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28 October 2014updated 31 Oct 2014 10:58am

“I can have a panic attack eating a piece of toast”: Standup poet Tim Clare on living with anxiety

What should you do when anxiety takes control of your life? Tim Clare’s new show tells us how to be kind to ourselves.

By Aoife Moriarty

Tim Clare is pacing up and down on stage. He runs his hands through his hair and pats down his checked shirt nervously. He confesses to the audience that he is feeling incredibly anxious. 

Given that public speaking is one of the most highly rated fears in Britain, this is hardly surprising. Except that this “hyper-anxious standup poet” has struggled with depression and severe anxiety for almost a decade. Paradoxically though, he is also a consummate performer. And the stage is where he is the most at ease. 

“It’s the only place I feel normal. That’s the thing,” Clare tells me from his home in Norwich. “You’ve got to remember that if you’re worried, your heart’s pounding, you’re having palpitations, thinking ‘God what’s going to happen, I feel like everyone’s staring at me’… Actually, performing is one of the only places where that is socially acceptable.” 

The endearing-yet-insightful show I witnessed Clare perform at the Edinburgh Fringe this year is entitled Be Kind to Yourself. “People give you all this glib advice and it’s not actually helpful,” he explains, “and it took me a long time to be able to be kind to myself in a way that wasn’t just rampant self-neglect.” 

An engaging mix of humour and spoken word, perhaps the show’s greatest strength is in illustrating that mental illness is an affliction rather than a personality trait. Throughout, Clare’s talent, skill and genuine enthusiasm for life are what dominate, and his initial confession soon sinks into virtual irrelevance. Next year, he plans to bring the show on a nationwide tour.

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During the course of our conversation, he describes his experiences of severe anxiety candidly. “I can have a panic attack sitting in my bed eating a piece of toast,” he admits. “Sometimes I’ve been trying to use the washing machine and I can’t work it out and then my wife asks me something and I can’t concentrate on what’s she saying and I start feeling overwhelmed. Ridiculous things.” 

He jokes that his panic attacks look “like a four-year-old having a tantrum, except I’m in my early thirties and it’s really humiliating and it’s over nothing.” Like many sufferers, he doesn’t think he “deserves” this level of anxiety: “I’ve a good life and I’m surrounded by people who love me and I still suffer from it.” 

If more people were as open and honest about mental illness as he is, does he think it would it lessen the stigma that surrounds it? “I feel like if more people talked about it, I just think very quickly it would become not a big deal,” he agrees. “People commit suicide out of desperation and shame and I really understand that.” 

A few years ago, the 33-year-old’s anxiety was so severe that he suffered from agoraphobia and multiple panic attacks a week, making everyday life difficult to negotiate. Yet for him performing has always been a strangely safe haven. 

It was in 2005 that Clare first started performing with his poetry collective, Aisle16. A graduate of the University of East Anglia MA in Creative Writing, he found himself in a group of friends “where everyone started to get published and do incredibly well”. When he fell into a state of acute depression, spoken word became an unorthodox form of therapy. 

“I felt like my life was over,” he says frankly. “My book that I’d written at the time, that I’d spent years on, no one was interested in it so I’d failed at that. I’d finished university, I’d been dumped by my long-term girlfriend and I had to move out of the house we shared and moved back in with my parents. I had terrible depression, I’d put on a load of weight, I didn’t have a job. I thought, ‘That’s it’.” 

The intervening years have given him some perspective on this bleak period: “Looking back I can see why people were annoyed with me. They were like, ‘You’re 25, you twat, you have a lack of self-awareness.’ Well guess what, depression does involve a lack of self-awareness. That’s part of the disorder, isn’t it?” 

Two years ago, Clare gave up self medication in the form of alcohol (“because I drank quite a lot”). Rather than feeling depressed, the anxiety it had been masking all along took hold. Ever since, the Portishead born performer has tried countless methods to rid himself of the spectre of anxiety, including CBT therapy, medication – even a few sessions of hynotherapy. But none have proved conclusively effective. 

Strangely, it is performing that has helped him the most: “I feel like talking about it on stage every day, and actually admitting to people that I had panic attacks, and talking about it in depth, it actually worked as therapy.” Since performing at Edinburgh, he says, he hasn’t experienced a single attack. 

Indeed recently, things are looking far more positive. Clare’s first novel, The Honours, is due to be published by Canongate next April – “It’s basically Gremlins 2 meets Downton but the publishers want me to make it sound more literary than that” – and he’s currently working on the follow-up at home in Norwich. 

Although he is keen to emphasise that altruism was not the primary factor in devising his new show – “I think it was more a lack of craft than anything else” – he must gain some satisfaction in knowing he is part of breaking down an enduring taboo? Yes, he says, but is eager to point out that he is also gaining from it, both financially and on a personal level. 

Still, the writer and performer claims that not a single night passed during the show’s 20-night run without an audience member telling him either they or a loved one suffer from anxiety. It’s a condition that affects an estimated three in every hundred in the UK. “When people say it helps hearing about it, of course that’s another thing that massively reinforces performing about it. On purely a selfish level, that feels gratifying,” he says.

These days, Clare has found far more constructive ways of reducing his anxiety, including “wild swimming” in rivers and mill ponds. “Having that kind of breathtaking freezing water, plunging into that, and then you get out and your whole body’s warm and tingly and you just can’t feel anxious after that for the rest of the day,” he enthuses.

A Norfolk resident since his degree days, he enjoys being a part of the self-proclaimed ‘Norwich poetry mafia’ (“It is an incredible thriving literary city – one of the best in the UK”) and also hosts a monthly literary cabaret night every month in London.

An almost compulsive qualifier of statements, Clare is at pains to highlight that “all art is a form of benign manipulation”. The point still stands though that he is part of a growing group brave enough to discuss what is a very personal condition. And for that, if nothing else, he needs to give himself a little more credit.

“Be Kind To Yourself” will embark on a nationwide tour in Spring 2015. Tim Clare’s debut novel “The Honours” is released by Canongate this April.

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