Footnotes from an anxious winter

I whisper on a draft document first. Hello again. The phrase echoes, feels a bit awkward, because I know I’ve said it before.

I have been watching the seasons pass by through the kitchen window. Yellow leaves fell from the lime trees, turning copper and collecting in the corner of the patio. Now the branches are bare, brown, a bit bleak — but then again it’s easier to spot the small birds, silhouetted against the grey winter sky.

There have been brighter moments. Moments when I wrote here, shared things on Instagram again, feeling like I could see my old self somewhere on the horizon, coming closer.

So I would post for a while, the pressure and the performance slowly mounting, then something else would happen. Work, family, headlines, scares… too much. I’d disappear offline again, the weight of sharing anything both too heavy and farcically light considering everything else.

In theory, I knew what anxiety was. Years ago I did a mental health course at work and the tutor explained the signs: breathlessness, heart palpitations, shaking, chest pain, sweating, nausea, dizziness. A conviction that something very bad was happening to you; a conviction that you might be a breath from death.

I remember thinking how awful that sounded. I remember sitting with someone while they had a panic attack a few months later, feeling their hand in mine, cold and damp and shaking.

As the summer days shortened, I began to understand anxiety in a painful and deep way, the way that you can only fully comprehend something when it happens to you. Anxiety came towards me from somewhere I couldn’t place, a manipulative acquaintance I couldn’t shake, a disturbing dream that stayed with me in daylight.

I have only recently felt a bit lighter, felt like writing here, again.

Somewhere during the darker days I drafted some words in a journal:

I want to be alone, not having to explain myself to anyone, and yet I feel so alone — like I’m floating far off from a busy beach where my friends and family stand, watching the rough waves bounce off my body.

Drowning is what it feels like sometimes. The panic rises up from my feet, and it’s as if my body is being filled with water, poured into my veins. It moves like a quick tide, pulling at my heart, making my head spin. I try to suck in a breath but it doesn’t come past the liquid panic, which has sealed my gullet in its hot grip.

The only way to get past anxiety in the moment itself seems to be to open yourself up to feeling it, face it, say its name, grab breaths back, again and again, all until you’ve beaten the tide.

If you try to fight it, its strength grows. It is one of the worst feelings I have felt, and it has only happened because of this pandemic. I have no doubt I am one in a sea of many others, each alone and swimming against our own fears.

What has changed since then? From one viewpoint, nothing really, yet from another, small somethings. Time not working, time trying to be. Time talking to people: my partner, friends, parents, colleagues, a counsellor, sometimes the doctor. More moments of stillness; less crushing weight.

A thing that’s often said is that recovery is not linear. I wish it was. I used to be a planner, adding things to my calendar months in advance, anticipating dates and occasions. Now I don’t look further than a few days ahead. What’s the point, I think? How will I know how I’ll feel in a few months, let alone tomorrow?

Yet the start of a new year always does give me hope, even if that’s something I’ve internalised from our society’s obsession with resolutions and reforming habits.

Each morning before work I now meditate for ten minutes, sitting cross-legged, watching the sunrise. Although I write about slow travel, I was deceiving myself, because whilst in my own life I may have adventured slowly everything else about me was productive, pressured, rushed. I must slow myself down.

There is writing. Whether that’s putting biro onto a journal page or electronic characters onto a blank blog post, writing makes me feel like I have control over something in a world which still feels far from stable.

Then there’s walking. Although I haven’t done a lot of that over the last wet few weeks, it helps. The repeated foot-to-earth rhythm that mutes the swell of worries in your mind; senses overtaken for a moment by the smells and breeze and birds and leaves; wonder at the understated perfection of a pink winter sunset.

I look out the kitchen window and the skeletal branches of the tall trees are very quietly, carefully, growing their small spring buds. Only the grass and one bravely-flowering rose is rendered in colour. Everything else is grey, brown, dirty gold, black. Nature waits in shadow for sunnier days.

For now, I do too, and like the buds and the branches and the migrating birds, the bloom will come when it is ready. No sooner, no later.

A lesson that life moves in waves, in seasons, in circles. A lesson to love things — and yourself — enough to give them the gift of patience, perhaps the softest and hardest thing of all.

3 responses to “Footnotes from an anxious winter”

    • Thank you! That’s kind of you to say. ‘Gentle’ is a lovely word — how did you choose it? I’ve done some Word of the Year prompts before but this year I decided on ‘acceptance’ (it kept echoing in my mind!). But part of accepting how you feel is being gentle towards yourself, so in a way yes, they’re one and the same. Take care of yourself 🙂

  1. My word this year has Ben “graciousness”…to give and hopefully get a little grace in return. Many folks are struggling in so many different, unseen ways, it often reflects in strange behaviors and reactions, myself included. Your writing was excellent reading for me this morning! Thank you!

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