Wearing Thin

Wearing thin

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced a garment malfunction that left me with a very red face, though civilian casualties were thankfully zero. I’d gone to the loo in the Castle Mall in Norwich, and as I reached for my bag to leave the cubicle there was the shriek of fabric ripping and a sudden inrush of air to my nether regions. My jeans had split right up the arse, making me so glad I’d chosen to wear a longer coat that day and my blushes were unseen.

I’m not interested in clothes much, fashion even less, and jeans are worn till they are worn out. I’d not been paying much heed to this pair but once I got home and looked at them, I could see the fabric had become worn to tissue paper thinness and it had been inevitable they would give way before too long. The other pair I’d bought at the same time as that pair were duly inspected and it became a wonder that they too had not ripped before now.

I have a horror of breaking down in public, of crying in front of people, of having a complete meltdown. Most people who’ve suffered with depression and anxiety worry about this, especially when you are in the middle of an episode of unstable emotions. But the truth is, even though anxiety attacks seem to come out of nowhere like summer rain, there are both triggers and warnings to let us know that our souls are unravelling and wearing thin and that we might rip right open at the slightest stress.

I’d like to share two accounts of panic attacks, taken from the same unpublished novel (the second sequel to The Bet). On both cases the trigger for the panic attack is something quite trivial; the first is set off by a pen breaking with a loud noise in the middle of a lecture and the second by the loss of car keys when he needs to make a swift exit from home.

1)

Dr Collins’ voice carried on beyond his spiralling thoughts, like distant birdsong, irrelevant and disconnected from his rapidly diminishing world. He could feel the faint tremors running through his entire body and he began to think he might even be making the whole row of interlinked seats shake too.

Take a deep breath, he told himself sternly. Get a grip.

It was a matter of pure chance that Dr Collins paused for breath at that moment; his hand gripped the pen convulsively and the barrel snapped apart with a tight sharp report like a tiny gunshot. In the quiet lecture theatre the sound was bright and distinct and like a Mexican wave, heads turned to see where the sound had come from. Face reddening, he dropped his gaze and saw that ink had covered his hands and the surface in front of him.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

He could feel his breath coming in short sharp gasps that rasped and caught at his throat as if he were about to throw up. Somewhere there were drums pounding. Why are there drums in a lecture theatre, he thought and then realised the drums were the sound of his own heartbeat pounding out of control.

He felt a tug at his sleeve again and looked without seeing that Gemma was pressing a handful of tissues into his shaking and ink-stained hand. He stared at them blankly, doing nothing. Numb, he watched blankly as she leaned over and scrubbed first at the desk surface and then took his hands and wiped the still running ink from them.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. For God’s sake why can’t I breathe? There’s no air in this place, why is there no air?

The pain in his chest reached an unbearable level at the same moment he became aware of it and he knew it was because all the air had vanished from the room.

I have to get out of here. Now. Or I am going to die.

He dropped the remains of the pen and struggled to get to his feet, stumbling as he did so, and ran from the lecture theatre, letting the door bang behind him.

Outside, he emerged into the drizzle and blindly rushed on, not knowing or caring where he went. He was dimly aware of bumping into people as he blundered along, and of people saying or even shouting things but he didn’t seem to be able to understand a word anyone said.”

2)

Ending the call, Ashurst entered his bedroom, and did his usual flat-on-the-floor drop to glance rapidly under the bed before packing an overnight bag and heading back down to collect his laptop and the bag he usually carried into the university. His mouth was dry and he was finding it hard to swallow, so when he suddenly couldn’t find his car keys, the baseline panic rocketed into a full-blown panic attack.

He curled against the stone-cold Rayburn, shaking so completely he was aware of his body causing the metal to shake too, his breath coming in snatches and deep shuddering gasps. His vision blurred and he realised he was crying, uncontrollably.

It passed slowly but it passed. His most important discovery had been that these attacks were time limited, that eventually ordinary breathing returned and that however awful it felt, he wasn’t going to die of it. Sometimes this knowledge alone was what got him through quicker than if he fought it. Eventually, he found himself becoming still again, his body still trembling but these were only after shocks and as he wiped his eyes, he looked up a little and saw his car keys exactly where he had left them on the kitchen table.

He laughed out loud, at his own reaction and for sheer relief. He ran some water at the sink and splashed his face with it and drank some from cupped but still shaking hands and then hesitantly made his way out of the house to go back to his car. He glanced around the area of land around the back door but he didn’t have much sense of fear as he shut and locked the door behind him; leaving the house never had as pronounced an effect on his psyche as returning. He’d often wondered about that. It was as if his fears centred solely on going into a place and not on coming out. Well at least that meant he wasn’t likely to add agoraphobia to his growing list of neuroses, and despite the pounding headache that was the usual after effect of a panic attack, he found himself chuckling slightly at that last thought.”

Now, as the author, I can tell you that Ashurst is suffering with depression and also with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, both with good reason. It’s easy enough for me to pinpoint why his meltdowns occur. Yet applied to my own life, if I have the sufficient focus to look at things, I can see where the fabric is wearing thin enough to give as soon as it’s put under a different sort of pressure. Too often I don’t look properly. Denim like my jeans wears differently to a wool jumper that might show wear by developing small holes or snags. The truth is that with both jeans and life I don’t want to look. I don’t want to face the reality of either needing to buy new jeans (I loathe clothes shopping) or of altering and adjusting my lifestyle to give me more breathing space and less stress.

Negative feedback loops ~ why they are so hard to escape from

 

Negative feedback loops ~ why they are so hard to escape from

 

This one is from the heart!

I’ve got myself ensnared a few times this last week with situations where my head has been locked in mortal combat with intangibles. Intangibles like worry about money(Monday) worry about family(Tuesday) anxiety about work or lack thereof(Wednesday) and incandescent fury at exploitation and injustice (Thursday onwards).

I think I may have figured some of it out.

Not the answers to the worries, but rather why they become resident goblins in my skull and refuse even logic, meditation and distraction as palliatives. Last night, I was pleased with the fact that I managed to get to sleep despite my roiling skull filled with fury and righteous anger, but this morning I was awake at shortly after six and ready for battle.

The first part of the answer is imagination.

I’ve got a five star solid gold imagination and it’s sitting there twiddling its thumbs waiting for me to use it. And use it I do. When I am not writing stories, I devise strange entertaining extras to add to the shopping list just to make my husband wonder what I meant by Klingon repellent. I create tiny tableaux out of random stones and leaves. I make up silly stories on the fly, just because I can. Why why why…is my constant question, about peoples’ behaviour, clothes, the world around me. Constant questions and constant imaginational overload.

The second part is idealism.

I believe that things could be better. The world, people, me, my home, publishing, art, literature and so on. I take this further and believe that things should be better.

Put the two together and you get a potent mix. Someone who thinks things should be better and has a vivid idea of ways it might be.

The third part is a destructiveness of self that comes back to a default setting of disaster looming and the sheer hopelessness of it all.

So the very things that make me a good writer are also the things that mean I can get so entangled in certain things I am unable to extricate myself. The recent post Scammed (still protected; if you want to read it, please email me for the password) is an illustration of this. I have been unable to let it go because it presented a way for the world to be a little bit better for many people and then it failed dismally to deliver and indeed, has continued to be a serious concern. It feeds into my helplessness at making the world a better place and while I feel helpless I almost gnaw my own leg off to try and change things in some way.

There are few ways I know of to short-circuit this cycle. It usually has to run its course of sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, panic disorder and finally a sort of resolution of walking away knowing I will come back again and again.

One day maybe I will learn a way of dealing with all of this while remaining a sane human being. I suggest if I ever do, you better shoot me immediately afterwards. It’s kinder than crucifixion.

Where do heroes come from? Exploring the bond between writer and characters.

 

Where do heroes come from? Exploring the bond between writer and characters.

 

It’s pretty rare that I write about writing on this blog; in that sense this is far from a Writer’s Blog of the classical kind. But the last few days have brought up a variety of issues and while boiling the kettle a short while ago, I had a bit of an aha moment.

Let me backtrack a little. Stay with me; I’ll get to the point as soon as I can.

Yesterday I got walloped with the worst attack of severe, paralysing anxiety I have had in many years. I teetered on the brink of all-out panic attack for about fourteen hours, before finally taking some sleeping tablets and going to bed. I woke feeling a bit better, more able to function but deeply disappointed in myself for not coping better with something I really thought I had overcome years ago. I’ve learned dozens of ways of dealing with it but none of them really worked yesterday. One of the keys to making it through to bedtime without slipping into panic was a comment by one of my Twitter friends; Christophe said “It’s just an excess of adrenaline.” Oddly enough being able to reduce it to a named hormone made it much easier for me to deal with, because it was finite. It was such a masculine approach to the problem and it really struck home more than anything else might have done.

But today, I started thinking about the novel I am close to completing and remembered that the hero of that novel has been suffering with some severe anxiety and panic issues(for good reasons, I must add) and in exploring his journey through this, I do wonder if I have stirred up something unresolved in my own. This set me to thinking even more about the deep link I have with my characters.

In Strangers and Pilgrims, each of the six protagonists reflect aspects of my own character, translated into a life and a person. Each of them has endured some pretty heavy duty suffering but writing it in a way that compartmentalised this suffering, spreading it among six people, meant that I never got the full force of it while I was writing it. When one became too much, I could just shift to another and spread the pain more thinly.

I know there are plenty of writers who see their characters as just characters and no more than that; essentially puppets or pawns to move around to serve the purposes of the plot. But that’s not the way I work. My writing is a symbiosis between the characters and a thread of story that has wormed its way between the worlds and often come to me in dreams; these stories are living, evolving beings who shift and change and demand things of me I would give to no human. And the characters come from somewhere deep, often very deep, within my own soul, emerging like old friends fully formed but with surprises in store for me. I don’t ever really know who and what they are; I listen to the tale they tell me in the darkest hours of the night and weave the words and the images I see until I am ready to write.

The novel I am working on is the third in a series and it came to me today that the connection I feel to the hero is deeper than almost any because the hero is in effect my soul’s attempts to translate my animus into a real being that has existence beyond the psyche. Is it any wonder that the last day or two have been a struggle, as I seek to bring a conclusion to this story where no ending is really possible without my own death?

I am bound up as much in my own stories as I am in my own external life, and the bond between them is such that for the years where I didn’t (couldn’t) write I knew myself to be living a half-life, barely alive and out of touch with my soul. I think that this may also be why I feel so powerfully the need to have others read my stories. John Donne wrote that No man is an island, and I believe this to be true. Who I am and what I create are so closely bound as to be inextricably linked, Siamese twins joined at the heart and mind. Without one, the other will die.

Mind Body Spirit- the golden tripod

 

Mind body spirit- the golden tripod

 

My recent battle with illness brought home to me how easily upset my fragile balance can be and more than that, quite how acutely sensitive I am to disruptions to my baseline well-being. It’s easy to forget how complex an organism a human being is, and how aspects of one form of health affect the whole person.

After I came out of hospital the first time, I contracted an infection, probably post-operatively, and was put on strong antibiotics. Though these tablets were designed to fight infection, there were side effects that made coping with being unwell far harder. Combined with the continuing effects of the anaesthesia and the pain relief I needed, my emotional state became acute and I spent most of Christmas Eve crying. Things that normally wouldn’t bother me made me incredibly sad and filled with self hatred. I’m used to dealing with pain, but I am not used to feeling weak and unwell, and try as I certainly did, I found I was incapable of rising above it and being positive. Body, mind and spirit were all out of balance.

Over the next few days, my spirits rose a little, as the deeper meaning of Christmas sank in, but when the infection came back worse than ever, this little improvement vanished and I was hospitalised again, this time to have antibiotics fed to me intravenously. I have seldom felt so utterly bereft as I did on New Year’s Eve, and New Years Day was not much better. The drugs being pumped into me might well have been doing a sterling job of fighting infection but they did little to improve my state of mind or spirit. I made the mistake of reading Oscar Wilde’s short stories(albeit in French) and ended up sobbing silently into my pillow. The Selfish Giant has an ending that would bring tears to most eyes, and so too does The Happy Prince. But the heart of those sentiments went deeper than the tears, and within a few hours, the arrival of two new patients and the interaction with them and their stories raised me again. Looking out of one’s self at moments like this can be very helpful and these two new ladies were good company. With the addition of two hysterically funny night nurses, I went to sleep on New Year’s Day with my sides aching from laughing.

Returning home the next day, I soon realised that I had lost a lot of ground in terms of health and fitness and set about trying to regain it. I am used to a fairly large amount of outdoor exercise, usually walking a minimum of two miles every day. I’ve learned also that I can keep my default depression (virtually) under some control if I can take some vigorous exercise every single day, and the spiritual benefits of being among trees or on the seashore cannot be underestimated either.

When one aspect of health fails us, the others need to be extra strong to reinforce the whole person. You could liken it to a tripod, where each of those three vital components support the person equally. But that metaphor fails because when one element is removed or severely damaged, a tripod would literally tip over. The virtual tripod allows for another element supporting the weaker one while that weaker one is restored. I noticed that the weakening of my physical state meant that a greater strain was placed on my mental and spiritual resources. Long term the same is true: the weakening of the mental and spiritual elements also places a great strain on the physical. The human body responds to stress with a cocktail of chemicals, adrenaline and many others, that were originally responses to extreme physical threats (being gobbled up by a sabre toothed cat or short-faced bear, or similar prehistoric threats) and while being afraid that a colleague or a boss is going to rip metaphorical strips off you produces those same reactions, our responses to such stress do nothing to dissipate those chemicals and hormones. Stress places immense strain on the body: the adrenal glands can become over-active, pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream at inappropriate intervals (this is one of the factors present in panic attacks and anxiety disorders). We seek to anaesthetize the pain of these reactions in whatever way seems obvious to us, by drugs, or drink or sex or exercise.

One of the most important things I have learned about panic attacks is that they end. They ‘time out’. They have no more power than what I give to them. I’ve also learned a few tricks to stop them in their tracks: breathing into a paper bag, equalises the CO2 in the blood, as well as signalling to the spirit that you have control and the attack is not going to kill you. Stepping away and observing my vital signs also goes a long way to restoring some kind of balance. But sometimes it can be so extreme that I need someone else to remind me of what I can do.

Free floating anxiety is a different matter. At a lower level than a panic attack, it’s something that runs along almost unnoticed much of the time. It’s when something else disturbs the system that free floating anxiety comes roaring up into a full blown anxiety state. There are many ways of dealing with this, but I tend to forget all about them when it hits. That’s when I need reminding of the methods: focus on breathing, play music that soothes, take a walk…whatever works. Otherwise I become the squirrel in the cage, racing round in frantic circles, ready to bite whatever comes near me.

Not one of the three elements should be disregarded. The body had needs and those needs must be honoured: good nutrition, freedom from illness and injury, sound sleep and so on. The spirit has its needs too, to be fed and cared for as another form of body, and honoured. The mind, that most sensitive of elements, needs care too, to be allowed to grow and expand and be nurtured.

So, my intention is to pay attention to all aspects of my self, and to be aware that what affects one aspect may well have knock on effects on the rest. I am not a collection of hermetically sealed units, but rather a complex system where each aspect interacts with the others in often unpredictable ways, with unforeseen results. I guess it shouldn’t take a genius to figure all this out but too often I have expected myself to cope with knocks without accepting that those knocks will inevitably throw my whole being off kilter for some considerable time.

One day, I’ll get it right.

A rough night

You know how you feel when you wake up after a night on the tiles and getting home at 3am and crawling into bed and watching the room spin slowly out of control till you pass out?

That’s me, today, without the fun of the night on the tiles.

I went to bed at a sensible time, and found I couldn’t get to sleep. I might have dozed for an hour or so before waking with a heaviness in my chest and a pain all down my left arm. It got worse and I decided to get up and see if I could do something about it. I did what I usually do, and turned on the computer and googled various symptoms and came to no firm conclusion about what was wrong. I get chest pains from time to time when I am very stressed and anxious and have had my heart checked out. I’m relatively low risk for heart disease: age, gender, being a non smoker, non drinker, taker of regular exercise, healthy diet all in my favour. Only thing not in my favour is being a bit overweight. I did the mental maths and thought on balance it was almost certainly a form of panic attack, and maybe muscle strain.

So I surfed and wrote and flipped onto Facebook and found a friend up at 2am and chatted for a while. I wrote some more, I made hot milk with honey and when I was sure I wasn’t going to suddenly die in my sleep, I went back to bed at about 4am.

I had a cup of tea with my husband when he got up at 7am and went back to sleep for a while until the cat woke me up, followed shortly by husband with a tray of coffee and an apple turnover. I feel a bit fragile this morning but hopefully it’s going to pass.

What’s worrying me is not my heart, but my nerves. How did I let myself get into such a stupid state that I convinced myself I might have been having a heart attack? Surely the best explanation for my pain was having played tennis against a much younger opponent at work yesterday, and having acquitted myself quite well(ie I didn’t lose!) must surely have over used certain muscles without realising it?

I can see I am going to have to give myself a pretty stern talking-to….

Separation anxiety

….that is separation from my home!

I really hate going away; I hate the process of getting ready, all the essential but tedious preparations. Mounds of laundry to clear, things to clean and tidy, packing….It doesn’t matter in the end where I’m going or for how long. I just get upset  and anxious about it all. Remembering to get certain things done or put certain things in the packing simply winds me up to snapping point very quickly.

I gave up for a while today, took the dog out and when we got back I went to bed for a snooze. It hasn’t helped really. I’ve still got a lot to do and we’re off tomorrow.

I’m just hoping I can keep it together enough so I get in the car tomorrow without having done or said anything dreadful.

Healing words

As a part of my daily spiritual practise, such as it is, I draw a card at random from my set of Healing Cards by Caroline Myss. I’ve used many cards over the years, some I still use and others have served their time and are left fallow now.

These particular cards have a picture and some words, drawn from every major spiritual tradition in the world. One side there is a soundbite with a picture and on the reverse is a few lines expanding it.

Today’s sound bite was, “Recovery isn’t a goal, but a process”

On the reverse, “You never stop repairing and renewing yourself. You must absorb  the light and shadow of each day you live. Don’t keep your spirit stuck in yesterday as a new day begins. Prayer is process.”

As I wrote first thing, I am feeling very stressed and anxious. I thought I was past this being at the mercy of anxiety, but it seems not.

It seems like it’s part of my life’s work to work through this. Today is tough.

But at least I am safe home and can now try and deal with it now my chores are done with.