I am Cath Mattison, a 48 year-old speech and language therapist living in the south-east. I am a mother of four teenagers, a wife, owner of two dogs and I have a secret.
I don’t talk about this. It’s my secret. Occasionally I do tell someone I trust – but not often. I can’t cope with the possibility of not being believed. It’s happened before and it hurts.
So here goes. I have ‘Phobic Anxiety Disorder’. Yes the same person who you might have seen on stage in amdram shows, making a speech at my twin siblings’ 40th, performing as a backing singer in a Bowie tribute act. It’s true. I have ‘Phobic Anxiety Disorder’, otherwise known as ‘Social Phobia’ or – my own name for it – ‘The Beast’.
When I am in specific social situations, my body responds in an abnormal way. I experience panic attacks, palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea…. I have fainted and vomited many times in these situations. The psychologist who diagnosed me hit the nail on the head when he described it as experiencing the same physical reaction as a person would experience in a situation of extreme terror. It was a relief when he could tell me what it is.
I was born with Phobic Anxiety. My earliest memories are of feeling terror. I was terrified at playgroup, school, brownies, tennis lessons and any other clubs I was sent to. Children are at the mercy of adults – Teachers / Brownie Leaders / Tennis Instructors can at any time ask a pupil to stand up and read something out to the class, answer a question or demonstrate a tennis stroke. I had no control and couldn’t handle it. School was stressful to say the least. I was a frightened mouse.
Avoidance. The art of avoidance became my speciality from a young age. Avoidance became my crutch, my lifesaver. I quickly developed a vast repertoire of excuses and perfected the art of faking illness. If I couldn’t rely on avoidance, I suffered. I remember very clearly the dreaded history lessons at secondary school. Everyone in the class had to take a turn at reading out a section of the current text book. Instead of listening to others read before my turn, I would work out what section in the book would be mine to read out and would spend the entire time rehearsing it over and over, not taking in any of the information. Needless-to-say, I didn’t achieve my potential at school.
I was diagnosed in my twenties. I had asked my G.P. for a referral to the local mental health department after finally realising that when other people say they are nervous or anxious about something, what they are experiencing is not the same as my experiences, physically and emotionally.
Knowing what this thing is called led me to read up on it, understand it and devise a plan of action; a plan of attack. ‘Attack’ is an appropriate word. I was furious. Why was my body trying to hold me back? Why was this thing inside me forcing me to deliberately avoid opportunities? No way was it going to beat me.
My ‘Plan of Attack’:
1. Put hand up at least once a day in a lecture to ask a question, give a reply or make a comment. The reasons are irrelevant. My spoken words are irrelevant. What matters is the act of drawing attention to myself.
2. Progress to putting hand up at least once in EVERY lecture. Again, all details apply regarding what is or isn’t relevant.
3. Continue with number two but have enough control over the physical symptoms to be able to listen to the lecture immediately before and after raising my hand.
The plan involved facing The Beast full on but in baby steps and not fainting or vomiting in the process.
There were times when anxiety did beat me. There was a period of a few months when I avoided social situations because walking into a pub or restaurant was too difficult. With permission, I sat my final exams at university in a room on my own rather than in an exam hall as the Phobic Anxiety took over when surrounded by people. These are only a couple of examples. Unfortunately the truth is there are many many times when I have given in.
A turning point came when, as a speech therapist trainee in Edinburgh, I joined the local Scottish Country Dance Club. Bear with me; this will make perfect sense! Having read up on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, I found that taking my turn to dance while being watched by other dancers in the set made me face The Beast full-on. It was a bizarre mixture of terror and fun. Because the dancing WAS fun, I became even more determined to win and subsequently did a lot of Scottish Country Dancing during those years.
A further turning-point came when I became a mum. Suddenly there was another person (or, in my case, four other people) to consider – four people more important than anything. I became very conscious of what example I was setting. Suddenly the Phobic Anxiety wasn’t my worst fear; Any of my childhood being cursed with the same beast became an even more dreaded fear. The focus became teaching my children from an early age that social situations are to be enjoyed. I wanted them to learn that the world was their oyster. There was nothing to fear. Presenting myself as a socially-confident role-model became my mission.
As my kids have got older and become teenagers, it has become an even bigger responsibility to demonstrate confidence when being the centre of attention. Phobic Anxiety is often inherited from parents so they are at a genetic disadvantage. I couldn’t risk them being exposed to The Beast from nurture as well as nature. While focusing intensely on doing everything I could to protect my kids from Phobic Anxiety, I changed from someone who was terrified of the limelight to someone who has been called an ‘extrovert’! Me!! An extrovert!!
Nowadays I know my limits. I know how far I can push The Beast before it attacks. I know I can perform on stage – sing, dance and act – without fainting or vomiting. I know I can talk to an audience on a stage with a microphone. I know I can be the watched and listened to without The Beast taking over. I know this because I have done it and not fainted or vomited. The symptoms have all been there but I have found ways of controlling them so that The Beast stays caged.
My ‘Caging of The Beast’ Tips:
The Beast CAN be caged. I have managed it with the following…..
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and a gradual (very gradual) build-up of exposure to The Beast. This needs to be ongoing.
- Deep Breathing and Medication – Propranolol is a betablocker, prescribed medication which calms down palpitations. It can work well with deep breathing to take the edge off the worst symptoms therefore preventing the build-up to fainting / vomiting. I take one just before an anxiety-provoking event.
- On-Going Management – Unfortunately there is no cure for Phobic Anxiety Disorder in my honest opinion. I don’t believe it ever goes away but it can be controlled. If it’s neglected, The Beast can escape from the cage at any time so ongoing management is crucial to keeping it under control. I do this by setting myself targets on a regular and frequent basis. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t do something e.g. Make a speech at a conference. I understand and accept my limits but I do so on MY terms rather than be dictated to by The Beast. Previous aims have included performing on stage. I have built this up gradually from being able to be in the background in crowd scenes only to having a main part with lots of lines and singing solos.
- I also keep it in check by keeping in contact with the local mental health outpatients department. Occasionally The Beast has threatened to beat me and turn me back into a frightened mouse. A short course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a psychologist has been enough to keep it caged.
- I have also learnt that humour helps. Making light of this experience-limiting condition seems all wrong but being able to laugh at myself has at times been a godsend (See previous blog ‘Pre-gig Nerves’). As long as it’s on my terms, humour can definitely help.
I expect some of you might be reading this thinking ‘What a load of xxxx! Everyone gets nervous sometimes!’ But maybe there’s a few of you who can relate to this blog.
To the doubters – Firstly, I’m delighted that you don’t believe me! It means I have hidden it well. Secondly, I’m also delighted that you don’t relate to any of this because that means you don’t recognise The Beast in yourself. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
To the believers – I’m sorry that you can relate to this blog, that maybe you too are or have been a Master of Avoidance – a frightened mouse. If so, I hope that sharing my experience helps you on your journey of caging The Beast.
A final note – This blog has been difficult to write. It’s personal. Very personal. It’s been my secret for such a long time but maybe it shouldn’t ever have been a secret. There’s no shame in admitting to mental health struggles. A big ‘thank you’ to my friend Ian Brockbank whose own openness and honesty about his own mental health has inspired me to reveal my secret. Perhaps talking about it will help me keep The Beast well and truly caged… 👍
- Dancing in The Edinburgh Military Tattoo 1996.
- Backing singing in a David Bowie Tribute act, Maidenhead Festival 2016.
- My family. ❤️