There is much current publicity about mental health and the difficulties experienced both by those struggling with various deeply troubling conditions and those practitioners attempting with difficulty to establish parity of status for their problems alongside issues of physical health. Chronic anxiety and depression, so devastatingly real for those afflicted, are still seen as having little substance or gravity by so many unaffected by such extremity. Whilst in the first instance sympathy may be expressed and with it comfort, the obsessive persistence of both states of mind in the sufferer rapidly exhausts the patience of those closest to them. “We all feel anxious, we all feel depressed”, the kind but baffled partner, family member, friend says in exasperation, “but we get a grip and we carry on so get over it”. Which robust exhortation to the debilitated, demotivated, directionless subject only serves to drive them deeper down the dark, narrow corridor into complete isolation within the prison of the damaged self. And then where is there to go but even deeper?
Yes, we do all feel anxious and we do all feel depressed and these incidences are part of life’s rich and complex tapestry. Without movement across that wide spectrum between ecstasy and despair, no breadth of experience, acquisition of empirical knowledge and achievement of wisdom can be available to us. Anxiety can alert us to danger; it activates adrenaline and speeds up our capacity for swift intuition and accelerated thought. And depression is an inevitable consequence of the confounding of hope and the quenching of optimism. But the momentum of external events and our internal responses shift us out of decline and back into positive action.
Across the centuries writers, artists and composers have attempted to communicate through journals, letters, poems, paintings figurative and abstract and musical works simple and sophisticated something of the extremes of pain and anguish being experienced. But whilst there may be recognition by the reader, the spectator, the listener of the general quality and character of the pain, unless s/he has gone the distance him/herself the utter desolation that inspired the output will never transcend the mere aesthetic appreciation that will be the response.
Except for a two or three-year period in childhood, I had had no experience of the coruscating effects of acute anxiety and its corollary disabling depression. And then in my early 60s I was diagnosed first with the auto-immune condition sarcoidosis and then with prostate cancer. Apart from surgery for the cancer shortly after diagnosis, neither condition has actually impacted on my general physical well-being. But that dual confrontation with the potential for very significant degradation in my quality of life with the one and death with the other extinguished entirely in me that immortality gene that has us contemplating mortality as an issue that only others have to face. And the tsunami of anxiety that followed that extinction overwhelmed me completely. When it was at its most severe, I was entirely helpless: no amount of clear, measured, constantly repeated reasoning made the slightest difference. This stultifying impotence caught me completely unprepared and at its worse it unravelled me completely. Everything around me, immediate and removed, personal and functional – my family, my relationships, my work, my recreation – was blighted by the anxiety and during the worst of the bouts I experienced the world through a dark veil, barely able to manage the simplest of procedural tasks and falling into periods of deep depression. There were sequences of time within which the anxiety lifted, but always its shadow dogged me and I was increasingly conscious of the inevitability of its return.
I had counselling and two of my counsellors (amongst a succession of nodding-dog professional listeners whose sole contribution to each expensive session was to ask, “And how did that make you feel?”) helped me identify aspects of my early family life to which could be attributed sources for underlying neurosis and stress. But the avowedly non-participatory policy of all counselling rendered such relative progress slow at best and thus undeveloped and inconclusive in the long term. Finally I became frustrated with the resolute refusal of either of these very able, compassionate women to commit to any data evaluation or confirmation or denial of presumptions that I advanced in respect of my own self-analysis. after such a massive investment of time and emotional energy, I shan’t seek counselling again.
My situation now is somewhat more stable. I am still plagued by health anxieties, but the periods of absolute helplessness are fewer and marginally more negotiable whilst in place. I have never sought healing for what I know to be a profoundly complex and deeply-rooted condition. My intentions for the counselling were always directed at developing personal understanding and securing management so that my quality of life (and that of those most immediately affected by my times of incapacity) could be brought into some equilibrium.
So the battle is far from over and even if the war can’t be won, I’m still powerfully motivated to continue the process of winning more of the higher ground. Here’s how I see my interests, and by extension the interests of anyone else similarly afflicted, being served. There exist many anxiety/depression self-help groups across the United Kingdom and I’m sure that many of them provide for their participants very beneficially. But what I haven’t come across in my fairly extensive research is the sort of internal mutual aid structure that has been so effective in groups exploring the shared treatment of addictions, the prime example of which is Alcoholics Anonymous. Anxiety is an addiction with much of its power over the addict drawn from his/her obsessive compulsions. As with alcoholism, there is no cure for compulsive anxiety, but with the combination of one-to-one and whole group support for the sufferer at the core of the management process, the strength to resist obsession and find strategies to hold it at bay can be located. Again as with alcoholism, a degree of stigmatisation is associated with all mental health problems, particularly amongst men, whose readiness both to acknowledge and then discuss openly their difficulties can be a serious problem.
So I would be very interested in what might be offered to the anxiety obsessive by a self-help set-up that utilised the anonymity element of AA and similar organisations, ensuring that the participant could enter into and continue the process of treatment as an individual subject to no hierarchy and accountable only to the group. I’m no expert in this field; I have no medical qualifications or experience; I simply know what it feels like to be at the mercy at times of overwhelming anxiety. So I wonder if any of those for whom my experiences parallel their own might share the notion of an ‘Anxiety Unanimous’ grouping and see it as providing a forum for sharing and through it treatment towards that peace of mind that we all crave.