Why skydiving cured my anxiety

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When I was seven, my parents bought a half-built house on a brand-new estate. It thrilled me to think we’d be the first people to live there. Everything would be as it should be; no yellowing circles on the ceiling, not crunchy stains on the carpet, no rotten fence posts. It would be a show house; a perfect house.

Thinking back, it was obvious I had OCD even then. My mum showed me a plan of the upstairs rooms on a sheet of paper. There were three bedrooms left after hers, and I was to choose which one I wanted. There was one huge room, with two windows and space for a double bed and sofa, one medium-sized room and one box room. I chose the box room. My logic being that it would be the easiest to keep tidy. My mum eventually convinced me to take the medium-sized room, but the huge room I left for my younger sister. Sure enough, it became the ‘play room’ and was forever a mess. I congratulated myself for making the right choice. I didn’t even let friends sit on my bed for fear of creases or my soft toys falling into the wrong order. I wanted my world to be small and manageable so that I could maintain full control over everything in it, which is what OCD means for most of us – the greater and more vague the boundaries, the less likely things will be ‘perfect’. I was a seven-year-old perfectionist. 

Thankfully, as a teenager, my OCD manifested itself as wanting to be the best at everything. The silent competition I had with myself actually helped set me up for life, so the condition has its pros. It never hindered my social life and I loved going to school. In my late teens, my ODC switched to food. I was always conscious of eating the perfect balance of food groups. Carb-on-carb or meat-on-meat was a no go. If you’d given me a chip buttie I would have cried. Again, this seemed to work in my favour. I was slim, healthy and knowledgable about food.

At Uni, it was superstitions. I was always seeing ‘signs’ and thought there was a meaning behind everything a typical OCD trait. Reading into everything comes part and parcel with doing an English degree, so my natural thought processes made for excellent critical thinking and literary analysis. OCD to the rescue once again. 

I suppose I never bothered to have my OCD diagnosed because it never really hindered my life. In many ways, it was a personality trait that had helped me be the successful young adult I am. I was always aware of my need to have things a certain way and the discomfort I felt if they weren’t, as well as the fact that I lived very much inside my own head. It wasn’t until I was 25 that OCD stopped being silly little habits and quirks and turned into something much darker. I was so used to it being a positive part of my life that it felt natural to believe that when my OCD convinced me leaving the house would be unsafe, it must be right. 

My OCD turned on me, and just like my seven-year-old self, I made my world as small as I could to keep things under control. It wasn’t tidiness, food or balance that evolved, but my obsession with seeing signs. Everything became a terrible omen to something unimaginable happening. I felt like I was going to die every time I left the house. So much so, that the images of my fate played out in my head. Night terrors in the middle of the day. I was being shot, stabbed and run over in my daydreams, and couldn’t seem to wake from the horror. Things I loved doing started to scare me, and before long I dreaded getting the tube or even walking down the street. Adrenalin pumped through my body every second of the day and relaxation became a myth. Anxiety, panic, ringing in my ears. All day, every day. I did my utmost to hide how I felt and yet I still wanted to be the best at everything, which tired me out beyond belief. The best thing I ever did was ask my GP for help.

A year later, I’m so pleased to say that I’m back to ‘normal’ thanks to 12 sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I still felt wary of the world, but the more I faced up to it the better I felt. In a pledge to myself that I never want to feel too scared to live a full and exciting life again, I decided to say a massive a ‘fuck you’ to fear, and to OCD, and jump out of a plane in Queenstown, New Zealand. As far away from home and safety as I could get. It was the best (and most terrifying) thing I have ever done. I no longer feel as though OCD dictates my decisions. It’s still there at times, sure, but I’ve learned not to rely on its authenticity. I have learned that fear is nothing to be afraid of, because it’s so imperative to living that we actually feel alive. Stuck in the house and hiding from the world, I felt terrified and close to death. Jumping out of a plane took my existence to another level. I felt oddly calm and accepting. I was in control of my decisions and yet completely out of control. I took a chance, and felt liberated at last.

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How it feels to find ‘the one’

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It’s still a shock that these words form part of my vocabulary, but on 9th March, my boyfriend proposed to me. He booked us into Kandaya, a luxury resort in the Philippines, and proposed to me by candlelight on the beach. Champagne, white sand and starlight. Playing the song I always hoped he would. How the bloody hell did I ever get so lucky?

As surprised as I was, the feather-light feeling resonates more with being offered a job you were quietly confident about, and still being completely and utterly surprised about getting. Of course we are going to get married. I knew that from the very beginning. I just didn’t allow myself to believe I could be so fortunate. That finding ‘the one’ could be as easy as drunkenly bumping into someone at a festival.

I’ve naturally spent the hours since Joe’s beautiful proposal reflecting over our 3 years together. He came into my life and made it shine, made me shine. Why should anyone settle for anything less when it comes to being with someone forever? Because I honestly believe the perfect person is out there for absolutely everyone. And if you waste time obsessively searching, or settling for second best, you’ll simply never find them.

I’ve had my share of turbulent relationships. I thought that’s what love meant; a kind of angry obsessive passion that steals away your energy. A fire that burns right through you leaving charred black scars, only to be filled with the same flames that caused them. Sure, you can love someone this way, but can you marry them? Devoting your life to someone demands a rock-solid foundation, not one of molten lava.

So, how do I know he’s ‘the one’? He makes me feel special. I never knew it was possible to learn to love yourself through the eyes of another. I don’t need to hide under makeup for him, and yet he still makes me want to look my best every day. He makes me feel safe. Safe enough to risk marrying. Safe enough to risk going travelling with and spending every day (hour) together. Safe enough to risk telling him my deepest fears and weirdest secrets, safe enough to risk being entirely me. Safe enough to risk thinking there are no risks with him. Which, of course, there aren’t and never will be. A relationship should give you the energy to face the world, not pose as a daily challenge.

I’ve come to appreciate that passion in a relationship doesn’t stem from heated arguments, it simmers gently in the background because of a concentrated interest in each other’s wellbeing. We never pick fights. We miss each other at any given moment we’re not together. We wave to each other from across the platform when our separate trains arrive. We go for  nights out on our own. We make time for each other’s friends. We laugh hysterically every single day. We sing duets while washing the dishes. I tell him what to wear and he cooks me dinner. And when I fall asleep in the taxi, he carefully carries me to bed.

At first I found it hard to get my head around this strange new feeling of dependency. I have always made a point of living my life very much on my own terms, and he was the same. In the early stages of our relationship, we refused to accept we were a couple, despite talking every day and spending the entire weekend together for almost 6 months before we admitted defeat. Some sort of other-worldly magnetism had been irreversibly activated. What struck me most, was how very easily I said goodbye to my old life and welcomed everything about my new one with him. I couldn’t help it, everything else quickly came second to him, purely because I loved him.

I’m not saying that every relationship should look like mine. But without pressure, it should be able to turn into something effortless. Something you both understand and accept to be true. Something that, however it looks to other people, makes you happy simply because it exists without cause. Something that was just always meant to be there, completely beyond all control and reasoning. Natural, raw and self-assured.

The beauty of the whole thing, and the very reason I know it’s right, is that I didn’t sacrifice myself for him, or he for me. Combined, something clicked and we created new-improved versions of ourselves. I went from unemployed and unsure of everything to living in London and writing for a living. I dared to believe in myself, and my dreams started to come true one by one. His best friends became mine, and mine his. Our relationship brought people together, and our lives connected so seamlessly its hard to imagine how they ever existed before.

Best of all, I accidentally found him. I wasn’t searching for love, it just happened. Maybe I’m just one of the lucky ones, but mostly I want people to know that the love you see in films does exist. For everyone. If it’s possible to be that happy, it’s always worth the risk. Worth waiting for and fighting for. Have faith in chance and the everyday connections we have with the world, and, like that, love will find its way to you too.

Lost luggage and learning to let go

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One month into our travels, my absolute worst nightmare came true. After a 13-hour journey from Indonesia to New Zealand, we were the last people waiting at the luggage belt. That sinking feeling surged deeper and deeper into my stomach until airport staff told us all the bags had been unloaded. Mine wasn’t on the flight.

I can imagine this would be pretty upsetting for most people. Inconvenient at the very least. But for someone with OCD, who constantly fears the worst, it is absolute hell on Earth to have your fearful thoughts come to life. The gates of possibility to all the other terrible things that could happen are suddenly flung open. It is basically a horrible confirmation that you were right to worry, which is problematic when worrying doesn’t solve a thing. My mind went into overdrive trying to remember all the remain-calm techniques I’d learned in therapy, as I raced to the baggage claim desk.

‘Sue’ from Jet Star (don’t ever fly with Jet Star) was the most miserable cow in the whole of New Zealand. The conversation went something like this.

‘Do you know where my bag might be? Here’s the tag and flight number.’

‘No. Maybe it missed the connection. Leave your details and we’ll contact you tomorrow.’

‘I’m not leaving until you’ve traced my bag. That bag is my whole life right now.’

‘I’m calling security.’

And she called security on me, whilst I was having a panic attack. Fortunately the policeman got the wrong end of the stick and thought she had called him to help me. We eventually convinced her to contact Sydney airport some 3 hours later, who claimed my bag had got stuck on the luggage belt and should be with me in 24 hours. 24 hours of wearing Joe’s vests and pants was unappealing but do-able, so I forced myself to put the whole thing to one side.

The next day the airport called to say they hadn’t received confirmation from Sydney the bag had been found. It was dubbed ‘lost’. I felt numb, but I refused to panic. I calmly made a list of everything that was lost, had a little cry and carried on with the day. We drank bottles of beer in the sunshine and wandered up and down Queen Street buying a few bits. Later in the afternoon, Joe managed to track my bag online. The status had changed from ‘tracing’ to ‘arrived at airport’ and the relief of waking up from a bad dream swept through me. They had got it wrong. My bag was couriered to our hostel at 10pm that evening.

What struck me most about losing my bag was how quickly I accepted losing the clothes. It was the sentimental things that really upset me. The letters and photographs, the tickets I’d kept, the shells I’d collected, the notes I’d written. I was grief-stricken at the thought of losing those. But the clothes, which a month ago I would have held just as closely, I was ok with. And weirdly enough, the experience has made me feel less anxious in general. Because, basically, bad stuff is going to happen, and there is literally nothing you can do about it. If you want to be ok with it, you will be. Life goes on. And, of course, most of the time it could be a whole lot worse. Sometimes it’s important to give ourselves a shake and recognise just how fortunate we are that fairly trivial matters can seem so significant.

One of my aims of travelling is to feel less dependent on material things. And, although I still have quite a long way to go, this experience has brought me one step closer to where I want to be mentally. So actually, it turned out to be a positive thing. You never really know what’s good or bad until you allow time to take its course. It’s hard to put that into practice but it’s so important to remember.

I hope reading this encourages you to be patient if things aren’t going your way at the moment. If you are learning and growing, you are winning. It’s as simple as that.