Not many people know that when I was younger I suffered from intense anxiety and had a phobia.
It first started when I was about nineteen and in my first year at university. I had been "normal" all my life up to that point with no real problems other than what outfit to wear to the school disco or how to get rid of that spot that was erupting on the end of my nose. I sailed happily through that first year year at uni, but as we approached the end-of-year exams, I suddenly began to feel very tense. I started dabbling with smoking the occasional cigarette - there were vending machines in the hall of residence where I lived (can you imagine that these days?) and I had experimented to see if they would help me relax . Whether it was that or just stress of the exams, I don't know, but one day while I was out with a boyfriend having a meal in a pancake restaurant I suddenly had an anxiety attack. I had ordered the meal and we were chatting away, when the waiter brought my order to the table - an enormous apple and strawberry pancake with lashings of whipped cream. I took one look at it and my face began to feel very hot and I started to shake. My throat closed up and I could barely swallow. My stomach seemed in my throat and I felt I was going to vomit and/or faint at any minute. I felt everyone was looking at me (they weren't, of course). I just did not feel comfortable sitting there and whispered to my boyfriend that we should leave straight away. He was naturally unhappy about leaving the restaurant there and then. We were impoverished students and could barely afford a meal out in the first place. To leave before we had even eaten it naturally seemed to him a waste. I recall we sat there for quite some time with me feeling hotter and more faint before I had to make a dash out of the restaurant for fresh air. My pancake lay untouched on the table.
A few weeks after that, we were in a cinema and watching Anne of a Thousand Days about Anne Boleyn. We were just getting to the gripping bit of the film where she climbs the scaffold to be beheaded when again I felt the same familiar symptoms of anxiety washing over me. I had to push past people in the row I was sitting in to get to the aisle and ran to the toilets. I really thought I was going to throw up again, my heart was pounding and my stomach just seemed to stick in my throat. I remember a toilet attendant (there were such people in cinemas in those days) asking me if I were pregnant - just because I was a young student and felt sick! One thing is for sure, I never did get to see the end of that film!
After these two experiences, I seemed to feel queasy a lot of the time after that and any situation involving eating out with other people made me extremely nervous. I worried about being in situations where there were a lot of people and where I could not make a quick exit if I needed to. In no time at all, I grew to have a phobia about it which lasted well through my university days and into my twenties and thirties. To most people a good way of celebrating something or meeting new people is to have a good meal out, be pampered by waiters and eat things they would probably not eat at home. Weddings, birthdays, even funerals often come with meal invitations attached. Not a problem for most people, but for me it was a nightmare. Even my own wedding was a turmoil because I was terrified of eating at the wedding breakfast with all eyes on me. Not only that, but I had a job as a civil servant which involved being wined and dined by businessmen, who wanted to wheedle government money out of me for their commercial projects. They would invite me to the grandest lunches in the grandest venues and all I would be thinking about was what excuses I could use to turn them down. Funnily enough I did not mind stand-up buffets where I could pick and choose my food and walk around. It meant I always had a means of escape if I could not cope with the situation. For me the worst was sit-down meals, where you were rooted to the spot, sitting opposite other people with no means of escape other than one that would attract attention. I would feel wrongly or rightly that everyone in the restaurant was looking at me and the hot face, tight throat, pounding heart, nausea and shaking would start all over again.
In my late twenties, I was referred by my doctor to a psychiatrist who at our introductory appointment suggested using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy on me. The idea was to make me confront my fears by gradually coping with small things and over a course of time building up to large things. If, say, someone has a spider phobia, it would start with looking at photos of small spiders, then large spiders, then seeing one for real in a glass case and then having one placed on your hand. In my case it would mean starting on one end of the scale with eating , say, a sandwich with the therapist in a grotty cafe with my back to people and eventually ending up at the other end of the scale eating a four-course meal on my own facing other diners in a posh restaurant. Obviously with many gradations inbetween. It goes without saying that I was so terrified of the idea that I didn't even make it to the next session. However what I did learn from the consultation by retracing my past was what had more than likely triggered my phobia in the first place.
We traced it back to when I was eleven years old. I had just moved up to grammar school and I had been having a cooked school lunch around a table for six. I had taken some extra boiled potatoes, but by the end of the meal had no gravy left to accompany them and so had left the potatoes on my plate. The rules were that we had to then wait until the teacher on dinner duty gave us permission to take our used plates to the counter and collect our dessert. Our history teacher was on dinner duty that day. She had stood over me and insisted I eat up those dry potatoes making the whole table wait until I had finished before we could go up to the counter to collect our dessert. The dry potatoes stuck in my throat and made swallowing difficult and of course all impatient eyes were on me to hurry so they could get to the dessert. I often wonder if that teacher realised the damage she did that day as that experience of being unable to swallow the dry food and all eyes being on me was certainly the trigger to my phobia later in life.
By the time I got to my mid thirties, my phobia had also embraced not being able to sit in a cinema or theatre for fear I would have to run out in the middle of a performance and attract attention, just as had been the case in Anne of a Thousand Days. It was really beginning to ruin my life and I spent all my time making excuses to avoid anything that would involve eating out or having to sit in a cinema or theatre.
Then a promotion in my job meant I had to travel abroad a lot and meet up with diplomats and senior businessmen. My first reaction was to run a mile in the other direction and pack my bags full of biscuits to nibble in the quiet of my hotel room, but then something weird happened. Because I had no choice but to eat with other people, because I couldn't just hop on a plane to escape, I found I coped with it. I suddenly realised that the situations I feared were in fact not as bad as I had built them up to be in my imagination. I did not throw up, I did not faint, I did not die, I got through them. The fear of the situation beforehand was worse than the actual experience. What is more I actually began to enjoy them after a while. From then on I seemed to sail through any eating engagements with absolutely no problems, even dining with politicians in the House of Commons and with captains of industry in swish restaurants. I still had an element of anxiety, but experience taught me that I would cope with it. At that time I had also had some sessions with a physiotherapist who had taught me the correct way to breathe - from the pit of my stomach (if you have ever watched a cat or dog sleeping you will see they breathe like that) rather than from the upper chest. That all helped to relax me and control any anxiety that might pop up.
That was soon to change again shortly after I had Kay at the grand old age of 40. I became a stay-at-home mum and my confidence started to crash to the point where the old fears and anxieties came back. I did try to overcome it again, but I had to psyche myself up for it and it had to be on a day when I was feeling strong enough to cope. If I was having a bad day for any reason, then I could not do it. I seemed not to build on my successes and regarded them as one-offs, so that when I had to repeat the experience, it was like I was doing it for the first time all over again. I did make the occasional trip to a cinema to take Kay to the latest Disney film, as I did not want her to miss out because of my shortcomings, but it was not easy and I would have to have an aisle seat for a quick getaway should I ever need it (which thank goodness I never did).
Then Greg took early retirement seven years ago and our whole world turned upside down with his alcoholism. If I was scared before of drawing attention to myself, then one of those early incidents here sure did that. There were to be many more over the years where I had to cope with embarrassing situations and where I had to cope full-stop. Again I had no choice. The problems were there and had to be dealt with. As Greg disappeared more and more from our marriage into his own alcoholic world, as his health failed, with every hospitalisation, with every crisis, I had to cope. And I am pleased to say that my phobia had to take a back seat. A very back seat. (I am not speaking lightly here and dismissing anxiety as nothing, because it was hard to fight it, but when there is absolutely no choice, you can't afford to hide behind it.) Ironically, Greg's alcoholism has helped me to be a stronger person. When I was clearly the only one who could raise my daughter or go to a parent evening or take her on a much needed holiday or up and down the country looking at universities, not to mention eventually getting her up there, I had to be the one to do it. No other choice. There's a lot of truth in the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".
The pinnacle of my success came two years ago in September 2009 on the weekend I first took Kay up to her university lodgings and helped her move her stuff into her room. At the end of the day, as it was late, I booked into a hotel room nearby for the night. The next morning I calmly entered a crowded breakfast room full of couples (so obviously, like me, dropping their sons or daughters off at the university too) and, sitting alone in full blatant view of the other hotel guests, I had a full cooked English breakfast (sausages, bacon, egg, tomatoes and mushrooms, followed by toast and jam and lashings of tea). I went back into my room afterwards and smiled a big smile. No big deal for most people, but for me.... it was as if I had just climbed Everest.