The Dream Stealer

The Dream Stealer 

What does anxiety feel like?

It’s a daily battle with the Dream Stealer.

It rears its head like one of the ugly, mean giants sprawled across The BFG’s hillside.

It’s a cat pawing at a cornered mouse; a bully taunting the vulnerable kid at school. It’s always there, lurking in the background, ready to rouse and pounce, paw and taunt. You just don’t know when.

It laughs and says, “You can’t!” when otherwise, you might have – just possibly – dared to consider that you could.

It prepares you for the worst, even when the worst is unfeasible.

It paints a picture of a scary, doomed outcome on even the brightest and sunniest of days.

It makes you fear the outcome, kiboshing the journey to even get there.

It’s your heart suddenly beginning to race in a supermarket aisle; your chest pounding when sitting motionless, that nobody sees.

It’s fight or flight that won’t switch off – on constant repeat. Only there is no one to fight, and no need to take flight.

It’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off. But jump where? Into some invisible, non-existent place where only fear lives.

It’s standing, sword drawn, opposite an invisible opponent. A permanency of ‘en garde‘.

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It’s all these things, and a million more. And it can never, EVER win.

Here’s why it never will.

***

The silent, daily battles; the mini-victories.

Pushing yourself out the front door when it would be so much easier not to.

Refusing to allow the world to shrink, whilst the Dream Stealer feeds on the remnants of your joy.

Smiling, and faking confidence when you’re terrified inside.

Starting a conversation with the quiet Mum in the school playground.

Saying ‘Yes‘, when every ounce of you wishes it were a ‘No‘; saying ‘No, thank you‘ when compulsion and obligation try and steer you to go.

Standing on the start line with a dry mouth, wishing it were the finish.

Entering ‘Destination: Unknown’ into your internal satnav, and revving up the engine.

Pressing that ‘send’ button, and risking rejection.

Clicking ‘submit’ because there’s ever such a small chance that you might win.

Taking part when you doubt you have much to contribute;

Walking into a room when it feels infinitely safer to stay outside.

Picking up the phone when you’d rather switch it to silent.

Asking the question you’ve tried hard to swallow;

Not listening to the small talk, or the ones who just gossip. Or to those who are jealous because their dreams have already curled up and died.

Walking past the crowd, with your head held high.

Meeting up for a coffee, regardless of the panic rising inside.

Asking for help when you can’t face it alone, despite the only comfortable place being inside, on your own.

***

All these are what will keep the Dream Stealer away from your door.

I know, because I’ve done them all many, many times before.*

*including today, when I had my arse kicked at the Bingley Show Trail Fell Race. But victory was mine, for all of the above reasons.

 

Q: When is a race not a race?

A: When I couldn’t give a Fat Rascal about anything other than finishing it.

‘I think I want to enter into a race again, Gav.’ I said. ‘It’s time to get over the fear.’

What’s the worst that could happen?

We chose the Ilkley Trail race on Bank Holiday Monday. It worked around the delicate orchestrating of childcare arrangements courtesy of two broken homes (sob*) having successfully amalgamated into one complete madhouse**

Regardless, it wasn’t an obvious choice for a tentative first race back since the debacle of the Dewsbury 10k back in February, during which I’d been forced to make the Walk of Shame back to the start after only 1.5 miles of purgatory (before being picked up by the Unfortunate Bastards Sweeper Bus.) That was my last race: it hurt my legs, my Achilles, and my pride.

I’ve written a lot recently about race anxiety. I’ve been known to have sleepless night before Parkrun. Yes, seriously. I’ve woken up with palpitations in a goose-bumped, fuzzy-headed clammy sweat, cleaned the fridge, and set off a good two hours before the marshals have even pressed ‘SNOOZE’ on their teasmade.

And why? I have no answer. It doesn’t really matter: none of it does. Nobody ultimately cares how I do, or what time I drag my carcass across the finish line. I used to think that it matters, and that it proved something about who I was, and who I could be. But it doesn’t. Successes are fleeting. They’re like the yellow marzipan around a Battenberg: a nice-to-have. Would you still enjoy the pink and yellow sponge cake squares without the yellow marzipan encasement? Yes, you would. Or I would, at least.

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A loss of form, however, separates the ego from the true self. It strips away the protective marzipan comfort of glory, and the pseudo almondy mask of acknowledgement. Injury; illness; life events. Any one of them can suddenly derail even the most cock-sure of egos, and have it tumble from the gilded perch on which it has merrily swung.

Q: What’s left then?

A: The pink and yellow sponge cake squares.

I woke on the Bank Holiday Monday having thoroughly processed and digested my ‘who am I?’ Battenberg analogy (I can only apologise for inadvertently stumbling across this clumsy pun.) I’d slept, and I’d slept well. PHEW! This was a good start. No heart racing, no palpitations, and no reaching for the proverbial mushroom bag. It’s all under control, Rach. And it was.

Resting heart rate: 54.

Kit on, bags packed, myself and the other half of me, commonly known as ‘Gav Dodd Fax’, headed out under a heavy sky in the direction of Ilkley. ‘I don’t feel nervous, Gav. Do you?’ I ventured.

‘No, not a bit,’ he replied. And he meant it.

‘But I don’t feel anything! No butterflies, no adrenalin, no tension. No nothing! I slept like a baby and haven’t taken to grinding my teeth, or cleaning out the fridge at 6am. It feels strange, that’s all.’ I continued, talking to myself as much as I was to him.

‘It’s the furthest we’ve run in months, Rach’ he replied matter-of-factly in his pre-8am tired tone, ‘And we’re only just starting to build our fitness back up. What can we expect?’

He was right.

We were – true to form – a good hour too early on arrival at the Ilkley Lido. With the heated seats on low, I slurped the remnants of cold coffee from my favourite Heisenberg travel mug, whilst Gav took half a dozen attempts to pin a small square of paper onto the front of a vest. It felt like coming home.

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Do these look like faces that could give a fat rascal?

‘Are you feeling nervous yet, Gav?’ I asked, as he stabbed his thumb yet again with a pin.

‘Nope. Not at all,’ he replied, shortly followed by, ‘is my number straight?’

And then the already slate-grey heavens must have remembered that it was a national Bank Holiday, and so began to spew relentlessly. For fuck’s sake.

‘I guess we’d better warm up, then’ we appeared to say in unison as the car clock nonchalantly indicated that it was a quarter past the hour.

Once our trainers had been replaced by the more unfamiliar off-roadies, we stepped out into the incessant shower pouring from a monochrome sky, and began to jog – no, hobble – up the grassy banking towards the start of the race. We continued slowly up the offensive hill in some kind of torturous pre-race dress rehearsal of what was about to come.

It’s quite possibly the worst start to any race. A measly hundred metres of flat followed by up, up, and then some more up.

‘Jesus, Gav. I’m fucked.’ I panted, stopping my pathetic attempt at a warm-up jog only a quarter of the way up the offensive hill, and stared at him, blankly. ‘And this is just the warm up!’ I could tell from his expression that my words echoed his exact thoughts.

Back down at the start line, we hung around at the back like a pair of shy teenagers trying to smoke menthols behind the bike sheds. ‘Start off slowly, Rach. And remember – it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.’

He was right.

We set off slowly, as Gav suggested, towards the back of the pack. My legs relaxed thanks to the entire absence of any pressure, and they took off slowly up the hillside. Steadily inching past a fair number of runners, they made it to the top. What had seemed incredulous whilst tottering about on our anxiety-inducing warm up was – in fact – perfectly feasible. My legs handled it: they were (just about) up to the job.  The climb continued, and – unbelievably – my legs were still turning over. A couple of miles in, and I’d pulled ahead. But lack of racing fitness kicked in, and I took the opportunity to pull over and wait for my Gav Dodd Fax who was sticking to his guns and approaching at a consistent, steady pace. I was thankful for the rest.

I’ll spare you the minutiae: I stopped a bit, and I started again. I felt temporarily beaten, and then mildly triumphant for fighting back. The rain was cold and cleansing, washing away any worries about performance, PBs or lack of form. I’m here, and I’m back running… No, I’m back RACING! Only racing in a different way. Free from heaviness and pressure; stress and worry. Racing on my terms, and running as well – or not – as my body could, on this day, today.

Crossing the finish line I was 5 minutes slower than the last time I’d tackled the very same beast back in 2015, when – entirely without injury, illness, life event or force majeure – I was happily swinging away on my merry little perch. But I didn’t care. I’d happily nibble on the pink and yellow sponge cake squares – minus the (admittedly delicious) yellow marzipan. Today, I was grateful for the squares.

Gav came over the line shortly afterwards, visibility having been an issue whilst having no wipers on his face furniture.

‘Bloody hell, that was tough, wasn’t it?’ he said, attempting to peer through his now entirely opaque spectacles.

‘No shit it was. Do you fancy going to Betty’s for a Fat Rascal?’

They don’t sell Battenberg.

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*not really

**hashtag smiley face

Doctor, doctor, I can’t sit down!

Doctor, doctor, I can’t sit down! I think I’ve got ADHD…

… No, Rachel. You’re just neurotic.

Let’s begin with a flashback to my ill-conceived legal career and a good old fashioned caveat: there is no intention whatsoever on my part to make light of the ADHD condition, its symptoms or its sufferers. The same goes for neurosis. I may – or may not – have traces of both. If I were a food product requiring labelling as being ‘free from’ on the Gluten Free supermarket shelf, I fear that I wouldn’t make the grade. I would simply be unable to declare myself to be entirely ‘free from’ either, or both. And so, I would be placed back on the regular shelf with all the other shit full of MSG, wheat, lactose, fructose, traces of brazil nuts and bee pollen. Think Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies. They were never fussed about neon icing and E-numbers back in the 80s, were they?

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It’s me in cake form.

Either way, and whatever shelf I’m placed on in Tesco’s – I can’t sit still. I can’t – and won’t – ‘REST’. I HATE THE WORD. I have an allergy to the word itself which would rival most nut allergies on the planet: my head feels woozy and begins to throb; I start to sweat and my HR increases at the mere thought of doing… fuck all. I can’t do it. I’ve tried. *I was even convinced that my tongue swelled up, but that was just a pseudo symptom: my coffee was too hot.

And recently I’ve been doing a little experiment. In a literal sense, I am ‘back running again’ (although that in itself requires another caveat, which we won’t explore just now.) My experiment was this:

I wanted to find out how much ‘rest’ do I really give myself? How much ‘recovery time’ do my legs honestly get?

The facts are these:

Ever since my extended period of non-running from the first part of this year, I have had many weeks of NO weekly mileage, and now quite a few weeks of ridiculously LOW weekly mileage. According to Strava, I’m currently averaging 8 miles of running a week. Down from an average of 50 miles a week in 2015, so a bit of a drop, then. Surely this would help my legs to recover? Hmmmm.

 I’ve also been upping my cross-training activities, including:

  • Interval sessions on the static bike in the gym (a necessary evil)
  • Riding my bike (badly)
  • Attending yoga class 2-3 times per week (lengthening, stretching, and strengthening whilst assisting with my traces of neurosis)
  • Aqua jogging (well, it lasted a few weeks)
  • Walking (Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to this…)

So, this should surely be the recipe for a miraculous recovery, resulting in legs so fresh I could skip over stiles in buttercup-spattered fields with the (minimal) effort of the nimblest spring lamb, or Ben Mounsey.

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That’s me in the middle.

Has that happened? No. It hasn’t.

WHY?

This, dear readers, is what my experiment has been designed to try and find out. Why are my legs simply not responding, given all the above straight-from-the-Captain-Sensible-book-of-recovery advisable steps?

THE ANSWER?

BECAUSE I CAN’T SIT DOWN.

I bought a Fitbit Alta HR and I wore it for one week. In that week – from Monday 15th May to Sunday 21st May – I walked a total of 75,668 steps (that’s 38.08 miles) without taking into account ANY of the other ‘cross training’ activities OR the fact that we’d done a 16-mile off road hilly walk with over 3,000 feet of climbing the day before this weekly experiment began.

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So, no shit, Sherlock. My legs are not akin to those of the sprightly spring lamb, or to the human/mountain goat cross species that is Mr Mounsey.

Here is what a NON-Rest diary looks like:

Monday 15th May

Speed walk up to the supermarket from work in my lunch hour to pick up 2 x variety packs of Magnums for my boss. I also buy a large bag of ice, so said Magnums don’t melt on the 3-mile round trip back to the office. My rucksack weighs a tonne, and I’m already on tired legs from hiking 16 hard miles the day before. But how could I resist? It’s nice out, and only up the road, and it’s a breath of fresh air, and a break from my desk, and…

Total: 9,095 steps

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I daren’t even imagine how many ‘steps’ this required. Enough to melt a Fitbit Alta HR, I would imagine.

Tuesday 16th May

Walk/jog back home from school drop off… But why go the most direct route home? It’s lovely out, beautiful on the moors, and only adds a couple of extra miles onto the journey. I’ll still be back in time for yoga. What’s the harm in that?

Total: 11,791 steps

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But honestly, how could I resist?

Wednesday 17th May

God knows how I managed it, but I somehow clock up 12,309 steps for the day traipsing up and down the stairs at work from my desk to the kettle and back… 50 times (*oh, on closer analysis of the data, it appears that the 5-mile balls-out run after work was logged here, so this is running and not walking, it would appear. Slight cheat, but you get the point.)

Total: 12,309 steps

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Before, during, and after.

Thursday 18th May

I must have ants in my pants. Or ADHD. Or Neurosis (most likely.)

Walk (the long way) back home from school drop off, and then – after actually sitting down and doing some work – a walk down into town. I could drive there in half the time, or possibly a quarter, but why would I? I get wolf-whistled on the way in, which temporarily makes me feel like I’m clinging onto my youth, and we see an old gentleman in town from years gone by, who asks my Mum, ‘Is your girl [pointing to me] at school, now?’ I am thrilled and immediately dismiss any possibility of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or a sight-degenerative condition that may have caused him to be SO far off the mark. He was undoubtedly fully compos mentis, with perfect vision. I had a brightly coloured baseball cap on: maybe that was it?

Total: 16,972 steps

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Well, would you have missed being out in this?

 

Friday 19th May

Ahh, at last. I have a rest day. Phew! But it’s not absolute rest. There’s yoga. Only I don’t walk / run / cycle / hop or pogo-stick there. I drive there, like any other sane, normal person would do. And I feel lazy. Why? I have no idea.

Total: 4,790 steps (and I feel like a sloth because my Fitbit tells me that I haven’t reached my aspirational ‘daily target’.

Oh, fuck off, Fitbit.

So, you get the gist. Since my experimental week, I’ve realised that I honestly, literally, can’t sit down. I need to move; I am compelled to feel my heart beating in my chest and my muscle fibres twitching, because the alternative frightens me. It’s sedentary and silent; it’s a feeling of non-aliveness that I can remember so vividly from all those years ago when I didn’t know how it felt to move; when my daily step count was a return trip to the fridge for yet another oversize portion of Viennetta, and then back to slump in front of my telly to try and guess the price of a 1994 top-of-the-range caravette and a fully refurbed kitchen (inc. white goods) in The Price is Right.

I never knew how it felt, back then, to feel truly alive. But I do now, and I can’t let that go. Not ever – even if my legs are screaming at me for a rest.

It’s hard to have lived at both ends of the scale, but I have to believe that I can make my way tentatively back along to the middle, where I can still feel the joy of movement and of being alive, and also revel in the beauty of rest and recovery. It feels like I’m being asked to walk along a very high tightrope – it’s easy standing at either end, but wobbly and vulnerable in the middle.

Just don’t look down.

*At this point I’ve been sitting down for far too long. I’m off for a walk…

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Laters…

 

 

 

 

Keeping the faith: The Bastard Chimp of Anxiety comes to Parkrun

If only it were as easy as Jon Bon Jovi purported it to be back in 1992, when I used to listen through my crackly Walkman headphones how he had suffered for his anger and there were wars that couldn’t be won. Shit, I thought to myself whilst screeching tunelessly along to the ruggedly sexy New Jersey-born soft rocker: he must have been through a really tough time – although when I saw him perform live that same year, he did look to have been melted down and poured into his canary yellow leather pants, so maybe that was the catalyst for his angst? (I wore elasticated waist jeans: it was a much easier option.)

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What a spectacular metallic number. Crown jewels, you say?

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

Saturday morning was looming once again, and I’d made the same mental bargaining with myself as the previous weekend:

Get up (early),

Go to Parkrun,

Run my arse off,

Recover,

Come home – entirely thankful for it to be over – and resume normal activities.

So what? What’s the big deal about that? Thousands of people up and down the land – and far beyond this egocentric little rock – turn up to Parkrun every Saturday morning. Vast armies of fantastic folk push their backsides out the front door and challenge themselves, seeing where personal limits can be thrashed, bashed and smashed week, after week, after week.

I’m no different.

I woke several times during Friday night riddled with fearful, anxious, stomach-churning thoughts. I was terrified. What if I can’t do it? What if I’m shit?

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What if I have NOTHING to bring to the kick-ass PB-chasing party? What if all I can do is to get myself around the godforsaken 5k course?

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Where have I gone? Why am I panic-stricken about a bloody Parkrun? And why am I eating bourbons at 4am?

 Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

6.30am came, and I woke to the sound of birds having a brawl outside my bedroom window like two drunken youths having been kicked out of a nightclub in the early hours scrapping over a kebab.

Tiredness from my broken sleep meant that my eyes took longer than normal to focus. I wasn’t even sure they were looking in the same direction, or at the same time. My bleary-eyes clocked and eventually focused on the small pile of shorts / vest / socks laid out neatly on the chair and I knew – there was no way out. Fucking hell.

‘Right. I’m heading off, Gav,‘ I declared, after creeping about the house at some ungodly hour doing goodness-knows-what for an indecipherable length of time. I looked at my watch with my heavy, unfocused bog-eyes. It was Saturday morning. The time? 7.30am.

I pulled up into the entirely desolate Oakwell Hall Parkrun carpark. It was 8.10am (only 50 minutes early, then.) There were no marshals, no hi-vis vests, no runners, and no other overly-anxious, bleary-eyed nervous freaks anywhere to be seen. Just me, sitting in my car having audible heart palpitations whilst playing Pet Shop Boys greatest hits on repeat. Fast forward half an hour, and it would be a very different scene. The place would be swarming with hi-vis race marshals, regulars adorned in ‘I’ve completed 50 Parkruns!’ apricot T-shirts, and little old me, going nowhere other than pacing around in ever-decreasing circles wondering how I could tame the Bastard Chimp of Anxiety who’d accompanied me to Oakwell Hall Parkrun.

Once all of the above crew had arrived and were predictably swirling around the carpark in small, high-visibility clumps, I decided to head out of my car for a token gesture warm-up.

Oh fuck. My legs feel stiff like two bread sticks left out on the side overnight. They won’t bend. How can I do this?

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

After congratulating Betty for her 50th birthday, and Ken for his 100th Parkrun (‘There’s CAKE afterwards, Parkrunners!’) one final nervous gulp and we were off. My stale breadstick legs powered off up the slightly uphill start, and – unlike last week – I managed to overtake the offensively fit nine-year-old boy who was (thankfully) too young to appreciate how crippled with anxiety this bog-eyed lady running next to him had been only moments earlier.

The first mile was fast: too fast. As the course undulates around the beautiful – if challenging – Oakwell Hall grounds, it turns into a series of mini obstacles. Sharp corners force a sudden drop in pace, as does slaloming down a descending-level zigzag path. The faster downhill section is loose under foot, and is only too soon replaced by a gravelly uphill pull. Once at the top, the sinking reality of facing it twice suddenly seems daunting.

Halfway round the second lap and the classic nauseating 5k sensations rose in my throat, accompanied by burning in my chest, as though if I breathed out hard enough flames would shoot out of my mouth like Zog, the accident-prone dragon.*

Shit. I can’t do this. It’s 5k and I can’t do it. How can I not do this? Why is this so fucking hard? I pulled over for a millisecond as the Bastard Inner Chimp of Doom temporarily beat me, and I willed the entire thing to be over… But, I CAN do this. I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I CAN finish this. Fuck the time. Fuck the outcome. I’m trying my bastard best, and I can finish this. I’ve done MARATHONS that have felt easier than this.

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

As I began to run again, I felt the anxiety, the fear, and all the other entirely disproportionate and melodramatic nervous chatter disappear as I focused only on getting myself over the finish line. Despite the temporary ‘blip’ which caused me to pull over in discomfort and despair, I beat the chimp. Coming 12th overall, I was the 1st lady over the finish line, and I beat my time from the previous week by 20 seconds.

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But the real victory came in wrestling with my own anxiety, pinning it down in some Hulk Hogan-style** headlock making it squirm and thrash around whilst I raised one arm to the crowd, shouting ‘EAT DIRT, LOSER!’ to my ungracious opponent.

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Victory ride on the ram

You see, the Bastard Chimp of Fear can – and does – accompany all runners, at all stages, over all distances, and at all levels. It came along for the ride with me on Saturday morning, and almost chundered all over my trainers (and no doubt it will do so again, and again after that.)

But the comforting words of my favourite 1990s soft rock band came back to save me:

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

*A reference perhaps only familiar to parents running away from young children. It’s worth a read even without kids, to be fair.

**Yes, I was a teenager of the early ‘90s… I also have no idea what kind of insult would have been appropriate in 1990s professional wrestling circles.