Solace of the Dark
My head is suddenly lost in a fog, ‘Are you okay?’ she asks. Clearly I’m struggling to hide whatever the hell it is that’s making me feel so uneasy. Annoying thing is, the last two times weren’t that bad, almost felt like it might work out, but not today. Now I’m in the fog, my ankle aches (when will this dam thing heal for good?) and everything is back to uncertainty. Always uncertainties, always unease, guilt and anger of which I may now add fatigue into the mix … why my head is so dam tired lately I have no idea. I could sleep for a thousand years.
Yesterday I tried, again unsuccessfully, to describe anxiety. I think we need separate terms for what I have come to look upon as two distinct kinds, let’s call it ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ anxiety. The rational is easier to explain, for example, I used to do a lot of DJing and there were times when I would perform on stage to upwards of 500 people. As you can imagine, I was terrified – what if I drop a beat? What if they hate the music? What if I get heckled because I’m rubbish? And so on.
The above experience bears all the hallmarks of classic anxiety – nerves, racing heart, sweaty palms and a feeling of terror which just makes you want to run away and forget about the whole thing. Nevertheless, in that moment in time, I am only anxious about that one particular thing. Similarly, when I taught English, I would often feel nervous about being in front of a class especially if it was a more advanced group of adults, whom I felt sure would ask me all kinds of technical questions about grammar that I might struggle to answer, and thus expose myself as the impostor fraud that I am, the horror!
The above scenarios fall squarely into what I would describe as ‘rational anxiety,’ i.e. it’s perfectly normal to feel such things in those situations and because it can be rationalised it sort of helps make it easier to push on, to do that DJ set, to teach that class of advanced students despite the terror you feel inside. The sensation may be unpleasant and the desire to run away is overwhelming, but there nevertheless remains a part of you able to focus and even perform the task well – maybe you end up playing a blinder of a set and everyone’s dancing, or your students feedback that they enjoyed your lesson. Rational anxiety, though often unpleasant, doesn’t necessarily inhibit you; on the contrary, sometimes it might even cause you to up your game a bit!
I believe that rational anxiety is what most people experience, hence why I think it’s so hard to get across what irrational anxiety is, but I’ll attempt to give it a go in this short blog.
I suppose probably the best place to start would be my early twenties when I began to notice some uneasy feelings experienced in wide-open spaces. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. However, over time, this uneasiness intensified to the point where I found myself increasingly withdrawing from the outside world. At its worst point, I was unable to ride a bus out of town and often couldn’t leave the house until late afternoon around 4pm – both daylight and the day itself becoming a source of considerable dread. When darkness fell, I somehow felt consoled. Eventually, I was signed off work upon which cue the ensuing depression, guilt, soul-destroying Atos assessments, psychotherapy, CBT, medication amid general feelings of fatigue, anger, alienation, hopelessness, loneliness and all the rest of it. Not to mention, of course, the burning question as to why? What possible reason could there be to experience such terror in a particular space, which appears devoid of any discernible threats that would warrant such a response?
I will now attempt to describe the kind of thing experienced during irrational anxiety. I’m in a wide-open space and I am suddenly connected to feelings of the infinite, as if my body isn’t there, and is about to evaporate into dust, while my mind is racing through a million thoughts and yet simultaneously blank and unable to focus. Palms are sweaty, heart is pounding, legs shaking, I can sense my breaths getting shorter and feel faint (such things all synonymous with rational anxiety), but this sensation of the infinite: a tearing, frightful, unbearably light nothingness sees all my inner worries, perceived failures and general anxieties towards the world start to flood in, all of which opens the door to a plethora of negative emotions to violently rush to the fore: anger, guilt, depression and so on. The aforementioned forms a veritable tidal wave, but I think it’s important to note that irrational anxiety sees all of the previous overwhelm in a very short space of time.
Here I am no longer anxious about a particular thing; rather I am in the grip of absolute terror that has no recognisable, singular source and I find myself unable to really focus on anything upon connecting to a kind of intense existential dread, which is frighteningly profound. In this moment, everything seems pointless and I honestly don’t want to be in this world anymore; in this moment, I am visualising my own suicide and have drafted a note in my head as to where I would like my ashes to be scattered. I cannot be in this world any longer; in my mind, I have reached Tamar Bridge, drunk, staring over the precipice. All I can do is think of my Mum and younger brother, knowing that doing something so drastic would affect them terribly and I don’t want to do that to my family.
Irrational anxiety is truly unpleasant; when it strikes, I’m often left feeling exhausted. More recently, I experienced an episode during Lockdown 3 where I almost left my course (and ultimately Cornwall) as a result. Fortunately, it was much shorter lived than the previous experiences which dogged much of my twenties and thirties; I distracted myself largely by learning to carveboard and returned to my course a couple of weeks later and managed to complete it despite fracturing my ankle while out on my carver during a visit to family in Devon!
Curiously, dealing with a fractured ankle was considerably more straightforward than the years I spent toiling with irrational anxiety. Eventually, I was able to travel again and spend time in wide-open spaces though not without inducing some truly awful panic attacks in the process. I was able to take some road trips abroad again and, most importantly, spend time wandering the landscape (and later mountain biking) around my beloved Dartmoor.
Nevertheless, irrational anxiety continues to leave its mark, almost like I’ve seen something that I now cannot unsee. It has revealed a world I want no part of and that I see no part for me although I feel reasonably sure I will not do anything drastic; I don’t quite have the courage, moreover I do not wish to hurt my family.
Interestingly, I find a sort of perverse irony to the experience of irrational anxiety; on the one hand I feel that on some level I’m uniquely fortunate to be acquainted with the profundity of a kind of numinous entity. It has certainly been influential in terms of my creative endeavours. Indeed, I used to believe that the arts were the natural home for people like me, a refuge for square pegs in round holes. Unfortunately, I’ve since come to realise it’s not really a place for restless outsiders.
In a world that, for the most part, I find banal, meaningless and depressingly conformist, I remain uncertain as to where this all leaves me.
13 October ‘21
© Christopher Sharp