“Have you seen Meerkat Manor?”
I wasn’t sure where my counsellor was going with this one. I had previously been asked to read various self-help books but when she suggested I borrow her meerkat book I was slightly perplexed.
So she explained it to me. In meerkat communities there is always one ‘lookout’ – proactively looking for danger. Warning others of impending doom. That was me. I was that meerkat.
It’s funny to think of your anxiety in animal form. You start to see it as a cute quirk rather than a terrifying element of your personality. A friend once gave me some advice about arachnophobia: “If you see a giant spider, imagine it wearing a disco dress.” Cute isn’t it? (Although admittedly I still dance around like an uncoordinated Northern Soul fan when confronted with an eight-legged fiend!).
So did thinking of my anxiety as a meerkat make it stop? Of course not. But it did make me more accepting of it, and it helped me talk more openly about it – which has made a big difference.
My meerkat has been with me every day over the years – to varying degrees. When my husband leaves for work I hold him like it might be the last time. When the washer/dryer is on I complete a cat head count to make sure my lovely moggies aren’t being drowned or burned alive. Yes, the images are fairly graphic.
A few months ago I waited outside M&S to meet my oldest girlfriends for hours of gossip and shopping, but my mind was elsewhere. I was busy googling ‘jaw cancer’ trying (unsuccessfully) to reassure myself that I didn’t have an aggressive tumour about to tear my face open. One side of my jaw felt slightly different to the other, and, after 48 hours prodding it I was in a bit of pain. I have since had three separate professional opinions on it all saying ‘it’s just the shape of your face’.
But the self-diagnosis changes every few weeks. I’ve had ‘lymphoma’, ‘thrombosis’, ‘bowel cancer’, ‘heart defects’ and many more (including two bouts of ‘meningitis’ that landed me in A&E – both times being told ‘you’ve bruised your skin scratching it’).
Currently, I’m obsessed with having a life-threatening allergy to hair dyes. When you’re in your 30s with 50% greys it’s not a good thing to panic about. If you’re going to hyperventilate on the no 38 bus you want to look good doing it! So my poor hairstylist spends an hour extra on my hair using special products and foils so the dye doesn’t touch my scalp. And why all the greys? She tells me it’s probably stress related. I think she could be right…
I’m not belittling anxiety in any way. I’ve had panic attacks where I couldn’t see or walk, or where I thought I was going to die. But it does help to think of it as my quirky trait, nothing to be ashamed of.
Having accepted it I decided to take control. Mindfulness, meditation, positive thinking, watching cute cat films on YouTube – these things do work! And, although it’s not for everyone (and certainly not forever), medication is stopping the physical symptoms from making matters worse, giving me space to put the positive behaviours into practice. I am starting to understand it. And it is starting to understand that it can no longer propel me towards debilitating panic. At least not very often anyway.
So I’m finally getting to grips with my rebellious little meerkat. Instead of fighting it I’m learning to laugh with it. And maybe one day, I’ll be happy to dance with the pretty little spider in her cute disco dress.