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Confessions Of An Over-thinker : Part 1

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

Hi. My name is Rik.

And.....and....and I'm an over-thinker.

I've been in and out of recovery for about 30 years, although I've been pretty clear for almost 5 years now.

I first realised I had a problem when I was about 12 years old.

It was the turn of my school year to get the TB jab (tuberculosis vaccine) and I had heard the rumours of how painful this could be from the boys in the year above. I worried myself senseless about the prospect, to the point where I threw a sickie on the day of the jab and was the only kid in the year not to have it. This backfired on me though because I learnt I would have to have it the following week anyway, only this time I would be on my own without anyone else's support. When I found this out I asked virtually every kid in the year dozens of questions about the jab - Did it hurt? How much did it hurt? How long did it last? How long was the needle? Does it hurt afterwards?

I was trying to gather enough positive responses from the other kids to try and ally my fears, but only ended up intensifying my suffering and angst. This was the first time I realised that I wasn't in control of my mind and that living inside my head there was a neurotic lunatic. That loony would rear it's ugly head on a much more regular basis as I blossomed (staggered awkwardly) into my teens.

I worried about everything. I worried what people thought of me. I worried about what I thought about other people. I worried about my health. I worried about my parents' health. I worried about my school exams. I worried about my exam revision. If there was an anxious thought to be had I would sniff it out, analyse it, analyse the analysis, and then analyse it just a little further for good measure.

By all accounts I gave off a calm, confidant exterior to friends and family. Rather like a swan I was appearing to glide gracefully across the lake, but below the surface I was scrambling desperately just to stay afloat.

This early teenage over-thinking seemed harmless enough, after all isn't that what everyone else was going through? As my teens rolled on, this reasonable anguish turned into full-blown anxiety and an overwhelming feeling of being out of sorts. This was 1983 though and fellow Mancunians The Smiths were singing about this very same sense of not belonging, and so again I put it down to just 'normal'.

By the time I was 16, I was doing (failing) A-levels, smoking pot, meeting girls, growing my hair, listening to The Doors, and over-thinking EVERYTHING. When my friends would smoke pot and then giggle and talk silly shit for the rest of the night, my mind was contemplating the meaning of life and the Universe.

My first panic attack happened when I was 17. I was living at home. I woke up late and could hear the sounds of my family in the house. I sat up in bed and my mind seemed to be a few seconds behind me, like a slight out of body experience. The feeling scared me and a rush of sensations raced through my body. This was almost instantly followed by what felt like a million negative and scary thoughts flooding my mind, swooshing and swirling and making me feel absolutely petrified - like I wanted to run away from my own mind but knowing there was nowhere to go. My mum came in to the room to talk to me and just her being ordinary and normal freaked me out even more. I couldn't relate the ordinariness of her and how she could feel alright compared to the sheer terror that was going on inside my head.

I didn't know this was a panic attack. I had never even heard of a panic attack at this point in time. I just thought I was going mad.

Nothing was ever the same again after this incident.

For a while I felt hyper sensitive. It felt like I was wearing my nerves on the outside of my body. A single negative thought could trigger a panic attack, and a panic attack could last for days and sometimes weeks. As soon as I would feel I was making a recovery, something else would come along and knock me back down again.

My parents noticed the change in me, and even though I tried to describe what I was experiencing, they couldn't quite understand it. I went to see psychologists and psychiatrists. I went on medication. Nothing helped.

Except for one thing. Music.

Skiving off my art foundation course at Manchester Poly, I would retreat into the library across the road, get stoned and listen to The Beatles whilst reading every Beatles book that the library had. I was particularly drawn to George Harrison's contribution to The Beatles and indeed the mystical journey he went on. I found the book that George talked about often, The Autobiography Of A Yogi by Paramahansara Yogananda, read it from cover to cover and felt a connection with something greater than myself for the very first time. I didn't quite know what it was yet, but I sensed that there was a deeper world out there somewhere for me to be a part of. A world where my existential crisis would make some sense.

This book, alongside George Harrison's solo album All Things Must Pass, provided me with a tiny, delicate thread of hope, a chink of light in the darkness. I held on dearly to this sense of 'something' that I couldn't quite describe but knew it resonated deeply within me, and most importantly at the time it made me feel just a tiny, weeny bit better.

A casual conversation with a friend revealed we both shared the same feeling of dread and despair, but with a sense of something deeper to be found. I'm not sure we even would have used the word spiritual yet, it just wasn't at that level of understanding yet. She introduced me to a book called The Handbook To Higher Consciousness by Ken Keyes. This book totally proved to me that there was a deeper world to be discovered within me, and although that inner world seemed like daunting and scary like a deep, dark, eery forest, with Ken Keyes and Yogananda's guidance I could possibly find a way through.

I began to feel a little better and my confidence grew when I started a Media Production course at Salford University. For the first time in my life I truly found something that I was really, really good at. I had been making radio programmes and films with my best mate since we were 11 and 12 years old, and so finding a course that allowed me to do just that was quite literally a godsend. I made loads of new friends and things in my life were good for a while, and although there was always an undercurrent of depression and anxiety, I learnt to live with it.

A burgeoning talent for smoking weed didn't help my anxiety though. I justified it at the time thinking it made me more creative, but in truth it just made me anxious, negative and apathetic.

I continued to visit psychologists and taking medication but nothing really helped to shift the underlying feeling that I was perpetually standing on the edge of a precipice about to fall in.

The medication began to make me feel emotionally numb and I didn't like that feeling at all. I began to resent being on tablets and so this just further consolidated my self loathing. I had a constant sense that there was something wrong with me, I was broken, my mind hated me, I was weaker than other people, I was never going to feel happy.

Four years of enduring depression and anxiety plus the pressures of my final year at University culminated in what at the time was considered a breakdown - a good friend (who will enter the story properly soon) later told me that this was actually my breakthrough not my breakdown.

All I remember is being driven to The Priory by my mum and dad. It was December 1994, it was dark and rainy outside. I looked out of the car window, the rain drops on the outside trickled down the window pane, and through the blurry pattern of the rain I saw my own reflection and I noticed that I was crying. I looked at myself in the window and thought - Who are you? How did it come to this? What's going to happen to you now?

I don't remember the rest of that night but I do remember the next morning, having a shower and getting dressed in my room. It was like a hospital room but perhaps just a bit more homely. I was asked to come to the main room to have some breakfast. I walked in and saw a room full of other zombie-like people. People suffering the entire spectrum of disorders - anorexics, addicts and depressives.

I have issues myself with eating in certain places. I'm a very picky eater and so I struggled to eat anything other than chips with mustard the entire time I was in hospital.

The day was filled with group sessions. I hated every minute of them. I thought they were useless. A stubbornness developed in me, essentially I was cutting my own nose off to spite my face, but at the time it didn't feel that way. I was withdrawn, quiet and disinterested. As the week moved on though and I got more familiar with the people, I opened up a little bit and found that I started to enjoy the sessions more. I developed a strange sense of kinship with the other members of the group and day by day my barriers came down. We were all the same really, all of us lost and scared and trying to find our way in the world, but maybe just a bit too sensitive still to know how to deal with it properly.

My dad called me one day and asked me if he could bring me anything when he came to visit that evening. I'm honestly not sure where the request came from but I asked him for the new Barenaked Ladies album Maybe You Should Drive and there was also some book that I had heard whispers about, presumably in one of the group sessions, called The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman.

God bless my dad, he brought those exact two items with him later that day. Me and my dad weren't getting on great at that time, we hadn't for a few years to be honest. He couldn't understand my depression and anxiety at all, he was from the 'pull yourself together' generation of men whereby emotions were something to be brushed under the carpet and buried away never to be seen again. He resented my pot smoking too, and attributed that entirely to my illness. It was only years later though that I realised the magnitude of this awesome gesture of him bringing these two items to me. These were the days before Amazon, if you wanted to buy something then you had to go into town and find a shop to buy it from. Now my dad was not a record shop kind of guy. His entire personal record collection consisted of a handful of Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond albums. Wandering into HMV and searching for a CD by a band called Barenaked Ladies would have been a challenge for him. He did it nevertheless. He also produced the goods with The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior, an obscure title anyway, especially in 1994 when the Mind, Body & Spirit sections in a bookstore were just a small single shelf in the Psychology section. He found it though.

I have thought a great deal over the years about the image of him wandering across Manchester City Centre on his lunch break, seeking out these two very specific requests for his poorly son. I know he was frightened by my condition but didn't have the emotional vocabulary to reach out to me and tell me it would be okay. I don't think that he even knew it would be okay, I think this experience was so out of his comfort zone. But at the time his way of showing he cared was to buy me these two things that he knew I wanted.

He passed away almost 13 years ago, and thankfully we became great buddies in later years, even working happily together for the last 5 years of his life. I think of it a lot, this kind, wonderful gesture he did in the time of my darkest despair. It brings tears to my eyes even now. Thank you dad.

The gesture became even more poignant to me when the next day after receiving the book, I lay on my bed and started to read it. It was mid afternoon and I think we were on a break from the group sessions and had some time on our own in our rooms. The book immediately grabbed me. It was told from the point of view of an ordinary guy, a guy like me. A young college guy, struggling with himself and trying to find his way in a confusing world. I was enjoying the book very much, but then I read a paragraph that changed my life. It felt physically and emotionally like the clouds parted, the sunshine burst through and the darkness shifted. It wasn't a huge epiphany, or a monumental awakening moment - it was a very subtle but profound inner shift. I felt a warmth inside that I hadn't felt since I was young. I just knew that everything was meant to be, that it would be okay somehow. I wasn't cured or better, not by a long shot, but that feeling changed everything for me.

I have tried on many, many occasions since then to find that specific paragraph that triggered this feeling but have been able to do so. Perhaps it wasn't the specific words on the page, but the culmination of the work I had been doing and just a moment of grace. I have never forgotten that moment. It was a turning point.

I still think The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior was the book that changed my life forever. The main character meets a spiritual guru, mentor and teacher called Socrates who guides him back to a fuller, happier, purposeful life. From then onwards I became desperate to find my own Socrates, someone who would guide me and help me find my way back to life.

Incredibly, he would turn up in my life in just a few months time.

To be continued.......

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