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How Nightlife Helped Me Deal With My Anxiety Disorder

Nightlife gave me a feeling of deliverance and a sanctuary from an anxiety I did not yet understand.

by Eleanor Morgan
Jun 30 2016, 4:00am

The author enjoying London's nightlife in the early 00s

It's a curious thing, to move and be unaware of your movements. Through my late teens and early twenties, I moved a lot in nightclubs, my chemically altered body walloped by sound and other bodies. The sum of all parts––the right music, the temperature of the high, the people around me––was flight. I flew through and suspended time, moving in the same spot, and the experience became essential to living. I was shit-scared—largely about being shit-scared itself—in a way that no one knew about. The nightclub was my sanctuary, the dancefloor the mouth of a whale—and it swallowed me whole.

I started having panic attacks at 17. At first, I had no idea what was happening to me—each time I had the "experiences," as I called them, I'd become incredibly nauseous and almost faint. The summer before I went to university in London, I went to the GP thinking I was gravely ill, only to hear him use new-to-me phrases like "panic attacks" and "anxiety levels." I had the tiniest understanding about what I was experiencing, but I was also hell-bent on leaving the Hertfordshire suburbs for the bigness of London. I didn't want to talk about my "mental health," so I glossed over it with my parents, who were as mystified as I was about what I was anxious about. "It'll go away," I thought. It didn't.

I'm in my thirties now, and I've written a book about anxiety—how it impacted my life, as well as how it impacts millions of lives across the world, often in secret. I've done my best to investigate the neurobiology of anxiety, and have tried to dismantle the stigma that surrounds it. I've gone through cognitive behavioral therapy, taken medication, and even though I still have bad days sometimes, I'm aware of my condition. I now have a language for the way my brain falters.

When I was younger, though, I had no real knowledge. The fear of having a panic attack was almost worse than the attacks themselves, a low-level hum that became more shrill in socialsituations. I was sociable, but it was hard. If I didn't have a clear view of the exits or the bathrooms, I wouldn't last long. I had to visualize my escape path everywhere I went, just in case I needed to be alone.

I began developing a series of behaviors so no one would know what was going on in my head. I had no idea how much it would impact me later on—I just wanted to be and look cool, which this "panic attack" business got in the way of. I was aware, however, that I needed a physical and mental release, and I don't know if I ever experienced a greater feeling of deliverance than on Trash's packed dancefloor.

Trash was a genre and gender-dissolving sweatbox in London run by DJ/producer Erol Alkan on Monday nights from 1997 to 2007. It changed venues a few times, but I only attended when it was at The End, a huge, subterranean space near Tottenham Court Road. I'd read about Trash and other club nights in magazines like The Face and was desperate to be among their crowds of asymmetric hair, cigarette smoke, and fluid sexuality. I was in the process of realizing a few things about myself and hoped that this scene might help me move further forward.

When I first attended Trash in 2003, I felt an immediate sense of belonging. This wasn't a club for sticking to the walls or sitting around: people danced into the night, even if they had to get up for work the next day. I went to other clubs too, but Trash was the place I felt I could really let go. It wasn't just the dancing, either: being part of a crowd of likeminded people bludgeoned my anxious thoughts to the point where I would be pure sense manifested. Looking at those around me helped address the questions I had about my identity—who I wanted to be, who I wanted to be with, and all things that contributed to my state of mind.


Another photo of the author having a great time

Trash was an incubator of discovery. Electroclash was in full throttle in 2003, and Alkan played a lot of the stuff because his crowd was more open-minded than other indie crowds. It was the first place I realized I liked any kind of dance music. I remember hearing bangers like Felix Da Housecat's "Madame Hollywood" and Fischerspooner's "Emerge," the soundso forceful and sexy that I felt like I might erupt. Everyone was erupting, bursting out of their daytime chrysalises into sweaty, jerking figures in a dark room, snogging people they didn't think they'd be snogging.

One night, Alkan played Radiohead's "Idioteque" and did something to the levels so the beat was deafening, and I felt worlds collide. I'd listened to Kid A in my headphones in the sixth form common room and on my walks home from school, goosebumping out of my skin as I walked past the local swimming pool and having no one to share it with. Now here I was in a London nightclub dancing wildly to it. I can't do descriptive justice to how I felt.

Today, my social life happens in people's houses, in pubs, restaurants, and on canal paths. Trash no longer exists, and neither does The End. I don't go clubbing now and wouldn't know where to go even if I wanted to. London nightlife in the early 00s was dazzling, young, unbolted, and full of possibility. I don't recognize London nightlife now, but maybe that's because I'm not as young anymore.

I met some of my best friends in and outside the doors of London nightlife. I know now that quite a few of us were suffering in ways we didn't know how to communicate back then. One of my oldest friends, photographer Matt Irwin, worked the door at Trash for some time; last month, he took his own life. I didn't know how his mind despaired back then, and he didn't know about mine either—only that when he'd come inside for a dance in his Reebok Classics, we became transformed. Our only imperative was to see ourselves reflected in one another. We needed to be there, in the dark, not thinking.

The anxiety I knew in my late teens and early twenties would get worse. It took me over a decade to address it properly; three years ago, I had to seriously examine myself and my ability to go on any longer without help. In my worst moments, I would remember the freedom I felt on those Monday nights and find myself crying—but I don't need nightclubs now. Over time, I've worked out what I need to achieve stillness of mind, which boils down to good sleep, exercise, and long conversations in broad daylight—all that boring stuff. I went out in my early twenties not just because I wanted to party, but because I didn't want to be alone with my thoughts. I have to be able to be alone with them now, and I can—but, Christ, if Trash came back for one night only, I'd be first in line.

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'Anxiety for Beginners' by Eleanor Morgan is published by Bluebird Books