It would be too easy to turn the whole wretched thing into one of those “tragedy of the modern era” stories you see in publications like People and Time. Young girl, private school, possessed of a certain type of intelligence and ambition, studies herself silly in the hopes of going to a good college; then gets into the good college and studies herself silly in the hopes of getting a good job. Makes herself sick–physically, but mostly emotionally–doing so. It’s this era of relentless competition that’s to blame; it’s the speed at which we live, all the pressures, the sheer strain of surviving. She’s one of many faces in the magazine article, with a caption, a rueful smile, a cautionary tale.
But the truth is I went to an ordinary college and I succeeded at school, whenever I did, mostly out of an unnatural love for reading books. I never felt any outside pressure to perform and if I was ambitious it was only in the vaguest of ways.
I didn’t even actively worry, most of the time. It was only at night, thoughts of the day subdued by the strangeness of the dark, that I started to feel that things were wrong, that I was–quite literally–upside down. The vertigo came first; then fear of the vertigo, fear so strong that I would feel dizzy and ill just to think of it. And once you’ve started that useless cycle of thought, it’s going to be a fight to free yourself from it.
So it’s simple, not tragic, to explain: I worried. And then, because I worried, I worried some more.
Is my anxiety inherited? Self-induced? An inevitable result of living in a fast-paced world? Probably all three. After a few half-hearted attempts to find a life-changing shrink (hint: never see someone because someone else has told you to; but for God’s sake if you do, don’t tell the therapist that’s why you’re there) I gathered that, like most other things, my inclination to fret has many roots and many reasons, only a few of which I have any measure of control over.
But it wouldn’t be fair to say I’m a victim of anxiety, or indeed of anything. This is not a girl versus the world story. If it’s got to be anything then let it be a girl versus herself story. And it may sound lazy but in some ways the biggest thing that girl ever did to help herself, and by extension everyone around her, was to get over her prejudice and ask her doctor if there was anything he could prescribe.
There was. Would I say it changed the way I thought, turned me into someone else? No. But a few weeks after swallowing the first pill, I started to notice something. It was subtle, but what it felt like when I could feel anything was the world, having been capsized, finally righting herself. If you imagine what it’s like to live with your jaw constantly clenched and every sound accompanied by the kind of noise you get when you can’t quite tune into a radio station, and then to wake up one morning to find your whole face relaxed, each sound clear–well, that’s it. I remember a feeling of euphoria hitting me one day. I’d just moved back to Boston after a summer at home in California; I had a new apartment, it was the best season to be on the East Coast, and the window was wide open to let in the city air.
But there’s a point at which you have to say to yourself that, having re-learned what life without unhealthy anxiety is like, you’re going to need to re-learn how to live that life unassisted by anything but sheer will-power. I had a few false starts. More than a few false starts, even. I remember calling the Man in tears, a few months after I’d got my degree and moved back to Oxford, saying I didn’t know why I felt so sad, and could he please make the dizziness stop? It was midwinter and each breath was full of nothing but cold and empty air; so I decided to wait. But in springtime it wasn’t any easier; I sweated through the sheets at night and had, one weekend, to cut short an already short few days away so I could get home, where I’d left my pills.
But then, about a month ago, I was due for a routine check-up with my doctor, and we had a casual chat, while he sneezed profusely over his keyboard and cursed his hay fever and I sent my regards from a mutual friend, and it’s funny how you can tell sometimes that the timing is right. So I’m, as they say, weaning myself off. It’s a slow process, as it’s meant to be. And this time around, I’ll be able to use the knowledge I’m armed with. Will everything be perfect after? Of course not. I’ll still fret, I’ll still obsess, and I’ll still have ups and downs.
But I’ll say this. The other day, I met a newborn baby for the first time; and then I went to the pub and wrote a few thousand words over a pint of cider while I waited for the Man to meet me, and at a certain point I looked up and I felt euphoric. And the euphoria had nothing whatsoever to do with the little white pills I was-or-wasn’t taking.