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crossing bridges…

As I put together the posts for last week’s London Getaway (done after I got home) I realised I was almost enjoying the visit more in retrospect than when I was actually there. Don’t get me wrong – it was wonderful meeting up with my friends, and going to the Spanish Embassy party was an amazing experience. And Nicola’s apartment was lovely. But when I wasn’t with friends or otherwise occupied I felt quite stressed and anxious most of the time. In fact, this anxiety started about a week before I left, since I am actually terrified of flying. I was lucky that Peter agreed to stay over while I was gone to take care of the cats, as that was one less thing to worry about. But still, I was very nervous about my trip to London, even before I got there.

Something that most people don’t know about me is that I have suffered from chronic (and sometimes acute) anxiety for almost as long as I can remember. Growing up in a violent, abusive and chaotic home will do that. Back then, at best I could function well enough with my day-to-day life, at worst the anxiety manifested itself in panic attacks, which at times got so bad that I often found myself unable to leave the house, which meant I would have to miss work, and in general feel pretty awful about myself, about how “weak” I was. Vicious cycle bullshit.

Then in 2008 I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer! And it was like… “piss off panic attacks, I’ve got bigger fish to fry!”. Because all of a sudden they disappeared. Okay, I was still pretty anxious, but I actually had something real to worry about. Like… DYING. And recovering from four major operations, and long horrific months on chemo. And then there was the constant worry of a reccurence (which I still have). But at least I could go outside ALL THE TIME and I felt like superwoman.

So imagine my shock and dismay when, in the middle of a London Getaway in 2016, I was suddenly hit by the worst PANIC ATTACK I’d had in years, crossing Trafalgar Square. It’s hard to describe, but it comes in a wave and suddenly I am engulfed in feelings of terror and dread, there’s a sensation of not having skin anymore, that I am losing my mind, floating off to somewhere awful that I will never return from…

Panic attack triggers can be things like changes in light (especiallly sudden cloud cover), loud noises (sirens, jets overhead), and open spaces that, well, feel too open. So bridges are also difficult for me. But sometimes they just come out of nowhere. I don’t even know how I got across the square that day, but then I saw two women chatting on the pavement so I went over to ask them for directions to Regent Street. That was enough to “bring me back” (distraction therapy), and after that I was able to continue, but hugging the buildings as I walked. And well, after that day, the panic attacks were back with a vengeance.

That’s why, when I was invited to be a judge at the World Sherry Awards in 2017, I asked my friends Jo & Mark (who had once again generously offered me their apartment as they’d be away) if Peter could come and stay too. I felt safer having a travel companion, and it was also nice for Peter, who hadn’t been back to London in over 30 years. And that was great! I had a friend with me and, although I didn’t get so brave as to get on the tube, I was walking all over the place, and even crossing bridges! Yay!

All of that brings me to this. In the past when I have mentioned my “issues” with anxiety to friends, and especially the panic attacks, responses have been mixed. Many are as sympathetic as they can be, having never experienced anything like this themselves. Occasionally I meet someone who actually knows what I’m talking about. But I have also been met with… disappointment. I can see it in their eyes. Like the “big strong Shawn” in their minds has suddenly been diminished.

What? YOU nervous?
Oh, but you always seem so calm.
But you are so strong and have done so much.

It’s almost like I’ve let people down somehow. And of course there are those for whom this “confession” makes them rub their palms together in glee, as I am no longer the “threatening” person they imagined me to be, and they then proceed to “cut me down to size”.

But the truth is… I just got good(ish) at surviving. I’ve been living on my own since I was 15. I have never had any sort of security net. Used to think back then that I had friends I could rely on, then I learned otherwise. So then I had to rely on me. And yeah, made plenty of mistakes along the way, mostly detrimental to myself, though I’m sure I hurt a few people too, especially when I was younger. And I am very sorry about that.

And now? Well, not much has changed. I’m still pretty much an emotional mess, still battle with anxiety every single day, yet still manage to get by and to (mostly) look calm on the outside. And I’m still on my own. But what I have been able to do is build a life for myself, far away from where I was born, which I think is an accomplishment. Because it’s a life that I love.

And you know what else? At the end of the day, writing from my safe and cosy living room in Sevilla, surrounded by my lovely cats, I just want to say a very heart-felt thank you to all of you who have stood by me, through thick and thin, good and bad times, all these years. I’m so happy you like me!

And to those who always tell me at first how “amazing” I am, then project their insecure shit onto me, and then can’t wait to shoot me down when they see a vulnerability… shame on you. And fuck off while you’re at it. Nobody needs your bullshit. Of course when I see this being done to someone else I am there defending them like a valkyrie, but somehow when it’s done to me I just slink away and lick my wounds. Once someone who attacked me in this way in person was shocked to see me so very hurt with floods of tears streaming down my face as I listened to her abuse… I can still see her disbelief, and hear her saying “but you’re not supposed to be like this, you’re supposed to be angry and fighting back”. Asshole. And so I’ve stopped letting the hurt show.

So this is just to say… if you scared and anxious people out there ever feel like you are on your own. Well, you’re not. There are plenty of us out there, often looking like the strongest people ever. Because we’ve learned to act that way. To protect ourselves. There are no easy answers, but sometimes knowing there’s someone else out there… might help?

And this is also to say… that I DID have a fabulous time in London. So there!  🙂