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Why Anxiety’s No Joke – Mat Ricardo

Here’s the joke. The joke is that the way you’re probably feeling now – washing your hands all the time, staying indoors as much as possible, nurturing a growing suspicion and fear of all other people, having a base level of heavy dread that the end of the world might be slowly happening, and constantly, obsessively thinking about death – you know – those thoughts? The joke is that that’s the way people like me who live with anxiety disorder and OCD feel pretty much all the time. Funny joke, no? Well, no. And it’s also guilty of using mental illness to be smug, which probably isn’t for the best. But, as someone who does feel some of those things, even on a normal day, maybe I can suggest some coping techniques if you’re a little newer to the party. Some guidelines that I, your internet pal, Mat Ricardo, regularly fail to follow!

One of the reasons this is hard is that it’s new. Most of us haven’t ever experienced anything remotely like this before, so we have nothing to judge it against (except movies and TV shows that use something broadly similar as a jumping off point for visions of empty cities and a cliché yet bloody, violent breakdown of the human race. And that ain’t helping anyone). We’re scared because we don’t know what the end to this looks like, or when it might happen. We have the anxiety of someone worried about what might be around the next corner.

I’ll tell you what my therapist used to tell me. It’s true, you don’t know what’s around the next corner. It might be something bad. It might be something wonderful. But judging by previous experience, it’ll probably be neither. It’ll probably be just some more street and then another corner. So you have the simplest choice – either you keep moving forward, or you choose to stop. And the thing is, if you choose to stop because there might be something bad around the corner, you’re making a big choice based on limited information, and the place you’ve stopped might itself be bad. The fact that you’re standing at this corner means that there wasn’t anything bad enough to stop you at any of the countless previous corners, so the chances are that this one’ll be ok too, right? This is a long-winded way of saying what Robert Frost said in 1914 – “The best way out is always through”.

It feels odd writing this when something palpably, obviously, enormously bad has, in fact, happened. But as so many sufferers of other bad things know, it’s about getting through today as well as you can, and doing the things that science tells us will help bring a faster end to the awfulness. Those things are not difficult to do – washing your hands and staying at home are simple tasks. And this, by the way, is where my OCD really shines. Being introverted, seeing things in absolutes, being inflexible in following instructions? All things that usually make me less fun, but right now – this is my time! What makes it difficult isn’t the complexity of self-isolation, it’s the worry and boredom. And those things don’t play well together.

Your mood is going to jump around. You’ll think you’re doing ok, and then you suddenly won’t be. That’s what it’s going to be. Your feelings are allowed and valid. Share them with people who’ll understand – you’ll feel less alone. Personally, I’m veering wildly. One moment I’ll be thinking that this is a great opportunity to create stuff for people to watch or read online, and  that I’ll read some books, and finally start suffering and write that symphony. But the next moment I’ll be convinced that I’ll never do another show again, I’ll never feel the warmth of a live crowd in front of me, never hang out with my friends, or travel somewhere beautiful – that this is what life is now, until it’s not anything at all. But the reality is, at least for the moment, it’ll just be more street and another corner. The chances are that we will get out, by going through.

Sorry. I’m aware that this isn’t a particularly hilarious or maybe even insightful read. Sometimes a writer writes just to get the words out of their head. I’m going to try to make this the last self-indulgently negative thing I make for a while, but no guarantees. I think if there’s anything that’s been of worth about my writing over the years, it’s been that I’ve always tried to be honest, so if I’m feeling scared, or sad, or whatever, I’m probably going to talk about that – and in doing so, it’ll help me, and, with luck, also you. Make sense?

And the bottom line is: I am feeling scared and sad. I miss the feeling of community that lives backstage and the feeling of validation that I see from that stage. For better or worse, I feel the most complete version of myself when I’m performing, so when that is out of reach for a while, it’s easy to feel that there might be, somehow, less of me.

I’ve lost a few people close to me in the last few months, and the voices in my head every so often make me think about what it would be like to lose more. I’m trying to distract myself by doing and making, and it’s sometimes working, but sometimes its not. Sometimes I just see all tunnel and no light. And I remember another thing my therapist used to sometimes say – “Well, that sounds like the right thing to be feeling”. It’s true, right? If you were being super chill during this world-changing event, then that would be the worrisome thing.

I’m going to try to keep making all kinds of stuff, mostly because people probably need things to watch and read, and partly because it’s what I know how to do, and I need to be doing things. For all of my life, making has been my safe place, so that’s where I’ll be.

Keep in touch – keep commenting, sharing and suggesting things – let me know I’m not just shouting into a void. If I know someone’s watching, I’ll try to keep making.

Catch Mat Ricardo on this week’s episode of our Mental Ideas Podcast (May 14) at 2.30pm HKT on RTHK Radio 3. Death & The Frozen Tundra, which also features American actor Dan Davies, is one of our favorite episodes!

PS: Here are some things Mat’s been making while on lockdown in London…

Teach yourself to juggle!

Kitchen tricks

Lockdown TV collections one, two, three, four, and five