Every good story, I’m sure you will agree, is in some way different to the next. Well, there must be millions of stories of suffering out there, with varying degrees of victory. The only way mine differs from the next is just that – it is my story.
In my particular case, I’ve led a fairly active life, held down several responsible jobs, and seen a lot of the world – while for many years also being that obsessive irrational worrier. Over time, this worrying led to more severe and more enduring bouts of anxiety. And as I recently learned from talking to a phenomenally good psychologist, the bitter cake that is anxiety tends to serve itself up with a generous dollop of depression on top. No wonder!
Before I delve in, I also want to clear up an important point about my introductory post. A lot of people responded saying how honest and brave I was being. Well, honest yes, but certainly not brave. This blog will mean nothing for me, and will not fulfil its purpose, if I do not tell you exactly how it was for me – warts and all. That is all I can promise.
However, I have absolutely no fear about sharing my story. If anything, telling it gives meaning and purpose to the hell that I went through, and provides me with an additional avenue of catharsis. But surely, in the absence of fear, there can be no act of bravery.
So, honest and fearless perhaps, and given that I get to write about my favourite topic (ie me!) even a tad selfish – but by no means brave. In my humble opinion, the brave ones are those who continue to quietly battle on alone in their own dark caves, with the insidious beast that is the black dog blocking the exit for much or all of their day.
Some may even be oblivious to the fact that they have a ‘condition’. Others may be aware, but are reading this from the sidelines, not wanting to even post a comment out of fear that it would expose the condition they are doing so well to hide. I know, only because I’ve been there too. Even that is normal! And yet they are the ones I want to reach out to most of all, they are the bravest ones of all.
But be warned. If you have never personally suffered and are reading out of curiosity or to try to better understand a family member or friend who does suffer, I suggest you put the lid on your popcorn box and grab the hand of a nearby loved one. Things might get a little weird and scary for a while as I try to bring you inside the head of an irrationally-worrying anxious depressive. You are about to enter the sugarcoat-free zone! Are you sitting comfortably?
Every good story, so I hear, also has a beginning, a middle and an end. Just to be a bit more different, my story kind of begins where it ends. What I mean is that now I’ve had several months of thinking and feeling more normal, more free than I ever thought possible, one of the first things I’ve done is to take stock of the last forty years by looking back at all the things I’ve worried about in the past – the things that have triggered my anxiety and depression.
And so for the rest of this second post, I will be setting the scene by looking back at my life in general, at some of those things I used to endlessly worry about; used to let dominate my thoughts and feelings. If nothing else, my aim is to show other irrational obsessive worriers that it really is quite common for people to think this way.
In my third post I will be looking into some of the potential reasons as to why I was predisposed in this way; in my fourth post, things will get really dark and scary as that is when we will enter the cave together. That is when I will go into more detail about how it really felt for me to be consumed by anxiety and depression.
Well, I always knew I was a bit of a worrier, but as I look back in hindsight, my God have I had a lifetime, a constant ravaging river of the-sky-is-falling-down worrying! It is hard to say at which point my worrying gave birth to the black dog, but after just a short brainstorm, I could sit here and write paragraph after paragraph, page after page on all the things I used to worry about so irrationally. In the interest of brevity I will touch on but a few. Just bear in mind that these are merely the tip of the tip of the worry-berg.
Some of my worries might seem quite run of the mill at face value. In no particular order, at school and Uni, for example, I used to worry about passing exams. Who doesn’t, you may ask? But I also clearly recall during my first year at Uni being intensely worried about whether I would pass my driving test - six months before the test itself, and barely a month after my first lesson. Failure to pass my test would surely label me a failure. I told a couple of friends and they just brushed it off, and I made a joke of it, so I didn’t tell them how I really felt. I was in turmoil over this one on and off for months. So typically I might tell people what I was worried about, but I wouldn’t really tell them. Of course, despite all the pressure I put on myself, I did go on to pass my driving test at the first attempt.
I also used to worry about girls – a lot – about catching one (would I ever meet the right person or would I grow old and die single and childless?) and then when I did catch one, keeping them (why on earth would anyone possibly want to go out with me?) I didn’t fully trust any girl I went out with until I met my wife, but it was never through any fault or lack of trustworthiness on their parts. But what kind of relationship is healthy, what kind of relationship is fun, what kind of life is fun if you get distraught every time your partner goes out on a girls’ night? Distraught, that is, in case they get snapped up by a more interesting, better-looking person than yourself – one with a shiny fast car and a nice fat wallet?
Talking of money, I used to always try to keep as much of the stuff as possible in the bank, for that just-in-case rainy day. I would either buy cheap or not at all, often shopping around for days for a cheaper price just to save a few pounds or dollars. I would constantly worry about running out of money.
I can best sum up how it affected me by use of an analogy which I also at times acted out literally – if I was ever out for dinner with a group of friends, and if I really fancied the steak but the chicken was $5 cheaper, I¹d choose the chicken. I was using money to live life, but not to experience it to the full, and I was not exactly doing much to shatter the reputation that the Scots have for being a bunch of tightarses.
Considering I grew up in Scotland, alcohol was a particularly surprising enemy of mine. Whenever I was out on town on a Saturday night, a few beers and whiskies would loosen my inhibitions about spending money, as well as giving me a good dose of Dutch courage (a pity it didn’t do anything for my terrible patter) But Sunday mornings were always a particularly unpleasant experience for me. I would often wake up in a hangover-enhanced depression, in total anguish over how much money there wasn’t left in my wallet – and way too more often than not over how many girls I hadn’t picked up the night before.
I’ve also had many an exotic holiday in the sun ruined by spotting unusual-looking blemishes on my skin that I was convinced at the time were skin cancers. Not helped by the fact that when on holiday, one tends to have more thinking time than normal, I would worry myself crazy only to have my skin checked out on my return home and be assured I did not have skin cancer. Hardly a relaxing holiday.
OK, it’s time to push things up a notch now. Although there is not a criminal bone in my body, I have also on way more than one occasion had a very vivid fear of, believe it or not, going to jail! As an example, I once bought a small apartment in an inner-city suburb of Melbourne as an investment. A few years later, it turned out there was a problem with moisture seeping into the walls and causing damage to the internal plaster. Due to the sheer pressure of the ensuing lengthy insurance claim process, I eventually became convinced that the sky literally was going to fall down – on my tenant’s head this time, causing him injury for which I would be put away for years. As the pressure mounted, for several weeks I actually imagined myself being berated and sentenced in front of the judge. Highly irrational, yes I know, but at the same time very real in my head. Even as I write this, I ask myself, almost embarrassed, “did I really used to think that way?” Well, for a while yes, and regularly I have to admit.
In almost every job I’ve ever had, I’ve also had an ongoing deep-rooted fear of being fired. I’ve always prided myself on being honest, and being an average to slightly above average achiever, yet every time I made even the slightest mistake at work, I feared the worst. While it is clear that a small amount of anxiety is good for us as it enhances our performance, being anxious to the point of constantly worrying about losing your job is not exactly a good place for your head to be – especially as the years pass and the responsibilities mount in becoming a husband, a homeowner, a father.
In a previous job of mine, for example, I was responsible for approving the phone bills for all offices nationwide. One phone call got hung in the system for over three months, and when it was eventually cleared, it appeared on our bill for over $20,000. I was beside myself – not because I had to sign it off, but rather because I initially worried that it might have been an innocent call I had made to my wife’s mobile phone. I reasoned that I could be made an example of and fired because of the amount involved, even though everyone makes the odd personal call from work.
I had absolutely no grounds for believing the call could be one of mine, but the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I was the ‘culprit’. I spent the best part of the day gathering all the information I could, on the phone to the telephone service provider and analysing the bill. At the end of the day I presented my findings to my boss. Even though I didn’t reveal my true fear to him, he was incredibly supportive. He praised me for presenting the facts clearly and succinctly, and for not just trying to pay the bill (we always had a large phone bill and $20,000 might have just got under the radar). But it was not enough to allay my fear of being fired. Over the next week, I lost a lot of sleep, waking up in the middle of the night worrying about it – how my reputation would be in tatters if I was fired, how I would lose my car, my flat, my girlfriend, even my right as an expat to stay in Australia.
At the end of the week, I finally received full details of the rogue call – and surprise, surprise, it had absolutely nothing to do with me. I was off the hook (pardon the pun). In fact when we received a refund a few weeks later that our CEO had to sign off on, even he commended the fact that I had got the money back.
And so I held my head high for a while. They sky hadn’t fallen down – again. But a few days later, when performing our monthly PC stock audit, we could not account for two laptops. Two very old, out of warranty laptops that had been stored in our locked computer room, and could easily have been missing for any number of reasons. As the IT Manager, I felt it was all my responsibility, and so the downwards spiral began again – except this time it went on for months. In fact the black dog of the missing laptops was even sitting there on the day my first child, Jack, was born. He was sat in the corner keeping out of the way, allowing me to enjoy the proudest, most magical moment of my life. But still I could sense him there, watching, waiting.
And so the pattern continued – small worries became obsessive worries became irrational worries that lasted longer and longer, with those brief periods of elation in between. As I started to self-analyse, I considered the possibility that I was in fact in a constant state of underlying worry, and just finding things to attach my worry to. Some of my worries might last just a few minutes or hours, but others lasted days, even months. As the years went on, I wouldn’t say I found bigger and bigger things to worry about, but rather that my worrying became more and more irrational so I had to find bigger things to attach it to.
I’d have those brief peaks of sheer elation and joy in between worries when each and every time, I realised that those terrible scenarios that I was dreaming up in my head were not going to transpire. If on the odd occasion they did, the outcome was never nearly as bad as I had imagined. I did at one stage even wonder whether I was in part addicted to the high of the relief. The excessive phone bills, the missing laptops, the roof of my apartment, the moles on my skin – none of them were the criminals, the causes of my condition. They were innocent bystanders, mistakenly identified in a line-up as the culprits.
One thing I seemed to have going for me was my cheery disposition, my sense of humour. I entertained myself over the years on a diet of Blackadder and Billy Connolly, and was always on the lookout for a laugh. I often said to myself that I couldn’t really be depressed if I enjoyed a good laugh. But was my sense of humour perhaps a defence mechanism, my own form of denial? Just because I asked myself whether I was depressed didn’t mean I wasn’t in denial. On that note, as Billy Connolly once said when talking about how he responded to treatment for his sleep apnoea, you don’t realise how badly you’ve been sleeping till you have your first proper good night’s sleep.
I’m guessing you get the picture by now. For the best part of four decades, I was an overly sensitive, obsessive-compulsive worrier, who eventually became prone to long bouts of depression as a result. Despite achieving much of what I set out to achieve in life, I often felt not good enough, not worthy of the quality of life I had. It was as if the black dog was there to remind me.
I can best liken the whole experience to the analogy of boiling a frog. It is claimed that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately leap out. However, if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, and very slowly turn up the heat, you can boil it to death. Well, after years of slowly turning up the heat in my own head, I was clearly a breeding ground for anxiety and depression. I didn’t realise it, but I too was slowly approaching my own boiling point.