This is one of those blog posts that I am not too sure about writing because it is going to require a high degree of honesty, soul-baring and general over-sharing. However, I think I should write it because all the recent discussion about mental health encourages us to talk more. That is one of the main aims of the projects I’ve seen mentioned and shared around social media. It’s a good aim. We should talk more. Talking can save lives.
I’m not going to tell you anything that dramatic but I am going to be honest about something which is fairly common and has impacted me in my lifetime: anxiety.
The reason this feels topical and like I want to write about it today, rather than at any other point in my life, is that Big Bear has recently begun suffering with anxiety and I don’t want it to be something we sweep under the carpet or hide like a dirty secret.
Big Bear plays football for a club. He joined because he wanted to and to begin with he absolutely loved it and it gave him a lot of confidence. He trains every week, gets very excited about going and has a whale of a time. He also has a match, usually each week too. To begin with, Big Bear took us by surprise by how well he could play (having never previously been particularly bothered about football) and generally played up front, becoming his team’s best goal scorer. He loved it and all was well with the world.
However, on match days, over recent months, we have noticed a deterioration in his ability to cope. Big Bear begins to anticipate the upcoming match a few days before and it starts to play on his mind. It’s hard to tell whether he is excited or nervous about it. On the day of the match he will often wake up early and go to the toilet a few times. He will try to eat his breakfast but often can’t and then experiences tummy-ache. He might go to the toilet a few more times. By this point he is usually a little ashen and really struggles to get his kit on and get to the match. Sometimes when he has got there and seen his friends he has been ok and has ‘run it off’ so to speak. At other times, he has barely managed to stand up let alone run about. Obviously his goal-scoring record has deteriorated alongside his mental health as nobody is capable of playing well if they haven’t eaten and if they are consumed by anxiety. I suspect the poor performance is only serving to propagate Big Bear’s internal pressure on himself and he is now trapped in some sort of negative thought cycle.
It is such a shame to observe as he is only 8 (nearly 9) and far too young to be crippled by anxiety. We have done all the obvious things. There is no pressure to play, let alone score and we make that very clear. We only want him to enjoy it and he doesn’t have to be in the club if he doesn’t want to. So far, he has wanted to persevere. Initially he wouldn’t talk about the anxiety so it was hard to help him. Over time he has got more open about it and has made suggestions about things to try that might help him e.g. specific things he thinks he might be able to eat; having a relaxing shower; having a little wander before breakfast. The coaches know about it and quite often have little pep talks with him, telling him there is nothing to worry about. Although this is well-meaning and meant in a supportive way, when you are anxious, you are pretty sure there are things to worry about so although it’s kind, I’m not sure how effective it is.
Unfortunately, our shared endeavours are not paying off and if anything the anxiety is getting worse. Not only does Big Bear now need to visit the toilet frequently but he has started vomiting too. The poor child seems to have inherited both mine and Grizzly’s weaknesses.
People say ‘but what is he worried about?’ If it is not the scoring of goals or the desire to please, what is it?
The thing is I know what it is, because I’ve been there too. It is a very difficult fear to overcome: the fear of fear itself. I know that sounds ridiculous but there you are. There is no justifying the actions of an anxiety-fuelled mind. It does what it does and expresses itself through your body.
I can’t remember when it first started to impact me. I certainly wasn’t as young as Big Bear but I think my mum would say I was a worrier as a child. It was probably in my late teens or early twenties that things set in with gusto. There wasn’t a trigger; nothing happened to me. I didn’t have any ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or any reason to be anything less than fully joyful. However, I developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and it made me pretty ill. It was hard to get to places early in the morning due to far too much toilet activity and I lost weight. I spent quite a lot of time feeling like death warmed up and it certainly impacted what I was able to do in my daily life. It was worse when I was doing exams or something stressful like placements at university. I look decidedly bony in my graduation photos. I mainly survived by abusing Imodium, not eating until I felt I could digest (often after lunchtime), having a couple of ‘safe’ foods and always knowing where the toilets were.
Those closest to me knew about it but it was embarrassing as afflictions go; we aren’t really a Society which talks about bowel movements openly so I tried to hide my IBS and was ashamed about having it.
I experimented with eliminating foods to see if that would help. I did cut out coffee and alcohol, both of which improved things a little but it wasn’t food that was irritating my bowel; it was anxiety. Just like Big Bear, there wasn’t a specific thing I was worried about. I was mainly worried that I would have an IBS attack and that would ruin whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. So basically I was worried about IBS which made the IBS happen and there I was trapped in the cycle. Getting engaged nearly tipped me over the edge. I was 26 by then and as soon as the proposal happened I was immediately anxious about having IBS on my wedding day, 18 whole months away. Clearly that is ridiculous and I knew it was then but when your mind is inclined to go that way, it is virtually impossible to stop it. Anxiety is such a self-fulfilling prophecy that of course all the months of angst and anticipation did result in IBS on my wedding day. I coached myself through being ok in the morning and I did pretty well but it hit later on and I wasn’t able to eat my own wedding breakfast.
My IBS (that probably never was) is now fully cured. It’s the strangest thing. You would have thought that having children would make it worse as they are such a cause for ongoing concern but if anything, having Big Bear saved me from it. I can only think that before kids you tend to think you are really busy but in actual fact I clearly had too much time and brain space for navel-gazing. After kids, my mind was so taken up with keeping them alive and developing them and running a home and having a job that those corners of my brain where anxiety used to lurk got filled with something more useful. I am not immune to some worries and my brain does naturally go to worst-case scenarios but with age I seem to be able to over-ride those thoughts more and can largely keep them in check.
I do remember getting to a point where I saw that my life was ruled by IBS and I decided I wouldn’t tolerate it any more. Despite all my issues I had got my degree and held down a job I liked and was good at. The IBS made everything more difficult but it had never completely ruined anything. I had survived every single situation in which it had tried to undo me. I think I stopped fearing it. I just accepted I might need the loo more than your average human and that would be ok. Just as soon as I didn’t worry about it, it ceased.
When I started writing this I wasn’t too sure how I was going to go about helping Big Bear but in blogging it out I may have answered my own question. I think that Big Bear also fears the symptoms of his anxiety and by trying to stop the symptoms from happening we have only served to make him more anxious when they do and more desperate for it to stop. Perhaps a cleverer approach would be to talk to him about how many people suffer anxiety and get nervous before matches or big events. Sometimes people do need to use the loo more or might be sick but that’s ok. Yes, that probably will happen to him at his next match but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to fear that happening. It’s normal. Nobody is going to die. If he starts getting into a state we don’t need to make a fuss, just give him a drink and carry on.
I can empathise with him as clearly I have been there and I can certainly help him with not feeling like it just happens to him and I hope, by being open about it, we can normalise it a little. By keeping things secret or trying to hide them or not acknowledge them, we only serve to perpetuate the fear. Anxiety is parasitic; it feeds off your deepest worries and burrows into your brain. It gets pretty comfortable there if allowed but the more you bring it out and show it to people, the less powerful it becomes.
I now suspect that we have some sort of genetic propensity towards it as it is too coincidental that Big Bear is now presenting similarly and has never witnessed me suffering with IBS symptoms in his lifetime. A quick Google suggests a genetic predisposition is a thing when it comes to anxiety, which is unfortunate. And of course there is the brain-gut connection which clearly states that anxiety can cause digestive difficulties.
Little Bear, despite his much rougher start in life, seems far less impacted by such things so far. It just goes to show that birth children have their issues too and it has certainly been Big Bear giving me my grey hairs recently.
For now, we have decided that while Big Bear will continue attending training because he has fun there, he won’t play any matches for a while. He is too young to be throwing up with nerves every weekend and I don’t want to re-inforce that behaviour pattern at all. However, when he tries again, I think we’ll play it much cooler. If he has physical symptoms of anxiety, that’s ok. We won’t reinforce his thought that it’s wrong by coming up with various solutions and we’ll see how we go. Perhaps he won’t be ready for competitive football until he’s a bit older and that’s ok too.
Today Big Bear has gone on a school residential where they do all sorts of adventurous things and I’m really hoping it will give him the confidence boost he needs, as well as him having some fun and hopefully enjoying some anxiety-free adventures with his friends.
And as for me, now that I’m a decade older, I’m much more aware that we all have our foibles and weak-spots. It isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s part of what makes us human.