While the light trips fantastic over the Thames, the Southbank simmers. New architecture faces old as two worlds rest beside the placid tide. There are bookshops under bridges, carousels and mimes, the ebb and flow and the low rumble of trains; here is a world of this and that. London’s cacophony of sound and sense winds down for just a moment, and awaits the bustle of night.
Two years ago I went through an episode of serious hypochondria. The gut squeezing, head pounding fear set in after I noticed a tiny rash on my skin. I googled and trawled through the internet , finding obscure forums and even more obscure doctors until I had turned a rash into a death sentence. It wasn’t one of those comical over reactions to Dr Google, no hyperbole here, I had genuinely convinced myself that I was going to die. I look back on it all now and cringe and laugh and wince at myself, but at the time, it was reality for me. Nobody could talk me out of it. I was suddenly in raw and passionate despair considering all I was going to lose.
The thing about hypochondria is that it is essentially ridiculous. Look at Aunt Josephine, a character from Lemony Snicket’s third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Her reputation is that of a ‘formidable woman’, a human without fear, but when she is introduced to us in the story, we learn that the death of her husband has caused her to become a shadow of her former self; a worried, paranoid, death conscious shadow. In the book and certainly in the new TV series she is portrayed as comically danger-aware. She doesn’t use her oven in case it burns the house down, and subsequently eats only cold soup, and she is deathly afraid of estate agents (If you live in London you might share the same fear). Her character is not put out there as being tragic and we aren’t particularly encouraged to feel a deep sense of sadness when considering her story, because her fears are obscure and irrational. But however ridiculous these fears seem, they were real for her, just as my fears were real for me. Whilst I was watching the new Netflix TV series and observing Aunt Josephine, I was reminded of a quote that my Dad gave me, which to this day helps me to manage anxiety and fear:
“Thoughts are not facts.”
I promise that if, like me, you suffer from anxiety or panic disorder, this is the most important thing for you to hear. Make it your mantra, say it to yourself, out loud if you can, whenever you hear that little voice in your head niggling at your insecurities and your fears. Often those who have intrusive thoughts aren’t helped by the fact they are incredibly imaginative. Thinking you might be in danger everyday is bad enough, but when you’re the kind of person who can imagine every tiny detail of that danger, from start to finish and with flourishes in between, that’s where the real unbearable fear comes from. The truth is that anxiety only gets worse when you let it, and you don’t have to.
The presence of fear will not change your fate. If you spend your entire life locked inside a house on a clifftop, there’s no stopping a hurricane from blowing it away. Life is a mess, really, but living it is the only option. It is in the high tides that we find our strength to climb higher still. Being alive is utterly magnificent, and even though we may be frightened, we must not let fear steer our story.
When I was 19 I used the London Underground on my own for the very first time. I’d started singing lessons in Pimlico and asked literally anyone I could think of asking to come with me because I was afraid of several things, namely:
- Getting killed by commuters for walking too slow or generally being a weak country impostor with NO OYSTER CARD
- Falling onto the tube tracks
- Falling down the escalator
- Falling up the escalator
- Getting so lost that I ended up in a dystopian version of Narnia
- Being kidnapped by the buskers who walk up and down the tube for not giving them spare change despite their unsettling, borderline aggressive enthusiasm; particularly the mariachi band that I’d seen that one time…
- Other human beings
- Eye contact with said human beings
I was socially anxious and cripplingly aware of it. I was a Level 97 introvert. But I wanted those damn lessons. I remember my brother teaching me exactly how to get to Pimlico station… straight from Euston to Pimlico… Victoria line… that’s blue… which blue?!… light blue… okay… I freaked out a little, but I managed it. I bought my ticket, I got on the train, then I got onto the tube, I made it there and back and I made zero enemies and was kidnapped zero times, I didn’t die and I didn’t end up in Brixton.
Recently I’ve been thinking about whether I could define myself as ‘brave’ in that moment, and it’s taken me a while to realise that bravery means different things to different people. For someone who wasn’t 19 year old me, travelling to London solo might have been the easiest thing in the world, talking to strangers without writing an entire script in their head first would have been natural, easy. But for people who suffer quiet battles and are scared to do or say things that other people think are trivial, for people who are like I was at that age, it’s hard.
I guess you could say we each have our own boggarts. If you’ve not read or seen Harry Potter, a boggart is a spirit which transforms itself into the worst fear of the person looking at it. We all have fears, some of us have plenty more than others and some have just one or two, but we are all afraid of something. I think that people forget that for some people the trivial things in life can be really terrifying. We need to realise that bravery comes when you fight your fears, no matter what they are or how small they may be. Being brave is being terrified and doing it anyway, because what you need to accomplish is more important.
Interestingly enough, I now live in London. I’ve gotten my bag stuck in the tube doors twice, met a one legged man with an eye patch on a late night tube journey home, been yelled at for trying to give a homeless man directions because he thought I was deliberately sending him wrong way AND walked up a down escalator. I’m not scared of the tube anymore.
Over the past month, I’ve realised how important it is to breathe; physically, mentally and emotionally. Moving to London, diving head first into the unfamiliar, leaving all I have ever known and starting a full time opera course… it was and still is a journey of sheer drops, lofty mountains, walks through the woods, unearthed dangers, once in a lifetime thrills and unimaginable treasures.
I’ve experienced a lot over the last month. I’ve adapted to changes I never thought would come about. I’ve lived on my own for the first time in one of the biggest, loudest and most unforgiving cities in the world and I am not ashamed to admit that for the first three weeks I was drowning. I felt like my entire world was collapsing around me. I’d never felt so lonely before, and I’d never had such a swelling of nostalgia or a desire for things to return to how they were before.
The first week was the hardest and was made up of countless moments of helplessness and enough tears to fill a well, but an internal monologue played in my head when ever I succeeded in doing even the tiniest task; “Congratulations Lissie, you got out of bed this morning. Wow, good for you Lissie, you left the flat and you’re still alive. I’m so proud of you Lissie, you didn’t have a panic attack today!” I was assured it would get easier by the day, and I was surprised to find that it did. I could feel my skin getting thicker and my heart wrapping plates of iron armour around itself.
The opera course became my safe haven, a place for me to express myself and pour my built up emotion into music and song. In singing, breath is the anchor. Breath is what supports the sound and allows your artistry to bloom. In our course we began taking lessons in yoga and meditation, and suddenly breathing was not only a survival technique, but an essential tool, an invaluable resource, a friend. As I became more aware of this it translated itself into my personal life. I realised that rushing around, wearing out my brain and giving in to the stresses that a big city can burden you with was futile.
London is a city full of excitement, it’s a place that never ceases to shift and change, it is wonderful and unique, but also terrifying. Living here has made me realise that it’s so important to observe, to stand back, to admire and to stop trying so hard to understand everything. When I visited home for the first time after living in London for a week the first thing I realised was how still and quiet it was. Breathing was easier, not only because the air was fresher, but because as soon as I stood on the platform all I could hear was a beautiful crisp quiet. After returning to London I realised that it took me leaving that unrelenting city to truly appreciate it’s brilliance. But I also realised I needed to stop thinking London was against me, and admitting defeat so early on.
What I have realised now is this; There is no person on this earth who goes through life untouched by fear, loss, anger or sadness and the more I tried to protect myself from those inevitable forces in my life, the harder I fell. I realised that you must not fight so hard when the battle is already lost, that sometimes you just have to let it be. You have to watch the storm brew and accept that it may tear down your walls, but know that you will re-build them. Know that you are strong enough to brace the greatest winds and the strongest quakes. Also remember how wonderful the world is when it glistens, see love and light and laughter. But above all things know this; giving up will never, ever be an option.
Amongst the hushed echos of the Christmas fair, in the crisp cool of winter, the sweet bells of an ancient carousel breathed quiet joy into the souls of all who chose to listen.