Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Kate Mayberry, who lives in Bristol, England with her two boys, partner and two Bengal cats.
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I have been anxious since childhood. My grandfather observed to my mother that I would wring my hands. I was deemed exceptionally bright, reading early and singing before I could talk. Nevertheless, I felt lost and bewildered, with no strong sense of self or how to fit in. My family teased me for my quirky behavior and goofy mistakes. “What a case!” they used to say. They teased me for being sensitive to teasing.
When I was 10, my mother had me skip the last year of elementary school to attend a competitive private school for boys as soon as they announced a switch to co-ed. I struggled in an institution that was still 98 percent male (and which, in those times, excelled in brutal competition and humiliation). My parents assumed I was sailing through school just as my brother was and dismissed my anxiety as teenage angst. I made it to Barnard and then Oxford, but struggled even more at university, suffering a nervous breakdown. I did not know then that I have ADD, a variant of ADHD, which is often unnoticed in women.
The shame of all my bloopers and failures: The situations I’ve mishandled, the people I’ve let down, the things I could have achieved or should be doing — all these thoughts and feelings are amassed right in my gut. I have a permanent gnawing there which naturally requires industrial amounts of comfort food to control.
My body bottles up nervous energy in all the wrong places. My brain fogs, swirling with random thoughts, which slows me down; other times, excess adrenaline makes my movements exaggerated and clumsy — no doubt from trying to rein in all of that energy. Inevitably, I feel exhausted, irritable, jumpy or even agoraphobic. I sleep fitfully and have dreams from which I wake up yelling. Fatigue takes over, I scratch, fidget, rub my face, jiggle my legs and chew my lips.
Like a horse refusing at a fence, when I am especially nervous, I refuse at the first go, then, with confidence evaporated, it is all over, a perfect example of the adage: “he who hesitates is lost.”
The more anxious I am, the more my brain goes into safe mode, blocking out information and suppressing memory. In fact my working memory is barely existent. I miss vital cues.
Sounds jangle my nerves and interruptions are painful. I cannot endure bare, colorless environments or tedious tasks for long, and I shut down around toxic people. I feel terribly restless.
Observing me on a good day, my friends may insist I am capable, sensible, calm and in control, not the neurotic I claim to be. Their confidence somewhat proves their point and mine: All of my mental energy is expended on controlling my inner chaos, which has taught me how to get along just fine in the eyes of others. But ruminating each morning in the shower, sometimes as I reach for the towel, a visceral sensation of shudder-inducing wrongness spreads over me that is — I can only guess — neurological. I think Sartre may have described something similar in his novel “Nausea,” but I’m the last person who should be reading it.
A bad day consists of extreme avoidance. Once, I couldn’t face an exam. I was so scared and anxious about it that I stayed in bed and listened to the same Beethoven symphony over and over (especially the triumphant, galloping last movement) to drown out my thoughts.
I have hidden at home from people, crying, just too overwhelmed by obligations and expectations. Knowing that I was making things worse by hiding and procrastinating just added to misery and low self-esteem, yet to confess to not coping was even worse. I might play hours of computer games or shop to shut out the pain.
I am most terrified of bureaucracy fails — missed tax returns, driving infractions, etcetera. I would sometimes visualize myself on trial, with a stony-faced judge reminding me that ignorance of the law is no defense. They would read a list of offenses, caused by errors and misunderstandings too complex to explain, as they hauled me off to jail. Such visualizations cause real suffering. Not being mentally at peace is a terrible punishment — just ask Fyodor Dostoevsky.
My coping mechanism (the healthy one) for anxiety is to seek out a wise, sympathetic and loyal friend. She will sit me down with a comforting cup of tea.
It has to be the sort of friend who will reassure me, perhaps humorously, that my world isn’t collapsing and that I’m actually worrying far too much. My advice to others would be to keep a humorous journal or write a letter to a friend exaggerating a tough situation. My father used to be a nervous traveler. He got through it by creating ludicrous headlines in his imagination: “Distinguished Mathematics Professor Fails to Exit Rome Train Station, Found Two Weeks Later,” or “Math Genius Lost In Tunnels of Paris Metro.”
For peace of mind I always seek out nature and guided meditation. My newest find and my magic bullet for sleep is ASMR videos. Using sounds and role play as relaxation is not scientifically understood, but thousands, if not millions now, swear by it as a relaxation tool.
Modern life is stressful enough without the relentless bombardment of information and electronic demands. Many of us could do with going at a gentler pace, and for others to be more forbearing and patient. Too often, official letters are unkindly worded and threatening, when a human approach would be so much less detrimental to our health. Rules meant to protect society against the cheaters and criminals are disproportionately punitive and harsh towards honest flakiness. People would not bottle up so much anger and hatred towards a world which was kinder and more forgiving. There would be fewer meltdowns, less sickness at work and a more focused and dedicated workforce, which would also improve relationships and family life. There is an epidemic of cancer and stress-related illness in the world. We need a new approach to mental health and well-being.