I find walking my dog absolutely terrifying. There is very little in this life that makes me happier than making Bua happy and yet some days that takes all the strength I've got. What if she runs away and onto the road and I never see her again? What if she gets attacked and killed right in front of me? Worse still, what if she turns into a savage and kills another dog while I watch and then the police arrive and have to take her away from me and put her down? These fears consume me.
It hasn't always been like this. When she was a small puppy, and arguably at her most vulnerable, we would be outside all the time; I would encourage her to play with as many other dogs as possible and I'd be really disappointed if I went into the park and we were the only ones there. These days things are somewhat different. Other dogs come near us and I run away with her. If there is a big group of dogs all playing together I'll hide round the corner praying that they don't notice each other. Sometimes I'll arrive only to turn round and take her straight home again.
It kills me to be like this, not least of all because I am all too aware that this is so unfair for her. Although she isn't actually particularly bothered by other dogs when we are in the park, too distracted by her ball, I know that what I'm doing isn't in her best interest. In my heart of hearts I trust her not to run away and her lack of interest in other dogs makes it extremely unlikely that one would attack her. I also know that Bua wouldn't say boo to a goose; she would never attack another dog. I KNOW all of this. I KNOW I'm not being fair. I KNOW that by being neurotic all I am doing is projecting that onto her. I know it, but I can't stop it.
This is one of the ways in which my anxiety presents itself.
I can generally gauge the state of my mental health by how easy I find it to walk Bua. If I am able to take my audiobook out and sit in the middle of the park playing without having to stand up in a panic when another dog comes towards us or rush her home after five minutes because the park is full then I know that I am doing okay. Recently I haven't been okay. Our walks have been short and my panic has been crippling. What if... what if.... what if?????
What Em? What's going to happen? Seriously. She's fine. Just breathe. BREATHE.
I can't. I'm scared. I'm really really scared.
In lots of ways dogs are very very good for people suffering with anxiety, or a mental health issue of any kind really. They are company, something that as a self employed person I crave. She is also my reason for leaving the house on days when I don't think I can face it. She gets me out and gets me moving, she keeps me living on the days when my bed seems like the safest place. In lots of ways she keeps me well.
And it's not that walking her makes me ill, it's that walking her makes me realise that I already am.
People don't understand it. Why would they?
"She's such a good dog!" "Stop worrying, she's fine!!" "What's wrong with you? They're just playing?!" "Oh for Godssake Em, she's a dog, it's what they do" "Animals can sense your stress you know, you need to relax."
These aren't nasty comments from people who mean to insult me. These are comments from people who don't understand. Who can't understand. Because anxiety doesn't make sense, not even to the sufferer. If I knew WHY I felt like this, I would do everything that I could to prevent it. I don't like living like this. I love walking my dog, I genuinely love it, I just find it so hard.
And I hate that. I hate myself for it. I hate the knot in my stomach. I hate that it doesn't make sense. I hate I'm doing this to her. I hate that people don't understand it. I hate that I don't have more faith in her or in myself. I hate my brain for doing this to me. I hate the woman who suggested to me that I was doing Bua a disservice by being neurotic around her because I wouldn't let her play with this woman's yappy little west highland terrier (what if Bua just snapped and decided to EAT it?!). I hate that that doesn't make sense and I cannot explain it.
But that's anxiety really. It's unexplainable, at least for the sufferer. I'm sure there are all too many experts out there who are just desperate to tell me why I feel like this, and I'm sure that one day I will want to listen. But for now it is just a part of me that I don't like, that I cannot explain. Anxiety is unexplainable and it is often unjustified and unfair.
It's a small thing really, being frightened to walk my dog. It is not the end of the world. But it makes me sad, because it is something that I want to enjoy, and more than that, it's something that I want to be able to explain. I don't want to put my hands over my head and look away when another dog walks towards us. I don't want to irrationally play every worst case scenario in my head every time I unclip Bua's lead. I don't want to spend time worrying about things that won't happen when I could be enjoying time with my friends or my dog or even myself. What I want is to be normal, rather than reminded every time Bua needs a wee that my mind is letting me down.
But that's just the way it is for me, that's just the way I'm wired. I'm not saying that I'm never going to get over this, I am sure that I will. When I am settled and happy walking Bua is one of the things that gives me the most joy, it is the reason I love and need her and in time I know I'll work this out. This has been a chaotic summer for me and as long as things are up in the air in my life, as long as I am out of my routine, I know, as an anxiety sufferer, that I can't expect to find things easy, and I'd be a fool to hope for anything else. I also know though, that I'll be alright in the end.
I just wish I could explain it. Not just to someone reading this with no concept of this particular mental plight, or even to my friends and family who can't stop their eyes from rolling to the sky when I begin to panic the minute Bua sets off in the direction of a squirrel, but really, to myself. I wish there was rationale, I wish I understood it.
In the meantime though, I will settle for talking about it. Because these are the things that we need to talk about. It may seem trivial, but to me, it is important. And so just in case there is someone else out there who fears the big green spaces in London as much as I do, I'm prepared to talk about it. For the coming months I intend on being more open about anxiety and the fears that live inside of me, in the hope that maybe one person out there might read it and think: oh thank fuck for that, I'm not alone in my crazy.