A Letter from Liz Hyder
As I mentioned, my daughter Daisy has been struggling terribly with anxiety recently. Just yesterday afternoon she received a letter from the fantastic writer Liz Hyder offering the most beautiful words of kindness, comfort, support and advice. And hope. We were both so incredibly moved by what she had to say.
With the permission of both Daisy and Liz, I'd like to share this amazing letter with you in its entirety. You can read it over on my website. And Liz, thank you so much.
I’m so sorry to hear you’re having a bad spell of anxiety at the moment. It’s a strange insidious beast of a thing and lots of us have it and have learned to wrestle with it. Everyone’s different though and everyone has to find their way of tackling it so I thought it might be helpful if I shared mine in the hope that maybe some of it might be useful at some point, if not right now, then maybe in the future. Because you will get past this, you will harness the beast and you will be so much stronger for it. At the moment, the beast has harnessed you and that’s not the right way around. But you’ll get it sorted, you might not believe that right now, but you absolutely, DEFINITELY, will.
So, Daisy, I am a worrier. Always have been, always will be. About all sorts of things. These days, mainly the cat, my husband, my friends and family and the world in general. Sometimes, I worry about other things too. Like the paracetamol I borrowed from a friend who died in a car accident when I was 19 and the first thought that came to mind was that I NEVER GAVE HER THE PARACETAMOL BACK. I worry about borrowed pens, about the person I smiled at in the supermarket who didn’t smile back – was I too friendly? I worry about all of it. But here’s the thing, those worries, all of them now, they’re just bubbling away in the background and they’re not tipping over into anything like anxiety these days. They’re just little thoughts, like bits of debris in a fast-flowing stream. Each day, I go to bed and when I wake up, there are new thoughts instead. I know I’m a worrier but it’s under my control now.
When I was a bit older than you though, I didn’t have it under control. I lost it completely. I was in the first year of studying for my A levels at a sixth form college that was full of weird arty people like me and some very sportsy people who were not like me. I loved it. I loved all of it – until I didn’t. And everything started to feel heavy suddenly. There was a boy I had a desperate crush on, Tom, who was one of my best friends – so how I could I ever tell him or talk to him about it without ruining EVERYTHING? There was a lovely girl called Chrissie whose mum had terminal cancer and the only person she could talk to about it was me and that was okay, wasn’t it? It was a privilege to be able to help her, wasn’t it? There were A-levels, four of them (at my absolute insistence), to be kept on top of, homework to do, planning to be done. Exams to be taken. There was the smell of the bus which suddenly used to make me feel sick and waiting for it to take me to college used to make me edgy and impatient, so I started walking instead. I’d walk all the way to college and sometimes all the way back, big main roads, nasty roundabouts, underpasses that stank of wee. I drank lots of diet coke as the fizz of it made my mouth fill up, but I stopped eating very much. Breakfast made me feel sick so I couldn’t do that. Lunchtimes, I could maybe manage half a sandwich if I was lucky. I felt better in the evenings though so I could usually eat then. I got thin and tired. I didn’t sleep well, and the mornings were the worst. I’d feel like the whole world was weighing me down like a duvet. I carried it around with me all day. I felt sick a lot of the time but each day I knew that if I could just get through to the afternoon, I’d start to feel a bit better.
I told no-one. I thought I was going mad. I worried about germs too. How someone would eat a sandwich in the canteen and mop up the crumbs with their finger from the DIRTY TABLE and I would look on in horror. THEY WOULD SURELY DIE. People would swig from a can and hand it to someone else whilst sniffing and wiping their nose. THEY WILL ALL GET COLDS OR FLU. I picked the skin around my nails constantly, I fidgeted, I curled my toes a lot, hidden in my shoes so no-one could see. My mind raced all the time. What about this? What about that? What if that happened? Why can’t anyone else see it? I’d get distracted by the smallest thing. I would worry about if I trod on an ant and then think about all the ant family and the funerals of the ant family and how I was a murderer. I’d think about the generations of ants that I’d accidentally wiped out and then I’d think how there was a body on my shoe, underneath it, and it was my fault and what else was my fault? Was it all my fault?
It got worse. I got thinner because I wasn’t eating much. I got gaunt and tired and pale, I lost my energy. My mum kept asking if I was okay and I said yes because I was, wasn’t I? My form tutor at college kept asking if I was okay and I said yes. But I wasn’t okay.
And then one morning, my mum was in the kitchen, and I’d avoided eating breakfast again, and she said, you’re not okay, are you? And I shook my head and then burst into tears and, frankly, that was the best thing that could have happened. Because my mum had had it too. Years ago. When me and my brother and sister were all really young and she was COPING FINE with it all but she wasn’t. She got out the sewing machine to make us all identical little outfits (which is weird as that’s not like her at all) and then cried over the material she’d bought from the market. And up the road, there was a nice old doctor who said to her, it’s okay if you’re not coping, it’s much better to acknowledge it, then you can work out how to deal with it. And she did acknowledge it, and she started to deal with it.
So anyway, I talked to my mum about how I wasn’t really coping fine either. I let it all pour out. All of it. The mad thoughts like butterflies in my mind, all the worries I had about everything. And she gave me a really good bit of advice which I still use today when sometimes I can feel the warning signs of things getting a little bit on top of me.
What am I worried about? Make a list. You can do it in your head if not on paper.
And then with each individual worry, ask yourself this…
Why am I worried about this? Can I do anything about it? If yes, what?
And then… you must answer this HONESTLY.
Will I still be worried about this tomorrow? Yes or No
Will I still be worried about this next week? Yes or No
Will I still even remember it next month? Yes or No
Will I be worried about it in three months? Yes or No
Will I remember it in six months? Yes or No
Will I be worried about it next year? Yes or No
Sometimes, there are clusters of things I can’t do much about, deadlines and so on, but for most other things, there’s often something I CAN do. And this list ALWAYS helps me to get perspective on it. Also, I like lists a lot, not sure if you do but I’m a big fan. Most of my worries back then did not make it all the way down that list. Maybe yours won’t too, I don’t know. But it helped me take a step back and look at all the things I was worried about and look at them individually rather than let them, all together, overwhelm me as one big giant monster of worry.
So what happened next? Well, I spoke to my nice form tutor at college and told him I wasn’t okay and that I had to do something about it. So he offered to help. And he arranged for a quiet room one lunchtime for me to tell my friend Tom that I had a crush on him. Which doesn’t sound like much but it meant a lot and it meant that I had to tell Tom because the room was booked (that’s how my mind works). And Mr Brown was sitting, just in a little room off the room I was in, in case I needed him afterwards. I’d forgotten that till just now. What a kind man to keep an eye on me. And anyway, so I took a deep breath and felt really sick and then I told Tom I had a crush on him. And that was hard and horrible BUT actually it was also totally fine because Tom was lovely and saying it out loud made it both real but also made kind of realise Tom was just a person, like me. And that maybe I’d had a bit of a crush on a sort of ideal version of him and not actually him in a way. And so that made me feel a tiny bit better. Like a weight had lifted from my shoulders.
And as for Chrissie, I told her that I couldn’t keep talking to her about her mum dying as it was affecting me too but that talking was clearly helping her and professional help would surely be better. Not least because I didn’t know if I was a good listening ear or if I was giving her shit advice given that I’m not a counsellor and all. Anyway, so we sorted her out with a professional counsellor from the college. I still saw her for a coffee occasionally but that was all. So she got the help she needed and I wasn’t carrying the weight of her grief around too. And I felt a tiny bit better then too. Like another weight had lifted from my shoulders.
And things got better. By sorting out two of the Bigger Worries, the smaller ones became a bit easier to deal with too. I read about germs and how we actually need them for our immune system. I found that, for me, facts worked really well in overcoming certain stuff. I didn’t need to triple check that I’d locked the front door because it was fine, I’d already checked it once. I didn’t need to keep checking that the oven was off. I would check once and then make myself stop. One by one. Each day I’d concentrate on one of the little things and I would try and control it, try and stop it. And it takes willpower and effort and sometimes it takes a lot more than a single day to muster power over it, but gradually I did it. That means you can too. And one day, you will look back and think, god, did I really do that? That was me, was it? Wow. Because you will have harnessed the beast.
Logically, I think that if our brains are powerful enough to make us worry about all of these things, whatever they are, it’s also powerful enough for us to STOP worrying about all of them too. It’s a superpower in a way. Anxiety, depression, they’re all sort of superpowers, you just have to learn to harness them.
I can honestly say, all these years later (I’m 46 now), I have never had anxiety in the same way since. NEVER. If I start to feel edgy and overpowered, I write out the list – as above. And then I go through it, one by one, really methodically. And anything I can fix right away, I fix as soon as I can. I put it all into perspective. And it always ALWAYS helps. I’ve never been overpowered in the same way again. I know the warning signs and I figure it out myself. And that won’t work for everyone, it might well not work for you, but the more of us that share it and share how we cope with it, well, the better it is for everyone else.
So there we are. That’s what happened with me all those years ago. Very short version (even though this feels a long letter, sorry about that). It was a hard thing to go through but I’m glad I did in a way. For lots of reasons. Partly because it’s who I am and partly because a tendency to worry helps me in lots of ways, it means that when I’m editing, I have a good attention to detail, it means that I check things more closely. It means that I rehearse things in my head a lot, like when I run writing workshops and so on, so it means that I anticipate, predict, and can deal with uncertainty as I’ve already sort of dealt with it in my head beforehand. It also means I face up to things too. No-one else is going to redraft my book. Just me. It makes me get on with stuff in a way that a lot of other people don’t. So I do see it as a bit of a superpower in a way, the silver lining to the dark cloud of anxiety.
Like me, you’ve got a great mum and great family support. That will help enormously. As will your unbelievably cute dog.
Lots of love to you dear Daisy. Please know that you’re not alone in battling the beast of anxiety. And I hope some of this is useful in some shape or form. Deep breaths. Try the list, it might work for you, it might not, but it’s really helped me a lot over the years.
You will harness the beast, you know. You absolutely will.
Much love to you