If you had told me a month ago that I would be standing in my bra and pants, with a big cheesy smile, telling the women of Britain that we are all brave enough to run 10k in our underwear, I’d have laughed in your face. Actually, no I wouldn’t have laughed, I’d have cried, because back then I wasn’t capable of laughing.
This week, I have finally emerged from five months of mental darkness. You won’t have noticed. No one outside of my four walls knew it was happening, because like many people who experience this, I am very, very good at hiding it. I went to work, I hugged my children and I functioned like a normal human being. I managed to do just enough to get by. Then, over Christmas, when there was a two-week gap from work, when my children were at their fathers, I broke down. It was as if my mind and body knew there was a gap in the schedule, that this could be fitted neatly in.
What does a breakdown feel like? Well, despite its ugliness, I suppose it’s like beauty; it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Or the beholdee. For me it was both of these things, because there were two of us involved – Nick and me. For two weeks I hid from the world, while experiencing debilitating, mind-bending anxiety that left me sleepless through the night, and terrified through the day. I managed to hide it from everyone except my patient, kind and loving husband, who in turn held me tight and reassured me that I wasn’t going to drown in these overwhelming feelings of panic, fear and nausea, and encouraged me to try and leave the house. Leaving the house was a BIG DEAL. The anxiety that had been slowly but surely working its way towards getting on top of me, DID get on top of me. Nick had to drive everywhere because I’d become too anxious about someone beeping me, but I still ended up crying in the car park because of how aggressive the other drivers were being. Nick sat patiently and waited for me to stop sobbing; I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t get out the car. I had called a friend of mine who is a massage therapist; I’d thought maybe a massage would soothe me and calm me down, but I couldn’t get to her.
Eventually I managed to climb out and headed to see this wonderful lady who eventually lay me down after I’d cried all over her and explained how I felt. My anxiety levels were so high it took me 20 minutes to stop my over-wrought brain from banging around in my head. I was literally trying to survive second by second. Breathing in for one, breathing out for two. In and out. In and out. Second by second, until eventually I made it to a minute. Then I started again, until I had survived for two minutes. Then three, then five, then ten… counting each second. I figured if I had survived ten minutes without dying of choking, suffocating fear, then I could live for another minute. I had to force myself to focus on each stroke, each movement, and zone in to each micro sized bit of pressure on my skin, until finally my body relaxed out of spasm. It didn’t cure me, I didn’t get up and feel ready to take on the world, but for a few lovely minutes, I didn’t feel like I was going to die.
Anxiety doesn’t care who you are or what you do. It comes at any time and is as likely when things are going great as when things are falling apart. It doesn’t care. Why did it come then? For me, it had been building for a long time. Stress was the main cause, and feeling unable to take control over the things in my life that were causing the stress in the first place. It became a spiral. I’m a positive person, but positivity doesn’t cut it when your brain starts to explode.
After the car park episode, I eventually went to see a doctor and started taking anti-anxiety medication. Within days, I could feel my levels of terror coming down. I stopped feeling like my nerves had been cut, that every sense was on high alert – ready for flight because I had no fight left in me. Then I kept going down, everything went down, and I went numb. I have since changed my dose and I have got it right, but then, I was dead inside. Which was preferable to feeling like I was going to die of pure, dark terror.
This happened around the time of the National Television Awards, and Loose Women – the program I am so proud to host – was nominated for Best Daytime TV Show. ITV had arranged for everyone to be taken to the O2 by boat down the Thames, to beat the traffic. It is normally the best part of the awards night – it’s a party boat, and we all get to have a drink and laugh and hang out with friends and peers that we don’t often get the chance to see. This year I wasn’t strong enough to sit on the boat with everyone, it was all too much. Too loud, too sparkly. I knew it would overwhelm me, and short of jumping overboard, there would be no escaping from it, which I knew would bring on a full-blown panic attack. So, I arranged to get ready at the hotel next door, on my own. I cried all the way there while on the phone to my mum. After a shower, and sitting numbly while a make-up artist friend made me look the part, I headed to the red carpet. I nearly threw up when I saw all the clamoring photographers and shiny presenters strutting their stuff. I was stopped for a couple of pictures, but then I literally ran from one end of the carpet to the other so that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. I found my fellow Loose Women and had a picture taken with them inside. I can’t look at that photo now. I look like a corpse. Thin, ill, and dead behind the eyes. When our award was announced, and we heard that we had lost, I was out of my seat and in a cab before the applause had died down. I cried all the way home and crawled into bed.
That was January. We are now in March. I did – and still do – all the right things to keep my mental health in order; I meditated every day. I exercised. The stress, added to all the operations I’ve had over years because of gynaecological problems, had messed with my gut, so I went on a supervised gut cleanse to re-set my battered and bruised insides. It meant eating cleaner than I ever have done. I journaled. I listened to podcasts by Ed Mylett and Lewis Howes; American speakers who are so full of positivity and enthusiasm – I defy anyone not to feel motivated by them. It was like crawling in the dark across broken glass, hoping I was heading towards light. It felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. But like a prisoner who knows the only escape is to keep crawling forwards, bit by tiny bit, I kept my momentum. I didn’t stop.
And then, one day, I realised I didn’t feel as awful as I had done. I didn’t feel better, but I didn’t feel as bad. It was like a flicker of light through dark curtains. Then I had a bad day at the office, and that flicker disappeared. The curtains were pulled shut again. A week or so later, I got the same feeling. I quietly acknowledged it, but didn’t hang on to it, or give it too much attention in case it ducked away. I felt the same thing the next day. And then the next. Until I realised I had felt happiness, a tiny light of happiness, for five days straight. I didn’t want to get too excited in case my excitement frightened it away. But that was ok. It was there. And a week on… it still is. I still feel happiness. Not shiny, golden, trumpets and choirs at the end of a rom-com kind of happiness, but that flicker is there, and I’m not scared anymore. It stayed, even when I had another hard day at the office that would challenge a normal person who doesn’t feel like they’ve gone mad and the world is a horrible place where every living thing is out to get them. I coped. It wasn’t the end of the world, it was just a bad day.
So… in the middle of all this, when Bryony Gordon texted me to ask me if I would run a race in my pants… my initial reaction was, “Hell no!” The reasons to say “no” were valid. I don’t run. I like yoga and weights because they are slow and there is less of a chance that I’ll trip and fall over – I am the clumsiest person in the universe. And I sure as hell don’t exercise in public in my bra and pants. It was a scary idea, and at the time, everything scared me. Just existing terrified me.
But then I thought about it. One of the things that I feel really strongly about is making women, especially in their middle years, feel good about themselves. It’s something I do every day here on This Girl Is On Fire, and I thought, how can I tell people to push themselves out of their comfort zone but say no to this challenge? I needed to put my money where my mouth is. I talk the talk, but can I walk the walk?! Actually, walking isn’t an issue, running is. I am also turning 50 this year, and I’ve been telling myself to say “yes” to things that are out of my comfort zone. Push yourself! Go for it! Stop being scared of failing or looking stupid! So, I took a deep breath, I texted Bryony back and said “Gulp… count me in…”
Many people see running a race like this in your underwear as a brave thing to do because as women we are going to be judged on how we look. None of us are flawless, but I genuinely thing there is beauty in every body, not just in everybody. I realised when I said yes to Bryony that I was scared for the world to see what I really am. What I look like of course comes into it; I know I look slim and healthy, but to the Instagram-filtered world my battle scars from two caesareans, numerous hernia repairs and a full hysterectomy are not ideal. Nor is the stretched skin from the four-stone pregnancy weight gain and loss, and the cellulite that comes with simply being a female human. All these things are part of my outer body that of course I’d rather keep hidden than have them bouncing around over a 10 kilometre run in front of the entire universe! But actually, that’s not the bit that I worry about people seeing. My body works, it gets me from A to B and has survived disease, acute stress, and age. I think it’s doing a grand job at keeping me alive. No, what I realised I am frightened of is people really seeing me. Not the ‘work’ me, that shows her professional self, and wears nice clothes and can interview people and somehow control feisty, opinionated women on live TV. The real me, who is sometimes broken and fragile.
So that’s why I said yes. And that’s why I’m writing this. You’re going to be seeing a lot of me over the next few months – perhaps more than you’d bargained for! But that’s just what’s on the outside, that’s just my skin. I’ve now shown you what goes on in the inside. And if I can get through the tough experiences in my life that have made me raw and vulnerable, and somehow keep taking tiny, tiny steps forward in the dark, even when it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anywhere, and keep going and keep going until I see and feel some kind of light, then I can run a blooming 10k race. I’m FIFTY this year. I have got this far. Think of how many seconds I survived, counting them, second by second, minute by minute… If I can make it this far, I can survive anything.