I don’t really think of myself as having anxiety. I’ve never had medication for it and I’m aware a lot of people do – so I figure I can’t be that bad. However, a massive part of my life consists of hanging around overthinking about the 1 thing on my mind – and it’s always 1 thing at a time.
My friend Sam and I talk about the ‘worry hole’ – a phrase coined by Karl Pilkington to describe how there’s always 1 thing that you find yourself worrying about – a hole that needs to be filled.
Once the current worry goes away, the next worry comes to fill the hole. Its a funny idea because it reveals the nature of anxiety, that your troubles really don’t need to qualify or merit worrying about in any objective way.
No matter how comfortable life gets, there’s always something at the top of the list because the list is an infinite scroll of new things to care about.
This fits well with how my mind works. There is always 1 thing that seems like the big deal right now, nothing else comes close to this 1 thing, and depending on the nature of the thing, it can go between a casual distraction that occupies my thoughts all the way to having no appetite and feeling the abyss is right around the corner.
In July last year I went to the GP about a weird mole that’d been on my left knee for ages. I first noticed it in 2018 and last year it bled and scabbed over a bit after being in the sun. I’m covered in moles, probably 150+ and I’ve never been to the doctor about one before so I knew I might be about to open a nice big box of worries for myself but it needed to be done.
To my increasing horror, I got referred to dermatology at the hospital and they decided it should be removed and analysed to see if it was cancer. But, they added, it was probably alright to wait until after my 2 week summer holiday.
I went home provisionally reassured. Then I got an email with a pdf summarising my appointment. The pdf said that my mole would be checked to see if its melanoma. I totally freaked out, thinking I must’ve been in denial and misunderstood the seriousness of what was happening. I remembered stories of my Granda:
nurse: “do you understand what’s wrong with you Mr Maughan?”
granda: “the Doctors say they aren’t sure but it’s definitely not cancer”
nurse: “… well you do have cancer Mr Maughan”
He died a few months later. I called nana Maughan, who herself freaked out because she lost her daughter (my aunt) when she was 21 from a melanoma on her leg. Everything in my little universe was trying to turn my head towards the abyss of death. We went to a Lady Gaga concert, you might think a nice distraction, yet before sitting down we got chatting to an Australian lady who without me saying anything, brought up that her father had multiple recurring melanomas and was now dead.
I lay in bed for days staring at the ceiling trying to come up with ways I could stop myself from dying of cancer. Everything was about death, the Gaga song ‘Edge of Glory’ became a sort of cathartic hymn to help me try to embrace death. I glanced at my Apple Watch and my first thought was: ‘amazing these people design such a beautiful object when they know we’re all just going to die one day’.
I decided to ask if the surgery could be done asap, forget the holiday, I can’t enjoy the holiday anymore.
So they did bring it forward – to the the day before we left. Turns out when you have 5 stitches on a wide wound on your knee the best thing to do is not bend your knee too much and don’t submerge it in water. Unfortunately we’d paid for a hiking trip in the Dolomites and Alps so I pretty much had no choice. I’d hobble around the Alps, checking intermittently for bleeding and checking my phone for the verdict from the lab. My appetite would come and go depending on what we were doing that day and how much it could distract me from thinking about skin cancer.
The verdict came on penultimate night of our trip, a call from the hospital to say the mole wasn’t cancer and I had nothing else to do. The relief was immense, I lay in the hotel bed and felt pleasure surging through my body. The torturing was silenced for good (for now).
Then, 2 days later we go our puppy labradoodle Ziggy. Now honestly we never would’ve got a puppy if it wasn’t for my ‘cancer scare’. Hao wanted a dog and found some puppies on the internet and I simply had no appetite to resist or reason our way out of it like I normally might (e.g. lets wait until we have a garden?). I knew I might die, it didn’t seem important, if he wants a dog let’s get a dog, whatever.
One week after this, my Nana Maughan died suddenly from a stroke after taking too many blood thinners in hospital. Bringing all my ideas and thoughts about death back to me in a reflective way were it wasn’t me who had to die – but there’s a post for another day.
Over the months that followed Ziggy filled the worry hole in many ways. He drank too much water, he peed too much in the house, he howled and barked when left alone. I think best thing about having a puppy is you feel like you’re drowning for a few weeks and then like magic they gradually calm down and it gradually gets easier and then you really start to fall in love.
So here we are 5 months later in the middle of January 2023. I’m sitting in a Starbucks waiting for Ziggy to finish getting his first haircut. My worry hole today is as full as ever but its not torturing me like last Summer – this time its ‘dog separation anxiety’ – the prospect that our dog has removed our freedom to go out for dinner or go watch a movie at the cinema because he goes crazy on his own. On Saturday and Sunday Ziggy was at home for an hour and he just slept nicely, but earlier today he barked for 90 minutes, pacing around like a caged lion. It seems we have more work to do and it seems anxiety at one level or another is something we all have to struggle with, not just humans.
And, when this problem is solved (touch wood) – there’ll be a new worry for the hole.