MY LEOPARD SKIN SIGNATUREA JOURNEY FROM ANXIETY TO WELLBEING THROUGH LEARNING AND TECHNOLOGY
MY DARKEST MOMENT
I can still remember the moment way back in 1997. Bright spring morning. Sun streaming in through the window. Birds singing in the park opposite (you get the picture) … it should have been a perfect day, except it was the darkest moment of my life.
It was the moment where I had to admit that I was in deep trouble. No way I could continue trying to deny what happened the other day … hoping it might go away … no point in pretending I have any resources against the thing I now carry around in my head … fact was I was in the bank and had a panic attack over my signature of all things, now every time I think about signing I can feel the panic starting again. I have no idea what to do about it and how to stop it happening again. I’m so embarrassed … mortified … at how I acted. People think well of me, I command their respect, what would they think if I acted like that in front of them? after all, only crazy people do stuff like that … right?
So now I’ve got this thing stuck in my head. The more I think about it the more wound up I get, and the more I feel like it’s going to happen again. To make it worse, the more I think about doing other things, the more I feel like it’s going to happen as well!
It’s hard to describe, but it almost feels like this thing is holding me hostage. It’s starting to feel like I’ll instantly slip back to the way I felt in the bank that day if I try to do anything even a little challenging. God, that felt like death … worse … like my annihilation. Exposure and vulnerability. Defenceless against criticism and ridicule. Shaking like a half-crazed chicken.
The trouble is this thing is not normal. It does not get better with time (like when you make a fool of yourself but eventually forget about it, or when you split up with someone really special but eventually you forget about them). In fact this thing gets worse … more intense with time. I’m able to do less and less before the alarms start to go off. I feel increasingly alienated, increasingly on the outside of life looking in at everybody else having a normal happy time.
The only way forward seemed to be a state of denial. I carry on trying to live some kind of life. Incidents happen … my world shrinks a little each time … anxiety increases its grip on me … and life gets a little more distorted. In darker moments (of which there are many) I find myself starting to consider that it might be less painful to be no more, than to keep on living under the weight of this.
This cycle continues until a weekend break where I catch how bad things have become. My anxiety of panic has become so bad that I’m now walking around with £50 notes stuffed in my shoes in order to avoid going into the bank for cash. I know this has to stop … but how? Life is so alien, I’m so far on the outside, so far away from how things used to be that it feels like I’m living a different life. I can remember the me that used to be and the way life was, but that’s more like a soft warm hazy dream of a life that belongs to someone else, not the cold grey reality that I exist in. My Gran used to say that “a Leopard can’t change its spots” meaning that some things are simply unchangeable. I’d have to say right now I’m forced to agree.
MY (slightly faltering) ROAD TO RECOVERY
Despite a belief at the deepest level that my spots are now totally fixed, I realise that I have to have a go. I’m still fighting the battle between handling my anxiety and the desire, in weaker moments, to give up the fight. I realise if I don’t make an attempt to change, the latter one day might win. So where do I begin?
Self-help seemed a good place start. First the Popular Psychology section at my local book shop, then this new “inter web net” thing introduced a seemingly endless supply of wonderful practices and resources all promising to be my miracle cure. Yes …. of course! … I’m not grounded enough … it says here that I’ll be fixed if I spend more time embracing nature! … cured …. life will be great … I can go do anything.
I would then shoot off, commit to an action that stood to put a massive strain on my resources, the alarms would inevitably start to sound, my hope would come crashing down, my anxiety would return, my world would shrink even more and the cycle would start over.
To this day I shudder at how close to the wind I was sailing through that period. It’s one thing to be living in denial, but it’s another to be actively pursuing change, only to remain stuck in a cycle of unending setbacks. Such a routine over time could have catastrophic results for even the strongest of dispositions, let alone those in poorer states of wellbeing.
It was in this hour that my determination to bring about something better began. I could not believe that this was the best we could do given all the resources open to us.
My answer came when I was introduced to a specialist dealing with anxiety and panic. I can still remember the twinkle in her eye (that proved she was human as well as expert) when she said, “I love working with anxiety because when you get it right it’s so easy to fix … let me show you how … oh and by the way for the record … you’re not nuts!”. For the first time in years I felt a flicker of hope start to burn.
LEARNING, MY LITTLE BOOK & MY LEOPARD SKIN SIGNATURE
Through that period I had the chance to learn about Anxiety and Panic. I learnt that our emotional state can have a fundamental impact on our cognitive reasoning. I learnt that the “bomb in my head” was actually an over-sensitized survival system rather than an destructive saboteur.
I realised that the strategies that I’d “unsuccessfully” tried in the past, were not necessarily defective, more that their successful application depends on personal preference and on using them at the appropriate time. Had I known that, I would have spent more time asking myself, “Is this approach right for me … and right for me now?” before jumping in.
I also realised the importance of adequate preparation including the acceptance that failures often happen as part of our learning process. If I had been aware of this I would have been far more open to exploring a failure for clues that I could use in planning another attempt. In hindsight I saw how I was so desperate for pain relief that I would drop something at the first sign of failure and shoot off in search of the next miracle cure.
And so my understanding of what I was experiencing, and why, and what I could about it grew. I knew from experience that cognitive reasoning is the first to go in states of arousal, so I chose to keep a little notebook that I could turn to in “emergency moments” for ideas, strategies and “things to remember”. I was astonished to find that while I still felt intense discomfort and anxiety, I was now able to stop myself just short of panic.
Not surprisingly, my confidence started to rally at this point. I realised that mental health is similar to physical health in that repetition can make a significant difference. I started playing with the idea of a personal mental trainer … just like the ones at the gym, except for my mental wellbeing, available for me wherever I was, whenever I needed. It then dawned on me that I already had something like that in my little book. I flipped it open again and started applying its content on a daily basis.
At 17:23 on 27th Jan 2000, I signed my name on a till receipt in public view for the first time in three years. In that moment I realised three things. (1) I had started to win my life back, (2) this was going to be an ongoing routine … but with my little book in pocket I’d stand every chance of success and (3) a proverbial Leopard really can change its spots … I’d just proven it with my Leopard Skin signature!
There have been many editions of my little book since then, over which time the architecture has grown from paper, to desktop, to web finally to app. Each iteration has given me the ability to explore how technology can be used to improve positive mental wellbeing.
Through the desktop and web periods I had the opportunity to explore how software could be used to host simple “interactions” with a user in order to bring about some form of specific benefit. One venture ran for a number of years in conjunction with the counselling services of a number of leading UK universities, and revealed that over 60% of users found the process to be “helpful” or “very helpful” with an emphasis on “being able to think issues through” at a time convenient to them (you might not be too surprised to find that peak times were in the early hours of the morning). When running in smaller trials in schools, we learned that one pupil under supervision commented that she liked software because “I doesn’t lie to me like adults do”.
Other ventures explored styles of content delivery and found clearly written, client-centric content disseminated in both long form and flash card format (such that the full nuances of the point can be understood, but also the essence being quickly recalled as a reminder) to be especially advantageous.
Finally the transition to Mobile App brings the biggest jump in benefit I have seen to date. I think we’re all aware of how bent out of shape we can get with the pressures and stresses of modern life. While we might not be able to insulate ourselves fully from the effects, I think it’s amazing how even a simple app has the ability to carry much of what we need to stay in a good place.
The ability to deliver key resources in the heat of the moment, regardless of time or location offers significant benefits. For example, it’s increasingly acceptable to be checking a personal device in a boardroom meeting. The beauty of an app is its subtle ability to remind you that you find your boss a bully, that you’ve planned a few potential ways to handle the current problem and right now option 2 seems the best!
Cut to the packed train home where you find crowds of people intimidating, but you’re able to quickly search your favourite techniques and practise your “7-11 breathing” until your anxiety abates.
Cut to the value of being reminded just before the kids’ bedtime that you need to practise “walking away and counting to 10 before losing your temper this evening” … that is just before your hyperactive 6-year-old projectile vomits the cola across the bathroom that they sneaked down while mommy’s back was turned.
Add the ability to journal your life events in text and images – your achievements (as I did with My Leopard Skin Signature), your lessons learnt, things you would do differently next time. Add the ability to view this on the bus, or in the loo before the presentation or in a moment between putting the washing on and getting the kids from school, and we stand to create a personal support base of immense value because it’s based on the most powerful of arguments …. your own!,
On a personal level, I find the greatest benefit to be in those dark nights when I wake with a sudden jump, heart thumping, head full of worries and crazy weird stuff. That is until I reach out into the dark and tap on the screen. The ability to instantly look on my Leopard Skin Signature and remind myself “it’s not a dream, I did it then and I can do it now” is a process worth its weight in gold.
These days I find the horrors lift within moments … I’m increasingly able find the funny side even! … And then I say quietly to the memory of my grandmother “so then, Nanna, seems like you were wrong because now we both know that with a little help, a leopard really can change its spots.”
In software “HelloWorld” is a programme “simple enough so that people who have no experience with computer programming can easily understand it”. I think this stands as an admirable goal to work toward in positive mental health … this should be simple enough for everybody to use … you can feel better and stay that way … where would you like to begin?