It's a Wednesday teatime and I'm in the basement of an art shop in North London, where a very nice lady called Roxy is asking us to do a watercolour self-portrait, blindfolded. I've been invited to celebrate the DVD release of A Monster Calls, the film based on a novel of Patrick Ness, which follows the story of a young Irish lad, Conor, whose mother is terminally ill. In the film, Conor uses creativity to help him through his experiences. To be honest, I normally find these sort of PR events a bit gimmicky but I fancied this one because, as someone who suffers with their own stress and anxiety, I'm willing to give anything a go.
My earliest memory of being anxious is when I was 15 and going to see Blink 182 (my boyfriend says this alone is enough to make anyone anxious.) I was excited but I also felt nervous, which turned into fear and then dread. I got a sick feeling and my arms and legs went a bit shaky. My brain was telling me I wasn't ok but it couldn't tell me why. There was no reason to feel worried or scared of anything, but I was.
Moments like this continued to happen ahead of certain big nights out or events throughout my teens and into my twenties. When I started progressing in my career, my anxiety found new things to worry me about. When big opportunities came up I would feel excited but then stressed and fearful. I would become distracted and be bad tempered or teary but I could never really fully explain why. Was I scared of failure? That someone wouldn't like me? That I would bugger it up? I would go round in circles trying to answer these questions but at the same time my brain would come up with other scenarios. What if I arrive late? What if I wear the wrong thing? What if someone is much better than me? It was like a generator, a 24 hour running tap of ambiguous questions and unclear answers.
These feelings then started to spill over from just being ahead of big events and into my day to day life. My mind would get muddled as too many thoughts crashed around, second guessing and clouding everything up. Simple decisions like deciding where to sit on a train or choosing what to wear became hugely daunting. The questions and answers would chatter away in the background. "Am I ok? No I don't think so. Am I good enough? No. Do they think I'm weird? Yes. Did I actually just really offend them when I said that? Yes. How can I fix it? I don't know. Do I want a cup of tea or just a water? You don't drink enough water. Is it ok to just have water? No it means you're no fun. Why am I tired again?! Other people don't get this tired, you're hopeless."
It was mentally and physically exhausting. I would wake up tired and I craved bread and comfort food for energy. I put on weight and I slept in late. When I wasn't eating, my tummy would churn over in knots and I would get wobbly and shaky. I would feel sick and lose my appetite only to be ravenous for sugar later on. Despite all of this, I was walking around, going to work, getting on and holding it together as "fun, happy Sarah," whilst my mind was full of bad chat. I looked at everyone else being carefree and just getting on with it and wished I could be as good as them.
Mental health affects one in four of us, but despite my inner monologue being on overdrive, I never considered myself as the one in four. While one side of my brain was in constant chatter, the other side would argue back "what do you have to complain about? Your life is amazing! How can you have the right to say you're scared and you're struggling?" I didn't want to talk about my anxiety much in case people thought I was being heavy or moany or boring. So I thought, "I'll wait until I'm fixed and can be carefree and happy and normal all the time!" Turns out, this doesn't exist. So I decided to stop trying to fight it and started to address it.
I think it's important to know how you want to treat or remedy your own mental health. I have friends who have used prescription drugs and had amazing results. I know it's saved people's lives and thank god for it. For whatever reason though, I knew I didn't want to take medication. Maybe it was because my anxiety wasn't there all of the time or I'd heard horror stories about what happens when you come off the drugs, but I knew I wanted to find something else. I had some experience of alternative therapies (I did live in Brighton) so I believed there would be something else that could really help me. What I will say is finding that thing has taken a really bloody long time.
I've had acupuncture, cranial therapy and reiki. I've seen shaman and had readings from psychic healers. I've had gong baths, which involve sitting in the middle of a room while gongs are banged around you. I went to sound therapy, which meant dressing in a white boiler suit, sitting in a white tent on white cushions while sounds were played in with a coloured light sequence overhead. I've been to expressive dance classes had hot cups stuck to me. I've been prodded and massaged and hoovered over. I've had oils and crystals and sage rubbed all over me. I've had my chakras examined A LOT.
It would be far too easy to tell you I sat (or lay down) and sniggered throughout all of this or flicked one eye open to check it wasn't all a joke, but that would be lying. I loved it. I loved being in the hands of a kind therapist for a bit. I loved the knowledge and insight into my body and my well being. I loved knowing I was doing something to help myself. I loved how nice having time out is. Time out is really nice. Even if someone is banging a gong over your head. In fact, down time is vital. It's vital that sometimes we just go somewhere, tune in and switch off.
Whilst this was all good stuff, I still felt anxious. My thoughts were still flapping about and I was still tired so one night, frazzled on a mate's sofa, she suggested homeopathy. She knew someone so I went along, sat in a nice chair, and talked for an hour about everything. The homeopath asked questions, listened and gave me remedies to take in the form of tiny white balls that dissolved under my tongue. This was brilliant for two reasons. One: I had a full hour to chat to a stranger about what's been happening. Two: I had something I could take everyday to remind me I had acknowledged my condition and was doing something about it.
By talking, suddenly I had words to describe my anxiety. I had a language to talk about it with. I could see everything from a distance and put space between "it" and myself. I began to identify the difference between actual stressful things and what was just anxious chatter. For the first time ever I could see what was real and what wasn't. My homeopath could see I was responding to this and wondered if I'd tried mindfulness? I hadn't but OF COURSE I would give it a go. When I arrived at a mindfulness workshop day, I didn't even know it was meditation and I think if you'd told me I wouldn't have gone. I had done meditation before at the end of a yoga class. I had no patience for it and my back hurt.
That day I learnt that rather than being ruled the chatter, I could become aware of what was happening in my mind and sit back from it. I learnt that I didn't need to control or change my thoughts, I could just acknowledge them and let them pass on by. By not engaging I could stop the generator and then all the emotions and wobbliness that followed. I had found the thing that could deal with my anxiety. I had my weapon against the crappiness.
That was five years ago and I am still working on becoming more mindful. Meditation can be hard. Some days it's boring or repetitive, other times it feels like it's not even touching the sides and sometimes it just seems too much effort. We're all so sodding busy and it can also be hard to find the time. Self care is usually at the bottom of our list behind work, family, food, Line of Duty etc. What I know is that when I do meditate, I always feel better. I notice the chatter is quieter, I'm happier and calmer and I am so grateful to have a tool that can give me that.
I love the meditation app Headspace. It's hugely popular now and so has been called wanky by the hipsters. Luckily I don't give a shit about the hipsters. It's an amazing app and is perfect if you've never done any meditation before. There's a whole system there to help you do it forever and Andy who guides you through it has a nice voice. I can honestly say it's changed my life.
Writing this now I still feel guilty and tell myself there are people in a much worse position than me, people with far worse or more "legitimate" mental health conditions. But the truth is, it's ok to say I'm not ok. If you feel scared for no reason or there's a voice that's telling you you're rubbish and everyone else is fine or better, I want to tell you, it's just not true. You're a brilliant, good person and you don't have to live with feeling crap.
A Monster Calls is out on Digital now and Blu-ray & DVD now