Grief, Anxiety + Seeking Sustainability

My graduation from university collided perfectly with the aftermath of the economic crash. The general tone surrounding employment was ‘get a job, whatever you can and keep it’. Before too long I managed to secure an account executive role in a London marketing agency and quickly got into the swing of a pretty hectic but typical work-hard, play-hard lifestyle.

Seeing myself as someone who has rhythms, emotions, limits and needs has put me in a position of power.

The agency environment was an ever-moving hubbub of deadlines, pitches and client schmoosing. It was busy and stressful and the simmering of anxiety I’d felt since as long as I could remember started to rise. But I had stripes to earn and a ladder to climb and learnt to cope, mostly with the help of letting my hair down at the weekends and spending my wages at Topshop Oxford Circus. Plus everyone seemed to be locked into the same game of catch up. As far as I could tell frantically treading water was the norm and something to get used to.

A few years into my job and December 2013 rolled around. I was at home on a normal Sunday evening painting my nails ahead of the office Christmas party, due to take place the next day. I got a call from my Dad that would pull the rug out from underneath my life and shake up everything I knew. My big brother Chris had been involved in an accident. My Dad was calling me to break the news to me that he had died at the scene. It was the kind of phone call I never for a minute thought I get, and one I’ll dread receiving again for the rest of my days. At that moment I was instantly thrown into a surreal parallel universe and my life was divided into two parts: before and after Chris.

Coming back to London after the funeral a month later, I tried to pick up where I’d left off but it was a real struggle. My old life didn’t fit like it used to. In the time I’d been away I’d changed shape. Carrying on as usual felt pointless and exhausting. The only thing running through my mind was the fact that Chris had gone. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Grief consumed every cell of my body.

In the aftermath of Chris’ death my anxiety grew even more. The worst had happened, which validated the underlying suspicion I’d always had that I was in danger. The stress of the situation exacerbated it too. When someone close to you dies it’s not just the grief of losing them that you have to face, family dynamics get thrown up in the air, everyone grieves in different and sometimes conflicting ways, there’s lots of admin to do and in the meantime, you still have to make a living and continue being responsibly for all the things you were before. It all felt so cruel and impossible. After a few months of managing to put one foot in front of the other in a bog of thick mud, I ground to a halt. I was sinking and I needed help.

So far I’d only ever been to the doctor about physical things before. I had no idea what they could do for me, but I made an appointment anyway. Thankfully the GP I saw was an angel in disguise. She dismissed the sense of failure I was feeling over the fact I hadn’t managed to carry on business as usual and showed a huge amount of compassion for my situation. I was signed off work for a couple of weeks and although I was paranoid no one at work would understand why, it was a relief not to have to go through the daily marathon of getting up and going out into the world with my brave face clinging on.

It was during this no man’s land period that I ended up finding my way to a yoga studio. A place near my flat had a 30 day unlimited trial for £40. I’d seen the ad somewhere and decided to give it a go. Initially, the excursion gave me somewhere to go and took up a good chunk of what seemed like very long days. I was grateful for this. What I hadn’t bargained for was how moving around on a mat would make me feel. I felt a connection to my body that I previously hadn’t experienced before. This practice of mindful movement and breath somehow urged me to be more compassionate towards myself. It seemed to offer a more hopeful path than the modes of self-destruction I so far had been relying on to manage my pain.

I didn’t understand quite what was happening but I continued to go back after the 30 days were up. Even though I was still shouldering the weight of my grief I started to notice some more positive effects. After class, I felt much calmer and less anxious. This was another new experience for me. Realising that I could do something to ease my racing heart and mind was revolutionary. It was as though I was learning a new embodied language. Instead of desperately trying to push down or cover up how I was feeling, I began to hold space for it. It ushered me to see that even though I had no physical wounds, I needed to heal and to do that I had to learn to be gentle with myself.

I’ll never be grateful to have been flung so savagely into the path of grief, but I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from it.

Becoming more skilled at showing myself compassion opened my eyes to just how much pressure I’d previously felt to carry on at all costs. Rest had never been an option for me. I didn’t view it as necessary or strengthening but something I didn’t have time for. Rest was time I could spend doing something. Self-care wasn’t a tool I called on either — unless you count the odd face mask. It had also never occurred to me that stress might be something to address rather than just muddle through. Stepping outside of my tunnel vision of busy I saw that exhaustion signalled to me that I’d done enough, and only at this point did I feel a sense of satisfaction. Doing was far more instantly gratifying than not doing and there was a buzz to it. Existing in a state of striving wasn’t good for me but there was a comfort in knowing who I was when I was wrapped up in it.

I’ll never be grateful to have been flung so savagely into the path of grief, but I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from it. It’s been a humbling process of coming back to my humanness. Learning how to listen in to what I need to support myself has helped me move through the intensity of my grief but also heal the anxiety I thought was part of my DNA. As human beings, we are incredibly strong and resilient but we’re also living, breathing beings that need to be tended to. In a world of more is more, swimming against the tide of busy and pushing things to the limit takes real courage. I’ve had to dismantle and rebuild my belief systems. I’ve had to untangle my worth and identity from how much I’m doing and how stressed I feel. It hasn’t been easy and it’s still a work in progress to this day. But the ripple effect that has come from honouring what I need to be well has been mammoth and this spurs me on. I have found a freedom in getting to know my value outside of the work I’m doing and the pace I’m moving at.

My darkest hour taught me to respect the fact that I am not a machine and striving to be one is something I’m not interested in being involved in. I see my strength and resilience in a whole new light but I see my humanness too. Rest and self-care are now tools I believe in. Busy is something I can brush up against without being consumed by.

Anxiety is a fleeting companion I’ve learnt to befriend and stress is an experience I no longer get stuck in. Seeing myself as someone who has rhythms, emotions, limits and needs has put me in a position of power.

I still experience pangs of ‘I should be doing more’ and glimmers of what I can only decipher as survivors guilt over the fact that I’m not stressed every day. Unlearning old patterns does take time. When these thoughts and feelings rise I challenge them and check back in with my internal compass to remind myself what really matters to me and how I want to live from one day to the next. This gives me the courage and momentum to keep pushing back on the hustle and carry on carving out a life that feels sustainable.

Clare Proudfoot, 2020 - follow her here and here