Updated: Jan 16
It’s a Saturday night and I’m on my own. I’m sat trying to watch TV, playing on my iPad, pouring another glass of wine and checking my phone every two minutes. I’ve got so much pent up energy, but I can’t focus on anything. My stomach has cramps, I’ve got acid reflux and my mouth is constantly dry. I go to bed, but I can’t sleep. I get up. Go back to bed. Get up. Go to bed. Eventually, I fall asleep exhausted.
This is what a night of anxiety feels like for me. A constant spiral of bad thoughts, bad habits and bad reactions. This post is about the fight I have had for many years with my anxiety daemon, oddly named Belinda (more about that later). I don’t suffer from constant anxiety, but it’s never far away and only presents itself at certain times. Belinda is already chattering away in the back of my head, telling me no-one will like this post, or I’ll have crossed a line, or I’ll upset someone. God, I hate her. But for now, shut up Belinda, the next bit is about me.
I don’t remember being a particularly anxious child. I remember that I was always very sensitive and internalised a lot of events; like if someone was cruel to me. All I ever wanted to be was liked; even if this meant shutting my mouth and internalising my real feelings and hiding what I liked. I suppose the early signs of what was to come, was how I hid parts of my life to try and fit in. Like how I loved Star Trek. I love Star Trek (a worrying amount). And I’ve got no shame in admitting that now, so the boundaries of what I worry about have definitely shifted over time.
I have spoken in another blog post about how homophobic abuse, Section 28, and my treatment by my secondary school contributed to my mental health decline in my early twenties (click here), but the anxiety that I experience today did not come until much later. I don’t want to delve into where my anxieties came from, as that is in many ways irrelevant. What I want to talk about is the effect it has on me and how I’m trying to deal with it.
This next sentence is difficult to write, which in itself shows how deep rooted it is. I’m terrified of being alone, of being disliked, of being abandoned and of being betrayed. The swirls of negative thoughts that accompany these tell me all of the awful things that I don’t want to hear: that I’ve said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, that they've forgotten about me or that they don't really like me. This anxiety then results in behaviours such as drinking alcohol, overcompensation or deliberate detachment to reduce the risk of getting hurt. I know that all these worries are very rarely based in reality, but it’s how Belinda gets to me, and makes me feel rubbish about myself.
The start of the anxieties that plague me today, began about 5 years ago where, when it got to a stage that when I was alone in the evenings, I would sit with a hoodie on, hood up, in a dark room, sobbing. I didn’t tell anyone. It was too embarrassing. I’m a grown man (nice bit of toxic masculinity there) and I had the embarrassment of no longer being able to enjoy a night by myself. Years ago, I used to love a Friday night on my own; takeaway, wine and cheesy TV, but now it’s my worst nightmare. And I hate it. I wish that I didn’t feel that way.
In 2019, I knew things had to change and so I started counselling. I knew that if I didn’t at least make a dent in my issues that I would never have a healthy relationship. But at this point I never used the word anxiety; I almost felt shame in even considering that I might suffer from it. Then the counselling started. I despised it. I loved it. I found it natural. I struggled with it. Things came out that I had never expected. Things from my childhood, from past relationships, from present relationships. (Almost) nothing was anyone’s fault, just a series of events that led to my fear of being abandoned and alone.
As recommended by my counsellor, I read The Chimp Paradox. This amazing book frames anxiety and worries in a way that is tangible and easy to understand. And this is where the legend of the interminable Belinda was born. I introduced the book to school and we held a book club based on the book. I’ve no idea how it came about, but we all named our chimps (the part of our brain that causes anxiety). If you haven’t guessed already, mine is called Belinda. I’ve no idea why. Belinda Carlisle? Belinda Blumenthal from Belinda Blinked? I honestly hope it’s the former. I have found naming my chimp transformative. It allows me to talk about anxiety as I see it; a living, breathing, adaptive thing that tries to outsmart all of the strategies that I use against it. Interestingly, other people I know prefer not to give their anxiety a name as they believe it gives it power; we all need to do what works for us.
Around this time, I often struggled to fall asleep at night because Belinda was busy chatting away, telling me how awful I was and that I had done so many things wrong in my life. So I started using the app ‘Headspace’. I completed the anxiety course and learnt something that has completely changed how I look at my anxiety. The reality is that I will never completely get rid of my anxiety and I instead need to learn to live with it. Whilst initially scary, this in itself came with a sense of relief. It no longer becomes about an impossible battle, but instead an achievable continuous game of developing strategies and methods of subduing and controlling Belinda.
Over the years, I’ve learnt the triggers that make Belinda kick off. For me, it’s being alone in the evenings, being alone at bedtime when I’m in a relationship, hangovers, people around me going through life changes and FOMO (fear of missing out). But the frustrating thing is, is that these aren’t even consistent. Sometimes they don’t even affect me at all.
There are two powerful tools that I use when Belinda rears her ugly head. The first is to talk about it. We all need someone in our life to talk to when anxiety occurs; I’m lucky enough to have my fiancé to be that person but it can be anyone. It might be a text or a quick mention in passing, but even this makes it easier; it doesn’t make it go away, but as they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. 99% of the time, it’s not about delving into the anxiety or working out the triggers, it’s just a simple statement to say that I’m anxious and if I know the reason, sharing that. Nothing else. Nothing further. I’m not quizzed about it, as this could add to the anxiety. If I want to talk more about it I will. In my own time. The referencing of the anxiety is just a shared understanding that Belinda is up to her old tricks again.
There was a time where I didn’t feel I could burden anyone with these problems and in those days was absolutely reliant on The Samaritans and Switchboard (the LGBT+ helpline). Those poor people had to listen to the trivial things causing my anxieties, but at 3am in the morning, when I felt alone and like I was never going to sleep again, they listened and never made me feel like my anxieties were unimportant.
The second tool I use is journaling. It’s something that I’m very bad at doing regularly, and need to do more, as it can be very powerful. By pouring my ridiculous thoughts and emotions into my diary, I can make sense of what’s going on, but it’s also another way of sharing problems. This strategy works when I’ve got low level anxiety, as it’s like talking to someone who doesn’t answer back.
There are other things I’ve tried over the years that are now part and parcel of my life. I’ve gradually reduced the notifications on my phone, started cycling, and re-evaluated my friendship groups. We all have to experiment with the things that work for us, and these might change over time.
But sometimes, even with all these strategies, my anxiety spirals out of control. As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s generally when I’m on my own. I’d love to say that I’ve got a handle on it, but sometimes it overtakes me. And I suppose this is where I want to end this post. I’ve had to work piece by piece on my anxiety and I’m a different person to two years ago. But I still have work to do to learn how to rescue myself when Belinda tries to take over, and enjoy my own company in the evenings again. I don’t know if I’ll do it, but I’ll give it a damn good try, and know I’ve got the best partner to help me work through it.
More people than we know suffer from anxiety, as it’s something people often feel shame about. But I hope that by sharing our experiences, we all realise that we’re not on our own. Whilst all of our experiences of anxiety are different, we should have a shared appreciation of how difficult it can be. But I hope that as a society we are getting better at supporting each other, and long may that continue.
And finally, something important to say - shut up Belinda, this post is just fine.