In light of Mental Health week, I wanted to write something personal about my ongoing battle with anxiety, fear and shame. I hope this piece shines a light on these issues and also helps people realise that anyone can struggle with their mental health.
Cliff Tops and Tidal Waves: A Blog about Anxiety, Fear and a New Show About Shame
Part 1: The Voice
"Is this sentence ok? Yeah no, I mean is the sentence right? Like correct. Like good. Have I got it right or is there something wrong with it?...There’s something wrong with it, isn’t there. I KNEW IT."
"What if they don’t like my work? What if they think it’s crap? Oh god, maybe it is crap? Why did I ever think I could do this…"
You might recognise these thoughts. They are pretty common, I think. Any time anyone puts anything out there, whether it’s on Facebook, twitter, whether it’s an article or essay or a three-hour opera, there’s always the risk that someone will judge you. And the fear is, they’ll find you wanting.
Personally, this fear is like a plague on my mind. It causes bad thoughts to circle round and round and back, over and over again, triggering such a deep sense of distrust with myself that it can be crippling.
I like to call this voice The “You’re Going To Do Something Wrong” Voice. It goes something like this:
Ok I need to send an email to X and explain Y. It needs to be right and good and perfect because We All Know What You Did Last Time. Yeah ha. Terrible. So make sure you succeed this time. (minuscule pause) HURRY UP you’re taking too long. Just send it you idiot. What kind of person takes this long to send a message?! Jesus. It’s not normal, yeah? It’s not…oh ok well done you sent it. Phew. Well done.
But after the initial relief of sending the message, there is a short pause. Then a louder voice starts up, it’s the “You’re Going To Be Found Out” voice. This one causes a rise in fear. This one makes you feel scared. Scared like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff and someone’s about to push you over. This voice is a real dick.
It sounds something like:
WAIT HANG ON A MINUTE. No no, go back. Read it again. READ what YOU have DONE?!?! That text was too rude. You were too honest. They’re going to think BAD things about you now. GOD WHAT AN IDIOT. They’re going to take it badly. We were trying to avoid it this time and you’ve DONE IT AGAIN. Quickly! Reply NOW, reply now!!! FOR FUCKS SAKE HANNAH clarify what you really meant you fucking idiot. You always do this.
It’s hard to describe this sheer tidal wave of feeling that engulfs me. I’m being tossed around in the waves and I can’t tell what’s up or down. I’m trying to breath but I keep swallowing water. I can’t believe I’ve fucked up this badly and I’m pretty convinced that death itself is imminent.
Part 2: Shame
It took me a while to realise that underneath all this was shame. As Ken Benau explains: ‘shame is about the self and about the other. It’s about how you view the self in relation to the other. And how you think the other views you.’
I view myself as less than worthy. My fear is that I’ll be seen and found out and people will know I’m not good enough. When I’m found wanting by ‘the other’, I’ll be laughed at, talked about, dismissed and cast out. It feels like I might even die.
All the anxiety and turmoil is in place to help me sidestep that situation. Every decision I make is about avoiding the cliff and tidal wave. But of course, it only makes it worse. In fact, I would argue that the cliff and tidal wave are shame itself. The fear of the unknown brings about the possibility of shame, which brings it on before there’s any real reason to feel it.
So maybe it’s less about actually avoiding the situation and more about finding balance on the cliff top. That way even if you’re pushed, you won’t fall. And maybe it’s about finding a life raft that will help you breathe just long enough to realise that you’re in a paddling pool, not the sea.
Part 3: A New Show
All of this lies at the core of my new autobiographical show about shame. It’s very new at the moment, but we like to call it The Precipice (for now). It’s part autobiography, part movement, part I’m-not-quite-sure-yet. It tries to unpick shame and my hope is that it might help you. I admit that I don’t know any solutions yet, sorry! But I’ve decided that, that’s ok. That does not make me wanting, it doesn’t make me anything. It’s just a fact.
During mental health week, particularly during COVID19 lockdown when many people will be suffering greatly, I want people to know that they’re not alone. You might feel like you’re on the edge of the cliff or like you’re in your own tidal wave. That’s ok. There is hope. I know it will pass. In fact, what you need might be right there inside you already, if only you could believe it. Go now, try and find it. It’s an old friend waiting just out of sight.
I’m right behind you, searching for mine too.