Did somebody’s nose hairs just rustle? Did someone, somewhere just scratch their forehead? Did a car backfire a few streets away? Did my neighbours just drop something on the floor? Not the neighbours upstairs but the ones one lift-shaft, two blocks and three floors away?
Welcome to the wonderful world of anxiety, which in my case revolves around sounds. Not just loud sounds or annoying ones or antisocial ones. I’m talking pretty much every sound that doesn’t emanate from me, my stereo system (yes, I still have one of those), my television set or my clatterings around the kitchen.
I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect. Not every sound sets me off but when the anxiety’s in full flow I seem to develop a superhumanly acute sense of hearing, tuning into noises that no-one else seems to notice and, at certain pitches, only dogs usually hear.
There are very good days when I can go for hours without anything jarring my outer, middle or inner ear, OK days when I get a bit narked and bad days when I find it hard to concentrate on the telly and wonder if Van Gogh had the right idea when he opted to cut his ear off.
I’m glad to say I can’t remember the last time I had one of the really bad days and mostly it’s a mix of very good and OK ones. But I’ve felt the anxiety creeping up a notch lately - hardly surprising, given what’s happening in the world - and I’m determined not to let it get the better of me, as it sometimes has in the past.
Focussing on noise is, I’ve been told by various professionals, just my brain’s way of channelling the anxiety towards something tangible. It is also, from what I can gather, pretty specific to me, as I’ve never met anyone else who reacts to even the slightest sounds the way I do.
Someone talking all the way through a play or movie (back in the good old days when theatres and cinemas were still open) whilst munching on a full meal? Anyone would be annoyed by that, right? Someone shouting into a cell phone in the street, supermarket or on public transport? Ditto.
But neighbours going about their business at acceptable volumes? Seems it’s only me who tunes into that one.
And it’s not even a case of me getting annoyed when, very occasionally, the volume rises above acceptable. It’s more about wanting to know where that mild thud, dull thump, sudden rumble or slightly raised voice came from. Once my brain has rationalised it all I can relax again. Until the next mild thud, dull thump, sudden rumble or slightly raised voice.
Again, I’m exaggerating. If it happened every time there was a mild thud, dull thump, sudden rumble or slightly raised voice I wouldn’t be able to function. Sometimes I’m tuned in, sometimes blissfully tuned out, sometimes rattled, most times fine and dandy.
But it has, as I say, been ratcheting up a notch.
Christmas was pretty crappy but not because of regulation-defying parties going on around me (there weren’t any in my hood) or households and support bubbles popping champagne corks, cracking open crackers and rustling paper hats. It was more because I felt horridly unwell - totally wiped out for hours at a time, energy levels skimming the carpet, no interest in food, hardly any interest in booze (which, for someone who knows he needs to cut down, was a Christmas miracle!)
I’m already a hypochondriac (more details about that here) whose worries about physical anomalies have gone into overdrive since COVID came along, so you can imagine how my brain was whirring about this mystery illness - when I was awake, that is. I was sleeping for 11 hours each night and a couple of hours each afternoon, which thankfully didn’t leave much time for worrying.
I thought it might be COVID but the test I had through the Office For National Statistics survey I’m enrolled in came back as negative.
A couple of phone consultations with doctors also raised “no red flags” in their expert opinions.
The first one said the fatigue and weirded-out sensation that went with it was probably anxiety and would I like some SSRi medication to get it under check? (More about that in a mo.) She also said the tension I’ve been feeling in my throat for god knows how long could also be anxiety or it could be acid reflux, and would I like medication for that too?
I said yes to both, put the anxiety meds in the cupboard so as not to have a side-effects-affected Christmas, took the acid reflux pills and spent most of the night on the loo. I’ll spare you the details but it felt like I was passing acid, not curing it.
A quick follow-up call the next day and she switched me to another brand, which seemed to heighten my tiredness and general sense of unease. I won’t name said brand for fear of a lawsuit but a Google search revealed I was not alone in my reaction to them. The side effects aren’t common to everyone but they affect some people and trust me to be one of them eh?
I spoke to another doctor, who said it was best to lay off them for now. So, to protect my delicate system, I’m gurgling on Gaviscon when needed. I’m not even sure I have acid reflux, to be honest, but until I can get an ENT check-up on the 12th of never there’s no real way of knowing. I need to speak to the doctor again to request that and, as it’s not urgent, he’s not available until February 1st. Then there’ll be a long waiting list before I can see a specialist, so for now I’ll just have to swallow and bear it.
As for the anxiety medication, I’m holding off taking it until I’ve explored other avenues. I have taken SSRIs (aka selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) in the past, when my anxiety has gotten so bad I needed medical help to break the cycle, but I’m not in that pit of despair yet. Plus, I’m one of those people whose recovery comes with side effects (see, I do have a delicate system) ranging from insomnia to the fidgets via ennui and weight gain.
For now, then, I’m trying a bit of self-care: Cutting down on the pints of Pinto Grigio, eating healthier (with the occasional French Fancy thrown in for badness), regular walks, naps when needed, Zoom chats and daily phone calls to those friends who have time to listen to my litany of woes.
I’m starting a weekly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course, which I’ll report back on after a session or two.
I’ve tried CDB oil, on one friend’s recommendation. It comes, from what I can gather, from cannabis plant extract, is meant to be good for anxiety along with a whole slew of ailments and no, it’s not illegal. But I placed a few drops under my tongue as instructed and it felt like I’d swallowed an ashtray that hadn’t been rinsed out for weeks.
The same friend also recommended I try a weighted blanket, which many people swear by for lessening anxiety. Apparently they replicate the ‘deep pressure stimulation’ that comes from getting a really good massage as well as reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also, reviewers say, make you feel like you’re getting a reassuring hug.
So I bought one. A 9kg one. Without realising you’re supposed to go for one that’s around 10% of your body weight, which in my case means it should weigh 7kg, not 9kg of glass-bead-filled blanket that I could barely get out of the box, let alone hoist over me on the couch.
I huffed and I puffed until I got it over me, breathlessly thinking: “This isn’t a hug, it’s homicide. By an elephant. With a grudge.”
It didn’t feel like massage, it felt like murder by inanimate object.
It went back the very next day and not without hassle. They wanted me to print off a label and take it to the Post Office, even though I could barely lift the damn thing and would have had to add a strained back, a couple of slipped discs and several hernias to my list of ailments if I’d made the schlepp down the High Street.
I managed to secure a courier collection instead and ordered a 7kg replacement. And I love it. It’s still pretty heavy and I’m not sure I’d want to be under it all night, but it’s great at relaxing me before bedtime while I languish on the sofa watching telly.
Another upside… I’m trying to fight the habit of getting off said sofa to investigate whatever external noise I’ve just heard or think I’ve heard, and my weighted blanket is a great help in that regard because it pins me in place.
Even when I feel compelled to listen at the window, jam my ear against the wall or peer through the peephole into the communal corridor to try and suss the source of that mild thud, dull thump, sudden rumble or slightly raised voice, it’s just too much effort to shuck off those 7kg.