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Anatomy of Anxiety

Last year, Funny Women got involved with a study into the personality traits of female comedians with Oxford University, the results of which we have just published. These overwhelming reflect the fact that creative people, male and female, are subject to mood swings ranging from euphoria to anxiety.

Conducting this research led me to examine my own behaviour as I am very familiar with mood swings and recurrent anxiety is a common state if you work within a creative industry. It goes with the territory.

My husband often asks me what I am anxious about and still struggles to understand the anatomy of my panic attacks, a recurrent symptom of my own depressive condition.  These attacks fluctuate in frequency and intensity and wouldn’t necessarily be evident, even to close friends and family.  Over the years I have learnt to tell people when I feel this way and I still have to remember to ask for help.

This is because I suffer from a high functioning form of depression that doesn’t always present in a way that is recognisable as psychosis. I didn’t come close to being diagnosed until I actually had a full on nervous breakdown.  Even this was attributed to post-natal depression as it occurred when I had struggled back to work after the birth of my second child. In fact, it was far more complex and involved a range of triggers only one of which was giving birth.  Nearly 25 years on from this first ‘episode’ and there have been a number of others ranging in severity.

The triggers vary and the episode itself may not occur until up to six months after the event – as when my father died suddenly and incomprehensibly of a heart attack on holiday in New York with my mother in 1998.  I went into coping mode to organise the funeral, comfort the family and support my devastated mother.

Six months later the crash came when I least expected it. I ran a public relations company at the time and was in the midst of a difficult client meeting when the tears started.  I couldn’t stop crying and took to my bed for several days to deal with the sorrow and grief that had been lurking beneath my seemingly capable surface.

The hidden and worst symptom of my depressive condition is a form of mental paralysis.  It takes over my physical and emotional responses and I find it hard to function and socialise.  My husband, whether he knows this or not, takes over on these occasions ensuring that I eat properly, and actually go to sleep rather than watching television or listening to the radio until I have numbed my brain from the mental pain.

There is a well-known expression, ‘analysis paralysis’, which describes the byproduct of overthinking. When I am in this state of mind I find it hard to process or analyse anything.  Let alone be creative. I just want to be pointed in the right direction, fed, watered and told what to do.  The irony is then, that I will do it, and quite well.  I may seem a little distant and distracted and, at my most extreme, hyper anxious, but I will still function in a way that even surprises me when I emerge from the fog.  I often don’t remember what I’ve done in this state.

I meet so many people in the comedy world who have experienced depression and mental illness. Mild or acute their symptoms are often unpacked on stage.  Over the last few years at the Edinburgh Fringe and since the death of Robin Williams in August 2014, there has been a ‘coming out’ about mental illness.  Ruby Wax, Dawn French, Susan Calman and Sara Pascoe have all written books that explore the depths of the human condition and many comedians choose to explore their demons in the form of comic material.  It will be interesting to see what the Fringe offers us this year.

For my part, this year has been challenging with many unforeseen ‘triggers’ and it has been hard to stay focused.  The anatomy of my own anxiety remains enigmatic. Survival has been down to the kindness of good friends and strong ties with some amazing women who support my work.  I am not going to name you all but you know who you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.