I think the theme of this (academic) year is going to be anxiety. In a sense it already is.
I am struggling to think beyond the week. I am managing my paid work, my placement, my college work, but I am struggling to think about assignments or voluntary activities and even having fun. The sofa is winning, with streaming TV and light reading.
For the first time ever I skipped a meeting I had committed to go to, sending my apologies a mere half hour before it started. I had forgotten about it, hadn’t read the agenda and material, wasn’t ready and just couldn’t be arsed. I don’t do that. It’s not me. And yet, I did and it was.
Part of the trouble of learning to manage anxiety is that I am not convinced that it is part of me. I think my anxiety is contained in a backpack that I can somehow learn to take off and discard, that it’s a removable add-on that I should never have installed.
I am not aware of being an anxious person until sometime in the last ten years. Maybe before then I was so busy getting on with looking after small children, trying to save relationships, manage finance and all the business of survival that I didn’t have the space to note anxiety. Or maybe it is new.
I feel that until I can decide whether anxiety is something I just have to accept and then learn how to manage or whether I can take it off and bin it, I won’t be able to deal with it either way.
What did I learn about anxiety from childhood, after all it always comes back to that?
My father’s solutions to all worries in life is to plan ahead. He did have five and ten year plans and, unlike some, he fulfilled them. He budgeted carefully for the year with his mantra being that happiness depends on having slightly more money coming in than goes out.
We holidayed by car and he knew exactly how many miles a tank of petrol would get him and would park up after a refill and write in his little notebook the the fill amount, price, odometer reading and reset the trip odometer so it would tell him how far before the next refill. This is all practical stuff. He’d have a wallet for different currencies for those years when navigating Europe meant mixtures of currencies. He would note everything down so he could write it all up afterwards and assess the cost of a trip.
If he wanted it, he would accommodate for it in his budget and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. This wasn’t just about finance though. He spent two years planning what he would do in his retirement knowing full well that hanging around the house was going to drive my mother batty. Two years of planning also drives her mad. He would pre-plan everything and discuss it endlessly, trying to work out the absolute best way to do whatever it was.
So he covered up his anxiety and insecurities by over-planning. Winging it is not part of his vocabulary. And yet there were times when planning couldn’t mask or resolve anxiety. He took me rock-climbing at my request until I realised he was so terrified that I might fall and come to harm that he was passing on that fear to me and so I stopped. He didn’t like us swimming in the sea, which is why we mostly only visited the coast in January, because he was worried about not being able to rescue us as he wasn’t a strong enough swimmer. So we didn’t go. Over-planning and avoidance is the message.
They would both discuss food. How to cook it, whether it was better from this butcher or that one, whether this mix of herbs was an improvement on the previous time, does it need basting every ten minutes or will every twenty do. It never stopped. Not even cheese on toast was free from analysis.
My mother gives weighty sighs when she’s stressed. Every morning she would take a second hand piece of paper (or envelope), take yesterday’s list, cross off items unticked and add the uncompleted items to today’s new list, adding as she went. Items could get copied from one list to the next for a long time. She always talked to herself, as far back as I can remember to help keep track of what she was doing, muttering the ingredient she was about to add, or her plan for the next few hours, or what my father would say if she didn’t do something satisfactorily. There’d be a bit of venting about him. Her anxiety was always kept out of sight of him because he didn’t like her worrying. That was his job. She had her smile on and dinner ready when he walked in. That was her job. She could outperform the Stepford Wives any time she wanted.
There were very few times when she disagreed strongly with him, enough to put her foot down and say so. Now he talks about how strong and amazing she was forcing him to make bold decisions or changes that he wouldn’t have done without her. We are talking less than five times in sixty years of marriage. At the moment of disagreement, and for moment read months or even years, she was terrified of what rocking the boat would do, to him, to her, to all of us. And that’s why it had to be really important for it to be worth the cost.
So what did I learn from them?
- plan everything out as much as possible
- budget carefully taking note of every penny
- when making expensive purchases research quality and value for money within budget
- avoid if outside comfort zone
- grin and bear it; hide, don’t tell
- question the value of dislodging the status quo
- lists are essential
- stress, anxiety, fear and big sighs are normal every day
- post-event analysis so we know better for next time
- spontaneity is bad
How have I subsequently modified these?
- planning is useful but the unexpected happens
- planning shouldn’t go on for ever
- quality and value for money yes, checking six shops to see which is five pence cheaper has been discarded. And it needn’t be the absolute best value for money, good enough will do
- pushing outside my comfort zone is necessary for growth
- I always felt I had to be strong for my children and not show weakness. I had to learn better than that.
- I still don’t voice my opinion in the world at large, fearing the consequences that may result
- lists are useful but they’re not going to run my life (but the more anxious I get the more I fall back on them)
- I notice my big sighs and try and reject them. Fear sometimes goes away; stress and anxiety rarely disappear.
- If there’s something worth saying and remembering for next time then say it. Then move on.
- Spontaneity is essential to growth and happiness.