High anxiety: the everyday terrors my grandmother faced

Elizabeth Waugh Syme was the youngest of five, born in May 1937 in Alva, a Scottish mining town. She was my grandmother. Although she died in 2003 she has filled my thoughts this year more than ever before.

That middle name, Waugh. I never knew how to say it. When I was young I’d squeal “Wok” at her, asking to hear the full names of her sisters again and again. Mary Shaw Duncan Syme, Margaret Scott Thomas Syme.

“But why do you have men’s names?” I’d ask.

“Because we’re tough, Fanny.”

I’d squirm every time she called me that, a Scottish term of endearment. God knows we never got a “darling” out of her.

Betty was tough. A caustic, unforgiving and unbelievably proud woman of 5ft 2in with a rasp in her voice, a glinting gold tooth and a Superkings always on the go. She was wickedly funny, her tongue scalpel sharp, but she was also vulnerable – an acutely anxious person who found life very difficult at times.

This anxiety manifested in ways I didn’t understand as a child – I only found it annoying. Funny, even. Oh, how my sister and I laughed at the baths that were run no higher than our ankles, in case we drowned. What a kick we’d get, leaning out of the kitchen window, pretending to fall, until she shouted for us so hard her voice would break.

As an adult in my 30s, having had bouts of severe anxiety since my first panic attack at the age of 17, suffering from this immensely frustrating, often crippling condition that can feel like a riddle for the sufferer and those around them, so many of my memories of Betty make sense. They break my heart. But in order to understand anxiety better, I felt I needed to spend some time examining the clear genetic spectre in my own distress.

“She seemed to be anxious all the time, about everything and nothing,” says my mum, who, along with her brother, believes Betty was depressed and displayed the ritualistic patterns of obsessive compulsive disorder. “But it was also a deep, internal unease that you could see her fighting for things to pin the feelings on. She couldn’t sit for more than 15 minutes at a time, had to always be on the go.”

Growing up, Mum recalls that she and her brother went through the same routine every morning before school.






“Off, Mum.”

Their school was a 45-second walk away. Every morning, they would be made to sit in a line in the hallway if there was a storm outside, sometimes for hours, and have their hairbrushes washed in Dettol every few days.

Betty’s anxiety manifested as a fear of germs and contamination a great deal of the time. Her hands were always raw and red, chapped at the knuckles. I remember her hands and arms, covered in vast constellations of bronze freckles, so clearly.

The kitchen floor and bathroom surfaces being cleaned with neat bleach every day is a very clear in my memory. So, too, is the rigmarole of taking my sister and me into public toilets on days out, holding us over the toilet bowls when we were far too big for it and her little body trembled under the weight of us. She’d use a wad of toilet roll to flush the chain and another to open the lock. On the tube, which we’d often get from her and my grandad’s home in Wanstead, east London, to the Cutty Sark or the Natural History Museum, we’d be told to sit with our hands in our pockets, not touching a single surface because they were “absolutely plastered” with germs. “Plastered” was one of her favourite descriptives. She wasn’t just trying to protect us, of course. She was trying to calm her own thoughts.

Eleanor Morgan. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Betty didn’t have the vocabulary to explain the ferocity of her anxious thinking or the way it made her feel. She dealt with life the way she could and, as my mum and uncle say, working class people of a certain generation didn’t talk about mental health problems. You played the hand you’d been dealt. Over time, though, Betty came to rely on alcohol to quieten her mind. She never used to be a big drinker so it came as a shock to my mum when, at a family pub lunch when my sister, brother and I were young, my grandad ordered a double neat vodka for her at the bar. “That’s what she drinks now,” he said to my mum. And that was that. She was never drunk drunk, but she was always drinking. Morning to night.

Alcohol killed her, aged 66. She’d had cancer of the bowel but liver disease took her, in an intensive care unit in Stirling, before she was ready. “I can’t wait till I can get out of here,” she said to my mum, over and over in that bed, undoubtedly knowing that she never would. She was angry. One day, my mum says Betty hallucinated her mother sitting at the end of her bed.

“My mother’s here,” she said.

“Oh, is she? What’s she doing?” my mum replied.

“Nothing. She’s mad at me.”

“What for?”

“All this.”

She’d spent her whole life worrying about disease and death and there she was, facing her ultimate fear.

When I remember Betty, I don’t want her to be defined by her anxiety because it was just one part of the fabric of who she was. It’s only one part of who anyone is. Yes, she suffered in ways that became untenable for her, but her life was full of colour and fun, too.

She sailed to America on the Queen Mary in 1955, aged 24, to work as an au pair in Toronto – a bold move, then – before heading to Los Angeles to join her older sister, Mary, who had moved there. She lived it up something rotten, waitressing at Tony’s Italian in San Pedro and spending weekends in Palm Springs or going to Las Vegas to see Rat Pack shows. Mary gave her money to do a secretarial course but she spent it having fun in Hollywood. My mum’s loft is full of black-and-white pictures of this immaculate, Monroe-figured woman with a glint in her eye, posing in front of Cadillacs. Was she anxious then? Who knows. She looked like someone in love with life. I want to climb into those pictures and sniff her hair, full of Clinique Aromatics, the only perfume she ever wore.

Memories of Betty’s anxiety should not eclipse those of her loyalty or humour, either. There was always a gaggle of cackling women around her, sharing a packet of fags. She was magic company, the life and soul of any party, and clearly an expert at masking her distress, just as I was for a long time.

My mum refuses to remember Betty only as a nervous wreck and, when she recalls some of her devastating one-liners, she laughs herself silly. On a family holiday in Portugal, Betty was bitten alive by mosquitoes and eventually admitted she needed to see a doctor. Leaving the medical centre, she said to my mum, “Ooh, he oozed sex,” making mum erupt like a teenager. “Oh, sorry, Odette – do you think you invented it?” came the reply.

Betty was many different things. Mother, wife, grandmother, loyal friend, smoker, socialist, professional cleaner, lover of velour tracksuits, prolific swearer (apparently she only picked this up in her years as a school cook, but I’m not so sure). Someone who had anxiety. An alcoholic. Which part is who she really was? None of them. All of them. Understanding her better has helped me to understand myself. I am not my anxiety and Betty wasn’t hers. It was part of her, is part of me.

Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan is published by Bluebird, £16.99. To order a copy for £12.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846 Free UK pp over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. pp of £1.99.