Shared experiences of all things anxiety and panic with local author and broadcaster Liz Fraser
Those of you that keep watch on TV debates about bringing up children, or who watch morning telly may have come across Liz Fraser before. She’s been a regular in the local media here in Cambridge for about 15 years, regularly on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, in the Cambridge News as well as appearing on telly every so often.
The Panic Diaries
Other than calling Cambridge ‘home’, Liz and I also share something else in common: Mental health challenges. Liz is writing a book/running a project about hers – specifically panic attacks – with the purpose of reaching out to others. She invited me to post something for her website based on my experiences of the same thing. (Past posts covering mental health I’ve written are here).
If you don’t know what the problem is, how can you go about solving it?
I faced this in the mid-late 1990s. What I was going through was put down to ‘hormones’ more than anything else. Yet I don’t recall sixth form college doing anything about outreach for mental health services (such as Centre33) at the time. Looking back at school, college and university, I can’t recall ever having a teacher with responsibility for my ‘pastoral’ care being around for longer than 2 years.
Depression in some very dark days
One of the reasons why I hate my old university where I did my economics degree with a passion was the complete indifference they treated students with regards to housing. With hindsight, I should have left just after my first term at university because the course was a repeat of what I did at sixth form – in the second year of fees – which were upfront in those days (so I had already adopted the ‘what am I paying for?’ mindset). But I never had the courage or confidence. The house-hunting of my second year meant living in an eclectic travellers hostel where my health was all over the place, where I experienced discrimination from a potential landlord over the colour of my skin and where I had zero help from the university. (Or ‘friends’ as it happened. No one stood up/by for me. No one helped me. I did it by myself). Throughout my second year, I was in a very angry place.
Something broke inside me
The other thing I was fighting against was the impact of church over the years. At the time, I had only managed to break free of it. Living away from home meant the ‘discipline’ of a community around you was no longer there. You could be yourself. But what was ‘myself’? This in part is where a lot of the anger came from. It was if I had spent my teenage years in particular living a lie. And I hated myself for it. It was also a time when I had my first short-term relationship – something that turned out not to be what everyone said it was supposed to be like. That I think was the final emotional straw: everything about being ‘an adult’ (and being at university) being anything but what people said it would be like.
Finding accommodation was fairly straight forward the following year. What was not, was the lack of a close knit group of people to live with. In my 2nd year, me and a large group of us lived in what was effectively slum accommodation eventually condemned by Brighton and Hove Council. It was a shit-hole, but it was our shit-hole. The result was that we all dispersed, and had to start again – not least because most of the others had completed their courses.
Living on my own
Cue Freddie – because this song talks about what I was going through emotionally.
I can’t remember my first ‘panic attack’ – sometimes I don’t even know if I ever got to a full blown one. What I do remember are the sensations of electric shocks pulsing through my head, along with growing muscle tension. In particular, my internal intercostal muscles (the ones that join the rib cage to the lungs (I think) semi-permanently contracted. For the best part of a third of my life, I’ve had what feels like a permanent chest cramp.
‘I can’t get no sleep’
The worst of the panic symptoms – particularly the electric shock sensations came at night time – something I’d dread. At the same time, I developed a sort of OCD – especially with cookers being switched off and my door being locked. I remember fighting too many internal demons on this – and it’s something that continues to come back whenever I live alone or others are away. Also, I learnt to stay away from places where I felt threatened. This meant I never went to nightclubs anymore.
A change of lifestyle and mindset
In the early part of my final year, I realised something had to change. I went on medication for the first time and made the effort to both exercise and significantly change my diet. I also volunteered for the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre in their old premises on Gardner Street, next door to the highly-regarded Komedia. That part of town became like a second home – I’d always be there. Jennifer Calviac was also the sound track to the early part of that year – a Brighton busker singing from her album 9 planets possible, who was streets ahead of anything I had heard before.
The medication was enough to see me through the worst – meaning that I could properly prepare for my finals. Hanging out with environmentalists and other radical thinkers meant I went down this path of environmental economics long before the rest of the mainstream caught up. It was also where I found too many of the models we were being taught were falling on what I saw as the very basic assumptions – something that made me even more angry. A decade later I found out why I was angry – the mainstream economics profession was in the pocket of the bankers. (See here). Conflict of interest anyone?
While all this was going on, I started writing a story – more for my own sanity. What was strange was how the ideas suddenly flowed out at probably one of the most awkward times of my life – the run up to university finals. But my mindset was that of having to write it all down at every spare moment. Lots of people got the impression that I was studying hard in lectures & seminars, but actually I was story-writing. This was aided by the fact that much of the content for my finals was bizarrely little more than what I had covered in A-level geography & economics. So I wasn’t learning anything substantially new content-wise. After the exams were over, I remember telling the course tutors that I felt the degree was a complete waste of money (I still view it as that) because so much of the content was not a step-on from what I did at A-level – before explaining what we covered at A-level, what we covered in the 3rd year and asking what the differences were. (I still got a 2:1 in the end!)
It hasn’t been ‘happily ever after’ with my mental health
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety ever since. Some of the ‘edge’ has been taken off the anger I’ve had because in the 4 years after graduating, I made it my business to make up for as many things as I possibly could that I’d missed in childhood. ie. the sort of stuff I wanted to do but never had either the courage or opportunities. I said to myself I wanted to be responsible for the decisions I had taken, and not blame someone else.
The roller-coaster of short-term relationships & friendships
Since graduating, this has been a feature of my life: People coming into and leaving my life with incredible frequency, broken only by the intensity of our time together. It’s that intensity that I continue to struggle with to this day. A fear of being ‘abandoned’ because it’s happened so many times before – again, a disposition that feeds the anxiety demons.
I blogged my way through an acute mental health crisis in 2012 – see here and subsequent posts. It was like my mind on overdrive, followed by a crash but where the engine is still running at 100mph, followed by a week on tranquillisers. Since then, I’ve not been able to work full-time. This is a massive blow when you consider where society says a man in his mid-30s should be. i.e. definitely not living with his parents and definitely not working such infrequent commissions work-wise. But running a full day’s training session takes me two days to recover. I describe it as a ‘mental exhaustion’ – and what frightens me is I don’t know when I will recover – if I will recover at all.
I’m due to start a new course of counselling soon – to slay a few church-related demons that seem to have come back. What frustrates me is that the path I feel is the one for recovery is one that doesn’t exist – not least because for several of the things, I can’t afford to do what I feel I want and need to do. Other things are out of my control – such as living in my childhood neighbourhood which has its downsides as well as upsides. Hence me taking on some of the failings of the local public institutions that were failing when I was growing up here. I basically take the view that some of those institutions failed me as a kid, and I’ll be damned if I don’t do something to stop them from failing current and future generations. Hence all things community action in Cambridge. The strength of feeling ended up getting to the stage where I felt compelled to stand for election as an independent – running on an unconventional platform amongst other things. (This blogpost explains more). It’s something I never thought I had in me.
The challenge I set myself a couple of years ago was to ask what I could do in the meantime to make a difference until either I recover health-wise, and/or the economy recovers to enable me to get a job that’s more stable than freelancing. Because the instability of freelancing compounds the anxiety. You can’t plan ahead. And some of the things I see as recovery (see here) just do not seem possible in the current climate.
I wish things could be different. And I often wish I didn’t have these mental health demons to struggle against. But at the same time, the struggles are also the making of me. I am what I am.