I went to a workshop in Birmingham today. More on that in another post if I can find the time to write that. For now I am writing because I need to. Because it focuses my thoughts on doing something. I left the workshop feeling a bit tired and struggling a little with this silly cold that started on Friday. Otherwise I felt fine. I walked across campus in the dark and drizzle. Fine. I got to the station and made my way down onto the platform. A little anxious. So many people. I squeezed onto the train and went right to the end of the carriage. I needed to breathe but the end of the carriage meant being boxed in. Rock and hard place.
The journey from the University to New Street Station is 7 minutes. 7 agonising minutes during which I could feel the panic building. I tried to control my breathing, I tried closing my eyes, I tried my mantras, I tried all the things I’d perfected but haven’t really had to use for such a long time. (I did have a little attack the other week but nothing compared to this). It didn’t work. I got off the train and got swallowed up by a sea of people. I must have had tears streaming because a little while later I noticed that my face was wet.
I had my phone in my hand. I wanted to call but what would I say? And I couldn’t actually lift my hand to dial or anything anyway. I just walked with the mass of people slowly up the steps, too slowly. I wanted to scream. At the top of the steps I ducked right when everyone else seemed to be going left. A tiny little space to breathe just a little. I asked Facebook for suggestions for a quiet place in Birmingham New Street to sit and breathe knowing that such a place probably doesn’t exist. I couldn’t stay where I was, the crowds were relentless.
Walking helps, walking always helps. Taking deliberate steps and breaths I walked but it didn’t help, it was too slow, too many people. I focused on the ticket barrier, went through, thought ‘out’ would be a really good idea but ‘out’ was so busy, so many people just rushing and just so many people. I froze, turned round and went back. Up, up the escalator was the current path of least resistance. I went up and saw Foyles. A bookshop. Bookshops are quiet. I dived in and walked to the back. I wondered round. My chest was so incredibly tight, breathing hurt. I found myself standing and staring at ‘teen fiction’ for a while. Slowly, slowly everything slowed. I felt less dizzy, less urgent. I looked at my phone – no suggestions.
I walked towards the front of the shop. I still had nearly an hour before my train. Everything was busy and I could feel the world speed up again as I got closer to the door. Then I realised that the middle of the floor I was on had several restaurants sort of open plan popped together. They weren’t busy. It felt a bit like the eye of a storm where it’s calm with all the craziness whirling around the outside. If I could get there I might be able to just sit there, have something better than a sarnie for my tea and breathe. I’m not sure how long I stared at the path between me and the entrance to ‘Giraffe’ but eventually I went.
I don’t remember getting there. I sat in a little booth flanked by the kitchen on one side and empty tables on the other. I ordered a salad and a smoothy, nourishing and yummy stuff although I wasn’t at all sure I could eat. Kath phoned to reassure. I was starting to feel better. But breathing hurt. My smoothie came. I closed my eyes and took a long drag on the straw which induced a coughing fit rather than the calm I was aiming for. I tried again. Now my bubble was starting to build around me. The techniques I learned in the Bradford days when panic attacks were daily occurrences were working. My salad came, I realised I was actually hungry. I sat and looked around. From here things didn’t look too scary. My world had stopped spinning.
Eventually I got the bill. I took some deep breaths and took the shortest possible route, which of course I’d worked out as soon as I sat down, to the escalators. Once at the bottom I was briefly disoriented then saw the barriers and my platform and went for it. I got down to the platform and tried to focus. I tried to shut out the world but it wasn’t working. It was too busy and the panic started again. The train took so long to arrive and just as pacing up and down didn’t seem like it was going to be enough a couple of messages came through on twitter and on messenger. The tightness started to ease just a little, just enough for me to function, get on the train, find my seat and focus on typing this. Sharing it with you.
I’m breathing ok now. I think the tightness is now mostly from my cold/cough, I don’t feel dizzy anymore. I just feel tired. Really tired. Anxiety is a bitch and today she got me. She got me without warning. I wasn’t expecting her, I wasn’t ready for her. Why should I be. She’s been AWOL for over a year or at least she’s been in the background. Now that I know she’s back she won’t get me as easily again, not with that force. Time to step up the yoga, the breathing and the running miles. The bitch might be back but I learned a thing or two last time. Bring it.
Some of you may have been expecting frantic tweeting from the conference but quite honestly, These huge conferences are too intense to keep up the live tweeting, there are lots of papers in each session and I can’t keep up. Also (and the real reason I’m not even trying) is that I have a new very cool notebook and I adore new notebooks. There’s something about the promise of those empty pages and I love starting a new notebook with something like a conference because that means that at least the start will be exciting, inspiring and full of ideas. I’ve gone old school. I have actually been writing stuff down!
Anyway, I am at the annual Law and Society Association conference which this year happens to be in Mexico City. Here’s how I got here. Feel free to stop reading now – it’ll be me rambling on- mainly because I think me getting and then being here has the potential to hit – or completely wallop – a huge number of my anxiety triggers. Writing helps me be more aware of that and how I am doing managing anxiety, exhaustion and stress levels. In other words, this post is for me not you. You’re welcome to come figure it out with me though
I had a very long Monday yesterday, leaving the house about 5.30 to get to Manchester airport. So possible trigger number 1: Tiredness. Tiredness is funny – I still get unreasonably tired in certain situations, I find being around people exhausting (oops) but also being tired, even if not anxiety related, means I deal less well with potential triggers and am more likely to become anxious. Anyway, I thought I’d left ages so I could have breakfast there and have a nice relaxed trip but instead I spent over 90 minutes in the security queue and had to jog to the gate. Never mind, I thought I’d have enough time at Frankfurt airport to just chill out a little bit and sit with coffee. Nope, that airport is hideous and I think specially designed to fuck with people who already don’t have a sense of direction. I don’t know if I got lost or went wrong or whether it was just an idiotic and long way but I got to the gate as they announced boarding would be in ten minutes – I got to pee at least. Several triggers there: Things not going as planned, having to do something different to how I had imagined it, running late, not being in control. I was a little antsy but ok.
The flight was fine – no chance of getting any work done really, although I did read a little. Mostly I watched films though. I started, maybe foolishly with I, Daniel Blake. Hm, I’m not quite sure what to think but I’ll untangle that another time – it is however hard hitting and I cried a fair bit (it’s a film, of course I did, I cry at anything if you stick it on the telly box) – so that sorted the possible awkwardness about having to speak to the person next to me. We spent 12 hours ignoring that we were basically sat on each others knee. Trigger: Feeling forced to engage with people – didn’t apply. I then watched the new Beauty and the Beast (Don’t judge) and Emma Watson is brilliant. I vaguely thought about going back to something serious then but instead watched Sing which was quite fun but twice as long as it needs to be. I dozed off for a bit.
Arrival in Mexico brought another queue – an hour or so this time but then I was through immigration and customs. I don’t like immigration control. I don’t like that feeling of some official being in complete control of your destiny. They decide if you continue or have to turn back. I realised I find this worse when I know I can’t adequately communicate with the official. I got frustrated at myself for not keeping up with learning Spanish, for always getting so far and then dropping it. It’s not a difficult language, it just takes a bit of self discipline and I still understand much more than I thought I would but I can say almost nothing. I had an hour in the queue to get properly irritated with myself.
I was nervous about getting a taxi, I’m not normally edgy about travel. I think as a woman travelling on your own you always need to be aware of what’s going on around you and of course in same places that applies more than others. I read the safety stuff, I knew where to get an authorised taxi and all of that but so many people were so adamant about how dangerous Mexico City is and how I must be careful (how do you do that exactly? Be careful, I mean) that I’d got a bit spooked. I came out of customs, saw the authorised taxi counters, told the woman where I wanted to go, paid, found my taxi and off we went. It was fine. The thinking about it was far worse than just getting it done.
It wasn’t as busy as I expected and the journey took about 25 minutes. For the first part we were driving through slightly run down areas directly towards the sunset which was turning the sky a spectacular colour (and made the pollution haze quite visible). Then we turned though and the sky was less spectacular and the buildings started changing to more high rise and posh and then we were at the hotel. Alma at check in was lovely and found me a room with a big bed rather than 2 small ones which apparently was booked (University travel booked it form me and I just said to go for the cheapest) and it is also higher up so I get a bit more of a view. Well sort of
The hotel’s too posh so there was no way of avoiding the bell service – I hate not just being able to take my own bag and find my room but I was escorted by a lovely bloke who was at pains to stress that I shouldn’t just work at the conference but make sure I went out to see the beautiful city too. He didn’t get a tip because frankly I was too knackered to work it out and I only had big bills anyway I think. I’ve been feeling a bit bad about that ever since.
I managed to hang on until about 9.30 by unpacking my stuff and hanging my clothes up, checking Facebook etc and trying to check the online programme and I then collapsed into bed and slept through til 4am. I’m quite pleased with that.
I watched a selection of news channels for a bit and then went and found the gym. So altitude, jetlag and warmth are an interesting combination. I ran 2km on the treadmill – I was actually aiming for a very steady 5k but I was a puddle by 500 metres and panting like a dog on heat (sorry, not an image you needed). I gave running up as a bad job, did a quickish 5km on a bike and then hit the shower. Things not going to plan. I wanted to run 5km!
Then I had to go for breakfast. I was hoping to be early enough to not see anyone that would require a calculation of whether I know them well enough or not to do the whole ‘Hi, not I’m not being rude but no, you can’t talk to me pre coffee and I am certainly not going to sit with you’ thing. You see there are very few people I can tolerate at breakfast unless it’s pre-arranged. Breakfast is where I get myself and my brain (like we’re two separate things – weird) ready for what lies ahead. If I know I am meeting someone that’s fine, somehow that works but if it’s not planned, no no no! There’s only one person here who I’d be totally ok with (Hi Chris) in that situation. No offence to everyone else intended at all. It was fine, I was seated at a little table in a corner and understood enough Spanish to get coffee and be directed to the buffet. Win.
Next, I registered for the conference. It was still quiet so that was easy too. I had a quick flick through the programme and then decided that actually I wanted a little look outside given I hadn’t seen anything at all of Mexico City yet really.
I stepped outside for 15 minutes and then found a quiet spot to decide on the session. The programme is overwhelming. It’s nearly 200 pages! Quiet spaces are hard to find now the conference is in full swing. Going outside doesn’t help – it’s Mexico City! It worries me a little how this will play out over the next few days. My room may become my little sanctuary.
So why am I telling you this? Well this is the first major conference event I have been to since being ill. I did of course go to the Association of Law Teacher’s conference – but that was much much smaller and I was surrounded by friends. This event is a different ball game, it’s far away from home, it’s in a country where I don’t speak the language, I know very few people, it’s long and intense… This is a test as to how well I’m really doing. So I am telling you about the travel and all of that to give you the context for the next few days. Travel went well. Anxiety triggers were definitely there and I was anxious when time became an issue for both flights and I was anxious about the taxi and all of that but a manageable anxious. The same is true of this morning and going for breakfast and registration. It was all fine, I’m fine and I am excited to be here.
Here’s post number 2 for Mental Health Awareness Week. I just wanted to share some thoughts about what I find most difficult about both anxiety and depression. I’m sure there are other things that other people find more difficult and I do think these things play out differently for different people but here’s a little part of my story.
As an academic I am used to my brain working. I am used to being able to think, analyse, critique… I am used to being able to string sentences together and I am used to working with complex ideas. I’m a lawyer; language, words, text, arguments – that’s what I do. So for me the hardest thing about anxiety has been the panic that sweeps into my brain like a tidal wave of chaos. It turns my brain into a jumbled mess of negative thoughts and emotions and turns off my ability to process those. I’m generally a little chaotic and a lot emotional and I often have more than one thought or idea at a time and I am always working on lots of things at one but I can also sit down and map, sort, collate and connect, link and compare. I can deal with lots of information and I can do it quickly but when anxiety hits it feels like I forget how. It’s not that I get overwhelmed with too much emotions or information, it’s that I lose the ability to order it. Do you remember the bit in the first Harry Potter book where Harry and Ron have to catch a key with wings and they’re in a room full of keys with wings. Imagine my thoughts and feelings as those keys and imagine that I am usually a fairly competent witch flying on a broom but when anxiety hits someone increases the speed of the thoughts tenfold and makes me fly into strong crosswinds. It’s disorientating and frightening because I can’t hold on to a thought for long enough to deal with it. I can’t dismiss negative ones because they whizz past and I can’t work with productive or positive thoughts because they’re gone before I know what they are.
When depression strikes my brain goes quite fuzzy. I feel like Winnie the Pooh – a bear of very little brain, like there’s just cotton wool between my ears. It means that even thoughts I can hold on to, I can’t process properly. I can’t follow arguments or thoughts all that well. I don’t understand. As an academic that is terrifying. At my worst I have picked up my own work and haven’t been able to follow my own argument. I have had people talk to me and I have literally had no clue what they were saying. It’s like everything is presented in a language that uses the same words as English but they mean something different. Actually it’s a lot like having a conversation between sociologists, lawyers and political scientists – we often use the same terminology but mean something different. So maybe I’m not depressed, maybe I just do too much interdisciplinary work. (I am not being serious here – obviously. There is no way my depression addled brain could do interdisciplinary work and untangle the nuanced use of language. I can only do this when I’m well).
Because thinking clearly is so important to what I do and who I am, it’s the not being able to think clearly that I find the hardest about suffering from anxiety and depression. It also means that I often notice it coming because my ability to think deteriorates. That’s a good thing I suppose, it means I can try and stop it. More thoughts tomorrow maybe.