Matt Gemmell

Fear

10 min read

Can I be honest with you?

Yes. I think I can do that, at least. I’ve had a draft of this article sitting unpublished for at least a couple of years now.

I’m a little embarrassed to tell you this, even though I shouldn’t be. The age of stigmatisation for men with personal issues is pretty much in the past. And it’s such a ridiculous thing too. Here it is:

I hereby admit that, irritatingly, I have a bit of an anxiety disorder.

Yes, me. I know; it’s almost funny. Even I find it amusing, except when it’s happening. I don’t laugh then.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m happy. I have a fantastic marriage, and I dearly love my wife. She’s absolutely everything to me. Such an inspiring, amazing person. I really don’t think I’d even be me anymore without her. But I digress.

I love my work. I’m interested in things. I’m optimistic about the future. I have great friends, and plenty of them. I’m respected amongst my peers. I live comfortably, and as far as I know I’m fairly healthy. I’m confident, and I’m mostly pleased with who I am. In the grand scheme of things, life is brilliant.

You can see why I’m embarrassed – even ashamed, to be honest – to be talking about this. Ugh.

I’ll be brief with the backstory, because it’s incidental and you’re probably not that interested. Just give me two or three paragraphs (I’ll cheat and make them long ones). It started a few years ago, when an ordinary eye-test abruptly turned into the possibility of developing a visual disorder – macular degeneration – that would lead to blindness. There were tests and appointments and so forth, and the eventual outcome was that I’m alright for now, and it may never even happen. But it was such a shock. I walked into an optician expecting to choose new frames, and within 48 hours I was having my retinas laser-mapped, and imagining what it would be like to be in the dark forever. You can see how the catastrophic suddenness of that would knock you sideways. It shot my nerves to pieces. I was a bit of a mess for a couple of weeks. That’s when I developed my keen interest in software accessibility for people with visual impairments. I’m no saint. I champion accessibility because the spectre of blindess scared me badly.

Not long afterwards, I had an unpleasant episode regarding my heart, which is something I’ve always irrationally feared would go wrong, and kill me. It wasn’t a false alarm as such – I do have a heart thing – but it’s a benign thing. A “just go ahead and live your life” condition. No impact on lifespan, minimal risk; it’s called supraventricular tachycardia. But again, it scared the living hell out of me, and it still does whenever it happens. It took longer for them to tell me it was benign than with my eyesight; I was back and forth for weeks. Tests and heart-monitors and referrals to cardiologists. I was a wreck for weeks. I felt like I was sitting balanced on the edge of a cliff, with my front wheels spinning in the open air. There were days when I’d just sit on the couch, trying to be careful how hard I breathed. No laptop, no TV, no music – just waiting, watching the shadows the trees outside cast on the wallpaper. I thought about writing letters to loved ones.

It was a wretched time, and when I finally got the news that I had something that wasn’t going to kill me and they didn’t even need to open me up, I did manage to make it home before I cried like a baby. Tears and snot and sitting on the floor in the bathroom with the door locked, trying to do it silently because men are supposed to.

That’s the story. I felt better afterwards, but a lot less so than I hoped. It was such an anticlimax, albeit welcome. I’d been sitting drowning alive in fear for weeks, after a battery of heart tests, and then late one afternoon I got a call from the doctor’s surgery. Of course the call was in late afternoon, so you then have another night to sweat it out. Dr. So-and-so (I can’t even remember the name) would like to see you, I was told. As if it was optional for me. My wife took a half-day off work so we could go in together the next morning. I wasn’t freaking out; I was a step beyond that. The quiet phase, where everything is really bright and tragically beautiful, and your pupils are a bit too dilated. I sat there in a waiting room for fifteen minutes just looking around at the other people, wondering if they were in for something trivial like the flu, and I was unable to decide whether to hate them for it or wish them well on their journey through life. I wasn’t thinking clearly, of course. My wife did the driving.

Eventually I was called in, and some insane instinct – maybe protectiveness, or machismo, or the very real fear that I would lose it entirely and be a blubbering mess – made me very calmly tell my wife that I’d go in myself. Don’t worry, won’t be long. I went in. I got the news that I probably only had another half-century to live. I very politely joked about what a relief that was, and how my wife would be pleased since we were planning to redecorate the living room soon, and I asked a few questions, and I thanked the doctor profusely, and I marched out as quite the most refined but chipper Brit that ever there was.

We walked out, I gave my wife the good news, we hugged, we drove home. I was entirely absent from that process. I think I was absent from the moment I sat down in the chair beside the doctor’s desk. I think I only really returned after the aforementioned sitting-on-the-bathroom-floor incident.

Those experiences left a big hole. That makes perfect sense, because I was in my early 30s, and not eighteen anymore. Stress causes injuries, and they don’t just heal up they way they used to. Maybe they never did. I’m not sure. I just know that ageing was no longer an irrelevant counter; it suddenly had teeth.

So for the last three or four years, I’ve gone through (many) periods of brutal anxiety. Sometimes it’s pretty much a constant thing, with only brief windows of respite over the course of days – it’s like that right now, as I write this. My anxiety isn’t related to crowds or spiders or public speaking or making sure the oven is switched off, but rather to my physical wellbeing. You can call it Health Anxiety or hypochondria, but most of all it’s tiring. I can only imagine what it must be like for those poor, poor bastards you see on TV, who have to switch the lights on and off and on and off before they can even leave the house. I never used to understand that at all, but I feel like I’ve had just a taste of that special brand of broken-mindedness now. When you’re overwhelmed with ill-defined anxiety, you obsess over tiny things. It’s almost a comfort to be have something to fasten your mind onto for a few minutes.

It’s an exceptionally frustrating condition, sometimes hilariously so. I’m a scientist, I’m well educated, and I’m by no means lacking in self confidence – yet sometimes, my brain ceases to respond to logic. Well, a part of it does remain rational, but it’s hard to hear over the ten different fire-alarms that are ringing.

I spent the entirety of 2009 worrying that I was dying of some terrible condition, the exact nature of which would change on a weekly basis. I had become one of those fragile, tormented people who thinks every itch is skin cancer, and every headache is a brain tumour.

It’s terribly undignified. I lost a fair bit of weight from sheer anxiety back then (yes, what an awful problem to have, I know). You could notice my cheekbones. I have a very slim build anyway, but trust me: there was a visual change. I had (and still have from time to time) periods where insomnia was a familiar and maddening companion. All the horror stories in the world don’t even begin to compare to 04:30 in Winter, where you’re profoundly, cosmically alone, miserable, and terrified. Getting up and switching on a light only makes it worse; like a haunted movie set, or a bad dream.

I had some panic attacks too, during the height of it all. If you’ve had one – a real, proper, actual fireworks-show of a panic attack – then, well… you know. That’s got to be what dying feels like.

It’s a truly miserable feeling, easily the most frightening thing I’ve experienced. A cacophony of physical symptoms, all of them natural and benign survival responses simultaneously turned up to maximum, and a pervasive fear of imminent death. Panic attacks are terrible things. The polar opposite of clinical depression.

I feel a deep dread of having an attack when in a public place, and conversely, the idea of having one when totally alone produces something close to terror. I’ve been in both situations. It’s like someone opens the master switchboard of your body and brain, and flips every single lever to “wrong”.

An attack itself invariably wears off within an hour or so, and often less, but the after-effects take much longer to vanish. Sufferers often go through cycles of fear between attacks, resulting in days of anxiety without significant respite. It’s a crappy situation.

I only went to a doctor once about all this, but she didn’t have much to offer. I won’t accept drugs (I’d rather be terrified than be a zombie on benzodiazepines, and my fifteen-years-ago experience of antidepressants isn’t one I care to repeat). I got the usual advice about getting exercise (I do, regularly), cutting down on caffeine (just kill me), and she even gave me a CD that would apparently help me relax. She had two huge boxes of them under her desk, which makes you think. When I got home, I saw that she’d given me the wrong one, and it was about quitting smoking instead. I laughed for twenty minutes; so much that I had to change my shirt. So maybe it was helpful after all, even though I threw it away without listening to it.

Here’s an interesting point: my dreams have changed. I’m not going to bore you with any lengthy details, because hearing about someone’s dreams is almost the same as being forced to look at their holiday photos, but suffice it to say that the majority of them are now what you’d call stress dreams or nightmares. I’m one of that small percentage of people who always remember all of their dreams; I’ve been that way for as long as I can recall. For the past few years, 90% of my dreams have been of being lost in labyrinthine, unfamiliar places, being late for appointments or trains or flights, and of being hunted by killers. Prosaic stuff worthy of any teenager with exams or orthodontics coming up, I know.

I was speaking at a conference last weekend: NSScotland here in Edinburgh (it was great; if you’re an iOS or OS X developer, you should come to the next one). It was probably the smallest conference I’ve done in years; just 100 people or so. The room was big and airy, the seating was dinner-style at multiple circular tables, the stage was low and cosy, and I had some of my best friends right there in the audience. By all accounts, it should have been the easiest gig in memory – but truthfully it was my worst ever. I think my presentation went well, but internally there were a few points where I was just seconds from getting out of there. I was only on stage for 30 minutes, but believe me, I suffered. And I love speaking in front of crowds!

Anxiety is such a genteel word. I’m anxious, as if my bus is five minutes late and the movie starts soon, or a software update on my phone is taking an unusually long time to complete. It’s an unhelpful word, and sort of pitiful. When I’m having a bad day, the word I would use is fear. It doesn’t feel like the diluted, junior, civilised version of anything – it feels like a tiger stalking you in the underbrush. It feels immediate, and real, and nauseating. Fear is what it is.

I have good months and bad months, and admittedly this last month or so has been unusually bad. I expect it to settle down again soon. I’ve also had some victories, lest this all sound overly gloomy. I’ve been sleeping well for weeks, even recently, and when I had an episode of the heart thing two weeks ago, I just rode it out. Dunked my head in a sink full of cold water, told myself I was in no danger, and steadfastly refused to seek out company or even tell anyone, much less call for medical advice. I just continued my day (albeit whilst being scared, if you’ll forgive the admission), and I’m hoping that I turned a small corner because of that. Time will tell.

If you met me, you really wouldn’t know that I have this… thing. I don’t want to medicalise it by even calling it anything. You wouldn’t know. I’m the guy who struts around and dresses it up a notch. The loud one, who’ll dare to playfully insult you the first time he meets you. If we’re in the pub and you mention a song, I will sing it, and at no point will I have the temerity to blush. There goes an arrogant, cocky bastard, you’ll think – but damn is he likeable. Hah. I have a healthy self-image, anyway.

You won’t notice if I perhaps gulp my pint at one point, then frown for a second, and just listen intently to your side of the conversation for a bit. Maybe I’ll take out my phone and scroll through tweets, or contemplatively bite my thumbnail. Most of the time, you can take those at face value. But once in a while, it’s because I felt a thud in my chest, and my heart just raced, and there’s a tide of panic lapping around my throat.

I won’t embarrass anyone, and certainly not myself. Maybe I’ll step outside and make a call I wasn’t previously planning to – perhaps to see what my brother is up to, for example. Or maybe I’ll suck on an ice cube. I’ve heard that it can help.

People say it’s brave to admit things like this. Courageous. Another step on the road to recovery. I’ll accept the praise, but I’ll be honest with you: it actually feels self-indulgent. Things that require bravery tend to benefit someone else, and demand a cost from you, don’t they? This feels like the opposite; like I’m burdening you, dear reader, for my own catharsis. I know you didn’t sign up for this. Where’s the source code, or the analysis of design trends on the Apple platforms? Sorry about that. Maybe there’ll be some small consolation in seeing me taken down a peg or two, even if it’s by my own admission.

Maybe some of you even have this thing too, or something similar. I think I’ll focus on that, because then I can believe that this article can be helpful in some way, and not just decadent and vampiric. We are fine, you and I. We don’t always feel that way, but we are. You’re going to get better, and so am I.

Until then, I vow to keep my head together as much as is practicable. Like I said, if you meet me, you won’t even know.

But I will know, and let me tell you something, my fellow fragile, fallible human being: I am so bored with it.