Dr Chris Westoby, who shares his personal experiences of growing up with anxiety in his book The Fear Talking: The True Story of a Young Man and Anxiety, explains the inspiration for his book and how he has learnt to open up about mental health.
I’ve had an anxiety condition since my earliest memory. It stems from a crippling fear of being violently ill in the sight of other people, and manifests as the avoidance of seeing anyone or being in any situation where I can’t vanish from sight at a moment’s notice.
I become physically ill; I struggle to eat, and often do not eat at all for long periods. It is near-impossible to avoid seeing other people or avoid leaving the house, so this is a constant battle that dominates a lot of my time. My condition has become steadily more severe throughout my life, causing me to develop OCD and depression.
My story: making education work
I grew up not knowing what was wrong with me until I was twenty. My childhood and early adulthood were spent in constant confusion, fear, secrecy and shame. In 2021, as a culture, we know a little more about mental illness now than when I was growing up in the 00s, but we’re far from there yet.
I know there are young people out there who feel like I did, who are having to keep their illness to themselves or question what it is that’s going on with them and live in that same kind of isolation.
I wanted to write the book that I wish someone had handed me when I was younger.
The Fear Talking is not clinical, it’s not written with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not about becoming better or having the answers. It’s just the story of how this affected me as a sixteen-year-old trying to make further education work. That’s what I needed back then: to hear from someone who was going through something similar, to know others were haunted by the kinds of intrusive thoughts I experienced.
Recognising red flags
It is vital that we recognise the red flags when it comes to mental health. Whether we have a mental health condition or know someone else who does, the more we inform ourselves about it the better.
As The Fear Talking shows, being misunderstood – by others and also myself – was a highly damaging experience to my quality of life and the relationships I had with others. I want this portrait of anxiety to help people understand the condition by offering a peek behind the curtain of someone’s life, revealing the naked details of the thought processes and behaviours it causes.
I feel it is especially resonant now. We’re living in an era of heightened anxiety. There are few things more anxiety-inducing than uncertainty and isolation. Shut away in the various degrees of lockdown we have faced over the last year, our collective mental health has taken a massive blow.
The sharing of our experiences seems more important than ever to help stave off anxiety and other mental health issues. Intrusive thoughts thrive when they’re kept inside of us; they want us to keep them secret.
It took me the majority of my life to learn how to open up about mental health; even today, that first leap of disclosing what I’m going through to someone else can feel like too great a leap. I therefore recommend doing it indirectly. For example, talking about a book, a film, music, news, or any event that covers the topic of mental health can be an inroad. Writing was how I learned to initiate such a conversation.
I was midway into my MA in Creative Writing here at the University of Hull in 2011 when I chose to bury a tiny mention of my condition within an otherwise comedic article about my hometown half-hoping no one would notice:
Barton’s edges were the unclimbable fences of my enclosure. I never left. Unable to attend college, unable to face home. I walked about, most of the day, most days, for a year and a half. As far from eyes as possible.
But it was enough. Writing allowed me to make the leap into openness, and this wouldn’t have happened were it not for the safe and non-judgemental space cultivated by our tutors here at Hull. They offered an invitation for us to step into the unknown, alongside peers doing the same. We could try new avenues of writing, take risks, experiment and face down difficult subjects. This was the seed that grew into The Fear Talking.
Coping mechanisms can be problematic
Everyone’s mental health works in different ways, and I’m wary of recommending a single coping mechanism. They can be problematic.
When I was younger, a number of coping mechanisms began to form to help me regain some quality of life in the face of anxiety: they allowed me to leave the house, attend college, see my partner. But they became a necessity, and they demanded more of me, becoming a series of rules, becoming a consuming obsession.
OCD had snuck in under my radar and taken root; the behaviours it drove me to do were my coping mechanisms and the only way I knew how to deal with anxiety.
To this day, coping mechanisms can be a kind of addiction I have to keep an eye on: short term relief, long term reinforcement of the original problem.
However, there are genuinely effective ways of managing that I would recommend. Going outside, even if you can only manage a few steps from your back door. It may not feel like it at the time – it can feel like a nightmare! – but any small excursion can push anxiety back a little.
Mindfulness of what I can hear, taste, smell and feel helps to pull me out of the melee of intrusive thoughts.
Anxiety has a preoccupation in the past and future, so it can help to purposefully turn my attention to the present. Focusing on the senses is a way to do this. It can sometimes only work for a moment or two before the thoughts take over again, but that can still feel like coming up for air.
The Fear Talking is available on Amazon, Waterstones and via Barbican Press.
Chris is Programme Director of the Hull Online Creative Writing MA. He lectures in Creative Writing, gives guest lectures on mental health, and teaches reflective writing in other faculties. He works in research, collecting the stories of others and arguing for their value as one of the best ways for us to learn. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Hull,
Instagram: westo90 / feartalking