27 October 2011
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.
20 October 2011
photo from www.123rf.com
Hang on a minute, before I put the champagne on ice, maybe there's a catch. For some weird reason, for the last three weeks, I have been inundated (and I mean inundated) with spam emails from Mr This and Mrs That (with Nigerian-sounding names ) congratulating me on my big wins, inheritance or whatever. I've had a few sob stories from complete strangers who are on the verge of dying and suddenly thought of little old me to pass their wealth to. I even got one from the FBI (as if). I am being ever so good and resisting the temptation (best leave the wealth of this world to others who need it more) and have been deleting the emails as fast as they come in, for the most part without even reading them, but for the life of me I don't understand why I have gone overnight from having no spam email EVER to at least ten a day now. With junk mail through your physical letterbox, there are organisations you can write to in order to get your address removed from mailing lists. Anyone know how to get these cyber idiots off my back and spambox?
13 October 2011
It coloured a lot of our relationship. He was the older one, the wiser one and I therefore let him be the responsible one when it came to decision-making. He didn't lay down this arbitrary rule. I did. I made my feelings felt if I disagreed with him and often got my own way, but tacitly, he was the older one and therefore the one whose opinion I valued and trusted.
Greg died 6 weeks before his 61st birthday. I now stand 6 weeks before my 61st birthday. I have caught up with him. It seems a strange feeling. From now on, I shall be older than him, grow older than him. I may possibly grow to a very old age. He never will. He will be eternally locked in the age he was when he died. From now on, I shall get to experience or witness things that he will never see. The tables have been turned. I have already found it upsetting that he has missed major events of the last eighteen months. He was a radio journalist for all of his career and would have been intensely interested or excited about such things as the Lib-Con coalition, for example, the sweep of conflicts across North Africa, especially the Libyan war, the London riots, the demise of bin Laden,the financial recession, the euro -debate, to name a few. I can just hear his comments in my head on all of those things. Yet he will never experience them, and I have. I have become the older one. Perspectives have changed.
06 October 2011
However I think I have a guardian angel or someone watching over me to help. It's as if they give me a while, a few months or so, to sort the problem on my own and when they can no longer watch my fumbling and dithering about,they decide to step in and solve the problem with a wave of their hand.
Problem One was that a eucalyptus tree close to the house in my neighbour's property has grown so tall (currently about 20 feet or more) that it is blocking all sunlight in my small garden and is as high as the second storey and heading for the third storey. It was planted by the previous neighbour about two years ago and was quite a small unassuming bush way back then. But over the past two years it has shot up in height and width, so as to completely block sun and view from my windows, let alone garden. It is also a wishy-washy grey-green colour which immediately dampens my spirits every time I see it. A more vibrant green would somehow be more cheerful. The neighbour who lives there now has only been there about 10 months and I did not want to cause trouble by moaning to her so soon about it. I hoped she might do something about it herself, but as it does not block her light (the sun actually shines on it most of the day!) she would probably not foresee any problem. I worrited about it so much, shared my headache with others but just did not have the heart to say anything to the neighbour. But all through this summer every time I went into my second-storey lounge and saw the monster looming at the window and ever upwards, my heart sank.
The other problem I had was that in decluttering and decorating all the rooms of the house, I have had a lot of things to throw away. Some have gone into the back of my car and been taken to the dump. Others have been taken to local charity shops. But there is one item that was giving me a headache.It was an old single mattress that had once been Kay's as a little girl. It was still in very good condition but lacked a fire safety regulations label on it, which meant that charity shops would not touch it with a barge pole. Not even the Salvation Army would have it for their homeless shelters. It had not been snapped up after I advertised it on ebay and was far too big and bulky to get into my car to take to the dump. It stood in the garage taking up far too much space and tripping me up every time I went in there.
As I say, not much in the grand scheme of things, but both problems kept worming away.Worm, worm, worm. Then suddenly, wave of hand, problems solved. A few weeks ago my neighbour asked me if I would mind if she cut down the eucalyptus tree between us as it was far too big, she was worried about the roots undermining the foundations as it is so close to the house etc etc. Would I mind? I tried to be as nonchalent as I could in my reply, affirming that I would have no objection in the slightest!!!!! (I am still waiting for it to happen, mind you, but at least the tree is not worrying me any more).
This morning another neighbour in our cul-de-sac knocked on the door to thank me for a favour I had done and asked if I had anything I needed taking to the dump. I laughed and jokingly said "a bed"? No sooner had I said it, then he had whipped the mattress out of my garage and into the back of his estate car. As I write it is probably now languishing in the dump.
Thank you, guardian angel I shall sleep easier tonight. Both problems well and truly solved. Isn't life funny?
03 October 2011
I got back yesterday and now face the pile of chores still to do in my house, plus weed through the post which came in my absence. I have kept in touch with your blogs and tried where possible to comment, but as for my own - I think I have writers' block. Can't think of a damn thing to say. So I'll keep schtumm for a while till something coherent jumps into the tired old brain. Bear with me.