Saturday, January 5, 2019

Healing Her Anxiety

Take it for what it’s worth. It’s anecdotal, one woman’s experience of managing her chronic and severe anxiety. For those who have had enough therapy, and for those who think that pills cure everything, it’s a tale worth telling.

When Bella Mackie was 29, her husband of eight months walked out on their marriage. It was crushing, of course, but it seemed apt for a woman who had, in her terms, no coping skills. If you do not have the skills to deal with a divorce you probably didn’t have the skills to deal with a marriage.

We read her story in The Guardian:

Someone stands across from you, looks directly into your eyes and tells you they are leaving you, they no longer love you, they have found someone else, you are not enough, and you think: “Oh, so this is the moment I am going to die. I can’t possibly get through this.”

As I lay on the floor of my own sitting room, watching my husband’s feet walking quickly towards the door, I knew that the end of my marriage, after less than a year, would bring unbearable sadness, awkward questions, terrible embarrassment. I even knew that, with the right coping skills, it might be OK in the end. But I also knew something else: at 29, unlike most adults, I had no coping skills.

Mackie has suffered from serious anxiety from childhood:

From a young age, I had been agoraphobic, prone to panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, hysteria and depression. By the time my husband walked out on me, I’d had years of this. Often I couldn’t make it to the supermarket on my own (honestly), much less navigate my way through a breakup of this magnitude. I knew I had to get off the floor, but I didn’t know what to do next. Everything was draped in fear.

If ever there is a trigger to make you try to change something, it’s the shock of your marriage collapsing. Given that people who get divorced in the UK have usually managed about 11 and a half years before they pull the plug, tanking your vows as spectacularly as I did felt like quite the feat. Any longer and it might just have been seen as sad, unavoidable, or chalked up to “young people not sticking at anything any more”; but eight months? It would be unwise not to question your life just a little bit after that.

She offers us a history of her anxiety:

Anxiety has been with me for as long as I can remember, but it’s ebbed and flowed over the years. At 11, I went to secondary school and the change sent me into a tailspin. I cried every day, like many other kids who hate moving to a new place and making new friends; but I didn’t stop there. I developed OCD tics – swallowing whenever I had a bad or negative thought, blinking, even more disgustingly, spitting – as if to rid bad feelings from my body as quickly as possible. I had no idea what this meant – I just knew I “had” to do them. I remember missing my bus stop in the mornings many times because I hadn’t blinked in the correct way. There was no winning; the goalposts would shift all the time. If it wasn’t blinking, it was avoiding cracks in the pavement – small things that paralysed me.

These routines would take up hours of my time, partly in the doing and partly in the concealing; those around me must not know. I also found myself disassociating for the first time – detaching from my surroundings when it all got too much. This remains my most terrifying anxiety symptom, and the one I can’t totally shake; though it’s believed that your brain does this in an attempt to protect you, it only makes me feel much worse, as though I’m drowning but my legs don’t work. Colour gets too bright, sounds are jarring and it feels like I’m cocooned in bubblewrap, unable to get back to reality.

At worst, I’ve looked in the mirror at my own face and not recognised it to be me, and not just because I had terrible hair and bad skin that morning. It’s a strange and awful experience. When I was trapped in a fug of anxiety and depression in my early 20s, disassociation made it feel as though the people around me were actors in a bad reality show. I couldn’t connect with loved ones; everything felt fake and staged.

What else? Well, I would scratch and pick at my skin, until it bled and scarred, pull out hairs (a mild form of trichotillomania, where sufferers have an intense urge to pull their hair out and feel a strong sense of relief when they do). I’d chew my lips until they bled. All fun scars to have as an adult: “Why do you have scars all up your legs, Bella?” “Oh just because I pull and pluck my leg hair until I bleed when I feel like I’m losing control – who wants another drink?”

Naturally, her family sent her for medical treatment. She took the prescribed medication and felt somewhat better. She said that she felt patched up, but she was certainly not over her anxiety. And the pills did not teach her any coping skills. Worse yet, they did not teach her good character… the kind the involves resilience and not letting oneself feel defeated:

But I often think of the girl I was in my 20s and wish I could go back and try putting on some trainers. Instead, I dropped out of uni, went to a psychiatrist and took the antidepressants that I was swiftly prescribed. What else could I do? At this point, suicidal thoughts were creeping in.

Despite all of this, I was extremely fortunate. I had a family who, while not fully understanding why their daughter was crying hysterically all the time and refusing to go out, had the resources to pay for me to see a professional. (My NHS GP was kind, but could only put me on the waiting list for therapy.) The pills helped, and I was able to look at myself in a mirror again without wondering who was looking back at me. After quitting my degree, I got a job, was able to go out again, and managed a few relationships. I was patched up, in the most basic sense.

When her husband left her, Mackie used her pain as the impetus toward a new therapy. Running. She learned to overcome obstacles, to stick to the regimen, to keep working until it felt natural:

Throughout my life, if I couldn’t do something well on the first attempt, I was prone to quit. It was embarrassingly clear to me that I was not running well, or getting better at it. And yet, much to my own quiet disbelief, I carried on. For the first couple of months, I stuck to the roads closest to my flat, looping around quiet streets. I was slow, sad and angry. But two things were becoming clear. The first was that when I ran I didn’t feel quite so sad. My mind would quieten down; some part of my brain seemed to switch off, or at least cede control for a few minutes. I wouldn’t think about my marriage, or my part in its failure. I wouldn’t wonder if my husband was happy, or out on a great date, or just not thinking about me at all. The relief this gave me was immense.

Learning how to deal with failure and learning how to overcome her limitations diminished her anxiety. She describes how it was therapeutic:

The second thing, which was even more valuable, was that I noticed I wasn’t feeling so anxious. Soon enough, I was reaching parts of the city I hadn’t been able to visit in years, especially alone. Within a month I was able to run through the markets of Camden without feeling I would faint or break down. When your brain has denied you the chance to take the mundane excursions most people do every day, being able to pass through stalls selling “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian” T-shirts suddenly feels like a red-letter day. By concentrating on the rhythm of my feet striking the pavement, I wasn’t obsessing over my breathing, or the crowds, or how far I was from home. It was miraculous to me.

When you run, your body takes your brain along for the ride. Your mind is no longer in the driving seat. You’re concentrating on the burn in your legs, the swing of your arms. You notice your heartbeat, the sweat dripping into your ears, the way your torso twists as you stride. Once you’re in a rhythm, you start to notice obstacles in your way, or people to avoid. You see details on buildings you’d never noticed before. You anticipate the weather ahead of you. Your brain has a role in all of this, but not the role it is used to. My mind, accustomed to frightening me with endless “what if” thoughts, or happy to torment me with repeated flashbacks to my worst experiences, simply could not compete with the need to concentrate while moving fast. I’d tricked it, or exhausted it, or just given it something new to deal with.

In part, its surely has something to do with biochemistry. But it also has to do with working through pain, with persevering at a task, at learning that one is capable of doing so. It also resembles meditation, in the sense the running cleared her mind.

Mackie describes the way running helped her to overcome her anguish over her divorce:

Weeks after my marriage collapsed, I was still sick with it all. At work, I would regularly go into the toilets and cry quietly. At home, I would put on my pyjamas the moment I got in and mindlessly watch TV. When I went out, I drank too much and would cry again. While I was running, nobody could give me the dreaded sympathy head tilt or an excruciating hug. Nobody even looked at me.

I soon found I was setting myself little challenges: go two minutes farther today, run down that busy road you’ve avoided for years. I discovered old railway lines that ran like arteries through built-up estates, hidden from plain sight. I ran along the canal and found an expanse of brambles, wild flowers and ducklings swimming along next to me. The panic attacks were fading away.

Surely, it’s interesting to think that when calamity befalls you, your well meaning and empathetic friends make it worse by looking at you with pity.

Mackie concludes:

Running is not magic beans. Life is tricky and gets diverted constantly, and we all stumble. There have been crappy times. There have been brilliant times. But the main difference between my life before I ran and my life since is that I have hope. And I have a life that is not always dictated by worry, panic, doom and depression. You can do so much more when those things don’t sit on your chest and slowly squash you.

Since that first short and sad run I took over four years ago, I have lived alone, travelled, changed jobs and begun a new relationship. Knowing I could do a 10K meant I knew I could fly to New York for a job interview, and that I could step outside my door alone without hyperventilating. It’s a measure of how over the whole “starter marriage” I am that I sat across from my boyfriend at dinner last year and proposed to him (he said yes, thank the lord). Running has given me a new identity, one that no longer sees danger and fear first. I ran myself out of misery.

She ran herself out of her misery… nice phrase. Good luck to her in the future.

1 comment:

Kansas Scout said...

In recent years, my wife's oldest son and his wife had serious problems. His wife took up serious running and achieved good enough times in Marathon's that she was able to compete in the Boston Marathon. It was clear this was her coping mechanism. She gained a lot of self worth via her accomplishments. However, the marriage blew up anyway but she moved on to better things. She's far from perfect but she's generally happier. I think there is something to this.