when you suffer from anxiety, what is true luxury?
Luxury: a concept as individual as ourselves. Amid the daily bombardment of the pressures of life, the biggest luxury can be losing yourself in the moment. Eleanor Morgan reflects on writing her first book about her experience of anxiety.
Luxury is an evocative word. Saying it out loud conjures all kind of imagery. Soft leather, high thread counts, the dapple of cerulean pool water as you kick your legs through it on vacation. Luxury is not just material or tangible, though. It's a concept that implies richness of experience and we all have our own associations of what that looks and feels like. One person's milk and honey might be another's bed of nails, and vice versa.
No two minds are the same. From cradle to grave, who we are is a work in progress. The brain works in infinitely mysterious ways -- ways that, despite the advance of neuroscience, still leave scientists scratching their heads -- but we do know that our individual responses to life are the product of many things including genetics, early cognitive development, experience, and memory. Nature and nurture. When we consider how subjective any concept is, then, the idea of luxury feels less connected to its definition -- one that denotes great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense -- and more to who we are as individuals and our circumstances at any one time.
For many, luxury and money are inextricable concepts. Without money, it's not just the feeling of soft leather between our fingertips, sleeping and having sex in top-drawer Egyptian cotton, eating out at fancy restaurants where the sauces are glossy and finished with pats of butter or going on vacation that seem unattainable: it's the freedom of decision.
Luxury to me, more than anything, means stillness of mind. Because as someone who lives with anxiety, being able to absorb the present is something I find hard.
Having no money robs you of all but the basic decisions of what to spend your last few bucks on and why. For the millions of people living in poverty across Britain thanks to our government's villainous slashing of welfare budgets, luxury is not having to ask yourself: "Shall I turn on the heating or have dinner tonight?" It is the little extras that put meat on the bones of day-to-day existence -- having an extra fiver to put on the gas key so you can have a deep bath, buying Pilgrim's Choice cheddar instead of Tesco Value, getting the bus instead of walking. All things people who don't know what it's like to be poor will feel very far away from.
As a child, my parents were poor. We went through phases of being very poor indeed. I still don't know all the reasons why, but I know there was debt and unsuccessful businesses within the framework of two people in their mid-20s with three kids under five trying to do their absolute best. My dad had to cycle to work in Zone 4 London from the Essex countryside because he couldn't afford to put gas in the car. Having not yet lived the experiences that would shape me in adulthood, my grasp of luxury then existed in the moments when my senses were hyper-engaged. It was mostly gustatory, I think; being allowed a second helping of pudding (tinned fruit cocktail and Elmlea), a screwball from the ice-cream man, that kind of thing. Not having a lot of money meant we lived basically, so anything that happened outside our routines was deluxe. That's probably true for so many people.
When I was a student, luxury was having enough student loan left at the bottom of my overdraft to get a cab home from a nightclub instead of the night bus. As a journalist in my early 20s it was a similar story. Today, in my 30s, it means being able to afford travel, eating in good restaurants sometimes and the material pleasure of having nice things. More than anything, though, it means stillness of mind. Because as someone who lives with anxiety, being able to absorb the present is something I find hard.
I've lived with anxiety all my adult life; 'lived with' being a variable term. Sometimes I've suffered with it to the point of despair and periodic retreating from the world. Other times it's in the background, a small smudge on my glasses lens. But getting to the point where it can be smaller for longer stretches of time has been a long road strewn with jagged potholes. It's taken -- takes -- so much commitment and any of the strategies I've learned at dealing with anxiety are by no means foolproof. What I've accepted, though, is that my state of mind is always transient. It never stays the same.
Sometimes I've suffered with anxiety to the point of despair and periodic retreating from the world. Other times it's in the background, a small smudge on my glasses lens.
Anxiety can make living in the moment very difficult sometimes, when you're stuck in loops of catastrophic thoughts and the different banks of symptoms they can bring. Our perspective can be so inwards-facing that the world and all its color rushes around us rather than into our eyes, ears, and hearts. This is what makes being able to be present, truly present, so luxurious.
How do we do that, though? How do we zoom out of our tough, fast, digitally-saturated world and zoom in on ourselves in a way that affords stillness? It's the million dollar question posed through every media outlet under the sun and one that has no clear answer. It's not just the plight of those who have experienced mental health issues, either -- although it certainly can make the task harder -- it's everyone's.
Earlier this year, I finished writing a book about anxiety. My own experience was the skeleton key with which to ask wider questions about something that is at the heart of the human condition but can, in some people (millions of us across the world) become disordered. Exploring not just the roots of my own problems but also why some people develop disordered anxiety and others don't was a major part of my research but I kept coming back to the same thing, which is that scientists have some clear ideas of why anxiety can become such a problem, but nothing that's truly black and white. This can be a lot to get your head around.
There is no "cure" for anxiety -- what a luxury that would be! -- I've learned, but there are a great many options for treatment that can help someone like me living with it, well, live. Fully, happily and purposefully. Over the course of writing the book and the extended periods of solitude that came with it, I examined myself more than I ever have. Sometimes I found myself weeping with frustration, other times I sat for hours with words pouring out of me, unaware that the daylight had gone.
I realized that the richest feelings I know don't come from anything I can touch or wear on my body: they come when I realize I've not been aware of time passing.
I contemplated the idea of luxury a lot and realized that the richest feelings I know don't come from anything I can touch or wear on my body: they come when I realize I've not been aware of time passing. This may be because I'm an anxious person, but I think it's also probably because I'm a person full stop. Our minds are more advanced and therefore capable of perspective than any other animal, but sometimes our nature works against us. In many ways, we're over-wired for the world we're born into.
These moments I'm talking about, when I can stop and be aware that I've not been aware of myself, happen most when I'm outside, in a natural environment, not looking at a laptop with the time and date in the top right hand corner. When I make the time to go and be outside -- which I do every day, as one of my strategies -- I feel the benefit and, through writing the book, I've learned the scientific basis for why that is. We all know that unplugging from the internet, our phones, whatever, and looking at some greenery is good for us, but the actual chemical changes that happen in the brain and how it can affect our state of mind is fascinating. It happens when I'm engaged in nonsense talk with my friends. Laughing at utter bollocks is probably the freest thing I know. It also happens when I'm listening to what people are saying and when I'm learning which is why I've decided, after a decade of writing and editing, to apply to do a masters in psychology and work towards retraining as a clinical psychologist. I'm very aware of what a privileged position it is to be in, having the freedom to make a decision like that.
It's a very existential idea, but I think luxury is a feeling rather than something we can touch or measure with material objects. Is that not what we're seeking, deep down, when we spend money on nice things? A feeling? If we remove money from the picture, perhaps luxury is the moments when we're taken outside of ourselves, even momentarily. It is the feeling of time, suspended. And it looks different for every single one of us.
Anxiety for Beginners is published by Bluebird (PanMacmillan) on June 2nd.
Text Eleanor Morgan
Image Kai Schreiber