The water has reached my ankles this morning
I can feel it in my lungs already, even though it’s not there
Phantom pain of suffocation, my lungs preparing
to shut down again
I scratch at the skin on the side of my neck
I mentally measure the water surface climb up my body
track each millimetre until it’s lapping at my lips
craning my neck and standing on tip toe
until nightfall when I’m expected to lie down and sleep
I’ve been struggling with almost crippling anxiety for all of August — anxious about summer coming to an end and getting low in the autumn/winter — and the last two weeks was really bad. It was starting to take its toll on my relationship, which was the main reason the anxiety was as intense as it was in the first place, because, as terrified I am of getting low considering my depressions seem to be getting worse each year, the awareness of how my being low is going to affect my partner, and our relationship, and for once in my life having so much to lose, has taken the anxiety and fear to a whole other level.
Even when I was in the middle of the worst of it, I was still aware that it’s the anxiety rather than the depression which is creating the situations that are pushing my partner away from me, creating the very reality that I am so scared of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. My anxiety about anxiety is making me an impossible and infuriating person to be around and live with. And although being self-aware is essential, whilst you’re in it, the awareness doesn’t help you snap out of it, in fact it exacerbates the anxiety and speeds up the suicidal thoughts.
Because you start thinking: “What kind of person puts their partner — the person they love the most — through this kind of Hell?”
On the first of September I found myself at a crossroads. I could feel the fog at my door. Whether I called it here with my worrying or it was time for it to join me now, doesn’t really matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was here, it was a fact, and I didn’t know how bad it was going to be or how long it was going to stay. I was faced the decision to use the last of my energy to fight it off by doing things I know are good for me and my mood, such as exercise or painting, and risk running out of energy before the strategies had any effect, essentially fuelling my anxiety and put myself in danger of myself with no energy left to stay afloat. Or, I thought, I could give up fighting it, lie down and let the fog sweep in, let it fill my lungs, my head, my heart and just hibernate until it passed, and hope that I still had love in my life when it did.
In the end, I decided on the path of continued struggle — and it was a struggle — but not for long.
Since then, things seem to have fallen quite neatly into place in a too-good-to-be-true turn of events. For the first time in what feels like forever, I find myself in a secure and happy place; I’m happy with my life, my relationship, my immediate future plans and even myself. I’m aware that autumn is still upon me and winter, with its potential pitfalls, is lurking just around the corner, but rather than being on edge and frightened because of that, I simply feel pensive, and possibly wary – but most of all I feel ready. I believe I am strong enough to carry the weight of that bird on my shoulder now. I believe my foundation is now strong enough to weather through any storm that comes my way. A month ago I believed the opposite, and I was terrified.
Today, I was looking back on the last few weeks, feeling both perplexed and proud at the progress I’ve made in that short time, seemingly out of nowhere and with no effort at all, like Life was feeling particularly benevolent and just decided to give me break. But, of course, that’s not true.
The progress didn’t just happen, and things didn’t just fall into place for me. Luck or fortune had as little to do with it as happenstance. The progress I’ve made in the last month happened because I took one conscious step forward, I did one practical thing that made one thing in my life a little easier and gave me the small energy boost as well as confidence to take one more step, which lead to one more, which lead to one more.
Each step was fairly simple and painless, and it got easier and easier with each one I took. But, I’ll tell you what wasn’t simple, or easy, or painless. The hard and gruelling ground work that I was doing for a year, that in combination with the support of my partner, friends, family and therapist, made that first step even conceivable.
I still have to remind myself that change doesn’t happen over night and progress is an on-going journey, and although it might feel like the set-backs get harder each time – if you take a moment to look back and really reflect on how far you’ve come and everything you’ve been through and overcome, you begin to realise that yes, the set-backs still feel like shit and they make you feel like you’re a failure and that all your hard work as been for nothing, while you’re still down. But it does get easier and easier to pick yourself up each time. And you do do so quicker and quicker. Because subconsciously you remember that you’ve done this before and you can do it again. You’ve got this.
So you pick yourself up, you put yourself together as best as you can, you take a deep breath and you get on with it. And yes, like my partner told me recently, two steps forward and one step back is still progress.
But I had another realisation about my little steps today, as well.
One of the things that’s contributed to the progress and my feeling happier, stronger and more stable, is that I’ve started doing hot yoga on a regular basis. Now, yoga itself helps ground and energise me, it stabilises or lifts my mood, and gives me gentle exercise that is good for me both physically and mentally, but I already knew that and have been doing yoga on and off for years already. I also knew that exercise is one of the most important components to my daily routine if I want to be stable and happy. Back in 2014, when I was living in Stockholm, I was struggling with depression and insomnia and a stressful day job situation similar to the one I was in at the end of last year. Then, in my desperation, after having tried everything but sleeping pills and the gym, I decided to give the gym a try and after a gruelling ten or so minutes huffing away on one of the treadmill, I could feel a switch flick in my brain and months worth of tension and anxiety started to fall off me and I could literally feel myself grow lighter. That night, I fell asleep for the first time in a fortnight and slept through the whole night. I woke up a new person and the first thing I did was go buy a gym membership and I started to go to the gym every single evening after work, and I started to get better. Over the next few weeks I devised my own little workout routine, mostly focused on cardio because that’s what allowed me to process the day and tire myself out, and get to sleep once I got home. But I also started to incorporate some strength exercises, enjoying the ability to see myself grow stronger by the number of weight I added to a certain machine or minutes spent doing a particular exercise.
Then I moved to London and for various reasons I stopped exercising, and when my depression got worse again, and then even worse still, in fact worse than it’s probably ever been, I knewthat exercise was one thing that I could do that would help. Just one simple step that I could take that I knew from experience would make me feel better, make me stronger, happier and more stable. I kept telling my therapist and my partner and my friends: “I know what I need. I know what works for me. I just need to start running. I’m just going to get a gym membership…”
And I did get a gym membership. But it didn’t have the instantaneous effect I remembered and all I could focus on was how unfit and weak I’d become since I was working out regularly in Stockholm. I went swimming with my partner a couple of times, on his suggestion, and at first I felt like this might be a good thing – except, again, “I’m so unfit now. I used to be able to swim several kilometres and now I can barely do one. And, actually, I don’t feel like going swimming anymore… Maybe later when I feel better, stronger, less depressed – I know what I need, I need to get into my gym routine again. That worked before in Stockholm, I just need to get back into that, and things will be fine!”
So, my partner, being the practically supportive fellow that he is, suggested I come to his gym with him, because he could get me in for free. I didn’t want to. When I was trying to explain to him what the problem was, I was trying to make sense of it myself, and all I could think of was that I didn’t want him to see how unfit I am. So he got me my own membership – a family deal – so that I could go to the gym whenever I wanted, whether he was with me or not.
And did I go? No.
More and more, I started feeling an overpowering reluctance towards everything gym related. I couldn’t make sense of it. The gym used to be my safe space, my physical and mental health boosting place. And now I couldn’t think of a place I wanted to be in less.
As the weather got warmer and we moved to a place nearer the woods, my partner suggested I take up running, something else I’d mentioned I used to do when I was younger that had been helpful. He even bought me new trainers. And I have been for runs in the woods. Just not consistently. I keep coming up with excuses and even when I have gone semi-regularly and started to see a tiny bit of progress in how long I could run for before my lungs started to feel like they might explode, I didn’t feel proud of myself, I didn’t feel any stronger or more hopeful. Same with yoga and pilates classes at the gym, and the core strength exercise routine my partner devised for me, tailored to my needs and with my various aches and pains in mind. I did that routine twice.
Then cut to a few weeks ago…
I’d just got myself a freelance job as editor for a small production company in Shoreditch for a week. I was apprehensive about the commute into central London, something I’d struggled with when I was working and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to manage it, still feeling quite useless for not being able to function like a normal human being. But I figured it might feel differently going to a creative work place, and anyway I needed the money and to feel like I could be independent again, so I risked it. And I did manage. The commute was fine. I did a good job and was asked to come back. I felt a bit better about myself as a professional and as a person. (One step)
I decided to get my act together re exercise again and start small, doing yoga once a week at the gym. But the day of, I managed to get on the wrong train – twice – after worked and the fifty minute commute from Shoreditch to Dulwich took me nearly two hours instead, and I missed the yoga session. I got frustrated with myself and decided to google yoga studios in Dulwich and pay for a session, just so I felt like I hadn’t failed and I found the hotpod yoga studio near my house and, taking the plunge as it were, I spent my last money on a one week intro pass. (Another step)
That first class was HELL. I hadn’t brought a water bottle or a towel, I felt like I was stepping into an actual sauna when I climbed into the hotpod and by the time we were saluting the sun – ironically enough – that sauna had turned into the vestibule of Hell itself. Sweat was pouring off me and I was so dehydrated I literally thought I might die. But, the silver-lining was that the heat eased the pain in my back and helped me do the actual yoga positions and I walked out of there feeling less achy and slightly happy with myself for suffering through the whole class – so the next day, I went back (I had paid for a full week after all) and tried it again. (Another step)
During the second class I barely even noticed the heat. All I could focus on was how good it felt to be moving, how much stronger I seemed to have become in just one day and how happier and less tense I was walking out. I more or less bounced into our kitchen and beamed at my partner that night, exclaiming: “I love hot yoga! I found my thing!”and he looked surprised and pleased in equal measures, because of all the things – and he’d suggested plenty of them, after all: swimming, running, pilates, normal temperature yoga, weight lifting in the gym, weight lifting with women only group – who would have thought that hotyoga would be my thing?
At the end of my trial week, I’d been paid for a recent acting job and the first thing I spent money on was a monthly pass to the hotpod. I have been going regularly ever since, sometimes several evenings in a row and never more than one evening of rest between classes. Right now, I feel just like I felt in Stockholm in 2014. And I couldn’t figure it out. What was the difference between discovering and committing to the gym back then and all the different types of exercise I’ve tried and not got into in the last year? And what’s the common factor between the gym routine in Stockholm and my yoga routine now?
I finally figured it out. As much as I appreciate my partner being supportive and encouraging, I needed to do it for myself.I needed to discover something that worked, try it and then tweak it for my own needs, by myselfand I needed to face the challenging aspects of it and persist – for me. Hot yoga, is not my thing. Heat helping with muscle tension and giving you that sauna cleanse aside, it is not hot yoga that is my thing. It being mything is what’s my thing. Because, if my partner (or a friend or colleague) had heard about hot yoga and recommended it to me as something I might want to try, I probably wouldn’t have gone back for a second class. Or, even if I had, even if I had stuck with it for a week, I probably wouldn’t have bought the month pass after the initial trial week. Because even though the end result of the actual hot yoga would have been the same, it would have come with a few subtle but powerful free passengers – guiltabout being so hopeless and non-functioning and such a burden on the people around me that they need to keep trying to fix me and increased sense of uselessness and worthlessness for the same reason and for not even being able to get my own gym membership/trainers/yoga trial pass or whatever.
Discovering hot yoga myself didn’t come with any of that. Instead, it came with the feelings of accomplishment and pride because I did that for myself. I took those steps myself. This progress that I’ve made in the last month is all mine. Would I have been able to if it wasn’t for the continued support of my partner and friends in the last year? No, probably not.
But that’s exactly what recovery and progress is – you need that support network around you. You need encouragement and love and gentle support when you’re so far down that you believe in the very core of your being that you are completely and utterly useless and weak and you’ll never be able to do anything ever again. Because without that strong foundation, you won’t be able to build up the basic strength needed to climb up. And you have to do that yourself. You have to take those steps yourself. No-one can make your progress for you, but they can either cheer you on or hold you back. And I have had both types of people in my life, but now I only have cheerleaders around me and I am extremely grateful for that.