Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

A confession

By Emma on February 16, 2011

I have a confession to make. I’m struggling.

Last Thursday a tsunami of anxiety hit me and I haven’t found my feet since. I recorded an audioboo at the time, in the hope that talking would help, as I was by myself in the house. Then I worried about whether I should have put it out there, naturally, but I received so many private messages of support and also “I suffer from this too” notes that I don’t regret it.

I’ve been quite open on this blog about how I suffer from bouts of anxiety. Some people think I am too open, and seeing as this blog is effectively the hub from which all of my writing and audio book work and other things can be found, I suppose that it might be a gamble.

But why? If I was a confidence coach, or an entrepreneur responsible for the livelihood of hundreds of people, I can see why admitting that I struggle sometimes would be worrying – and perhaps detrimental to my business. If I was selling a product designed to help people with confidence issues, and periodically kept being struck down by crippling anxiety and a complete lack of confidence, I could see that undermining my credibility.

But that’s not my business. I write stories. I record other people’s stories and often my own. That’s all. It might be a risk being as honest as I am about these things, in as much as it is to admit this in our society at all, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t hurt how my writing is perceived. Indeed, one of the small comforts I have in being so screwed up (and having unscrewed myself up a great deal compared to how I used to be) is that it gives me insights into the darker recesses of the mind that I would have been oblivious to, had I been a happy, stable, content person. Those insights get woven into the characters in my books, and I’d like to hope it makes them more believable. I don’t have many comforts in this, so I have to take what I can.

I’ve seen a gradual shift in recent years towards people trying to be more open about mental illness. Stephen Fry (another of my heroes) recently recorded an amazing two-part documentary about bipolar disorder, and how it affects him. And there have been lots of other examples since.

Whilst my anxiety may be incredibly mild in comparison to many that suffer, I’d like to think that talking about this can help other people suffering from anxiety feel they’re not alone. It’s very, very difficult to understand unless it has been experienced, so if I write about mine, it’s recognisable to other sufferers. Hell, even when I’m not in this state, I find it hard to remember what it’s like.

What is this anxiety like?

It’s physical, mental, emotional. At the moment, everything scares me. Writing e-mails, being on Twitter, phoning people up, and all of the other hundred things I should be doing to prepare for the launch of From Dark Places seem insurmountably difficult. I’m shaky, I’ve lost three pounds in the last week and feel tearful. I’m waking in the middle of the night with a racing heart and no memory of a nightmare, my body straining as if an assassin has burst into the room and I need to leap out of bed so he can’t stab me.

I can unpick the underlying triggers (the ones accessible to the conscious mind anyway) and they are both internal and external. There’s no getting away from the fact that there are things going on at the moment that are scary, and stressful. But none of them merit such extreme anxiety, and indeed, this response is tipping the stress over from being a helpful motivator and tool for keeping me alert, to overwhelming me, and damaging my performance.

The awful thing about anxiety like this is that an intellectual understanding of it cannot make it go away. Sometimes the uncovering of a root cause can ease it. Last night, for example, I began to suspect that it’s particularly bad at the moment because I haven’t been making time in my schedule to write. I’ve only been managing a flash a week (though admittedly the latest one, Control, might be the beginning of a future novel), along with three short stories in January. It’s not enough. Writing keeps me sane, and that’s partly why I’m here, writing this, instead of editing the latest chapter I’ve recorded. And whilst this can be cathartic on some level, and offers an explanation for my radio silence online lately, it doesn’t nourish me in the same way as writing a novel does.

So that’s the first thing I need to address; bringing the anxiety to a level that allows me to be fully creative. I’ll get there. This has happened in the past and somehow I got through it.

What kind of author platform do you call this?

If you’re a writer, you’ll have heard all kinds of talk (and implicit pressure) related to building an author platform. The most cynical interpretation of this is having a website and presence online that sells your books.

In line with some of the driest advice about this I’ve read, I should be blogging about… post-apocalyptic fiction, or short stories, or all kinds of other topics related to my anthology and my novel, the idea being that I’ll draw in people who are likely to buy my books.

Now, if I had written a memoir on how anxiety has plagued my life so far, this would be appropriate. But I haven’t. And more than that, I’m telling you that I struggle, and I am scared and that no amount of book deals and exciting things can make the hard, messy stuff go away. Not the most positive message. Sorry.

But you know what? I don’t care, because I think it’s much more worthwhile describing what it’s really like to be an anxious ninny who happens to have a couple of book deals. I don’t want to build an author brand which portrays me as anything other than what I am, and this, my sparkling ones, is the rough underbelly of my creativity. My brain, that writes these books and stories for you, often screws up and tries to convince me that the world is ending any minute now. Hey ho. Rough with the smooth and all that.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Over there, in a little hole, shivering, for no good reason. If the world really was ending, the way I feel would be appropriate, but it’s not. Until then, I’ll be holding onto the little comforts that I can. Normal service will be resumed shortly… Keep calm and carry on… When in doubt, put the kettle on…

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{ 21 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Sam Adamson says:

    “The awful thing about anxiety like this is that an intellectual understanding of it cannot make it go away,” hits the nail on the head perfectly as far as I’m concerned.

    I admire you greatly for writing about this, and personally I’d ignore anyone who says you shouldn’t. It’s part of who you are. I wish I could be that brave.

    {Huge hugs} from a fellow shiverer. 🙂

  2. Cynthia Schuerr says:

    Emma, I know those feelings all too well. I’m sorry you go through them, too. It is not easy, the decision to expound on them, that is. But, it does help and don’t worry about those who don’t understand. There are enough of us who do.
    Hugs, my friend. 🙂

  3. Jamie Drew says:

    I know this can’t have been easy to write and post online, so huge admiration over here (also for not listening to cynical “branding” advice). You’re doing well, so keep at it ’till it goes away – never mind about it coming back, concentrate on the panic at hand. Deal with the next one if/when it comes along.

    Hope all’s alright on your end.

  4. Josie says:

    As someone who has also experienced a lot of anxiety, and is learning to step out of an intellectual approach into one based on feeling … comfort, safety … (yes, there is a reason I use the name ‘safetycomfort’) the visual image I have is one of ‘big me’ sitting in a cosy chair with a cup of tea nearby, and ‘little me’ is snuggled up close to me and I’m cuddling her, for as long as she needs in order to let some of the anxiety begin to slip away.

    you mentioned being nourished by writing … you might also be interested in the idea of using your writing to create a conversation between ‘little you’ and ‘big you’ about what little-you wants when she is feeling like this.

    hugs to you from me. The love inside of you, from big you to little you, this love can help shift and melt the anxiety, when you let it.

    Josie xx

  5. In learning to manage my own OCD (instead of letting it manage me), I have found a few practical ways to keep my inner imp at bay. You will have to forgive me if these things sound a bit too much like “Eat your veggies,” “Stay in school,” etc. 🙂

    1) Exercise like you mean it. Getting my excess energy out through walking/running seems to largely eliminate the majority of my free-floating anxiety. When the overall anxiety is lessened, I find myself better equipped to slog through my inner bog and emerge with new vigor.

    It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that, as much as we would like to be sedentary creatures, we have arms and legs and were made for movement. When we deny this aspect of our nature, our bodies talk back to us. 😉 So exercise is a must, biologically and psychologically.

    2) Eat healthy. Give your body the best fighting chance it can to overcome anxiety. Avoid caffeine if you can. Eat fresh fruits and veggies, etc. The body-mind connection is well-established in the annals of human psychology. Eat things that will help your body and mind stay fit.

    3) Sleep. During sleep, your brain’s neurotransmitters replenish, and those help you maintain a sense of emotional well-being. I once asked neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor, author of “My Stroke of Insight,” why the brain tires. It has no moving parts, after all. 😉 She said it was because we deplete our neurotransmitters and need to give them the opportunity to rebuild. As a writer, you probably know well “the wall” we hit when the brain becomes fatigued. The brain says, “Please take a break. Thank you kindly.” It’s because the brain really is tired and needs to rejuvenate itself.

    Same holds true with anxiety. I have found that, with my OCD, if I find myself feeling especially fatigued, emotionally morbid, self-critical, moody, I am likely in need of some very real REST. Otherwise, I tend to tip on over the edge into screaming anxiety and my OCD rears its ugly head. But rest helps me recenter and find a better place to think from.

    I know none of these things are cure-alls, but I thought I would share my own experiences with you. Hang in there, and keep fighting the good fight. 🙂

    Most Sincerely,

    Chad Thomas Johnston
    Admiral Anxiety

  6. There is a print out on my wall. It says:

    “These times may be interesting… challenging… scary but – we will be victorious!

    And when all else failes… make a cup of tea.”

    It was gifted to me by a very wise woman who inspires me, keeps me sane, is a wonderful friend and who shares the honour of her short story publishing with me.

    Hang in there love and know you are not the only one feeling immense anxiety over the coming weeks (I’m even more a workaholic than normal because it legitimately allows me to sidestep some things)

    Bizarre- as always – how our energies seem to sync without us even knowing.

    With much love,

  7. Caroline says:

    There’s lots I’d like to say, but I can’t find the right words just now. I like Josie’s image of ‘big me’ and ‘little me’ though.

    For the moment, then, I’m just sending commiserations, hugs, tea, safety and comfort.

    Caroline x

  8. Tony Noland says:

    I’m sorry it’s been bad of late. No advice here, just support and good wishes.


  9. Icy Sedgwick says:

    The platform-building blogs also tell you to be yourself, and you’re just fine at being you! I can’t speak for everyone but if I like a person’s writing, then I’ll read it. So don’t worry about being too open. It just proves you’re a human being, like the rest of us. Sometimes I wish I could be as open as you, but I can’t, so I’ll stand on the sidelines, cheering you on for being so damned brave. (I even have pom poms)

    Have some more of those *big Geordie cuddles*.

  10. Hi Em! Long time no contact but I’m still reading. Like a lot of people round here, I recognise what you’re feeling. Last time it happened to me, I rubbed all traces of my blog from the world. I second Chad’s wise words. Particularly about the caffeine. I get the jones something rotten for a cup of coffee but it turns me inside out over time. Even tea. My flatmate says she feels like an owl when she’s drunk too much, saucer eyed and flapping round the house.
    I read an interview with the sculptor Louise Bourgeois (can’t find it online). She talked about having to work through anxiety before she could work each day. She had learned her mental rhythms, recognised the signs and accepted the downtime. Like Virginia Woolf, she made creative use of her illness. Unlike VW, she lived (and worked) to 98. As Chad says, sometimes we’ve been chugging too hard on the brain’s chemistry and need to shut off. Eno calls it ‘The Abyss’. Fortunately for him, he’s able to take off on a deliberately boring holiday with no company and no books, and feels glad to be alive after grinding through it for a few days. I don’t know but looking back through your blog, it looks seasonal, a February thing, followed by a sudden burst of writing. For me, there’s a change in the light and the air in December and it never fails to trigger. I’d be smart to book a boring holiday to coincide!
    Take care of yourself poppet, more libraries need saving! x

  11. Wish I could have been there to give you a hug x

    This is probably not going to be much comfort but I’ll share it anyway… A few years ago I had a book of short walks published – it meant a huge amount to me, and I had waited years to find someone to publish it. When it came out I thought I would be sick. I was so revulsed by the idea of seeing the final book version I couldn’t look at or hold it for months. I don’t know what the psychological explanation would be – I know it felt more like revulsion than fear (though it looked great, and is a good product that I can now just about bear to see on my bookshelf…)

    Anyhow, re whether or not it’s a good idea to share this stuff. Why the heck not? It helps make the world that bit more human. Plus you have legions of people who know *you*, who care about you, and who will help you to do whatever needs to be done to get the word spread… with you remaining as far as possible safely intact.

    And, after all, if you really don’t want to launch things or do book signings…. don’t do them. Sit and write instead.

    I’m sure I’ve read recently about a famous author who does just such a thing.

    Much as people love you… it’s the stories they’re really going to want to get their hands on 😉

  12. Dom Camus says:

    I have tea and chocolate! What do I win?

    Hope the anxiety subsides soon Em. Also, I like the idea of Control maybe becoming a novel. I was reminded a bit, in a good way, of Daughter of the Empire.

  13. ray paterson says:

    Hi Em, No relation to Joanne,
    But yes, I feel that we all have a degree of anxiousness don’t we? Mine is a Social anxiety and I thank god and the inventors of the internet and social networking that helps me overcome what in the olden-days would have been described as “shyness” I have heard that it can be so debilitating that many people have trouble even getting out of bed, such is their fear of interacting with others and their perceptions of what other people think of them. websites of all descriptions are therapeutic as and of themselves because it allows us to “Join hands” with brave souls like yourself who take those initial baby steps that we can identify with. Well done for posting this


  14. Viki says:

    I used to have a friend who suffered from anxiety but we all thought she was just being a drama queen. Reading your post helped me understand it a little more and not be so judgemental. Writing is therapy and it doesn’t matter what you write about. We’ll still be here. Wanting more. 🙂

  15. The only “author platforms” that work are the ones where the author in question shares their personality – all parts of it! – and not just the fact that their book is on Amazon. This is YOUR blog, and you can blog about whatever you want. This is all part of your journey.

  16. Melissa says:

    Hello, Em.
    You have exactly hit on something that I have thought and angst over for a while now. My life right now is very stressful and I haven’t blogged about it. I fear, as you said, that it isn’t the place to pour out my fears and stresses, especially since I’m new to blogging. So here I go unloading on you, like you needed that, heh? Since the last time I’ve left a message here, I am going through a divorce, moved, and now hunting a new ‘day’ job to support myself and my children. There, said it. Now to write a watered-down version for my blog…
    Keep writing to us, my friend. Whether you know it or not, you not only help yourself when you do, but lend a little of your courage to us as well.

  17. Sensitive stories fully formed can only come from sensitive people. What it takes to pull them out and let them go is nothing short of exposing our very insides for all to see. I would be worried if we did not have a bit of a flurry of nerves at the intersection of world and self. A bit of, oh my this should be joyous , but it feels like pain… part of the giving birth process. Art, stories and babies….when done well, we put the whole of ourselves into them. Deserves a bit of a shiver now doesn’t it? Much love, Jan

  18. John Wiswell says:

    We need to cease vilifying the mentally ill to progress as a compassionate society. It’s not a personal shortcoming, hatred by the divine, or something easily willed away. These things can be excruciating challenges. By openly discussing and sharing these experiences, I hope we’ll become more understanding and tolerant. You can’t weed them out with mere genetics, and the desire to do so is more evil than any conventional madness. It’s good of you to share some of your internal experiences.

  19. Emma says:

    I wanted to say thank you for such great advice and support. It seems there are more of us anxious people out there than I thought. I feel very lucky to have such lovely people being so supportive xx

  20. Rebecca Emin says:

    I would much rather visit a blog which is full of human real-life stories and find out about an author. It’s a platform based on real life, and letting your readers have access to yourself which is both brave and hopefully rewarding too.

    I am really sorry that you are struggling at the moment, it sounds very stressful and I hope that this phase passes very soon.

  21. Beverly says:

    Being someone who suffers from the other side of the same coin- depression- and having it slip out in writing from on my blog from time to time I cen more than relate. The primary difference between you and I is that despite your anxiety and your fears about your talent you have manage to cultivate enough support and enough motivation to actually go out and get your works published. That is something that no panic attack can ever take away from you.
    I will also say, something that i’ve learned over my many, many years of dealing with my demons, that I’ve learned one trully valuable lesson. No matter how bad I get, life has yet to stop dead in it’s tracks. Whatever spell i’m suffering from does eventually pass. Even if it’s just a temporary lifting with an inevitable return of the bad stuff that keeps me isolated at home there is always a moment or two when things aren’t so bad. And when you get those you will inevitably write.
    So when you are stuck at home, remember that it is far from permanent. Look through your blog, read the commets from your fans, and live to write another day.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

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