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"Safe spaces with sharp edges: lessons in fearing the worst" by Jane Ayres

Dorothy, my paternal grandmother, was a worrier.

I grew up in the ’60s and ’70 when folk who had anxious tendencies were simply called worriers. Excessive worrying wasn’t regarded as an illness, but rather a weakness, for which the solution was to “pull yourself together.” A phrase I still find both infuriating and facile.

My childhood memories of Nanny Ayres revolved around her staying mostly indoors, seated on the floral-patterned settee, her purring black and white cat, Ringo, nestling in her crimplene-trousered lap. Dorothy loved telling – and playing – jokes (she especially enjoyed encouraging her many grandchildren to amuse themselves with her whoopee cushion collection, accompanied by a scratchy 45rpm recording of The Laughing Policeman on the radiogram. Popular in 1920s music halls, it was her favourite song). Some of the family regarded Dorothy as a hypochondriac, since she always had one or more ailments on the go, and she was terrified of going to the hospital. So when she died there two days after being admitted with a sudden heart attack, my teenage self was distraught because I understood how scared she would have been that her worst fear had come true. The lesson seemed to be: whatever you are most afraid of will happen. It’s haunted me ever since.

Like my beloved gran, I’m a “worrier” – a dyspraxic who suffers with debilitating anxiety issues, OCD, catastrophic thinking, and hypervigilance, which means threats are perceived and expected anywhere and everywhere. Navigating life in constant fight-or-flight mode is exhausting, stressful and damaging. Change or unfamiliarity of any kind makes me uneasy. Even buying a pair of shoes or knickers. I’ve spent a year researching what kind of sofa to buy and have not found the right one yet, so write this perched on my duvet-covered, recycled office cast-off. I stick to the same food types and trying anything different is usually a major event. Decision-making becomes a tortuous process of running round and round in never decreasing shall I? shan’t I? circles, examining the consequences of each available choice, favouring the worst possible scenarios. I won’t use a new skin product or medication or consume food I haven’t eaten before, or undertake any activity I regard as remotely risky, on a Friday or weekend in case of a reaction that leads to a hospital visit or stay, because hospitals (my ultimate terror) are far more dangerous places during weekends because of lower staff:patient ratios and less consultants, so statistically (unsurprisingly), there are more deaths. These carefully considered thought processes lead me to believe I am being pragmatic and sensibly cautious.

Staying indoors offers the illusion of control. Leaving the cocoon of my familiar home for a daily walk requires willpower. I could easily never go out again but I mustn’t give in. I have to trick my brain, and access tools acquired through CBT treatment. As night draws closer, so do catastrophic thoughts. Sleep used to be a safe place, but when I’m like this, insomnia strikes and any bouts of sleep are jagged and barbed. Will I wake up seriously ill? Or not wake at all? Then the palpitations start. I can feel, and hear, my blood pulsing, pumping. My brain is constantly on red alert to new dangers, in addition to existing threats. Every niggle, ache, twinge is magnified tenfold. Could that lump be something sinister?

I sometimes wonder how much my anxiety is genetic and how much due to the world we live in – nature or nurture – and suspect, with no scientific evidence whatsoever, a combination of both. When I think back, trying to pinpoint the moment I transitioned into a spiralling coil of fear, trying to understand how this version of myself emerged and solidified, I realise it’s been a slow incremental drip since my teens, accelerating more dramatically after losing both parents to pancreatic cancer, and a husband to COVID-19, with an unexpected total hysterectomy in between. And somewhere deep in my psyche is the fate of my lovely gran and the horrifying, turbulent unfairness of life for so many. Each tragedy adds to the previous one, amplifying the impact, and pervasive sadness permeating every unravelled atom of your being. Grief and guilt lock us in time, compel us to revisit that last conversation, wanting a different outcome, a better ending because the people loved and lost didn’t deserve to suffer. When the past is too painful, and the future full of fear – known and unknown - the here and now is all there is.

To survive, many of us sleepwalk through life. I used to kid myself those awful things that happened to other people couldn’t happen to me. But they did. They do. An alarming prospect. If experience teaches us bad situations can always get worse, when the unthinkable happens – like the election of grossly incompetent governments, an unprecedented pandemic, or the people you love dying horrendously – anything (bad) is possible. The catastrophic global consequences of COVID-19 effectively legitimised my constant, exhausting concerns about germs and health, reinforced existing unsettling preoccupations and medical phobias. I had been validated. I wasn’t crazy. I was right all along. Along with other members of the unnaturally anxious minority. Not only were we right, our numbers are growing, and we are more visible than ever.

Lessons will be learnt is something heard a lot in recent years. Usually from hospitals and governments and those who have some kind of authority. But the lesson I have learned is that lessons will never be learnt. Which makes me angry and deeply sad. This truth extinguishes hope. And although hope is a mirage, a construct that keeps us going, without it, the world is a dangerous place. Keeping hope alive keeps people alive. If there is no hope, what’s the point in anything? But hope is something that lives in the future. And right now, the future is the scariest place of all.

Humans are programmed to make sense of our lives, our brains wired to search for patterns so we can delude ourselves about what is – or isn’t - likely to happen. Like the way we tell ourselves we might win the lottery, that when the dice repeatedly throws up a six it will inevitably throw up a two. Which is nonsense. Life is a series of random episodes. We are marking time in a surreal waiting room, which is pretty hard to swallow.

Uncertainty is my biggest enemy and if I could eliminate it, I would. Listening to a Radio 4 programme about decision making, I heard Gerd Gigerenzer, Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, say that without uncertainty, life would be empty and boring because if we knew everything, there would be no need for hope, trust, disappointment, surprise - things that make us human. I am still pondering this contradiction.

Ironically, although I live in fear much of the time, I am also immensely grateful. Grateful I have somewhere to live, food I can eat, fluids I can drink; grateful I can still go to the loo; grateful I can walk and speak and see and hear and breathe. I’m especially gratefuI I can read, because as long as I can read, I can escape. I never take it for granted this will always be the case.

Using my sense of humour as a coping mechanism to distract myself, I realise in hindsight that’s probably what Dorothy did. After all, laughter is supposed to be the best medicine. (Who said that?). I don’t tell jokes or listen to The Laughing Policeman but instead, watch and listen to favourite comedies, retreat deeply into nostalgia. And I write. Because the act of writing fiction or poetry enables me, for short periods, to pretend I’m in control.

In the past, I always berated myself for being “weird” but when the world is weirder, perhaps weird is the new normal. Whatever that is.

Just hand me the whoopee cushion….

UK based neurodivergent writer Jane Ayres re-discovered poetry studying for a part-time Creative Writing MA at the University of Kent, which she completed in 2019 at the age of 57. In 2020, she was longlisted for the Rebecca Swift Foundation Women Poets’ Prize. In 2021, she was nominated for Best of the Net, shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award and a winner of the Laurence Sterne Prize. Her first collection edible was published by Beir Bua Press in July 2022. Website:

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