The bullshit of control
The dangerous thing with mental illness is believing you have a handle on it; lulling yourself into a false sense of security; believing you’ve finally tamed the wild beast that’s been living inside you for all those years.
During all the time I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety – which, to be honest, is my entire life - I can remember them peaking and dipping simultaneously, and oppositely.
In a depressive period I’d be thinking of suicide; during the anxiety I felt like I wouldn’t have to kill myself, because my heart was conveniently going explode from all the stress, thus saving me the bother.
This is probably familiar to a lot of people. But the most useful thing I’ve learned over these years of mental health rollercoastering, is how my depression and anxiety continue to change and evolved with time - and about the total myth of control.
The problem is that you become so familiar with the demon you face in the mirror, that that very familiarity fools you into thinking you know it – and have some sort of control over it.
That’s how it went with my anxiety. Even today there’s a part of me that still believes it’s helpful; that it has protected me; that I wouldn’t be anywhere without it.
I wouldn’t say I’ve had a difficult life, but it may have been harder than some, and lacking most of the comforts children need. In many ways I believed my anxiety to be helpful; it became one of my coping mechanisms. When you don’t have the familial support most people grow up with, the world can seem like a scary place to a kid, so you develop things to cope.
And they work well… for a while.
You tell yourself the anxiety is just part of your personality - and to be honest, it kind of is: it’s fused into your personality. It becomes almost impossible to know where the Anxiety ends and You begin; you’re in a symbiotic relationship with your mental health.
But it's okay, because people don’t notice…yet.
You can play people, convince them that you’re easy going and just hope they never see through the cracks. You panic when someone peers through the looking glass and sees the real you, the one that isn’t coping and never has been.
And so you deflect, you maintain, you still think you are handling it all.
Maybe it was youth, maybe hope, maybe arrogance - and probably a mixture of all three - but I still believed that my anxiety was helpful, so I nurtured it. I would almost boast how little I slept, or how long I could work for, never revealing the real price to people, never talking about the constant pressure I felt all through my body. And the truth is that even that starts to become familiar.
I remember once a peer of mine, someone I saw every day, clocked me. She described me as a swan: calm and graceful on the surface but under the water paddling furiously, fighting against the current.
When you are so up and anxious all the time, you forget what it feels like to be, for lack of a better word, ‘normal’. And the less you talk about it the more you internalise and blame yourself; nobody else seems to have these issues, these worries, so you can’t talk about them because then everybody will know.
But it’s okay, because you are in control.
Throughout my mental health journey and, to be honest, in my life, I’ve found that the idea of control is pretty much bullshit. You don’t have control, you never had it, and thinking that you do is pretty ridiculous. I think we all believe we are in control at some point in our life. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking!
But then it happened. It changed. The anxiety I thought I knew so well, the beast I thought I was in control of, changed. I always used to make jokes about having a breakdown - self-deprecating jokes are kind of my thing. I’m not sure I actually believed it would happen, until it did.
Anxiety was no longer just a part of me, it WAS me. I couldn’t separate myself, from my condition; my illusion of control had vanished. I couldn’t see a way out.
The problem with anxiety is that it’s a cunning beast. Sometimes it comes on instantly; sheer panic, overwhelming and debilitating; but other times it’s a snake that’s slowly coiling its way around you so gently you don’t notice the danger until it’s too late. For me, the snake is the worst, whispering in your ear, validating every anxious thought:
Everyone you love is being slaughtered right now, probably.
When you leave the house, it’s gonna burn down with your pets inside, definitely.
The people that love you don’t, and never have. Y
ou have cancer, you will end up homeless, your career will fail, you are a fraud!
You are completely convinced it's the truth.
The mirage of control stopped me from seeing the anxiety for what it truly was, something alive, something evolving. For all the things I had been forced to address - the panic, the not sleeping, the paralysing fear - over the years through medication, therapy or support, I couldn’t sense how the most frustrating aspect of my anxiety was evolving in the strangest way.
My perfectionism, which I thought was merely a personality trait, had become a monster.
Perfectionism is a pretty common thing for people with anxiety, and like my anxiety I deemed it helpful, beneficial even, to work to the best of my abilities to reach my personal standard. And perfectionism is praised: people see it as a good thing . . . until it becomes crippling.
To be honest, it’s one of the most fucking irritating aspects of this whole experience. Being a writer, it has made life pretty difficult because it doesn’t feel like the perfectionism is a symptom of my anxiety, so I still convince myself that I’m right, I’m justified. My concerns are valid, because nothing I do is good enough.
These thoughts aren’t my anxiety talking. I’m just right in realising something isn’t up to scratch, because the fear of being exposed to anyone in a less than perfect way is horrifying; literally the most terrifying thing in the world to me. Of course rationality would ask me, ‘what’s the worst that could happen’ or tell me, ‘it’s no big deal’. But it’s a big deal to me. In that moment, it’s basically life or death. Rationally I know that perfectionism is a fallacy: it is literally impossible to achieve perfection.
But here’s the kicker: in my head I’m not trying to be perfect. I know that I’m not good enough.
You know that saying, ‘pride comes before a fall’? Well that pretty much sums it up. I was proud that I was so in control. I felt that because I’d overcome so much, I could overcome anything if I just tried hard enough - and now here I am beginning my new journey with the latest incarnation of my anxiety.
I‘ve had to go back to the beginning and start over, and lets face it, it probably won’t be the last time. I’m sure that over the years my anxiety will change again and again, and some new fun symptom of fear and worry will appear, so hey, I’ve got that to look forward to!
But it’s not all doom and gloom: these issues may seem like weaknesses at first, burdens you carry that others don’t, but now I see them as both a burden and also a gift. Few people get to peek behind the curtain of their delusions, and at first it seems sad to lose the cosy bubble you felt so secure in, but sometimes the journey is necessary to relate to the world around you. You can’t unsee, and you can’t go back again, your gift is one of perspective and compassion.
In the words of Søren Kierkkegaard, ‘Learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront. He, therefore, who has learned rightly to be in anxiety, has learned the most important thing.’