Mental Tinnitus

Once again the cold ache descends and I retreat into the dark corner of my mind where stillness and chaos are one and the same.  My rushing thoughts echo through the trees from a distant waterfall, barely audible yet impossible to ignore.  Whispered half sentences hang in the air above it.  In the search for fully formed thought some of them escape and I watch as they come closer.  They begin to mutate, growing wings or sprouting horns so that when they reach me they are impossible to grasp; either gliding delicately through my fingers or tearing my skin.  They turn into ghosts and set up homes in the branches above me.  Largely unaware of my existence, they play just out of reach, singing half-forgotten choruses and teasing one another.  I sit, empty, watching; too tired to climb up and join in the conversation, too numb to invite them to come down to me.

This is the best way I know how to explain my mind on a bad day.  Having never been given a formal diagnosis from doctors or counsellors, I have come to understand my experience of what I believe to be anxiety as a type of mental tinnitus.  It is always present yet hardly noticeable in day to day life.  However, the very fact it can be drowned out by other noise means that when I do experience its symptoms, they often comes as a shock. The panic attacks appear to come from nowhere, the exhaustion feels unwarranted and the lack of motivation uncharacteristic. It seeps into my sleep, giving me vivid nightmares, and conducts sporadic ambushes, taking my motivation, aspirations and self-esteem hostage with no ransom note or conditions for release. I am never ready. 

And yet, at the same time, it is so tediously predicable. So repetitive. So boring.   Once again, I am too anxious to meet friends, once again my limbs feel so heavy I can’t move, once again I become a burden to people I care about.

So I keep busy, which largely keeps me well.  And wellness is what I would like to focus on.  Because my anxiety doesn’t define me - it is something I experience.  As a friend describes it - ‘it’s all just weather’.  I don’t say this to be glib or discount the experience of feeling mentally ill - sitting outside on a warm summer’s day is much more pleasant than during a snow storm -  I say it because it helps me feel safe.  It reminds me that, much like wearing a coat or sitting beside a fire with a hot toddy in your hand reduces the discomfort of adverse weather conditions, there are ways to navigate the seasons of your mind.

And that’s what I am doing right now; exploring ways to sit in a snow storm, listening to a whispering waterfall while ghosts play overhead.  Sometimes I ask friends and family to come and sit there with me, sometimes I ask them to take me on a walk so I can rest, I write songs, practise yoga, read books, play football and breathe.  It may last 5 minutes or it may last a couple of weeks, but by talking openly about it, letting people know what I need to feel well and finding activities that give me a sense of purpose I am learning to find meaning in the blizzard when it comes around.  

Words by Clare Mcbrien  

Illustration by Danni Gowdy (