The absence of posts on panic here may have implied that since taking the job as Beauty Editor at InStyle I have been magically cured of my mental maladies, but that isn’t the case.
Mental illnesses are as ‘real’ as physical illnesses, so I didn’t expect that throwing myself into a fast-paced job would make my panic disorder/agoraphobia/emetophobia leave me in peace anymore than I’d expect a wart to just pack up its tenure on a finger and toddle off to nest elsewhere without treatment.
That said, the frequency and intensity of attacks has diminished. I think there are two reasons for this. First, the job is intense, engaging. This means that I have a rope of sorts to hang on to – a purpose. The forward motion jerks me out of inertia, helps me to be part of the world. And in so doing, I am out of my comfort zone with regularity, and the tight lasso that characterises agoraphobia has loosened and I can go further, try more. When knocked back, it is more temporary, a pause, rather than a full cessation.
The second great help I’ve had in remaining calmer is my psychiatrist. I have previously been emphatic on how helpful I’ve found therapy to be but, to paraphrase Stephen Fry, opening a poorly-covered wound to air and allowing it to go through the gruesome healing process is the only way to really rid yourself of it, and I have found talking to be enormously helpful in finding the nerve to expose my festering wounds.
She has encouraged me to use my writing to help handle panic, so I now carry a notepad on which to jot down some thoughts when I am struggling.
I debated whether to write out sections here as they are hugely personal, but I ultimately felt it the right thing to do to illustrate that I, like everyone, am a sum of parts and a tangle of different emotions. My life is, as a whole, a nice place to inhabit. But I get lonely. I sometimes feel unsettled. I vacillate. I am plagued by doubt.
I don’t for one minute assume I’m alone in this – but I wanted to reiterate that having a job I love that may appear to be all glamour doesn’t eradicate those feelings by any stretch.
‘I’m on my way to a meeting and my stomach is full of adrenaline. This is an important meeting, sure, but this panic response made preparing for it nightmarish – and leaving the house for the meeting itself nigh on impossible. My panic symptoms have developed over the past few weeks to include this surge of adrenaline in my stomach. It reminds me of that loathsome moment before a rollercoaster drops: strapped in, trapped, inevitable.
It’s been a hard few weeks. Graham was sick in the back of a car I was in, Mick had something like norovirus. Jointly they’ve heightened my awareness of the possibility of being sick, though the latter undoubtedly scares me a great deal more. Graham was sick because he drank too much, Mick because she was ill. And hers was repeated. Unstoppable. Terror inducing. I’m trying to monitor the words I use to describe such things more closely, but I’m struggling. I can consciously choose better words and moderate. Last week Graham referred to what Mick had as being “the worst thing that could happen to you.” I corrected him. “No, you could die. My family could be maimed. I could lose my remaining marbles.” Only in my head, I was agreeing with him. “Of course it is! Imagine being sick repeatedly – not being able to breathe (Mick shared that detail), or speak. To vomit yourself to death. To have all choice removed from your physical form, so that the vomit coming from the pit of you is governing your life.”
As I write, I am sitting on the tube, trying to breathe deeply, think calmly, not panic. Edgware Road. Don’t. Get. Off. The. Tube. Breathe. Remember this is transient. You won’t always feel panicked. On the brink. Doors beeping, sliding shut. Two minutes to the next stop. I can get off there. Fall apart there. Phone a friend. Tell them everything. Marylebone. Phew. And again: get off? And then what? Risk being late? Don’t turn up?
When I was in my final year at uni, panic would grip me in this way so often that the commute from Queensway to Mile End was nightmarish, every stop there taking me further from safety and deeper into the belly of the beast. Some days I got off at Bond Street, walked in circles for a bit, then made my way along Hyde Park, nauseated, to get back to safety. If I made it to a lecture, I’d spend the entire hour thinking about the length of the journey back, and all the possibilities of disaster en route. During that time of acute panic, I walked from Mile End to Bayswater countless times, and once had to force my feet to carry me from deepest, darkest Ealing to Westbourne Grove.
Almost there. At Regent’s Park. One stop away. And then I just have to get through the meeting and the journey home. And then all the seconds and minutes and days and years after that.’
‘I’m on my way back from a fashion show and feel like someone opened the tap that dispenses life from me and left it running by mistake. I don’t remember the last time I ate a meal I cooked for myself, or the last time I had a proper conversation with someone outside my industry. I am tired to the marrow of my bones. And, with that tiredness, comes a tingling panic. It creeps into the unmanned walls of my existence. Bodily needs – sleep, food, cleanliness, swallowing – have become a source of stress, something I think about unduly. I’ve been swallowing successfully since I was a baby – why does it now seem a bit tricky, like something may go wrong? I think, and I think, and I try not to think – and then I remember work. Piles of it. Absolutely piles of it. Of emails. Of WhatsApps. Of unfinished, half-baked thoughts requiring the full treatment. And I want to wait to nourish my body and mind until it’s all over – to turn myself to steel, to be powered by electricity. But I can’t. I’m flesh. And flesh needs feeding and putting to bed and dressing and all the other things that come with the ownership of a body. And those things add to the exhaustion, to the thinking, to the inexorable wheel of worry that is spinning in my mind.’
‘Today I feel drained. On the way to the tube before my breakfast meeting I felt dizzy, like I didn’t have enough blood in my veins.
The weekend was full. On Saturday, I had hypnotherapy in Fulham (not an area I feel at home in – if anything it’s so residential I find it forbidding as there aren’t enough places in which to retreat should I need to). The session homed in on lots of memories to do with feeling alone and abandoned as a child, and afterward I felt completely and utterly stripped and nauseated. I then went for lunch with Shireen, but felt fuzzy throughout, as if there was some small chamber in my head that was home to a swarm of bees.
On Sunday, I had to catch up on some work but had the niggling sense of unrest. My phone kept going. My e-mails pinged into my inbox. I felt overwhelmed. There was simply too much to do. And now it’s Monday, and I am hurrying around, and the hypnotherapy has stirred the sandy sea floor underneath me, so, as I peddle through the week, particles of memory swirl around my feet.’
‘I’m in bed, my stomach lurching at the prospect of tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of work on, so much in fact that I didn’t take the full weekend off. But it’s not the work that’s the problem, it’s the fact that I feel rudderless – Graham is going to be in Holland and November scares me as a month (illnesses are rife) and deep inside me it feels like little girl Madeleine is asking not to be left alone.
In honesty, I’m sort of losing my patience with her. When I went to hypnotherapy last week about drive, what came up? Little Madeleine and all her unmet needs. Multiple sessions with the psychiatrist and who’s always making herself known? Little Madeleine, wanting comfort or attention. Last week I got a cocoa nib stuck in my throat and was standing with Mick, Mark and Sophie in a perfectly safe environment and what happened? Little Madeleine came out terrified, choking and hoping for help just like that time she choked on the fish bone when Oma had to hit her back.
And I get it – she’s in me because she is me. But I’m a grown up. I tie my own shoelaces, make my own money, am in charge of running the house and often a beagle too. I’m a woman, but when I considered closing off little Madeleine with all her vulnerabilities just now I could see her, standing at the door, sucking her thumb, looking abandoned and it makes my eyes fill with tears. I may lose my patience with her, but the idea of cutting her off makes me sad because part of me wants to show her what compassion and care should be, I want to love her and feed her and cocoon her in goodness. But I’m also a woman who has a lot to achieve and a lot of life to live.
Now I feel a bit less tense, a bit less knotted. My feet are warm, and I’m going to read in the hope of drifting off so that I can get up early tomorrow.’