Personally, I like to think that I was overlooked when anxieties were being handed out. The clichéd notion of ‘having a bad week’, so often the hallmark of everyday anxiety, is one I rarely have. To be sure, age and circumstance may change this, but for the time being I lead a life largely unaffected by anxiety – and I’m taking that as a blessing.
Unfortunately, my colleagues recently took it as vindication of my nomination to be put through a week’s worth of challenges entirely engineered to make me as anxious as possible. I was the ideal crash test dummy for gauging the effects of anxiety for this debut issue – an even-tempered nine-till-five copywriter with no prior history of the disorder, no public reputation to taint and no in-laws to consider (a concern given some of the events planned).
I was to face six consecutive challenges, each playing on a common phobia. While still working my job, I would wake up knowing that, as well as the usual workload, I was also to do something I really didn’t want to do – be it a bungee jump, a stand-up comedy gig or a nude swim. And that’s really the best way to explain my attitude towards the whole experience in the beginning: I just didn’t want to do this.
For the first time in 25 years, I think I was feeling anxious.
THE BUNGEE JUMP
The Garry Bridge in Perthshire, Scotland stretches across a deep, tree-lined gorge. Some 130 feet below, the River Garry winds its slow course. It’d be a picture postcard scene, were it not for the imposing steel walkway and cradle suspended on the bridge’s underside.
I ‘check in’ with Highland Fling Bungee half an hour before my scheduled jump. This also allows for me to be weighed more times than I care to remember, and for my weight to be written in permanent marker on the back of my hand. I’m comforted by the knowledge that I’ve clocked in beneath the 23.6 stone weight limit.
Any sense of comfort has dissipated by the time I arrive at the bridge and climb up to the walkway, though. Here, I’m weighed again and the figure on the back of my hand is verified. The all-important harness connecting me to the bungee rope is a surprisingly small Velcro affair wrapped tightly around my lower legs.
Jumps are conducted in batches. This morning there are two of us, and I’m second up. The first jumper appears to have done this before, but even he seems surprised by the swiftness with which he is guided to the very edge of the cradle and counted in. I watch as he looks towards the horizon, crouches, propels himself forward, screams and disappears. The entire cradle jolts as the rope fully extends and sends him reeling back up towards the bridge, and then back down again. My weight is verified one last time as he’s being reeled in.
I’ve heard that bungee jumping is more intense than skydiving, for the simple fact that you see the ground coming at you far quicker. A free fall from this height – the equivalent of 12 storeys – is enough for a jumper to reach 50 miles per hour and come uncomfortably close to the shallow water below, all in just a few seconds. Even some of the qualified jump masters, who go by the mantra ‘no jump, no job’, apparently don’t like doing it more than they have to.
True to form, it’s the speed that gets me. I remember leaving the platform and hearing a noise as if I’d stuck my head out of a car window at speed, and then bouncing back up, but not the actual fall. And before I know it, I’m being winched back up to the cradle, watching upside down as the River Garry winds its course below, feeling giddy, euphoric and a little bit sick.
THE ISOLATION POD
The backroom of a health and beauty spa in Portobello, Edinburgh houses a peculiar machine, sort of like a giant white pebble. It is about the size of a small car and periodically comes to life, bubbling within. It is an isolation tank, and for the next hour I’m going to be shut inside it – alone and deprived of all of my senses in confined quarters.
Stepping into the neon water, it’s hard to tell the difference between it and the air above. It’s maintained at body temperature and contains a copious amount of Epsom salt, making it curiously buoyant. Ears plugged, I lie down, pulling the lid with me as I go. Eventually, both background music and light fade, and I’m left in total, silent, impalpable, odourless, tasteless darkness.
I vividly imagine that this is what being lost in space feels like, or even being buried alive, only in a very roomy and perversely comfortable coffin
The first manifestation of sensory deprivation appears to be a gradual amplification of internal sounds – that is, sounds my body is making. An eyelid opening sounds like a knuckle cracking. A knuckle cracking, meanwhile, sounds like the crack of a whip. Less explicit but considerably more perturbing are the properly internal sounds – my heart thumping within my chest, blood circulating, muscle fibres loosening and air rushing in and out of my lungs – sounds I’ve lived with my entire life but never heard in such synchronised clarity.
Next comes a complete lack of orientation. At a very precise point during the session I lose all sense of direction – and the resulting feeling is alien in the extreme. I begin to imagine, vividly, that this is what being lost in space feels like, or even being buried alive, only in a very roomy and perversely comfortable coffin. Which is to say I’m now experiencing the third manifestation of sensory deprivation: hallucination.
The practice of sensory deprivation came about during the Cold War, in a setting far less savoury than a spa: it was initially used as a means of preparing American GIs who might be taken hostage and subjected to mind-control techniques. Later, it was suspected that the Communists were in fact using sensory deprivation as a mind-control technique in itself. The CIA doubled their efforts to master the apparatus, despite complaints that it was effectively torture. ‘Participants’ experienced powerful hallucinations and drastic reductions in cognitive ability.
Thankfully, sensory deprivation is now primarily used for relaxation and rehabilitation purposes – but regardless, I entered this tank with negative preconceptions. On the one hand, this is a blessing. I never fully lose awareness of where I am or what I am doing. And yet the whole time I am conscious of the past potential of this practice – and I genuinely believe I am beginning to realise it, my mind relaxed yet racing from thought to thought, the one real, the other surreal, feeling trapped but also liberated before the backdrop of a total lack of coordination and the cacophony of heart beating, muscle fibres relaxing, lungs breathing.
And then everything stops. A gentle rippling has started near my feet. A familiar music creeps in. Light gradually fills the water. Everything is as it was when I first entered the tank, only now I feel phenomenally well rested to the point of being sedated. I take a shower and saunter through to a room where some herbal tea is waiting for me, before entering the cool evening air for the journey home. The sensation lasts well into the night.
THE OVERNIGHT VIGIL
There is nothing untoward about 25 Palmerston Place in Edinburgh, a traditional, four-storey Victorian townhouse gracing the city’s New Town. Nothing, except that it is allegedly haunted.
Coincidentally (or conveniently, depending on your attitude), 25 Palmerston Place operates as a spiritualist centre and houses a dedicated spiritualist church. Named after the famed Edinburgh-born author and spiritualist, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre is the setting for my third challenge: an overnight vigil. I am to join a group of spiritualists from the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, taking it in turns to stake out various locations around the building in total silence and darkness and record any paranormal happenings.
One investigator admits having given in to an irresistible urge to leave her posting seat in the basement and look behind the doors of three storerooms
My first posting is a corridor in the basement of the building. To my right is a trio of storerooms, while to my left is the entrance to what my map informs me is a kitchen. Lacking any kind of spiritual bent, it stands to reason that I’m struggling. Not so a neighbouring investigator who, sitting near the entrance to the kitchen, is furiously scribbling notes under torchlight. I’m inclined to enquire, but collusion is prohibited. Instead, I stare intently in the direction she is, half hoping to witness something, anything, that I might note down.
The majority of my postings throughout the vigil follow a similar pattern, and my notes reflect the fact. At the very least I’ve been able to grade each location according to uncanniness, and in one instance I’ve even documented a cold sensation around my ankles. As for my general levels of anxiety, I feel largely at ease and secretly even a little bored.
I’d have left the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre disappointed were it not for three revelations that come to light in the tearoom after the vigil. The point of a paranormal vigil is to record subjective experiences independently. Afterwards, the records are collated. Any similarities are treated as evidence of potential paranormal activity. The independent scoring of individual locations works in the same way: scores are collated to produce a tangible data set.
Firstly, in a general discussion, it was agreed that a cold sensation around the ankles is a frequently reported experience for novices of the paranormal, not necessarily a draught from a door as I suspected. My previous sheepishness was replaced with a fleeting feeling of accomplishment, although that paled in comparison with claims elsewhere of ‘psychic smells’ and sightings of rocking horses.
Secondly, a similarity was noted in the records relating to location ‘G’. Two investigators had, independently, noted witnessing an apparition in the main stairwell. While one was unable to specify, the other was convinced that the apparition was that of a man. This, with no collaboration.
Thirdly, it was revealed that statistically (going by the scores taken from previous vigils and ours) the most paranormally active location in the building is ‘B’, my first posting. I think back to my shift there, where I struggled to detect anything. But the other investigators largely agreed on the matter, with one even admitting having given in to an irresistible urge to leave her posting seat in the basement and look behind the doors of the three storerooms. At the first she felt uncomfortable, the second more so. She couldn’t bring herself to open the third.
THE STAND-UP COMEDY GIG
Stand-up comedy was always going to be the lowest point of my week. Public speaking doesn’t generally daunt me, but this was public speaking with the added responsibility of making people laugh and the added risk of being ripped to shreds by hecklers. Lining it up, I felt like a lamb making its own arrangements to slaughter.
I arrive at the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club a full hour before the curtain is due to be raised. I want to familiarise myself with the surroundings and exit routes, and to procure some Dutch courage. I also want to secure the first slot of the show, reasoning that if I do so, the audience will be unable to compare me with anyone else – at least during my performance. The manager of the club quickly puts paid to my plan, guaranteeing that I won’t enjoy going first and stating that he doesn’t want audience members walking out at the get go because of a ‘shit opener’. I am allocated fourth.
Meanwhile, a man has entered the room and taken a seat at the back. I approach him and ask if this is his first time doing stand-up. It’s not; he’s been doing it for five years, and only now is he beginning to feel confident on stage. The only solace I garner from him is learning that the hour before his debut stand-up gig five years ago he was being violently sick in the toilets.
I take stock one final time: a massively inflated audience, a good proportion of which came in with the intention of seeing professional comedy; nine fellow comedians, most of whom have done this before; and my Dutch courage nowhere to be seen
By now, more people have begun to arrive, including audience members. I am told to expect somewhere in the region of a dozen, which strikes me as a reasonably intimate gathering.
By eight o’clock, I count some 50 heads in the audience. Inclement weather has seen an influx of people sign up to attend a professional comedy gig taking place upstairs in the main room. It sells out fast, and those turned away are channelled downstairs to our open-mic night. Extra chairs are brought in.
I take stock one final time once the doors are closed: a massively inflated audience of at least 60, a good proportion of which have come in with the intention of seeing professional comedy; nine fellow comedians, most of whom have done this before; and my Dutch courage nowhere to be seen.
As with the bungee jump, I don’t really remember actually doing my stand-up gig. I was advised that five minutes on stage would either go very quickly or very slowly, and fortunately I feel it’s gone the former way. Better still, I received a few laughs, which is considerably more than I’d anticipated. I’m the first to admit that I’m not likely to be winning any awards, but things could have gone far worse. I begin to suspect that I’ve gotten lucky with the audience, but the next act – a drama student – doesn’t do it for them. He’s gone a bit too far with the Dutch courage, which is to say he’s decidedly pissed. Toes curl. Before he can get to the end of his script he’s sarcastically applauded off.
THE NUDE SWIM
We’ve all experienced a nude dream: you’re somewhere public when all of a sudden you realise you’re naked and have nowhere to hide. This was the inspiration for my penultimate challenge. The question was, where could I legally bare all?
The Forth Naturists Swim Club enables members to enjoy swimming in the nude while remaining within the law. Twice a month the club meets at its year-round swim venue, the Aubigny Leisure Centre in Haddington, Scotland. They are given exclusive use of the pool, the steam room and sauna suite, the sports hall, even the canteen.
I enter the changing room. As I close the door it occurs to me that in a matter of seconds I’m going to be bollock-naked on the other side again. I decide to ease myself into the spirit of things by keeping it ajar. I then make my way to the poolside for a shower before getting into the water. Some of my fellow swimmers – male and female – are already in, doing lengths or loitering at the shallow end, chatting amongst themselves. One even has a snorkel, although I’m told she is ‘learning’ for an imminent holiday abroad.
The most remarkable thing about swimming naked is the almost-instantaneous loss of one’s inhibitions. I had been told to expect this, but I hadn’t anticipated it would happen as readily as it did. After a few lengths I find myself chatting with the group at the shallow end. Later I coordinate the photo shoot, more conscious of our photographer’s awkwardness than my own nudity. In fact, by the time I’m making use of the steam room and sauna suite (something I had vowed not to do), I’m hardly conscious of being naked at all. Had naked badminton been going ahead as it normally does, I genuinely believe I might have taken part. In for a penny, in for a pound, so they say.
Given my prior reservations and thinking that I was about to enter the scene of a nightmare, I felt surprisingly comfortable for the duration of the swim. The next morning, I awake with the feeling that it was all in fact a dream. But the photography says otherwise. The fact is – as a group of us discuss in the sauna – there’s a genuine sense of equality to be had when naked in this sort of setting. The mere lack of clothing has resulted in the absence of judgement amongst us all, although I dare say I don’t speak for the two lifeguards legally obliged to be in attendance, or our photographer. What’s more, there’s actually little talk of nudity. Instead, people are discussing their weekends, their work, their families – the sort of things they’d be discussing in the pub. There’s no voyeurism or questionable behaviour (the club understandably has strict rules on this front) – just a group of like-minded people partaking in an activity they genuinely enjoy and which in many cultures around the world is considered entirely normal.
THE FINAL CHALLENGE
I had some time to prepare myself for the final challenge, which was just as well given my general feelings of relief and exhaustion, and my desire to get back to the comfort of my usual routine. It was perhaps fitting, then, that this challenge required experiencing a routine entirely characterised by insecurity and exhaustion, and utterly devoid of comfort. I was to spend half a night on the streets of Edinburgh, sampling what life is like for the city’s homeless.
A little over a decade ago, after a series of disastrous personal events, Sonny Murray found himself without a home. Moving between the streets and homeless shelters, he eventually wound up in prison. Here, he became addicted to heroin. Life quickly became a vicious cycle of rough sleeping, shoplifting and drug abuse.
Today, Sonny works for the Edinburgh-based social enterprise Social Bite. Social Bite employs homeless people, with its profits going to homeless charities throughout Scotland. In addition to this, Sonny works as a tour guide in Edinburgh and has recently set up his own business as a public speaker. He’s got a flat, a child, a partner, a dog – he’s back on his feet.
For one night, he’s agreed to show me what life used to be like.
Sonny and I meet at Social Bite, just as he’s finishing a shift. The only clues to his troubled past are slightly sunken cheeks and a persistent cough. This, I learn, is not a result of heavy smoking but of having unknowingly contracted tuberculosis on multiple occasions while sleeping rough.
Our first ‘sight’ is a graveyard beyond the westernmost end of Princes Street Gardens. Sonny takes out a torch and lights up the ground of a long recess along one wall. It’s strewn with needles, spoons, pieces of aluminium foil, empty sachets, paper bags, glass bottles, cans, cigarette packets – all manner of drug and alcohol paraphernalia. Despite it being in earshot of one of Edinburgh’s busiest thoroughfares, the sheltered position of this recess has made it a popular haunt for drug and alcohol abusers. For the same reason, it’s also frequented as a place to sleep by the homeless – Sonny once included. His phobia of rats eventually drove him elsewhere.
Because of funding cuts, the shelter shuts at 10. In a couple of hours the people will be turned out onto the streets. Many of them will have been made homeless recently – potentially even earlier that day
Later, we make our way to a crisis centre. At least a dozen individuals are seated or standing inside, some with their heads in their hands, others charging phones to make desperate phone calls. When he was homeless, Sonny occasionally came here at nights. That was when the centre operated 24/7. Now, because of funding cuts, it shuts at 10. In a couple of hours the people will be turned out onto the streets. Many of them will have been made homeless recently – potentially even earlier today. It’s a moving sight.
On nights when homeless people haven’t managed to secure shelter, Sonny explains they often just wander the streets, waiting for the morning. We spend an hour or so doing this, encountering various members of the homeless community en route – first, a couple of men who have been turfed out of a shelter for being drunk, then a homeless woman to whom Sonny gives his scarf. It’s a degree above freezing, and she’s still £7 away from paying her way into the cheapest shelter. Upon finding out what I’m doing, she pointedly suggests that if I really want to experience what homelessness is like I should book into the shelter.
Conscious of the ethics of occupying a space in a homeless shelter but also taking the woman’s suggestion as a clear warning, I decide to stick to the plan and have Sonny show me the ropes of sitting on a street corner. Sonny looks comfortable enough, but at the same time I can’t help but notice a sense of restlessness about him. After all, there can’t be many formerly homeless people who would willingly return to the streets, even in this manner.
After an hour we’ve received little in the way of interaction. This is just as well, because while I’ve been worrying about having to reject any donations and explain myself, Sonny has been worrying about the two of us being spat on or, worse, attacked – both of which I learn are frequent acts against the homeless.
By 11 o’clock Sonny needs to call it a night; he’s working the next day. Before I do the same, I want to experience what being on the streets alone feels like. Sonny advises me that if I’m accosted by anyone I should ignore them and move on. He sets me up on a normally occupied location before departing.
Another hour passes without incident. In fact, what strikes me the most about the experience was the total lack of acknowledgement from the public. I had anticipated some sort of engagement. What I am getting is an insight into perhaps the most crippling element of homelessness besides the physical hardship: loneliness. To be homeless in today’s society is, in many ways, to be invisible. I lose count of the averted gazes, the conscious moves across the pavement.
At midnight I get a call. It’s Sonny asking how I’m getting on. I realise then that I’m not going to get any closer to experiencing homelessness. I think back to the desperate phone calls being made at the crisis centre, to the homeless woman who’s hopefully scraped enough together to access a shelter, to the graveyard recess likely now occupied by several who haven’t been so fortunate, if you can call that fortunate. And you can guarantee that not one of them will be receiving a phone call regarding their wellbeing.
I pack up my sleeping bag and start the walk home. I think of the security, comfort and routine awaiting me back home, only now with a sense of shame.
My self-styled ‘worst week’ had ended on a sombre note. While my experience on the streets didn’t make me as anxious as, say, my stand-up comedy gig, its effect in putting the rest of the week’s experiences into perspective was profound.
The fact is, I took something positive away from every one of the week’s activities: an insatiable appetite for higher and higher bungee jumps; a desire to be deprived of my senses further still; a craving for the adrenaline of doing stand-up comedy and the euphoria that ensues; even a newfound appreciation of naturism. As for experiencing homelessness, I came to the very obvious realisation that nobody actively wants to live like that, that it isn’t something people desire or crave. I suspect even the most anxious of us has a capacity to seek thrills, but there’s no thrill to be had from living on the streets.
We all experience anxiety at one point or another. Had he lived in the 21st century, Benjamin Franklin might well have listed it alongside death and taxes as one of life’s great certainties.
Of course, anxiety at its very worst is considered a serious mental health issue, and there can be no belittling the fact. But for anxiety of the ‘everyday’ variety – worrying about trivial work matters, perfecting our lives on social media or fretting about politics, for example – it is well to put things into perspective.
“We poison our lives with fear of burglary and shipwreck and, ask anyone, the house is never burgled and the ship never goes down”
– Jean Anouilh, The Rehearsal.
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