Thursday, 1 February 2018

*Anxiety Episodes*: my anxiety as a TV show. Time To Talk day 2018.

'Anxiety Episodes' 
OR 'my anxiety as a TV show'

This was taken 7 days before the events in this story. In retrospect, those aren't happy eyes.

The scene unfolded like a page from a screenplay that had slipped loose from the pile and floated down into an average Wednesday morning before shouting ‘Action!’.

“You need to go home” she said, her arm outstretched behind her back, stopping her cigarette smoke from drifting into our conversation, on the chill November air.

“You need to go home, and you need to see your doctor” she repeated. Emphatically.

And there was something so sincere, unequivocal, about how she said it that, not only did I know that she believed me, it led me to believe it for myself. A case of “Shit, if someone outside my head can see the trouble I’m in … then I guess it must be real after all”.

Because, until that moment, sitting on a bench, talking to a work colleague, I hadn’t especially believed it.

I’d only starting feeling unwell on campus a week before that cold morning when I simply could not face going into work. Only three times I’d struggled to sit still in lectures, watched the clock, felt nauseous, crampy, sweaty. How can something that had only happened three times feel this insurmountable this quickly? How could it be real? It must all be in my head.

And it was:
  • it was in the constant, incessantly racing thoughts that impeded my ability to function, like a computer virus slowing down a laptop. 
  • it was in the negative self-talk that made me feel pathetic, childish, neurotic, for suddenly struggling with something I’d done regularly for over a decade. 
  • it was even in the positive self-talk I ceaselessly narrated while I was flailing. ‘You’ll be OK, this is nothing, you’re just exaggerating, you won’t pass out, you’ve been anxious before and never thrown up or fainted, just get through this next hour without jumping up, rushing out and making a show of yourself. OK, f*ck the hour, just get through the next minute, second …” and repeat until home. 
All of which had no effect, except to exhaust me.

So yes, it was all in my mind. But, funnily enough, your mind’s kind of a useful thing to have on board to get you through the day.

It kind of keeps the whole ship running. And if there’s a mutiny, well, nobody wins, you all just get scuppered, wrecked, pulled under with the tide.

But right then, when she said: “You need to see your doctor”, like Cinderella’s golden coach and snowy white horses, the reality of my mental illness suddenly materialised before me.

This thing was real. This wasn’t normal behaviour. Even for me. Something was wrong.

So, I did exactly as I was told. As instructed I went home and, the next day, I went to see my GP, who also believed my new – no longer a pumpkin – reality and signed me off work for a month. Just like that.

The explanation on the sick note read: ‘Anxiety episodes’. Which at least gives me the title for the TV drama, when I write it.

‘She’, by the way, is my closest colleague on the university campus where I’ve worked, part time, for over 11 years. Let’s call her Anna.

Anna is self-effacing, generous, funny (she can spin a good yarn, often complete with actions); the kind of person who knows everyone who passes by and who, somehow, also knows all their names, and they hers.

The kind of person who, without missing a beat, can turn someone’s month around, all while finishing off her morning ciggie and take-out coffee.

I’d been mooching around, unable to settle, when I spotted her outside and went down to join her. After waiting patiently, fake-smiling and laughing all the way while she chatted to one of the groundskeepers (who she knew by name, naturally) – I eventually did something very un-British:

When we were finally alone, and she turned and asked how I was, I didn’t say ‘Fine thanks’. I told the truth.

“I’m feeling anxious” I confessed, "And I just don't know why." then she pretty much intuited the rest.

“For no reason?” she suggested.

I nodded.

“And you thought if you came to talk to me it would help distract you?”

Another nod.

“But it’s not working is it?”

I shook my head half in laughter, half sadness.

That’s when she instructed me to go home and talk to my GP. Hell, she even offered to talk to the administrator in our office to explain why I had to go home. 

And – just like that – Fairy Godmother style again, there was the administrator, walking across the square in front of us. And Anna went over to her and the morning continued to play out like a TV show; now I was in one of those scenes where the protagonist can’t hear what the others are saying, but there’s enough gesturing and glancing in their direction to know they’re the topic of conversation. 

Then she was back by my side; obstacles magically removed; deal sealed: I was going home.

And I did go home. But, before I went, and before this story ends, let me tell you one more thing Anna did for me that day …

When I write ‘Anxiety Episodes’, (the hit TV series), it’ll include a scene that everyone watching will think is a little far-fetched, a bit on-the-nose, purely there for broad comic effect. Everyone, that is, apart from you, me and Anna because, we’ll know that it was 100% based on true events.

These events in fact.

While we were talking Anna’s student, a wheelchair user, arrived in the car park so we headed off to meet her. And there, while waiting for the student to get her belongings together Anna made me promise to text her when I was safely home, before uttering that simple, matter-of-fact phrase, often used by allies of the mentally unwell:

“There’s nothing for you to feel silly about” she chastised “You wouldn’t think anything about being off work if you had a broken leg, would you?”.

And, of course, she was right. Our society really shouldn’t still be finding mental illness so much harder to comprehend than broken bones, vomiting bugs and runny noses. But, it does. And, on that day, and for at least a few weeks afterwards, I did.

But, as I nodded in half-hearted agreement with her sentiment, Anna’s face changed, her eyes bulged, she tried to hold my gaze while wordlessly indicating something with a tilt of her head.

“I can’t believe it” she gasped. “Here’s me going on about broken legs and then …” the head gesturing grew more pronounced forcing me to turn around just in time to watch a student slowly, but determinedly, hobble past us …

… on crutches …

… with her a leg in plaster.

I swear!

So there we were. Two disability support assistants, trained to the hilt in inclusivity, loitering in a carpark while appearing to be – hang on, no, not ‘appearing’ to be – but actually, hooting with laughter at a hobbling student! Wheelchair to the left of me, crutches to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Anna, with the aid of the impeccable comedic timing of the benevolent universe, gave me laughter too that day. Right when I needed it.

And I hope the ripple reached you here. Have a smirk on us. And maybe pass my 'Anxiety Episodes' story along to someone who might need to hear it.


Thanks for pausing with me and Anna today. I should tell you that I’m feeling much better now, so there’s no need to be concerned about me. But I’m gratified to think it might have crossed your mind to worry.

Anxiety Episodes’ is my contribution to ‘Time To Talk’ day (1 February 2018), a campaign to tackle the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.

For more stories and information: 
And if you’re struggling with a mental health issue: 
  • please know that you are not alone. You might have your own Anna to confide in – even if you don’t recognise it at first. I’d never imagined how OK it would be to say it out loud until that morning. 
  • When our inner voices are telling us we’re useless and feeble, we judge everyone else through that filter. But most people are more understanding than we give them credit for. Plus others can be better than we are ourselves at appreciating that something’s wrong, as they have the benefit of distance and clarity. 
  • Alternatively, follow this link to the Time To Change resources page which contains many sources of information and support: 
  • And there’s always your GP. 
And if you're a potential Anna ...

  • if you're someone who might be able to listen without judgement and guide without criticism then, don't be afraid to engage.
  • You don't need to solve all the problems for whoever confides in you.
  • But listening, and even laughing, can be the perfect opening scene where someone can begin to share their story  ... 

Thanks for stopping by today.


Thursday, 18 January 2018

2017: A Year in Bad Portraits

Hello you, and happy 2018!

As is now customary round these parts (this is the 5th year running), my first blog post of the new year is:
  • my factory reset for the ego; 
  • my rejection of photo filters;
  • my antidote to all the tasteful, vetted, photos of myself I've shared unapologetically throughout the previous year; photos like these: 

Because, after another year of carefully curating my selfies, today it's time to for me to share ...

My Year in Bad Portraits: 
The 2017 Edition.

(If you’re new to the project then do treat yourself to the gurning, gawping and glaring of previous years here: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. I'll post links again at the end of this post so you can't possibly miss any of my ridiculous faces. You're welcome.)

Before I begin ...
... for some reason, this year there weren't so very many #BadPortraits for me to choose from. Not because I became miraculously more photogenic in 2017 - although, maybe I have learned more about which angles suit me! But for a few other reasons which I've narrowed down to:
  1. It might, in part, be James's fault. (Yeah, why not, sounds like a likely cause). In previous years, some of the worst photos of me were taken by my beloved (although goodness knows what that says about how he sees me) but he doesn't seem to take as many photos these days, so my awful stock-photography levels have been depleted. BTW: he makes an appearance with a #BadPortrait of his own later in this post. It's not one for the faint-hearted. Don't say you weren't warned.  And ... 
  2. My concept of what constitutes a 'bad' portrait has changed. Having done this for 5 years now, I'm getting used to seeing imperfect photos of me for longer than it would take for me to hit the 'delete' button. (Remember I even got to feature on Marie Claire UK with them?! They're hanging around out there.) And, in response, I'm becoming a bit immune! My ‘bad’ portraits bar has been raised so high that I have to look reeeaaallly bad for me to even notice.
  3. Plus - this year - I've started talking/appearing on my Instagram Stories (short videos that only last 24 hrs) and around 90% of the time on those I'm not wearing make-up and am often in my 'working from home no one will see me' clothes. So, again, I'm losing a level of self-consciousness and accepting what I actually look and sound like as just part of the 'real' me behind the careful social media presentation. 
Case in point: 

All that aside ... there were plenty of perfectly imperfect portraits on my hard-drive so how about we dive in?

As ever, you are free to laugh at these! In fact, please do, because otherwise ... what am I even doing here?! 
  • If you can see it - it's fair game: of course there are some shots throughout the year that don’t make me laugh, that make me feel awkward, weird, or unattractive. I don't share those ones, and so you're safe to laugh at the ones I do! 
  • This project is never about body-shaming or self-critique. At worst it's self-deprecating ... at best, it's a healthy self-assessment, and I share mine in the hope that it'll make you feel better about yours
So, let the guilt-free voyeurism commence ...

My Year in Bad Portraits: 
The 2017 Edition.

The glamour of 'Champing*'
I can honestly say that, in my 40+ years, until the day this photo was taken, I had never undressed in a church before. I mean, I might have taken my coat off on occasions, but even then ... that would have felt a bit risque. But, when James and I spent a few days Champing (*camping in a church) last year, I learned just how quickly I can take off one item of clothing and replace it with a nightie (And a dressing gown. And a vest. And a hat. And bedsocks.) in order to mitigate the sheer unrelenting awkwardness of  - I'm just going to say it - of having my boobs out - in front of saints and angels.

And wasn't the end result a glamorous one? Not for us an anniversary spent at a fancy hotel!
For the record:
  • Yes,the door was locked. 
  • No, there was no congregation in at the time ... 
If you'd like to see more photos (and a couple of videos) from Our Great Big Anniversary Champing Adventure then do visit the blog post I wrote all about it.

This next one was taken in MIMA gallery where I spent part of the summer writing, and co-hosted a Snipped Tales workshop for the dementia friendly craft group there, as part of my stint as Writer in Residence.

And don't I look professional?

That thing I'm doing there - the whole looking upwards and away thing - is not, sadly, an isolated incident. Whatever look it is I'm aiming for ... be it 'really engaged in my surroundings', 'dreamy', 'wistful' or whatever, it never works. So why am I a repeat offender?

Exhibit B:'First her eyes rolled up into her head ... then she started doing impersonations of a chicken' ...  

No, I don't know what's happening here either. Let's blame James again shall we.

And, apparently, when my eyes aren't trying to escape my skull, they're glazing over instead ... 

Here I am stumbling bravely over that fine line between the pose that says 'I'm a deeply pensive woman' ... and the one that says 'that evil witch made good on her threat to turn me into mannequin':
I mean, for someone who generally can't sit still for two minutes, in these photos I'm doing a pretty good impression of something made entirely from fibreglass.  

And, when I wasn't playing the mannequin in 2017 ... I was in charge of making one speak ... 

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me introduce to you: Little Fitz and his ventriloquist dummy Ziggy:  
No, there isn't anything I'd like to reveal to you about my private life. And no, this isn't how I generally dress at the weekend, honest guv, but this long weekend away in a cottage with friends (yes Jean, that includes you! I know you'll be reading this!) had a Murder Mystery theme.

Jean had bought a mystery game in which we each had to take on a role and find a suitable costume to bring with us. I played 'Little Fitz' (and Ziggy, because my acting talent is nothing if not versatile), and managed to source everything except the trousers (a loud check pair I found in a charity shop) in my own regular wardrobe. My instructions stipulated a bow-tie ... and I even had a choice between two. (I opted for silver in the end, because, why wouldn't I?)

What exactly does it say about me that - at the drop of a hat - I can open my cupboards and dress like a 1900s Musical Hall performer should the whim arise? 

And it''s all - literally - fun and games when you're trying to make people laugh with your appearance, but it's not such a joy when you're not ... 

Sometimes you think you're rocking '60s Beat poet in smoky Parisian cafe' chic ... when you're actually more like 'toothless French poet gets door-stepped by paprazzi':

Ah, the gap between intention and outcome. That can really punch you where it hurts!

Similarly, judging by these next two, things go strangely awry when my intention is to convey how happy I am ... and yet, what gets captured instead is this ...

I call these my 'Wow, Julie looks thrilled' poses:

Because, the thing is, I was happy, on both those occasions. The left one was taken before we went to a comedy performance, and on the right I'm standing in front of the first Snipped Tale to feature in a public exhibition!

I genuinely was happy. It's just ... no one had told my face.

Same again here.

  • I'm purely trying to get a decent shot of myself. 
  • I am not under duress. 
  • No one is bothering me. 
  • I'm entirely alone ...

So why do I look snotty, and disapproving, and all 'Errrm, excuse me? Can I help you?'
Surely there's someone out there working on an app that can talk to you while you're taking selfies ... one that drops gentle, friendly hints like 'Hey Julie, you might want to stop frowning at invisible people' ...

The next couple of shots are from a time when I wasn't alone, and when the other person with me definitely wasn't invisible. And while they're not strictly 'bad' portraits ... you'll be able to guess why neither made it on to my Instagram grid - @withjuliekirk - in 2017.

Part 1: The Photo Bomb
To quote Sophia from the Golden Girls 'picture the scene' ... it's a Saturday morning, in our hallway, and - as is often the case - I'm trying to take decent 'Outfit of the Day' shots, to share on Instagram.

And then, with my camera propped up on the pew, and set on a timer, this happens ...

But ... two can play at that game Mr ... 

Cut to a month later, same hallway, same day of the week, same posing for an outfit of the day shot, only this time, the tables are turned ... 

Part 2: The Photo 'Bum'
Genuine conversation in our house last week:
  • Me: "I've been looking through photos for my Bad Portraits post and there's one of you, on the stairs, tying your shoe lace, and well, you're jeans are a bit low. Are you OK with me using the photo? ... It's not that bad ... my finger is covering most of your bum crack".
Reader, I showed him the photo and he agreed to let me share it with you all. Feel free to judge his exhibitionist qualities as you will. 

And, while we're in the hallway, here are another few, taken in the same spot, that I took by accident. Obviously. Because who would deliberately pose like this? 
There's something a bit creepy, voyeuristic, about that left hand side one. Like it was taken by someone hiding under a bed or something. *Shudders*. (It was actually my phone propped up in a shoe and my hoodie had slipped over it, which isn't so sinister after all.)

And from ones I didn't pose for , to one I kind of did ... 
Here I was trying to capture the strange new hair growth  that I've noticed in the last few years. Before you ask - no - it's not pregnancy related, I've had it for around two years now and, last time I looked I wasn't an elephant, so I think we can rule 'gestation' out as a cause.

It was almost like I turned 40, got lots of presents, a big cake ... and a second fringe.

I reckon it's 'hormones', because isn't it always? I might stop trying to photograph it though; that level of close-up does no one any favours.

As for these two near-identical poses ...

I'm calling these 'Oh Jesus, did I lock the back door?' and 'Mardy teenager gets asked to do the washing-up':

I honestly don't know what happens to my face once it becomes aware that I'm trying to capture it! Although - I should make it clear that with these I was capturing the shots in a public space and ... I don't know ... I know I share a lot of photos here, and a lot of people see them, but ... it doesn't make me any less self-conscious when snapping photos when I'm possibly being observed by strangers.

I mean, who wants to grin and pose all perfectly perky? I mean who would do such an annoying thing?? Who???

Oh yeah ... me:
Don't take this the wrong way but - when I look at the Julie in this photo - I could just give her a swift kick. Nothing too violent, but just enough to stop her being so painfully perky. 

Of course, the difference between Perky Julie and Glazed-over-emotionless-android-Julie selfies is that no one can see me in my hallway! It's far easier to attempt to be human from the privacy of your own home. I'm a much less convincing human in public.

However, my true self can probably be found somewhere between the overly keen Julie above ... and  the overly emotional Julie below ... 

This pose is called 'Julie watches Billy Elliot the Musical for the first time - particularly the bit where boy-Billy dances with adult-Billy': 

Oh man. That show. It drained me and filled me up at the same time. 

I love the film version. Jamie Bell's performance in the Town Called Malice scene is a perfect 3 minutes of cinema. If he never performed another creative act that routine alone is lifetime's worth. And so ... I'd always - wrongly - expected a 'musical' version to be a bit, well, tacky

Then I watched it. And I cried. And cried. And made everyone I know watch it too. Then they cried. 

I've never been happier to have been proven wrong! 

And now, after all that crying ... let's just check that there's nothing untoward happening in the nostril area ... 

Because no year of #JuliesBadPortraits would be complete without an up-the-nose shot. You're welcome:
What was I thinking? Well ...
  • I was thinking: wouldn't it be nice to get a shot of me walking along the road, in the snow, beneath this clear blue sky
  • But I was also thinking: yes, that would be nice but ... I don't want all the people going past in cars to think I'm a total narcissistic tit who takes selfies while walking down the highstreet in the snow. So I tried to be surreptitious and hold the phone low down. Which resulted in nostril central here. Mystery solved. 
Of course, the irony is that - as much as I don't want people to catch me taking selfies in public - I do rather defeat the object of all that coyness by then collecting them altogether and broadcasting them online! 

Even the bad ones! 

So ... there you have it - my 2017 in Bad Portraits - I hope you enjoyed them.  Let me know your best of my worst in the comments!

Now, this is where I usually set out the rules for if anyone wants to play along (only photos of yourself, no body-shaming, the photo MUST make YOU laugh first) but ... no one ever does join in. Not that I blame you. It's not for everyone.

But ... if you fancy giving it a go during 2018 here are my tips:
  • Ease yourself in by simply not immediately deleting the awful shots. 
  • Let them hang around in your phone for a while.
  • If they make it that far ... save them to your laptop/harddrive/cloud.
  • Set up a 'Bad Portraits 2018' folder and start dragging them over into there.
  • Add to the folder throughout the year.
  • Delete any that make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Keep the ones that make you laugh, that free you up a little, that make you see the absurdity that is being human!
  • If you feel brave enough - drop them into a blog post sometime in January 2019! 
  • OR if you share any on Instagram - no matter what time of year - use the hashtag #juliesbadportraits or #badportraits and let me know @withjuliekirk and will hop over to look/laugh along with you. 

Thanks for dropping by to see me in this shiny new year. May 2018 bring you all that you wish for yourself ... plus good camera angles.

Julie x

Psssssst, before you go: if you've ever missed any - fear not - here they all are again:

 If you're a pinner will you save this to Pinterest to spread the #BadPortraits word? Thanks!

#BadPortraits 2017

Thursday, 21 December 2017

May all your Christmases be striped: A tale of festive crafting with anxiety.

Hello you ...  

This post both is and isn't about Christmas cards. Kind of a 'Schrödinger's Christmas Card' post if you will. Anyway ... 

Merry Christmas! Please accept the following as a festive greeting from me to you:
I haven't been around here lately at all (although I'm always on Instagram if you want to keep in touch there.) But, a look back at some of the titles of my most recent posts: 'An anxious person does stuff, like climbing a tower.' and 'How having anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you', might just give you a clue as to what's been preoccupying me lately.

I mean, when thousands of words on a given topic pour out of you on to the page, you might think that'd be a big clue that your mind was especially focused on that subject right now. It wouldn't take a genius to work out that maybe, just maybe, something wasn't quite right. Right?

Yeah. Except, no.

Somehow - despite having written two major blog posts about it, and even discussing with my writing mentor the possibility of writing an entire book on the subject, the anxiety attacks that I started experiencing back November took me completely by surprise

This genius here missed all the signs.

In hindsight, it's no great shock, but at the time? Sideswiped.

But, please don't worry about me, this isn't a sad post. I'll be fine, I'm getting treatment, I'm talking to people, I'm trying to take it easy on myself and ... I'm crafting. Which is where these cards come into the story ...
While taking some time off work I gave myself a few weeks to rest (OK, you got me ... I find that very hard to do, so maybe I tidied the loft, and all the dining room cupboards, and made shop kits, and put all the Christmas decorations up, and ... you know how it is ..). 
So, yeah, maybe I wasn't exactly resting my body so much, but I did make an effort to rest my mind. A remedy that involved things like a good dose of guilt-free Netflixing (it's the guilt-free part that 's the hardest to achieve, but that does the most good) and also a spot of purpose-free card-making.

It began at my monthly crafty get-together with friends where I started making greetings cards for no reason whatsoever.  Which I hadn't done in ... I couldn't tell you how long.  Yes, I make cards for magazine commissions but, as nice as that is, it's still work. So to just sit with no brief, no end goal, no recipient in mind, to just enjoy sifting through papery products, for fun, for the pleasure of mixing and matching colours and shapes and prints - was just what I needed.

These cards and those but it kick-started my crafty brain / hands again ... and I just kept going, only with more festive slant on things: 
And yes, my striped friends even make it into my festive crafts because zebras are for Christmas, not just for life. 

So, with 'Anne with an 'E'' running in the background on Netflix (highly recommended!), I surrounded myself with all kinds of supplies - traditionally Christmassy ones and regular non-festive, year-round stuff too, and pulled out a mix of zebra images and stamps to use as my focal point, and made a start ...
And just kept going ... 
I gave the various zebras noses fit to guide a sleigh ...
And typed out the greetings on kraft labels: 
And I coloured, clustered and layered to my heart's content ... 
Now, I'm not saying crafting with zebras has cured me (although ... my stripey friends do have previous experience of helping me out in these situations), but they did allow me several welcome hours of using a different part of my brain to the one trying to work out where and why my brain had taken a detour.
And that's what you need isn't it? A brief distraction. Not so much that you're ignoring the problem, and not for so long that you become unwilling to return to reality ... but for just long enough to let your brain to take a break, put up its feet, drift away for a while. 
And - really - I could do worse that a distraction that involves zebras, washi-tape, coloured staples, patterned papers and shiny 'bits'. Remind me to try it again sometime soon. 

Merry Christmas. May it bring you some gem-like delights and distractions of your own. 


(P.S. Don't forget to find me @withjuliekirk on Instagram if you'd like to hear from me more often. I even do Instagram Stories - short videos - over there, so you literally will hear from me and my tiny North Eastern accented voice. Which James says is posher than my real voice. So it's worth a visit purely for that.)

Thursday, 19 October 2017

An Anxious Person Does Stuff (like climbing to the top of a tower)

Hey you. 

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for months but – be warned - that doesn’t mean I'm very clear on what I want to say. There may* be rambling.

(*There will be).

In general about doing things while you’re feeling anxious - and it may be the start of some sort of manifesto I’ll develop (#ananxiouspersondoesstuff), or it may come to nothing.

And it doesn't have satisfyingly transformative ending and, hey, who knows, it might just depress someone. Including me.

Am I selling this to you yet?

Oh and the story itself isn’t a particularly interesting, exciting, or dramatic one, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and some people may think I wrote it to fish for nice people to say nice things. 

Sounds great doesn’t it? You’ll have to read it to be the judge.

So what is it about?
It’s a poke around the idea of ‘conquering’ your anxieties, a narrative we often hear in relation to mental health, which is great in theory (I mean, who wouldn’t want to get over all their fears and worries and live a fulfilling life?) - yet in practice, in daily minute-by-minute life,it’s not always so straightforward.

Last month I wrote a post about how anxiety can feel like having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag unexpectedly handed to you, which makes the rest of your day just that bit harder to deal with (if you missed it, catch up here). In that post I mentioned that something over the summer had caused me to start thinking more deeply about anxiety and, hello! …  this is that something.

After it happened, or maybe even while it was still happening, I realised there were two distinct ways I could present the events:
  1. As an entirely true, but slightly selective, ‘internet’ version of event in which I wouldn’t have lied about what happened or - if I did - it would only be a lie of omission. And it would have ended with a glossy, punchy, neat Instagrammable philosophy. Or ...
  2. as a messy and complete version, where I do reach some sort of happy ending … but then sail straight past it to the more realistic place that lurks just over the horizon.

 You know I decided on the latter, don’t you?

If I’d gone with the first version we may all come out of it with a little sugar rush of good feeling but it wouldn’t have lasted. 

It would’ve perpetuated the lie that you need to be bold and confident to get anything done in this world, when I’d rather say: anxious people can do stuff too, even if we feel conflicted and crappy while we’re doing it!

So, for your reading pleasure (or not) here it is …

Content notice: this post contains detailed descriptions of an anxiety attack which may be triggering. Also, there’s swearing because … well, because apparently that’s what comes out of me when I write naturally. (Imagine the disappointment I must be to my Catholic school English teachers).

A story of An Anxious Person Doing Stuff (including a guided tour up a bell tower).

So what have you been worrying about now Kirk?
Well - thanks for asking - over the summer James and I booked to go on a guided tour of the highest tower of Lincoln Cathedral, which, initially, wasn’t a cause for concern. We’d been on several other roof tours there without a problem, I’m not especially claustrophobic, or scared of heights, they’d provided some great photo opportunities in past years and it seemed like a good solid part of our holiday itinerary. It never occurred to me to worry about it ...

And then …

And then, when we went to book tickets in advance, they made us read a list of all the things that we could expect during the tour (regarding the steepness of the 300+ steps, the narrowness of the stone staircase and passageways, the heights, plus the level of fitness and the sensible footwear required), and we had to sign to say we were OK with all of that. Which I was.

And then …

And then we had to wait several days for the event itself to come around.

Oh the sweet irony of our room name ... 

Before the anxiety (or, if you’re familiar with the analogy: ‘Before the funfair goldfish arrived’):

If I’d read that list ten minutes before beginning the tour I might not have been quite so alert to the possibilities for concern; but there’s nothing like the luxury of All. That. Time. To. Think. to really set anxiety in motion, is there?

“It’s probably the same list they’ve shown us all the other times” said James sensibly. “And nothing ever happened then.” he went on, trying to reassure me. 

And maybe it was, maybe every other time I’d just skim read those potentially troubling phrases, dismissed them, signed it and gone straight on the tour without a second thought. But ahh … this time, time was the enemy.

Seeds of anxiety + time +  plus the manure dumped from an over-thinking brain = quite the strong, and anxious, seedling growing in my chest.

Or, to use the goldfish analogy: at this point someone was surrounded by the smell of diesel-powered generators and boiling hot-dogs, wasting all their spare change on trying to hook a duck and win a fish. No one had yet thrust a goldfish at me ... but the moment was growing ever closer.

On the day itself, sitting waiting for the guides to arrive, my breathing had already begun to speed up, I began to feel slightly dizzy, a bit nauseous, and maybe like my digestive system might play me up.

I want to repeat here  that there doesn’t need to be a specific cause for the anxiety: I was NOT sitting there thinking I was going to get trapped in the narrow corridors, or fall from the height. Rather, like a scaly little fish, in liquid, in a thin bulging plastic bag, anxiety is often far more slippery than that. I was just anxious. Not of or about anything in particular. I just was.  
And then ... the tour began.

During the anxiety/goldfish: 
So, there we were, a group of around 15, heading straight up the first set of stone stairs where several things conspired together to make me uncomfortable:
  • It was warm: it was July, in a narrow staircase packed with bodies exerting themselves, travelling upwards, just like the heat.
  • It was narrow: like … ‘not much wider than some people's’ shoulders’ narrow, which I could probably have coped with, except …
  • It was a spiral: the tightly coiling twist meant that the steps tapered away into nothing at the centre so, while you could easily set down your left foot, the right foot had to be careful it actually made contact with a flat surface or you’d slip. And all that spiralling became dizzy-making. The women in my family are not blessed with the strongest of necks and looking up to grab the hand rope (there was no rail) and look down to check where my feet were going, tightened my neck muscles making me dizzier still.
  • It was steep and speedy: the guides were setting such a fast pace (it would’ve put even the most overly achieving personal trainer to shame) there was literally no time to stop to catch your breath.  
And finally, to quote Tom Petty -
  • There ain’t no easy way out: At times I couldn’t keep up and tried to slow down, but the guide at the bottom was setting the pace for the people behind me leaving no way to drop back and let people overtake. The staircase was only wide enough for one person, so there was absolutely no way down without making the entire party back up all the way down too. And who wants to be that person??? (Oh, hi there Social Anxiety, fancy meeting you here, have you come along to take photos of the view too?)

None of this on its own would be insurmountable – but all of it slung together?

And … did I mention it was warm? And like a work-out? And relentless. And verrry … verrrry … swirrrrrllllllyyyyyy spinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnyyyyyyyy?

James was ahead of me, I often glimpsed the soles of his shoes dip out of sight around the spiral while I tried to slow my pace - meanwhile, behind me, or rather - below me - a stranger had their head at my feet. Or worse. 

And - boom - there I was, wonkily storming up an ancient spiral staircase filled strangers while trying to carry a funfair goldfish (seriously, if you still don’t know what this means, you need to read my other post).

By the time we reached the first stopping point I was struggling. Emotionally more than physically but hey - physically too – let’s not leave out that particular treat; I had the whole party going on.

So, we already know I’m a bit head-spinny, and my legs are heavy, and my lungs are asking Why Julie? Whyyyy? But now:
  • the hollow of my spine was slick with sweat;
  • my forehead a curtain of droplets to be swept away by a tissue, 
  • and there was a tightening in my guts. 
And, anxious readers, you know the kind of tightening I mean. The kind where you’re not 100% sure how it all might pan out. Like, maybe you might just burp or your stomach will grumble and then you’ll feel some relief, or ... maybe it’ll be vomit, or a fart. Or worse. Who knows? (And when you know where a stranger’s head is going to be in a few minutes once you’re back on that staircase, well … it doesn’t bear thinking about.)

By now we were in an open space where we could pause to breathe and recuperate, while the tour guides told us something about the automated bell ringing system and used their laser pointers to indicate areas of architectural interest. But my body was demanding more of my attention and - you know how in Tom and Jerry, when the humans talk and all you hear is that ‘Wah wah wah’ sound? Well, that.  So, ignoring the tour altogether I began stripping off. Off came my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and, let me tell you, if there’d been a dignified way to whip off the leggings from under my skirt …

While trying to juggle these immediate physical needs (get cool, breathe) with the overarching emotional goal of calming the fuck down, there was a constant battle rumbling in my mind: how much of this discomfort is due to the anxiety and how much to the sheer exertion? It was probably a filthy mix of both but – if I focused on the idea it was most likely just the exercise I could prevent the anxiety from escalating. Far better to attribute the wobbly legs to all those bloody steps, than to some inexplicable fear.

And then …

Despite all the attempts at rationalisation I started planning my exit strategy. What would I say? When would I say it? So yes, hi, yes, so … yes, lovely brickwork up there, and h, those ancient beams, but I can’t do this any longer, I can’t go further up, I can’t go at that pace. Something might come out of me, who knows from where. Don’t make me, you’re not the boss of me, let me out, let me ooooooouuuuuutttttt!”.

Or words to that effect.

But, on second thoughts … FFS it’s supposed to be a nice day out, you wanted to do this, it’s a normal thing, it shouldn’t be this overblown. You’ll spoil the day for James. You’re a hundred or more steps up, in a room with some sort of machinery (if I’d been listening properly I’d have known more) and there’s no way they’ll leave you to wait here until they all come back down. No. You’ll  have to be escorted out. All the way. You’ll look feeble. A failure. A criminal!

And I reckon it was this – the idea of the social embarrassment – that made me decide to stay the course in the end. Not the positive self talk, not the focusing, not the 1reathing but the horror of something worse than feeling like this i.e: feeling like this while other people spectate.

So I kept calm and carried on!

OK, OK, OK, no … that was just a little joke! Let me re-phrase that: I carried on. We can say that much if nothing else.

After the initial anxiety began to subside:
In short, we climbed further up; we squeezed through a corridor that was almost too narrow for me; I sat opposite the bell as it bonged. 12 times. (Alas, it’s a level of distraction not yet readily available on the NHS as a treatment.)  

We climbed up more swirling steps to the roof ...

where we looked out for miles across the countryside;

And saw the resident peregrine falcons swooping and sweeping below us.

 I was fine with the height, and thoroughly welcomed the cooling blustery breeze. 
And then ... then we went down the way we came, only this time non-stop, with more open space in front of my face (if you think that going up my face was close to the steep stone steps rising directly in front) and also without my bum in anyone’s face. Always a bonus.

Back on terra firma I felt like someone made of rubber trying to maintain their balance on a bouncy castle. 

I felt like an astronaut meeting gravity once again. I felt heavy, yet breakable. Slow yet skittish. 

I needed lunch; a good cup of tea; a hand to hold. I also needed to write about what just happened (it’s how I deal with stuff) and before I was even out of the Cathedral I had the idea to turn the experience into a blog post. And the first, most obvious, thought I had was that it would probably take the shape of a story detailing how I, beat the anxiety to get through the day, a kind of heart-warming triumph over adversity type click-bait.

And then …

And then nothing about that plan sat right with me.

If I had written the “Here’s how I overcame my anxiety to enjoy a day out” post it would have been kind of true – but also kind of bullshit.

The truth is yes, I did it despite being anxious, but I didn’t want to turn it into some half-truth that glossed over the ‘real’ parts of a real-life story. Because, when it comes down to it, apart from the bit on the roof, and seeing the birds in their element, it was unpleasant, and I wish it had been easier.

How’s that for some inspirational lifestyle blog content?

But it’s the truth.

So why are you telling us all this Kirk? What exactly is it you’re trying to say?

Well, if you remember at the beginning (hours ago, I know, I just can’t write short posts – sorry about that.) I did warn you that there was no truly happy ending here. So I hope you’re not too disappointed with the weary conclusion that – even if you manage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ it doesn’t mean it will feel good.

But what would it achieve for me to end the story at the point where I look brave and wise and like I have all the answers without telling how it left me feeling?

Yes, I stayed until the end of the tour despite wanting to leave but I got through it because it ended. We moved locations, sitting down to hear the bell ring helped me focus on something else, the breeze on the roof top was life-giving and sweat-drying.

I didn’t ‘overcome’ it because I achieved some peak mindfulness (although Lord knows that was mixed in there somewhere) or because some catchy life-hack rewired my neurons in 10 minutes, or because I recalled the enlightened words from some gold-foiled motivational slogan.

I got through it because it didn’t get worse, not because I suddenly found “5 fresh ways to battle an anxiety attack”.

I got through it because, despite my body trying to convince me otherwise, I didn’t pass out, die or, worse still, do an explosive shit in the face of a total stranger.

And – rather than feeling elated, powerful, a changed woman … I just felt hollowed out and like ‘Oh, really? This crap? Again’.

I’m not saying I’m not pleased I stuck around but I can’t say what I did made me feel strong or brave …
  • Because when your mind and body are in turmoil trying to decide if you can cope with a perfectly normal situation - it doesn’t feel brave. At all. And that’s OK. If we wait until we’re brave to do thing we might never do things! And we’ll miss out. And we don’t deserve to miss out.
  • Because the idea of ‘brave’ whitewashes just how hard it feels to be present while your body and mind are in mutiny.
  • Because - what if I’d decided that, actually, y’know what? the best thing for me in that moment would be to practice some gentle self-care? What if the kindest thing I could have done for myself was to quietly take aside one of the guides and explain I wasn’t feeling happy about the rest of the tour and could I please leave? Would that have made me the opposite of brave. Would that have made me a coward?

If I’d spun this as a motivational tale of how you can hang on in there, get through a panic attack, and not miss out on interesting experiences – I worry that I’d be giving the idea that it’s (a) what you should do, and (b) suggest that it's easily done.

It’s neither.

It’s all hard and dirty and foggy and baffling and individual and changeable and challenging and draining.

I don't feel in any way valedictory about it. (Although, truth be told, I’m more sanguine about it now months down the line – but at the time – I did not feel proud of myself for keeping my head when all around me were quite possibly having no problem keeping theirs).

So is the moral of this story that anxiety sucks, and you shouldn’t even try to get through it because you’ll still feel like limp turd afterwards?

Firstly – ew, ‘limp turd’? Nice visual there dude. And secondly: no but also yes – a little bit. And no, of course not. And kind of.

Glad we’ve got that clear.

Mostly I wanted to share the story here partly because I thought the line "do an explosive shit in the face of a total stranger" was too funny to waste, but more so to say that:
  • if you too have felt like a quivering wreck for no good reason, if you too have been visited by the unexpected funfair goldfish, and if you too felt like why, for the love of Netflix, you can’t just function like everyone else … then … hey … me too. 
It’s not just you.  It feels like it is, but it isn’t.

I wanted to talk about it because often it’s the ‘after’ stories you read; the stories of how people came out the other side … and, as inspiring and optimistic as they might be … it’s not always realistic to think that there’s a ‘Other Side’ to come out of. 

Life’s messy and circular, it throws unexpected goldfish at you when you thought the funfair had left town for good years ago. Life doubles back, and drops you down wormholes, and you’ll be dragged backward and forwards in your ‘journey’ more times than Marty McFly …

Rather than share a clean and tidy ‘after’ story, I wanted to share a messy ‘during’ one, not to depress anyone, but to say something along the lines of: 
  • You know what? You can have anxiety and still do stuff, it might not always be fun, you might struggle, you might almost fall apart in public, you might sometimes feel like you might die, but – honestly-  you rarely do, and don’t let that put you of doing something you want to do, it can’t be just the bold and oblivious who get to see and  things and and, and, and ….

 And I’ve got so much more I want to say on this topic – the 1000 words I’ve cut out of this post for a start. But I’ve said far too much for one post already, and those other words can go towards my manifesto for all those anxious people doing stuff! (which, at the rate I'm spewing out this stuff could easily turn into a book!)

I’m going to be using #ananxiouspersondoesstuff on Instagram if I have another stressy tale to tell (chances are …) and you’re welcome to join in with it and tag me or get in touch via any of my online homes: 

  • Please add your anxious voice to the wobbly chorus if any of my messy life moments here struck a chord. Have your say in the comments.
The more we share this stuff the more we'll learn that there are lots of us out here focusing on our breathing, trying to ignore funfair goldfish and always carrying a packet of stomach-settling mints 'just in case'.

Let's speak loudly and elbow our way into the world, and not let the confidently oblivious types have all the fun.

And let's be kind to those we see struggling ... including ourselves.