17 May 2016
"Brad, is this something your team does?" A voice startles me. My eyes widen with shock as I come back to my surroundings. A meeting room. Whiteboards, notepads, coffee mugs and the stale stench of dejection. In between the chatter of systems, processes, and how the systems process the processes, I must have wandered into the sweet temptation of a daydream. The macho side of me says I should say that I was dreaming of naked women, or even woman, but it was about running. Why had that voice startled me? It was a woman's voice. Was she talking to me? She said Brad – is that me? Shit, it is. My eyes meet hers. I glare, she glowers. She holds, I cower. She wins. “Ummmm, in what regard?” I say. It is the best I can come up with on such short notice. Plus I'm still a little sleepy. “How do the rolls get uploaded into STEER?” she replies, a touch too sharp. White walls imprison me as I seek a means of escape. I feel like I have auditioned to be an extra in a play but been thrown into the spotlight with the lead role. I was meant to have a non-speaking part, damn you! And then I see him. In the corner of the room he appears like a mullet at a rodeo. My heart beats faster as I watch him grow bigger and bigger. My breath becomes shorter, sharper, until it feels as though I can breath no more. My tongue searches for words but my mouth is dry. Sweat cakes my shirt and forehead. He smiles at me and I freeze. Meet Fred. My anxiety. You know that annoying next door neighbour you had growing up? He was the only other kid living on your street, so you had to play with him. But he's a bit of a dick. You still consider him a friend though because you have known each other so long. That's like Fred. Fred and I have been through so much together that I consider him a friend. He's always kind of just, well, been there. I think he is a little delusional though as he says we are besties. We aren't besties. In fact, I kind of don't like it when he visits. In meetings. Like today. I could handle him dropping in once or twice a year, but it's far more frequent than that. Lately, it's been almost daily. Flash back to the room. Their eyes stare at me, penetrating my soul. They see my fears, my darkest thoughts. They judge me. What is he doing? They say. He's freezing up, they whisper. I stutter, getting two words out… Then three. I can't breathe. My voice quivers like a paper bag in the howling Wellington wind. My hands shake uncontrollably as I place them under the table to avoid detection. My face flushes as I feel foolish, quickly muttering a short answer. As the meeting ends I rush from the room and head to the bathroom. My heart still thumps away, my hands still tremble, my pores still perspire. I am light-headed. I splash water on my face to bring myself back to reality. I stare at the mirror with a mixture of self-loathing and regret. There is only one remedy for what ails me. Only one thing that can calm me down, and provide me with the strength to face the rest of the day. Running. I go to my locker and take out my bag. I get dressed. And I run from my friend Fred. I run for almost an hour. Not particularly fast, but fast enough to clear my head and create as much space between Fred and I as possible. It feels hopeless, a fool's errand, but today I am feeling foolish. Fred is quite a good runner too, but not as good as me. He sticks with me for about forty minutes, taunting me with negative thoughts, before giving up. He always gives up eventually. That dude needs to get some stamina. With my head cleared, and something resembling a smile on my face, I head back to work, shower, and face the afternoon. Fred has a knack of visiting me at the most inopportune times. Like at meetings, or when I talk to a group of people, or if I confront someone, or even when I try to ask a girl on a date. He pops in, makes it super awkward, and then leaves me in a pit of despair. What Fred doesn't know though, is I have a plan. A plan to stop him visiting so much. I don't want him to completely stop visiting, we are friends after all, and I'd feel a bit lonely without him. But perhaps if he just made his visits a little less frequent. Perhaps if we became casual acquaintances instead of best pals. Look Fred, you're great. Really, you are. But I just don't want something serious right now. Maybe if we just 'caught up' every now and then? Ya know, casual... Fred will freak out when he realises my plan. I know he will. He's kind of self-conscious and a bit of an introvert. He also doesn't have a sense of humour. It's his own fault, really. I didn't think too much of it when his visits were less frequent. But when he started showing up every bloody day, in ordinary situations, well, enough is enough as they say. You see, I realised something… Anxiety loves to be taken seriously and hates to be laughed at. The first stage of my plan was to trivialise my anxiety. So I gave it a name: Fred. Then I gave it a persona: dickhead next door neighbour from my childhood. I sat in meetings, and in social settings that I knew triggered my anxiety, and waited. “Hi Fred,” I muttered underneath my breath, chuckling, when he inevitably arrived. Uninvited, as always, but predictable. As I anticipated, Fred was not happy. Not one bit. FEAR ME!! He bellowed while banging his chest. Next, I 'outed' myself to friends, family, colleagues and, now, blog followers. I suffer from anxiety. Badly. And I'm no longer ashamed. I'm not going to hide it any more. I've already been rewarded from my openness. People, including some I didn't expect, have confided to me that they too suffer from anxiety. I could see it in their eyes, the relief that someone was sharing their experience of something that haunts them. We suffer in silence, afraid to let others in, instead of suffering together. Instead of supporting each other. Why are we ashamed? Why was I ashamed? The more people I meet with anxiety, the more I become convinced that there is some unwritten prerequisite that you have to be a wonderful, caring person. Maybe, just maybe, we should be proud. I talk about Fred a bit now. I mention him to people and they look at me, confused. Umm, who? They say. Fred, I reply, he's in the corner. I explain who he is and I laugh. Then they laugh. Maybe they laugh because they think it's funny, or maybe because I am laughing and they don't want it to be awkward. But I pretend they are laughing at Fred. And Fred hates it. He still shows up uninvited. I mean, it's not like I magically cured myself of anxiety. But I've decided to embrace it, rather than be ashamed. Anxiety affects approximately one in five adults. Supposedly. I am sceptical of social statistics. I mean, how can anyone possibly know that? But even if we trust these science type guys and say it is twenty percent, that's a huge number of people. We outnumber Christians. We could take over the world. Don't suffer alone. Talk about it. Be honest. I have anxiety. Who cares? Give your anxiety a name from one of your favourite childhood movies (Mines Drop Dead Fred for those who are wondering). Give your anxiety a ridiculous persona. Laugh at it. It won't make your anxiety go away but at least you'll have a new friend. Plant Runner.