Yesterday, I and the rest of the chaps from Aisle16/Homework arrived at Glastonbury. We’re performing on the Cabaret Stage every day, doing poems to mildly confused but generally well-meaning punters. This is my sixth Glastonbury (last year the festival was cancelled because it clashed with my wedding) and I have a whole smorgasbord of feelings about it.
Broadly speaking, I don’t consider myself ‘good’ at festivals. As regular readers will know, I have troubles with anxiety, and a festival presents a welter of unknown variables to fret over. I mean, yes, none of them are on the ‘will soldiers kick down my door tonight and march my family away for questioning’ level of real human problems, but I still manage to turn each one into a substantial mental scratching post to claw away at in the months leading up to the festival.
Will the weather be okay? What if it hammers it down? (I remember the swampy conditions of Glasto in 2007 – it was draining and brutal) What if my tent leaks? What if lose my phone and wallet? What if my stuff gets nicked? What if I screw up my set? What if the crowds are hostile? What if I can’t sleep? What if I’m cold? What if I get ill? What if I get delayed on my way onsite? What if I forget my ticket? How will I get home? What if the train is delayed? What if there are no shuttle buses? What if the staff don’t accept my parking ticket? What if I can’t find anywhere to set up my tent? What if my phone runs out of battery? What if I get mugged? What if I argue with my wife? What if I run into someone I don’t want to see? What if I feel sad and I’m stuck on my own? What if it’s boring?
Recently, I’ve realised I’m a professional worrier. Most people you know who you think of as worriers are probably really good planners – they write lists and meticulous schedules, they prepare, they tick things off. When you get in the car, they’ve already set the sat nav; they’ve got sandwiches wrapped in foil and a first-aid kit with plasters and paracetamol and antihistamines. They’ve done a printout of all the times different bands are on the various stages. They’ve got an emergency battery-powered phone charger, a cagoule, a foil-backed blanket, a wind-up torch, suncream, mosquito repellent, a sunhat, a spare jumper, handwash, suncream, spare socks wrapped in a bin liner.
I am the polar opposite of this. My worries about various – if you think about it, pathetically minor – problems become so overwhelming that I take the path of least resistance, that stinking piss-riddled alleyway called denial. My response to stress is to play 3DS. (after a shaky start, I’m really enjoying Fire Emblem, by the way – levelling up Donnel, the farmboy, is super-rewarding; man, he is a tank) I put my brain into standby mode, ignoring the smoke seeping under the door, attempting to keep my anxiety at bay by not dealing with anything until the last possible moment.
Sometimes this works okay! Compartmentalising tasks is an important skill if, like me, your career consists of a hundred little fragments of projects. And, you know, it feels pretty adventurous and cod-Zennish to plunge into something with zero preparation, especially if you manage to pull it off. You feel like, wow, I’m just so damn impulsive and free.
But a lot of the time, what actually happens is, it gets to the night before the big thing – the show, the festival, the holiday, the school visit – and the levee of denial finally bursts, and I cry. And panic. Probably I am not the only person to do this. And I supposed, superficially, it’s quite funny. And because other people do it too, it’s easy to rationalise.
Since I stopped drinking, I’ve become a lot more aware of the way anxiety and worrying affects my life. Booze used to be a handy way of keeping it at bay, although, as we all know, with alcohol the best you can do is take a mortgage out on your anxiety – the next morning, you have to start paying back, plus interest. I’m coming up to twelve months teetotal. Wow. Never thought I’d write that.
Clearly, the way forward is to approach future events, like festivals, with a calm, optimistic attitude. If my tent collapses, if I topple into a longdrop, if they won’t let me into the festival, if I lose my wallet and phone, it won’t really matter. I can cope, because they are small things, and because I always do. Trying to plan 20 moves ahead is futile, because it fixes your hopes on a single outcome: if I can just set my tent up in this specific spot, and if the weather just stays sunny, and as long as such-and-such isn’t in a bad mood, I’ll be fine. Yes, you can make a little list and prepare – rolled-up cagoule, loo roll, bin liners, hand sanitiser, mini-umbrella – but just remember that if you forget something, it’s not the end of the world. Will it matter in five years’ time? Almost certainly not.
It’s hard, because when I see someone else being optimistic, my first reaction is usually to dismiss them as suicidally cavalier. Ooh, I think, tutting and shaking my head, you’re going to come to a sticky end, sunshine, letting yourself experience hope and happiness. That’s how the world gets you. Pow. Right on your joyful, gormless chin. A knackering way to think for any length of time.
We’re not talking about blithe, Pollyannish naïvety here. We’re talking about engaging with uncertain situations in a confident, mature way. It’s the opposite of denial. It’s robust rationalism.
I’m starting small, with my worries about festivals, before I move onto the big stuff, like loved ones abandoning me, or the ultimate futility of human existence given that consciousness does not survive death. I suspect, in some mysterious way, they are all linked! I still have a ways to go, but I’m getting better. I haven’t had a panic attack in weeks, which feels like an incredible relief.
If you’re heading off to a festival this season, I sincerely wish you a great time. Remember your wellies, but above all, don’t worry. Perhaps I’ll see you there! And if you think you might be a compulsive worrier, don’t feel like you’re stuck with it. There are some great resources out there if you’re ready to get some help. It’s not easy, but I know now from personal experience that progress is possible. It might not always describe an unbroken upward curve, but over time you can make net gains.
If you’d like to catch me at a festival this year, sign up to my monthly newsletter to find out where I’m playing.