Anxiety: The constant companion

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Before I made my decision to give up work and take up the teaching course, which will lead to my career of choice, I experienced varying levels of anxiety. In response to what I’m sure was ‘the uncertain’. One of my main anxious thoughts was around the loneliness of online study, having no classmates and no one but the cat around me for the whole day.

To provide a bit of background about where this thought came from. I’ve struggled with loneliness in the past and was frightened that it might rear its ugly head again and blight what should be a joyous return to study after 20 years away from it. A few years ago, prompted by feelings of loneliness, I went through a two-month period of insomnia. I’d go to bed around 11pm and then wake up at 1am feeling sure it was the morning and time to get up. Once I’d checked the time, my heart would begin to race, my breathing would get rapid and my mind would turn to thoughts of not being able to sleep the whole night.

This was probably one of the most terrifying periods of my life. I once had to beg the chemist to give me some sleeping tablets because I’d forgotten my ID, had about 5 sleep remedies (none of which worked) and once took a sleeping tablet at 4am in the morning and wandered around like a zombie at work the next day. During this period, I was forcing down six or seven meals a day and still losing weight. On a work trip to Sydney I nearly passed out in my hotel. This is what anxiety can do.

Anxiety is our constant companion, it walks with us everywhere. It doesn’t always speak, sometimes it just sits quietly in the corner but at times it shouts so loud we can hear nothing else. Part of my life I guess, has been and is, learning how to soothe it. Mine responds to exercise, so I head down to the gym or run four days a week now. Mine also likes sitting in the backyard in the sun reading a book. Mine likes structure. It likes to feel in control. It definitely likes a plan. If I don’t wake up and know what I’m doing that day it starts to talk and gradually gets louder. Mine likes to be talked about; hence just writing this is good. I guess things only have power when they remain unsaid.

I have two great outlets for this, firstly Claire, who listens in the most non-judgemental way I have ever experienced. However irrational the thing I’m saying, she doesn’t instantly jump on it, saying it’s silly. She’ll ask questions and explore it. I suppose considering her job this is understandable, but to me it’s quite amazing. The second is of course my psychologist, someone far detached from my life, whom I’m able to say anything to. I still feel, even when I’m typing this, that there is a stigma in saying I see a psychologist but there shouldn’t be, we’re all too quick to look after our physical health but pay little attention to our mental health.

The question might arise, why did I choose to do an online course, which puts me in this position, when I had an offer from another university to study on campus. Well that’s a good question. Perhaps as well as challenging myself with my studies, I also wanted to grow as a person, to build resilience and finally put my fear of loneliness to bed.

In exploring the loneliness I’ve suffered in the past I’ve come to realise that when I’ve felt it and especially when the terrifying period of insomnia was taking place, that loneliness was enforced and involuntary. I had just split up with a partner and was experiencing living on my own for the first time in around 20 years. In the moment though, I didn’t take time to think, analyse, and wonder why? I was too busy trying to distract myself, to just get myself through. And through it I did get and came out the other side. I don’t view sleep in the same way that I did. I still occasionally wake up in the early hours of the morning and look at the clock. However I no longer get distressed if it is very early, I just think I’ve got plenty more time to sleep and if I don’t sleep I can just lie there and think of things instead of trying to distract myself. There is a great quote by, I think, the School of Life’s Alain de Botton which says that not being able to sleep is the brain’s way of telling us we need to think more about something. That’s a mantra I keep in mind when I wake up now.

All of this isn’t to say I don’t suffer anxious thoughts. I believe everyone probably does. Others saw me, for years, as calm. But that’s about what we show the world, not what we show ourselves. These first few weeks have been surprisingly easy. Perhaps it’s because they were a choice I made instead of something being forced on me. Sure I’ve developed routines. I now have five weeks without study and when I started, this was the time I was most dreading. Three days in, I’m starting to welcome it and embrace the silence and solitude it offers me, being alone with my thoughts with no distractions.

My studies continue to excite me, to make me think about the future ahead. It seems a long way away but I think I will enjoy the journey of getting there.

IJS 5/10/2017

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