The Boy On The Bus

A few weeks ago, I went up to London to go to a concert with one of my friends. On the train, I’d started writing a new blog post (about getting a diagnosis – expect it soon!) and when I moved from the train to the bus, I kept going. Twenty minutes into my journey, a boy sat down next to me. I’m terrible at guessing ages but I think he was around twelve. I was in my own little world, typing furiously, when he asked me how long it had taken me to write “all those words.” It took me a moment to shift gears. I thought about it and said that I’d been writing for about an hour and a half. He looked half-amazed and half-appalled, which made me laugh. I told him that I like writing so it was fun for me. We talked for a few minutes before he asked me why I would want to put everything I’d written on the internet for people to see, which surprised me: I hadn’t thought he’d been reading over my shoulder.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question. There are a lot of ways of answering it and I’ve been turning them over, trying to figure out which one is the best, which one represents my feelings in the truest sense. But maybe I need all of them to explain it: because I have this need to be honest, because I like to write, because I want to do something that matters, because I want to help people, because I’ll explode if I keep all of this inside me, because I want to be a part of changing how people see mental health, because I don’t want it to always be this hard… If I put something out into the world, maybe something will change. If I do nothing, I change nothing.

I’ve known some people who are very against giving people their hard earned secrets and while I agree with that in some areas (as much as I complained, doing the hard work in school subjects like Maths because the teacher withheld the shortcuts did mean I learnt more and retained it longer), I categorically don’t when it comes to mental health. If something I’ve learned can help someone else get a diagnosis or support with even slightly less struggle, then I will absolutely share it. Of course I resent how long it took and how painful it was to get to this point but that doesn’t mean I want someone else to go through the same thing. Imagine how quickly things would change if each person in the chain had it slightly easier than the person before. Feeling helpless is something I really struggle with and if there’s something I can do – anything I can do – to help, then I’ll do it. The damage that’s caused by the stigma and lack of understanding around mental health is irrefutable, in whatever form it takes. Not all suffering is equal but some people still seem to struggle with that, as if you have to go through certain things, certain examples of stigma or whatever, to be allowed to struggle. That’s just ridiculous to me. It’s like the “It’s just attention seeking,” response: if someone is asking for attention, maybe it’s because they need it. But that’s a rant for another day.

Getting back to the point… I have been so inspired by the positive, helpful things that I’ve seen people put out into the world and that’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be.

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The Weird World of Anxiety Dreams

I have experienced anxiety dreams, in one form or another, for most of my life. I don’t know very much about the science behind dreaming but as I understand it, we tend to have anxiety dreams when we’re trying to cope with stressful stuff, or they are our brain’s way of telling us that we need to deal with something. Some of the common ones include losing something important, finding yourself naked in public, being chased, and scenarios involving the end of the world. I have had all of these at one point or another so I thought I’d write down the ones that stick out most in my mind and put them out into the world. Maybe some of you guys can relate.

The first anxiety dream I remember having was about being trapped in a car. The car was sitting at the top of a hill, on a street I knew well, and then it suddenly began to roll down towards the busy main road. I was stuck inside, panicking and unable to make it stop. I always woke up before I reached the bottom but I can still feeling that suffocating fear. I think these started when I was about five or six and I had them many times for several years. Then, when I was a teenager, they changed slightly. Instead of being stuck in a moving car, I was suddenly expected to drive somewhere without knowing how, without ever having had a lesson. I don’t know why but the expectation that I could was definitely there. I would get in the car and attempt to drive and while I was initially successful, it was just a matter of time before something went wrong. This is apparently a very common anxiety dream, which isn’t surprising given that most of us hate feeling out of control.

My most common recurring dream is one where my teeth start falling out. There are a couple of different variations of this: sometimes my teeth just become wobbly and slowly fall out one by one, and sometimes they just disintegrate in my mouth and I’m spitting out fragments of enamel. They’re incredibly vivid and I’m always convinced that they’re real. I wake up breathless and disorientated. I have no idea where this one comes from or whether it means anything. I don’t subscribe to the theory that when you dream, specific things have specific meanings, but it seems pretty likely that feeling out of control in a dream links to feeling out of control in some part of your life. I still don’t know what teeth are supposed to represent though.

There’s another one that I’ve only started having recently. I’m walking into college, heading to a Maths lesson when I remember that I haven’t been to a Maths lesson in months and therefore will be expected to hand in months of late homework which I do not have. I could just not go but the exams are getting ever closer and I need to learn it all. My anxiety is just starting to spiral when I wake up and it takes me a while to untangle myself from it. If I were going to guess the meaning, I’d say it had something to do with my fear of falling behind and not being good enough. And getting into trouble. But that’s not a big leap to make.

I don’t know how anxiety dreams fit in to the picture when you live with an anxiety disorder, when you live with significant levels of anxiety every single day. Does it mean that the level of anxiety necessary to trigger the dreams is just higher? Maybe every dream we have is an anxiety dream but we only remember a fraction of them… I don’t know what the answers are. But I thought I’d put my experience out there and see if anyone relates to it. If any of you have had anxiety dreams, I’d love to hear how similar or different they are to mine.

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To Gig Or Not To Gig

What with the medication and the side effects and the day-to-day consequences of my specific Venn diagram of issues, I have been feeling incredibly unwell over the last several months. It’s been really tough: I’ve been dealing with nausea, dizziness, weakness, shortness of breath, shakiness, and so on. Having spent so much time and effort convincing people that a mental illness is actually an illness, that it isn’t less important just because the symptoms are inside your head, I think it’s easy to forget that these problems also have physical symptoms. I’m guilty of it too and I’m not very good at accepting that reality. But I’ve had to of late. Or, at the very least, try not to give myself such a hard time over it.

But this week I had my first gig in a really long time and I was going to do it, come hell or high water. The hardest thing has been not being able to do the things I love the most, namely singing and songwriting. That makes me a kind of stir crazy that I’m not sure I can put into words. So I did my absolute best to make sure I was ready, in both the health and music sense, and I thought I’d share some of the things I did in case they’re useful to anyone else.

Make sure your expectations are realistic – In the last six months, I’ve been offered a couple of gigs that I knew I just couldn’t do, regardless of how much I wanted to do them. I just wasn’t well enough. But this one was perfect: a short set, a relaxed atmosphere, lovely and supportive people… It was a really good opportunity to do this thing that I love so much without too great a cost to myself.

If it feels right, let those in charge know – I don’t think this is always necessary but when you know it could affect your performance, it can be a good move. It’s my default position to be open and honest and because I write songs about my experiences with mental health and Autism, they find out soon enough anyway but I’m also aware that people can jump to incorrect conclusions when they hear the word ‘Autism.’ So there are pros and cons but it’s something to consider.

Practice in small doses – There’s no getting away from the fact that you need to practice to be ready to perform well at anything. But it doesn’t have to be a huge, daunting black cloud that swallows up your day. I hadn’t been doing much consistent practice because I just felt so awful but I managed to build in fifteen minutes a day. It felt pathetic given that I used to be able to sing and play for hours but I’m trying to just acknowledge the thought and then put it aside. Even fifteen minutes was leaving me shaky but it gave me back some of my confidence and even though I don’t have another gig for a while, I am going to try and keep to this. It gives me more than it takes away.

Physically prepare your body – Make sure you’ve slept enough, eaten enough, and drunk enough water. These can be hard; I’ve struggled with all of them. But try to remember why you’re forcing yourself through it and do your best. It puts you in the best possible position to perform well which is, after all, the goal. Hopefully that motivation is enough.

Do whatever it is that gives you a boost and if you can’t do that, avoid the things that bring you down – I usually listen to music to inspire and energize me before a gig. They’re not necessarily happy songs but they are all high energy or high intensity. That helps me get into the right mindset to perform and that usually overrides whatever I’m dealing with physically.

If you need to stop, stop – I’ve been to multiple gigs where acts have had to call it quits mid set because of a terrible cold or whatever and every single time, the only thing anyone says is how impressed they are that the person got as far as they did. That may not always be the case but would it be better to push through and end up face planting onto the floor when the dizziness turned into fainting? No, it would not. Do what you can for as long as you can and then gracefully retreat.

Now I can’t prove that these things helped but I know they didn’t hurt. The gig went really well and it felt so good to be performing again. A couple of days later and I’m still tired and shaky but if that’s the price, I’m more than happy to pay it. For the first time in weeks, I feel like I’m in sync with my life; my anxiety has dissipated and I actually feel calm. That’s not something I can say very often.

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