Tied up in disgrace/How can we keep a man so long/Waiting for a fate/Stripped of all our hearts/Never dreamed we would belong/In a world, a world that’s just gone wrong
And if we try to stand alone/We’ll be playing with a force beyond control/Our faces pressed against the glass/In the knowledge you belong to us
Hot Chip. 2015. Need You Now.
You don’t have to stay in this game.
Mardy Fish, the former World Top 10 ranked tennis player, recently disclosed how anxiety had erupted inside his life. He went on to describe his debilitation as it subsequently disordered him. It begins at the US Open in 2012.
I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.
And I can’t do it.
I literally can’t do it.
It’s early afternoon; I’m in the transportation car on my way to the courts.
And I am having an anxiety attack.
Actually, I’m having several anxiety attacks — at first, one every 15 minutes or so, but pretty soon every 10. My mind starts spiraling. I’m just freaking out.
My wife is asking me, “What can we do? What can we do? How can we make this better?”
And I tell her the truth: “The only thing that makes me feel better right now … is the idea of not playing this match.”
She hesitates, and looks at me for a second, to make sure I’m serious. I am serious. This isn’t me thinking — this me reacting, feeling, trying to survive. She answers plainly. “Well, then, you shouldn’t play. You don’t have to play. Just… don’t play.”
You don’t have to stay in this game.
look at what they make us give
Friday 5 April 2013. A year after my Mom’s death. I’m increasingly exhausted. And when I get off the bus and see my parents’ house, I’m lost. Maybe PTSD. Maybe dissociation. Definitely trauma unlocked. And the worst set of panic attacks. Way worse than 7 December 2000, in the middle of my first breakdown. Because this time I was supposed to be getting well, right? And there I was, frying my synapses.
And with nowhere to run, and with my mind on fire, I got drunk so that I could survive. And I put living on hold. And next day I went to Stafford and then to Burslam to watch some meaningless football. And then I fled to my friends in the vain hope of staying sane; of finding safety. Because after 24 hours at DefCon1, and with cortisol pouring into my marrow, I was fucked.
It was relentless. And I was fucked.
And three days later I did what was normally normal. I got on a train to London. To speak at a conference with my friend Joss. On a non-stopping train that would deposit me in London in one hour and six minutes.
No time at all.
And by Market Harborough I was barely holding it together. Wondering if I could get the guard to sit with me whilst I went insane. Wondering who in the carriage would sit with me so I could survive. Texting my wife to ask if she could pick me up because, if I could face it, I was getting straight back on the next train home. Texting my therapist to ask for an extra session. And the realisation that I had 50 minutes left to survive. And seriously doubtigthat I would?
Because the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.
Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.
And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.
And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.
And is this disordered life normal for me now? How did I live in India for six months in 1993? How did I get on a plane to Syria in 1998? Or travel to New York in 2010? How did I defend my Ph.D.? How did I manage to teach and to present so often? How did I travel to the ends of the country on my own to support Walsall away? How did I trust myself? How did I have faith in the core of me?
This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.
the disorder of performance anxiety
And Mardy Fish connects his anxiety to specific forms of performance and heightened expectations, which shattered his Self-perception.
[M]y expectations changed, both externally and internally, along with my ranking. Looking back, this wasn’t necessarily the healthiest thing. My dissatisfaction with the status quo — that had been so helpful when there were 20 players ranked in front of me — crossed over into something more stressful, and then destructive, I think, when that number became reduced to seven.
The idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one — it drove me, at an age when many players’ careers are winding down, to these amazing heights. But it also became a difficult switch to turn off. I was, objectively, doing great. And looking back, I wish I had been able to tell myself that. But doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword.
And then it infected everything. Work, life, Self, everything. Infected.
when I returned to the court that summer, around Wimbledon … that’s when I began to get these really weird, new thoughts. Uncomfortable, anxious thoughts. Like I was nervous about something that was going to happen — even though it kept not happening.
I was a guy who loved being on my own. I loved traveling on my own, that solitude. That feeling of shutting off your phone and heading on a long flight … that used to bring me peace. But I couldn’t travel on my own anymore. My parents had to come out to Wimbledon. I needed people around me at all times, period.
And through it all, I just kept having these … thoughts. This anxiety. I became consumed by this exhausting, confusing dread.
And the attacks just kept… getting… worse.
It was only away from the court that this problem existed, and compounded. That these thoughts kept creeping in. And they were becoming more and more frequent: from once or twice a day, to a handful of times a day, to eventually — when it got really bad, by the end of the summer — every 10-to-15 minutes. Anxious, overwhelming attacks of thought. When I’m back at the hotel, I’m googling “anxiety disorder,” “panic disorder,” “depression,” “mental health” … but really I knew nothing about any of it. I didn’t know what to do. I just had no idea.
At least, I told myself, it wasn’t happening on the court.
And then it happened on the court.
hoping for scabs; praying for scars
I used to think that the depression was the worst thing. But as it passes I see that it isn’t/wasn’t.
And in the great unbundling of therapy, this is the result: two years of anxiety and dread, because we have revealed the core of me, and all I have left is to persevere in reordering my disorder. Finding faith in myself.
And I remember the meltdown before my inaugural. That in front of 200 friends I would have to run. Or be so overwhelmed that performance would be impossible and hatred (mine and others) would follow. And my mate Johnny texted me to ask “how badly are you shitting yourself?”, and I smiled and normalised it and held it together.
And I remember getting on a train to London to see my buddy Martin, only the train was non-stop so I had to get off as the doors closed. Because otherwise there would be no safety valves for an hour. And so I waited for the slower train that stopped everywhere. Because you to have an escape route.
But escape from what?
And I remember a meltdown in Nuneaton waiting for a train to Coventry to examine a Ph.D.. That it was too much responsibility. And having to call my therapist for reassurance that staying in this game was enough. And in persevering, the collection of positives was added to and remembered.
Whilst the trauma was unpicked, so that the scabs could form, and then the scars.
And I remember the panic of a night away from home in Brighton. And the terror of speaking the next morning. The most nervous I have ever been before speaking. So that the exquisite irrationality made me want to run. And I spoke and then I left, because staying would have shredded me alive.
Home. Safely. Safety.
Because staying and speaking, and answering questions and then leaving, was everything. And at the time I felt I gave nothing. And now I know that I gave everything. All played out.
And there were visits to Crewe (a 1-1 draw); and to Wembley (a 2-0 defeat); and to the Globe (for Richard II); and to the Oval (in the sun). Each a trial. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Just stay in the game.
I remember that this inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe, has a longer lineage. That once I wrote that:
The reality was that I would be sitting in meetings wondering what excuse I could use for leaving: sickness, headache, whatever. Only if I did leave, then what? Go insane? Self-harm? Run until I dropped? So, as I sat in an interview with a PVC, another Professor and a member of senior management, I survived the rage in-between my temples. They would not have known how close I was to screaming.
Persevering whilst the trauma is unpicked, and the scabs form, and then the scars.
It won’t always be like this.
Do you wanna know how far you’ve gone?/Do you have any idea?
Everything Everything. 2015. The Wheel (Is Turning Now).
against persistent undoing
And I am reminded by a friend that Keguro Macharia writes that she has battled a dual reality. Trying to face trauma inside/against/beyond work, and trying to understand how narratives about trauma reinforce or undermine identity and Self, and our relationships to work/not work. She tells friends that
I’m wrestling with my own disorganization. My own “persistent undoing” given the occasion of the social. I am “undone” when I leave the house, walk down the street, encounter an absenting normality.
Exhausted and medicated. Under assault. Still performing as a form of self-harm. A cover for something else.
And the moment of self-care comes when she describes
the real story, the one I have been telling and not telling over the past many years of blogging,  a Fanonian story about toxicity and exhaustion. It is a story about slavery’s long shadow and racism’s insistent pressing.
I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.
And in holding her “real story”, I feel the concrete, on-going toxicity of past trauma reinforced in the present through culturally-acceptable self-harming activities like overwork. Reinforced and replicated through the performances we make each day, and the narratives we tell about ourselves, in order to keep going. Only the boundaries between keeping going and giving extra are blurred. Overlaying our abstracted labour on-top of our disorder. Our persistent undoing.
And I recognise that work and overwork, and the search for status and identity, are overlain on top of the fear of losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. And this rationally irrational anxiety feels normal because it is rooted in time. Stitched into my DNA from way back when.
A complex of: them/me; then/now; work/unwork; doing/being; lost/found; alone/together.
So that living has been my greatest fear. A fear to be worked on.
So that my anxieties emerge from the core of my existence.
So that my performing/being is both the seat of my self-annihilation and my ultimate means of self-care. If only I would find some faith.
And in holding Keguro’s real story, I recognise that this is exhausting. These falsehoods. These false stories. This lack of faith in Self. A life lived survived this way. It is exhausting.
It won’t always be like this.
It is an uncertain business, said the old man. You must persevere. To persevere is everything.
Cormac McCarthy. 1998. Cities of the Plain.