on this night, it was freezing, apocalyptic and there were times when I wanted to give up and not move another inch until the weather improved and the helicopter came to get me. But it's not supposed to be easy, is it? I guess if that climb had been a lovely stroll up a big hill on a balmy summers eve then it would have been fine, just fine. But not as satisfying, and less of an achievement. Is that like life? Is it going to be more satisfying in the end because it is not easy? I don't know. But at the point where I heard my mountain leader utter those words - 'this is good for the soul' I knew he was right, because despite being convinced we were all going to be killed by adverse weather, I'd still rather have been there than curled up in a warm, dry bed.
I know people who have travelled to Africa and Asia and spent 3 days trekking up peaks that make Snowdon look like a hillock. Those people are excellent and amazing and I wish I could do that but the truth is that while physically I could, I'm not sure my brain could deal with everything involved. Just travelling to our base camp at the foot of Snowdon (a large tent in a wet field) turned me into a wibbling mess. So much so that when they served us huge slabs of chocolate cake in preparation for our Quite Long Walk Up The Equivalent of 369 Flights of Stairs In a Wind Tunnel, I couldn't eat mine. But when I look at it objectively and in relation to the rest of my life (and nobody else's) - it turns out that I may as well have trekked across the Andes. Because 5 months ago I was too scared to leave my house. And now I was getting ready to climb up things! In the dark! In the rain! Wearing really unflattering headgear! And 5 hours later I managed it, even if we nearly did get turned back because the batteries in the radios went dead and our mountain leaders, despite putting on a brave front, were actually pretty terrified of the weather conditions we were ascending high things in. It's one thing to make it out of doors when you are in the middle of spiralling Anxiety, but quite another to travel 300 miles away from home to zip up a mac and go on an actual adventure. And I did that. I did that in a HURRICANE (okay, I'm starting to blow the story out of proportion now. But it really was very windy indeed). And guess what?! After doing all that AT NIGHT and then coming down the mountain in the gathering dim light of a very foggy, grey, rainy morning, I STILL got sunburnt on my forehead. Mountain weather is so weird.
But before I start getting too self-congratulatory and smug - I know it wasn't all that really. Everyone is fighting a really hard battle every day. And mine was just a really bizarre physical incarnation of a mental struggle - one that I could manipulate into words for the purposes of a blog post later on. And the added dimension that we were walking up Snowdon to raise money for a cancer charity makes it even stupider to start patting myself vigorously on the back. Nothing any of us went through that night was as bad as cancer can be. But after it was all over there was a little part of me that thought 'well, you see, so you CAN do things. So stop telling yourself you can't. Now get in a warm bath before you get pneumonia'. And that was pretty sweet.
The other reason I don't want to get too smug is because I know it could all have been different. Anxiety may be all in the mind but guess what? IT'S ALL IN THE MIND. It ebbs and flows and it never really 100% goes away. If I had been having a bad time in my life right then, when I was supposed to be climbing a mountain, I would have cancelled the trip and stayed in my safe zone, which would probably have been my bed in London, quaking gently and persistently. I'm no hero, and you can't overcome things just like that. I was there because I was having a relatively GOOD period in the life of my brain and I was able to do what I did. Also, I have a working set of legs, for which I feel incredibly grateful. But the point is, I guess, that the next time I find myself unable to go to Tesco to get milk because of that impending sense of dread that I can't explain, I can remind myself of this experience, and hopefully it will help, if only a little bit. I can add it to the bank of Good Things to help me fight the war against the Bad Things that hide in the corners of my head.
If you too would like to climb a mountain but aren't sure how, here is a Beginner's Guide, by Me:
1.) Pick a little one to begin with. Wales has some little ones and also the Lake District in England. I mean, they are still pretty big. But not as big as those ones in Nepal and that Matterhorn one (can't remember where that is).
2.) Do not go when it is dark. You won't be able to see anything. Although actually, maybe this is a good thing. Looking down and seeing a sheer drop might put you off.
3.) For the love of all that is good and beautiful, do NOT go up a mountain when it is hailing sideways. That is no fun. If it starts hailing sideways, retreat to the nearest cafe for a scone and a cup of tea instead.
Oh and if you make it up Snowdon can you please tell me what it looks like because I've still got no idea. Thanks :)