Like many partners, my long-suffering wife, Wendy, laments the amount of time I spend at the golf course. Several times a week, rain or shine, I’ll pop my bag in the boot of the car and head up there, hope springing eternal that I might beat my best score.
But I’m not playing golf. I’ve never played golf. The closest I’ve got is the crazy variety, and I’m pretty hopeless at that. I’m collecting lost balls. And, in so doing, clawing my way back to good mental health.
Then came the pandemic, and I fell apart.
I loathed the weirdness of it all. The masks. The sanitiser. The endless hand-washing, leaving my skin cracking like ice during a thaw. Or like a bloke with anxiety during a pandemic. There was the creeping dread that Covid would mutate into something worse. The fear of widespread social unrest. The idea that food might run out in the shops, or that my mum, or my father-in-law, or my vulnerable sister, might get ill. The fear that we’d all end up wiping our arses with socks.
I monitored the news too zealously. I became obsessed with stats: hospitalisations, intensive care admissions, ventilators, the R number. Deaths. While a lot of men were making the most of working from home by googling “Busty Milfs” (the real reason for the loo roll shortage), I was obsessing over mortality rates.
But mostly, I was simply anxious about my mental health.
Trench warfare was famously described as “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”. With anxiety you discover it’s possible to feel both simultaneously. For two years, I worried about my mental health for what felt like every waking moment. But because I thought about it with such ceaseless intensity, I was also incredibly, soul-crushingly bored with it.
The term “anxiety” doesn’t begin to do the experience justice. Anxiety makes you think of someone who worries a bit too much: Will I meet my work deadline? Are the kids happy at school? Will QPR get relegated? (Yes, yes, and possibly). This wasn’t that. This was a constant nausea, a tight chest, an inability to breathe deeply enough. This was smelling of sweat 15 minutes after taking a shower.
This was hypnic jerks startling me awake, or an inability to stop reflexively swallowing. This was living in a world that seemed unutterably, indescribably strange, a hallucinogenic facsimile of a once-familiar reality. I thought I was going insane.
I upped my medication to the maximum dose. I saw a therapist. I took beta blockers, and occasionally Valium. I gobbled down CBD oil and endless supplements. I downloaded all of the anxiety apps. I tried meditation – dear God, I tried! I read endless self-help books (most were bobbins, but Matt Haig’s excellent Reasons to Stay Alive was a huge comfort).
I joined an anxiety forum. I googled my symptoms constantly. I listened to endless anxiety podcasts voiced by Americans talking in soft, breathy voices about mindfulness. I exercised. A lot. I took ice-cold showers, and swam in the sea. I ate a lot of raw veg.
And I collected lost golf balls.
It started right at the beginning of the pandemic. During my allotted hour each day, I walked our spaniel, Winnie, up at the golf course near our home in Brighton. On our first walk up there, I found a golf ball, and started looking around for another. After an hour of walking, I came home with three.
A couple of days later, Winnie and I went back, intending to find more balls. (Actually, Winnie’s intent was to roll in dead things, a skill she’s become tediously good at.) Something about looking for the balls gave me a degree of focus, something to dwell upon other than my own fractured state of mind. It was a distraction, a way of quieting the incessant mental chatter for an hour. The golf balls were, in effect, my marbles, and I was gathering them greedily.
Ball-hunting quickly became part of my routine. I decided I would sell them, and give the money to a mental health charity and a local food bank. I reckoned I’d maybe get a couple of hundred, which might mean around £40 for a good cause.
To date, I have around 5,000 balls, and one very unhappy wife. I keep them in a series of bags and boxes in the garage, after Wendy banned them from our bedroom.
I’ve got very good at finding them. I know where to look. I know to search with my feet as well as my eyes, the tell-tale lump under the sole of my boots an indication of the treasure lurking in the rough. The other day, I broke my record: 78, in just over an hour.
I should add, the course is a municipal one, on public land, so I’m not trespassing. I stay out of the way of oncoming golfers, who have proved to be a universally amiable bunch. And I like to think that I’m cleaning up a bit, recycling.
It’s a perilous business, mind you. Not all heroes wear capes. I’ve come home with scratches all over my hands from reaching into thorn bushes. I’ve had cuts on my head from walking into branches – an occupational hazard when your eyes are permanently cast downwards. Oh, and somewhere up on that hill are my bloody car keys. One day I’ll find them, hopefully nestled next to a pristine Titleist Pro V1.
My anxiety is getting better now. Over time, I have begun to realise that the apocalyptic scenarios I paint in my head, so compelling and plausible I can almost touch them, never come to pass. Anxiety lies with agonising credibility, but I’m learning to spot those lies.
My endlessly patient wife has pushed me to do the things that scare me – which is how you discover the fears are groundless. My (wonderful) therapist has helped me realise I’m more able to cope than I thought. My kids have been the inspiration to keep moving forwards. And the relentlessly cheerful Winnie has kept me company on my ball-hunting expeditions. And rolled in a lot of dead things.
In my search for reassurance over the past three years, I have read way too many articles like this one, looking for an easy answer, a magic bullet to banish the fear. I write this acutely conscious that there will be people reading this in the depths of despair.
There is no magic bullet. But there is this, a point I cannot stress enough: it will get better. You will get better. I spent a long time unable to comprehend how I could ever be okay again. I felt like I was broken, like a switch had flicked in my head, that couldn’t flick back. Getting better was impossible.
You will get better. It’s a slow, scary process. You will have setbacks. But you will get there. Hang on.
Winnie and I still collect golf balls several times a week, and we still enjoy it. We have a competition to see who can find the most balls. I’m winning 5,000 – 0, which is good for my self-esteem. Now I’ve just got to work out how to sell the damned things.
To anyone in the pits of misery with this horrible disorder, keep pushing yourself to do what scares you. The reality is never, ever as bad as you anticipate. And find your distraction. It might be reading, watching a good box set, knitting, gardening, yoga, baking, jogging or DIY.
Or it might be galumphing about looking for lost balls. If it is, I’ll see you up on the golf course. Except I won’t. I’ll be eyes down, walking into trees.
You can call Mind on 0300 123 3393 for support and resources.