I can't believe it has been over 2 months, since my last blog. The good news is that whilst I may not have blogged, the alphabet challenge has still been taking place. With my weekend workshops now back up and running and also nearly 4 weeks to spend in Iceland between now and the end of the year, I am really confident in getting to Z by the 31st December! Look out of lots of posts coming over the next few weeks.
When I started the Alphabet Challenge this year, I knew that it would potentially take me to new and exciting places. The idea, as you know, was to find a place or subject that begins with each letter of the alphabet in sequential order, photograph it, then write a blog. I have stuck to that formula so far, however, this blog needs to go ‘off piste’ for very personal reasons.
Many of you will know that seven years ago, I was suffering with terrible anxiety and had developed a panic disorder that was so debilitating. I struggled to get through most days and even the most basic of things, that we all take for granted, were hard to do. I would suffer from regular panic attacks and life was pretty shit, if you will excuse my language.
Reflecting now, on those tough times, I know there were three things that happened which changed things for me and put me onto the path which has brought me to where I am today. I can 100% guarantee you, that had I not suffered with anxiety, my photography business would not have been born.
The first thing which happened to me, was that on a very dark and difficult day at work, during the lunch break of the team meeting I was running, I discovered ‘Dare Response’. This amazing piece of work by Barry McDonagh explained what was happening to me and how I could get through it. What was so important was that Barry provided the answers I was looking for, as he had been through, and had beaten, what I was suffering with. Finding someone who could demonstrate situational empathy was so important. If you are reading this blog and suffer with anxiety, then I can't recommend this book enough. The link is https://www.dareresponse.com
The second thing which happened, as a direct result of reading, fully understanding and following ‘Dare’, was that I became very comfortable with my anxiety. More importantly, I wasn't afraid to talk about it. I freely admitted to anyone and everyone that I was suffering, what it felt like and what I was doing to get better. This was like having a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. To give you an example, prior to admitting I was suffering, I would dread going to meetings at work, I was frightened that I would have a panic attack or something really bad would happen. I tried to hide it, which only made things worse, but the fear was that if I admitted I was suffering with a mental health illness it would damage my career. When I started talking openly about it, all these fears evaporated, and I have never had any issues in meetings since.
Please don't think that I read a book, admitted that I was suffering and everything went back to normal, far from it! It took a lot of time and hard work but eventually I got there. I would have good days and bad days but eventually the bad days became less and less. However, it was on one of those bad days, when I was lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, that I came across a time lapse video on YouTube of the Northern Lights. The link is https://youtu.be/fVsONlc3OUY
Let's just say that after watching this a few times, I was fascinated and wanted to see the Aurora and learn how to create time lapse videos. The following night I was out with my camera trying to photograph the stars. I did manage to take some sort of photo, but more importantly, I had been bitten by the photography bug once again, that was the beginning of my current photography journey. I often reflect on how different things might have been had I not found ‘Dare’, admitted my illness, and seen the video.
The third thing which happened was that I learnt, while I was suffering with anxiety and having regular panic attacks, how to cope with them. Whilst you may feel unwell, scared, like you are about to have a heart attack, faint or breathless, these are only sensations. No matter how bad they get, no harm is going to come to you! This is very easy to write, sat in my office at home, totally calm. In reality, when they happen, your mind sometimes forgets all this, which can lead you to panic even more. Every now and again, I still have the odd day when I feel a bit wobbly, but it soon passes. The great news is that I haven’t, or should I say, hadn't had a panic attack for years.
Therefore, it came as a bit of a surprise when one appeared out of nowhere a couple of weeks ago. If I had been at home, or somewhere I knew well, then I doubt it would have caused me too many issues or even happened at all. However, as tends to happen with these things, I wasn’t at home, I was alone, at over 2600m in the Italian Alps, photographing a sunrise. I put it down to a few things, I was tired after a very busy few weeks, I was in a different climate, in unfamiliar surroundings and at altitude - probably the perfect recipe. Let's get one thing straight before I carry on, I am very comfortable in the mountains, and I know what I am doing. I don't take risks, either when I am out by myself or when I am with clients. I am totally the opposite, I am very cautious, weigh up every potential risk, and always have a plan A, B and C. I always err on the side of caution, it's just not worth taking risks for the sake of a photo.
The area that I was photographing was the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo (3 peaks). You can drive to within about three miles of them and then it was about an hour’s hike to get where I wanted to be. It was the first time I had visited this area, but as ever, I had planned the route, knew exactly where I needed to go and even had this plotted into a GPS map with way points in case of bad weather. I had the correct clothing and footwear, water and food. I was, in reality, probably over prepared but having lived in the French Alps in my early 20's and worked with some of the best mountain guides, this taught me that you can never take anything for granted.
This is a very popular area, and I knew that if I had any sort of problems, there would be plenty of people around. Not that I was planning to do anything dangerous, just a stroll over the top of a col (mountain pass) and into the area of the mountains where the rising sun would catch and illuminate the faces of the 3 peaks.
When I arrived there was not a soul around which was amazing. I couldn’t believe that I had the whole place to myself. I had passed a few people on the path on the way up, and I remember thinking at the time, that the countless hours I had spent in the gym over the preceding 12 months had really paid dividends. I didn't know it at the time, but psychologically they had.
Everything was going perfectly, I had arrived well ahead of the sun starting to hit the peaks, I had enough time to have something to eat and drink, look around to find some decent compositions and get everything prepared. Then out of nowhere, bang, it happened. All I can really remember, is that I bent down to put a wider lens onto the camera, and as I stood back up, I felt a little lightheaded. No big deal, but unfortunately, getting a little lightheaded was usually the trigger point for my panic attacks when I was poorly. And so, it happened again, I knew what was happening and I knew that it wasn’t going to be a problem, but I still started to panic. I felt short of breath and thought that my heart was about to explode. In an instant, my mind was dragged back to the dark days of seven years before. The feeling of isolation became all too apparent and then my mind went into overdrive - what if I had a heart attack, what if I am never found, what if I can’t get myself back to the car, am I going to die here? Of course, none of that was going to happen, but in the moment, when your mind is racing, you can very quickly stop thinking clearly and logically.
So, what do you do? Curl up into a little ball and cry? Close your eyes and pray that everything will be all right? Try to get yourself somewhere safe without thinking properly about it? You do none of these!
You sit yourself down and do your cognitive based therapy (CBT), or in my case, I followed the steps of ‘Dare’ - I started to defuse the situation by telling myself that I wasn't bothered in the slightest by what was happening and that I didn’t really give a f***! I accepted the anxious feelings and thoughts, after all, that is all they were. I mentally ran towards my anxiety - commanding my body to make the sensations even worse. Come on, I told myself, make it even more difficult for me to breathe, make my heartbeat faster, make me faint and fall over. This is the hardest part of ‘Dare’ to learn, as it is bloody scary, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot make yourself have a panic attack or make the symptoms worse - what you actually do is make them diminish. The final part of ‘Dare’ is to engage with someone or something. Easier said than done when you are in the middle of the mountains with no one about. Normally, I would have just called someone on the phone, but alas there was no phone signal. Plenty of GPS for the maps but no 5G! So, I reverted to type and just started to take photos. I worked on fine tuning my compositions, went through the process of thinking about what I was doing, what I wanted to create and how the image would look when I came to post process it.
And it worked, well the process did, as I soon calmed myself down, I felt much better. The photos, as you can see are ok but if I am being honest, I’m not happy with how they turned out. Saying that, I have never tried to take images in a new location whilst having a panic attack :)
Deep down, although I knew I was over the initial panic attack, I knew that I still had a good walk back to the car and had mentally prepared myself, knowing that this time, it would be slightly more challenging than I had originally expected when I arrived. I wasn't in any danger of falling off the side of a mountain and on the descent, there were a lot more people around. However, I did need to repeat the ‘Dare’ process a couple of times but each time the sensations were much less than the first time. When I eventually got back to the car, I was pretty exhausted mentally, but I also knew that the episode was behind me.
You may have guessed already, that in taking the time to write about this experience, it is firmly drawing a line under everything for me. It is quite cathartic to do so.
I am very proud of the fact that I have suffered from and have beaten anxiety. Having a mental health problem is not something you need to be embarrassed about, it is something you should feel comfortable talking about. We now live in a world where these things are accepted rather than frowned upon. To be honest, if anyone did have an issue with my past suffering of anxiety then my life and world would be a much better place if they were not part of it. I can honestly say that I have never experienced this, totally the opposite, just love and friendship.
What did I learn that day? Well for a start, I knew that I wasn't having a heart attack, I push myself extremely hard in the gym and do lots of cardio. My climb into the mountains was a walk in the park compared to what I do in the gym, so psychologically that was a massive help. I also know that if it happens again, I can deal with it, and it has reinforced for me, how amazing the ‘Dare Response’ is. Finally, it totally reconfirmed for me that life is for living, that I want to continue to explore and make memories. I won't take unnecessary risks, but I will continue to push myself, because every time I do, I know that it makes me stronger mentally and diminishes my anxiety still further. I am sure that I will have a panic attack sometime in the future, but I am not going to worry about when or where it might occur. If it happens, so what, I know what to do, I will keep pushing forward, over and through it.