Dancing With Bill Nighy

By Alison June 12, 2024 11 Comments 12 Min Read

Books are medicine aren’t they? The first time I read “first, we make the beast beautiful”, I went through it with an orange highlighter swiping it through any paragraph that struck a chord, until I was finding myself wanting to highlight every word, or write in the margins, oh yes, this so very much this! Because in Sarah Wilson I found panacea, at at time when the prickly discord of anxiety was running riot in my veins and I couldn’t keep still for wanting to crawl out of my own flesh and make a run for freedom.

Anxiety I think, runs in my family and my Mum taught me to give it more credence than I do believe it deserves, showing me how to bow at its altar and respect its all too often outrageous demands so that in the process of soothing her own often all-consuming angst, I learned to nurture my own, and more than that, to integrate it in to who I am, so that its dictates became a cage for any sense of real possibility I might otherwise have dallied with. Anxiety you see, insists that we play it safe. It is the constant hum of ifs and buts in your ear. Mine speaking in my Mum’s worried voice, constantly asking, do you really want to do that, because this might happen, and really shouldn’t we all just be scared legless by anything that isn’t the safest and cosiest of living rooms? And I was, and I am. Scared legless that is. And in the thrum of worry I have made almost everything in my life as small as can be (beyond the thoughts in my head: vast as an ocean), because to extend myself beyond what I think may have made my Mum’s eyes grow huge with concern, is to send worry beads clacking around my skull, while a claxon sounds so loudly I find myself utterly disorientated and wondering what the heck I am doing, when often what I am doing is trying to remember why I am in the supermarket. Or finding myself mid-sentence, performing conversational somersaults in case I upset someone who will probably neither garrot nor disown me should I dare to speak my mind, but anxiety demands that I do not get carried away and test the water regardless.

" Yep, anxiety can just be in your bones, no reason required,"

Sarah Wilson - first, we make the beast beautiful.

Tis a bore. A prison. A safety harness. Dissonance. Sehnsucht. (Beautiful, gnawing sehnsucht). And I defend the limitations it inflicts on me as if my very life depended on them. Presenting them as if anxiety the Alison way, is aspirational, and makes me a force to be reckoned with, when the reality means that I go through periods when I barely leave the house, existing for a while in a triangle I have declared temporarily safe – right now, the house, the gym and Finley’s house with occasional dalliances to places I am familiar with, people I know well, routes I can plot out in my head before I step foot out of the door. All of it, at odds with who I actually am, so that when the rage of anxiety (for she is an angry beast) in my head is shrieking like so much tinnitus, it drives a narrative I neither believe in, nor derive any pleasure in cultivating because the me not fuelled by anxiety is an entirely different, more liberated snazzy animal. A glorious tiger who isn’t driving herself off her trolley worrying about everything and everyone. My Mum worried about me, and in turn I worry about everyone I know, constantly driving myself nuts worrying they aren’t ok. That if I do not DO something, everything will fall apart, even when DOING something is way beyond my current capabilities.

We're Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh, always flitting about convinced everyone else depends on us to make things happen and to be there when they do. and to generally attend to happenings.

Sarah Wilson - first, we make the beast beautiful

Of course nobody knows any of this. I don’t tell people. I suspect those who know me imagine I am much more than a legend in my own living room, because Anxiety is almost always accompanied by her sly, needling, maiden aunt, Shame, and oh she is the cruellest of creatures, sidling up to the anxious mind and jibing her with her own stupidity, for those of us who are anxious are almost permanently under the impression that we are not only cowardly, but also rather stupid and nobody in their right minds wants to own up to being stupid now do they? Of course not. So better then to become Mistress of the Excuse. Not the outright lie. But more the summoning of thirty reasons why we cannot do whatever is being asked of us in any given moment, even if what is being asked is perfectly normal for those of a normal disposition. But oooh, ouch. The very concept of “normal” is not to be trifled with. The very concept others those of us who feel stupid and offers normal as a concept up as a way of being superior to that which would have us believing that if making a doctors appointment is something we can barely face, then not only does that make us a bit stupid in the head, but that it also makes us different and different is akin to a death of sorts to the unenlightened being. Different is to be feared, derided, gossiped about. Even when embracing that every difference might just be the key to liberating us from the shackles of anxiety, shame and imagined stupidity.

“I believe with all my heart that just understanding the metapurpose of the anxious struggle helps to make it beautiful. Purposeful, creative, bold, rich, deep things are always beautiful.”

Sarah Wilson - first, we make the beast beautiful

The problem lies at the intersection between anxiety and difference. Those of us who are different are rarely afraid of society, (because nobody told us that conformity is the route to security) but very often afraid of the length of our own shadow and the shade we might cast upon what is deemed normal (and thus reveal our most private selves in the process), creating a sense of perpetual angst that we are not doing things in quite the right way and will be uncovered as the very worst kind of frauds at any moment.

Frauds who are making doctor’s appointments they can’t decide if they need! Frauds who haven’t made shopping lists and don’t know why they have been standing in the ketchup aisle for ten minutes! Frauds creating things, writing words, performing songs, serving dinners that despite appearances, may not be well received! Frauds sitting in bars with friends who might be only pretending to like them! Frauds in relationships with people who may not understand them! Frauds who sit around the house worrying instead of getting on with things! Frauds who quite forget they are boiling pasta and let the whole kaboodle and their lives boil over.

No, we aren’t afraid of society, we aren’t even afraid of difference really because it is well-trodden terrain, but we are deeply afraid of ourselves. We don’t resent the concept of normality, we just cannot (try as we might) relate to it, and thus we engage in a permanent cycle of trying to fit in and knowing we can’t and feeling deeply spooked by who we might be if we were only capable of shaking off expectation and being who we actually are. Hence anxiety in all things because we are so at odds with ourselves. Hence a long string of tiny triggers we have tucked only millimetres under our skin so that we are never allowed to forget that danger of sorts lies around every corner, even if someone finally stands in front of us and tries to tell us that it is safe to scratch those triggers in to oblivion and live the way we yearn to. Hence the relentless sense of searching for something that we are apparently utterly incapable of identifying. The all purveying sense that we are looking for purpose in a world refusing to accommodate our quirks and eccentricities.

"I believe the yearning for Something Else buzzes at our cores. It's the soundtrack to our lives as we go through the motions of doing our tax returns and walking to the chemist to buy aspirin... let's hand it to the Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh for the final word:

You want to find something, but you don't know what to search for. In everyone there's continuous desire and expression; deep inside you still expect something better to happen. That is why you check your email many times a day."

Sarah Wilson - first, we make the beast beautiful.

Like so much in my life, my own version of anxiety ebbs and flows, seemingly with neither rhyme nor reason. And the list of things that make me feel twitchy, stressed, worried or scared shifts accordingly. Right now, the things making me anxious include BrocanteHome (my JOB!), of shopping for food in supermarkets (I don’t know why, I only know that from a sensory point of view supermarkets are a challenge and I forget what I am doing and buy very little), of the light being wrong in any given room, of plans not being written in concrete because that isn’t how life works, of the weight I am losing again (because I don’t know who I will be when it is gone), of the fluid in my left ear I can press in the side of my face, of hurting someone equally vulnerable, of other women’s perfume as they pass me, of anyone knowing I play the same songs over and over again because they soothe me, of the milk being off, or a spider crawling into my knickers while I sleep. All of it nonsensical. And all of it so very real when anxiety pokes me awake in the middle of the night and starts asking questions. All of it just symptoms of the wider questions I ACTUALLY need to be asking myself. All of it suggestion that decision paralysis is at play and will keep poking me until I WAKE UP and do something (anything)

“Making decisions is a key anxiety trigger, If we drill down a bit we can see that this happens because we work to the belief there's a perfect decision out there to be made. But such a thing doesn't exist. And clutching at something that doesn't exist is enough to send anyone into a drowning panic.”

Sarah Wilson - first, we make the beast beautiful

For therein lies the rub. I’m not scared of spiders. I know the milk isn’t dodgy. I love my work. What is spooking me most at the moment is change, because CHANGE to my Mum was the most terrifying prospect of all. Change included RISK and risk was a very special sort of “Are you absolutely mental??”. To her lovely, worried mind, even the notion of me venturing out of the door without a coat meant I was risking life and limb, and really would it not be better to just stay at home? So the idea of me having to find somewhere new to live, change the trajectory of my work, fall into a new relationship and do it all with a tarantula in my knickers is not only overwhelming, but feels nigh on impossible, so is it any wonder that grey light at dusk is enough to make me want to claw my eyes out and a loud TV enough to make me want to box my poor unsuspecting child around his beautiful ears, because little worries are more comforting than the great big ones? Little ones are in my remit. But the big ones are fraught with danger and could consume a person whole. ‘

Better to just let it all drift, right? (Wrong).

Florence and The Machine – Frre (2022)

What is the answer then? For sure as eggs are eggs, a person needs to be able to attend the supermarket to buy them. And change will come whether I like it or I don’t. For me then, it is a matter of acknowledging all of this, unmasking, stripping away the excuses and tackling it as I always have done in days gone by. For like so many distant thunderstorms, anxiety has come and it has gone, over and over again. So it is giving into the anti-depressants that calm me enough to give clarity room to do a polka in my head, it is picking up abandoned routines so that the world isn’t threatening to spin of its axis in one domestic crisis after the next, it is writing instead of avoiding the laptop, dancing to Florence and her Machine and letting myself be temporarily free as I spin around the dining room table, asking for (and accepting) help, looking after me first, asking questions without falling into the fawning trauma response I am so familiar with, finding out as much as I need about the things that are worrying me, and taking assertive action instead of being led or dragging myself passively towards crisis or a future that will keep me trapped in the midst of trying so very hard to be “normal”.

“Anais Nin writes that anxiety can kill love. “It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”
Ain’t that the truth. I see that look on others’ faces when I’m drowning in one of my spirals. I know that many of the loved ones I’ve turned to, or allowed in to witness me in this state, have had to swim away from me and look after themselves, leaving me to drown. I’ve always feared that they think I’m going to strangle them emotionally with my complexity. So I usually send them on myself.
Sometimes, though, when I put in the work, my anxiety has seen love grow, not die. And so, anxiety can be the very thing that pushes us to become our best person. When worked through, dug through, sat through, anxiety can get us vulnerable and raw and open. And oh so real.”

Sarah Wilson - first, we make the beast beautiful

Above all else, it is a conscious undoing of what has gone before. The willingness to sit with Anxiety, and make her a friend, to see the degree to which she is simply the truth I have long been intent on avoiding, because I simply didn’t know any better. A decision made to be real, and honest and love and be loved anyway.

First, then, we make the beast beautiful. And then we give ourselves permission to be loved exactly as we are. To exercise risk, as if it were a muscle. And to accept that we might just be dancing with Bill Nighy for our always. He does seem like an awfully nice man.

(Picks me up, puts me down, a hundred times a day)


  1. Sarah E. says:

    Bravo! Yes. Bravo. With every year you become more yourself and I can see how hard it is. But it helps the rest of us and that is so important in the vacuum of the internet.

    Keep going.

    1. Dee says:

      Alison. I rarely comment but had to tonight. This post was the most honest I have read from you and I have watched you split your heart open over the years.

      I have suffered from anxiety for too many years to count and have never been able to explain it to myself, let alone others. But here it is.
      Thank you so much.

  2. Jane Paulson says:

    This made me cry. And it made you real.

  3. Sara says:

    Lived experience like this needs a bigger platform. Social media is full of “experts” telling us how to manage different mental health issues. But having someone put into words how it feels is more useful for me because it makes me feel understood. I’ve got no advice Alison and I know you will have lived with this long enough to know how to come through it but I just want to say keep writing. The clouds always pass.
    Ps hope this isn’t overstepping but have you been assessed for autism?

  4. Carherine says:

    You look so confident. But I suppose looks can be deceiving. Hugs from Toronto.

  5. Debra D says:

    I felt like you were speaking from inside my head. My mother had to have been a twin to your Mother. the exact same anxiety and fear of change – any change. Thank you for showing us just how strong you really are.

  6. Lisa Thorpe says:

    Hi Alison, I’ve followed your blog for *years*, too many to remember but definitely from when your Finn was very small. My first born is now 25 (!) and works in mental health as a psychologist. We have frequent and interesting conversations around this subject, especially as my other son suffers from anxiety. It’s incredibly challenging, ebbs and flows – and I recognised so much of his experience from your writing. I also wondered, and I sincerely hope you won’t take this the wrong way – might you be on the autism spectrum? I know from experience that many traits of anxiety related behaviours can have crossovers into spectrum behaviours. It’s definitely worth looking into.

  7. Gayle says:

    I have always thought of you as brave. You have been through a lot and it is no real mystery as to why life feels frightening for you. It has been unpredictable and disappointing but as I have always said to a close friend about you, you just keep going and smiling and making me laugh. (*** TARANTULA IN YOUR KNICKERS??***) Reminding me why I fell in love with Brocantehome so many years ago.

    Write like this more. Keep digging inside and inspire the rest of us. We need voices like yours Alison May. 🌺 ♥️ 🖊

  8. Karen says:

    You help me to understand myself. And I’m so grateful for your words. 💖

  9. Kelly Gabriel says:

    Just now was able to read this. Makes me want to read the book. My brain can go from hell to breakfast in a heartbeat! Daily. So, thank you for this post. Thank you for riding this wave of life with the rest of us and giving credence to so many of our feelings. ♥️♥️♥️

  10. Heather says:

    On this very day, I have been debating (panicking) with myself whether or not to try to make an emergency dental appointment because the pain I feel may be from Trigeminal Neuralgia or it might be a dental issue. The shame I will feel if I waste everyone’s time if it is not a dental issue, well, you hit it on the head in this post: I’ll feel like a fraud.
    Living with anxiety is hard. Much love to you Alison

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