It is very difficult to specify when an anxiety problem begins because what you perceive to be the starting point may just have been the trigger of something that was building up before. This is the case with overuse injuries in general, i.e. that the trigger for the symptoms may not be the actual real cause. Anyway, for me the time when it felt like it started was when I was at school doing exams. The year before I had sat my French o-Level one year early and had experienced no anxiety at all, however it was when I sat my mock O-Levels that the problem emerged.
In our school we had a bell that would ring at intervals, and to start with I didn’t really notice it, but eventually it began to make me start and it gave me a shock every time it rang. I then began to worry that the other kids could see me visibly shaking a little when the bell rang, and I began to worry about this. I went to my doctor who had a student with him and he asked me if I was having a relationship with one of the other kids at school, I said no. Then he said I could try these drugs called benzodiazapines and he went into an explanation about them, but I wasn’t interested in this, I just wanted to try them. I started taking these little blue tablets – Ativan – and because I felt embarrassed taking them in front of the other kids at school I would go into the toilet and unwrap them and swallow some, normally a bit more than I was meant to. To start with they worked fine but then the anxiety crept back and it spread from the sound of bells to coughing and any sudden noise such as a car exhaust going off. In fact, I don’t know if the problem had even started with coughing. One of my brothers had some kind of allergic cough and this started to make me tense as I began to anticipate it, and maybe it spread from the coughing to the bells, now I don’t know, but I know that it was round about the same time.
I stopped taking the Ativan quite early on. I went abroad in the sixth form for a couple of weeks and forgot to bring enough Ativan so I was forced to stop taking it. Since I didn’t notice any withdrawal symptoms or feel any worse not taking Ativan, when I got back to Blighty I decided to stop it completely. I had been under the misconception that if I stopped taking it then I would get loads more symptoms, but I didn’t.
After finishing in the sixth form I took a year out, thinking that rest would help. It didn’t really. But towards the end of the year, I had another go at learning relaxation. I’d noticed that I could relax my face quite well, but I tended to fall asleep or I was worried about somebody walking into my room and disturbing me. I decided that for relaxation to work I had to do it at the right time, in the right place and in the right way. I felt that about 7.30pm after I’d had my dinner was the right time because I wasn’t so tired that I would fall asleep and my body was possibly entering a relaxation biocycle as part of winding down for sleep. The right place was our caravan which was parked near our back garden. It was unlikely that anyone would disturb me there. The right technique was to begin with tense relax exercises where you tense and then relax each part of your body, sitting, rather than lying down to avoid falling asleep, in a camping chair with my feet up resting on the long caravan settee type chair, and saying to myself ‘don’t worry’, whilst focusing on each part of my body in turn imagining something wrapping itself round me or touching me, and finally I needed to give myself the right amount of time, which was about an hour. It worked, I entered an incredibly relaxed state and gradually began to lose the anxiety. But then my dad sold the caravan and I had to start university and I had also begun to worry whilst doing the relaxation that my tinnitus would somehow stop it from working.
When I left university I had another brief period of feeling that I had cracked the problem of anxiety. I had a biofeedback machine, and this time I was lying on the floor with the biofeedback machine on, watching TV in the evening but saying relaxing things aloud to myself. Again I had a brief period of feeling physically and mentally amazingly different. I could hear the tone in the biofeedback machine getting lower and lower and I could feel my body and mind becoming more and more relaxed. But a similar scenario happened as before because I began to worry that this precious feeling would not last, and also the person that I was living with came back from holiday so I didn’t have the living room all to myself as my preferred practice space.
In hindsight I think that my approach to the anxiety problem was wrong. However, I don’t blame myself for this because none of the psychologists, counsellors or psychiatrists had sufficient insight into what I now think is a complex disorder that needs a more sophisticated approach than simply trying some ‘off the shelf’ technique. The reason why I think these approaches do not work for me, and I believe many other people, is because they do not treat anxiety as a complex kind of cumulative trauma disorder that has its roots in trauma caused by either abuse or neglect. In this sense I think that anxiety, like the physical so-called overuse injuries, are actually misuse injuries.