Have you ever had one of those tube journeys where, delayed in a tunnel around fifty metres below ground, with the driver squawking in static about signal failures or a euphemistic “person on the tracks”, you start to wonder if reality is a toaster made of pencil shavings, and you’re being born backwards into oblivion over and over and over again?
If the answer is anything close to “yes” then, like me, you probably suffer from anxiety. And, also like me, crowded trains are likely to focus your panic into a toothpaste tube of pure, gut-dragging fear. So, you may be interested to know that Transport for London has published a new tube map specifically for people like us.
This anxiety/claustrophobia sufferer’s guide to tube travel (which, although there’s no suggestion that the initiative came from the Mayor’s office, could not be any more Sadiq Khan, bless his heart) flags up routes passengers can take to avoid those long, “SWEET JESUS AM I GIVING BIRTH TO MYSELF?” stretches of indifferent, black tunnel. And it’s a very welcome example of mental illness being taken into consideration, when it comes to accessibility.
Apart from the obvious overcrowding during rush hour, and the fact that you’re snaking along below the earth in a literal tube, I’ve often wondered what is so pronouncedly anxiety inducing about the London Underground. For me, my tubular panic attacks usually begin with not knowing where to look. I’m a natural starer. I tend to find myself, mouth slightly open, looking at the faces of people sitting opposite me with the grim determination of a sex offender. But, and this I must make absolutely clear, for no reason whatsoever. I’m not staring at people I find excessively attractive, or ugly, or even remotely interesting. It’s more a case of needing to make some kind of human connection, even if this means gawping – from across the carriage – at some suited city boy with stupid socks and a Hitler Youth haircut.
Sometimes, I can curb my inappropriate staring by focusing my attention on my phone. But, if I’m feeling particularly anxious, my phone becomes too much of a reflection of myself which is – for the most part – the exact thing I’m trying to escape. So, eschewing any kind of control, my gaze makes a bee line for whichever unlucky people happen to be sitting opposite me. And eye contact on the tube isn’t so much frowned upon as punishable – it is rumoured – by exile from London on a humiliatingly defunct bendy bus to the home counties. To avoid which, I’ll usually wrench my steely line of sight from other humans to my own feet. At which point, my agitation becomes unbearable. Feet are boring. I start to drum my nails on my phone screen. Once the drumming starts, I’m physically nauseous and seconds away from an internal nuclear meltdown.
When I mentioned this to my therapist, he suggested that any given tube trip represents my journey through life itself. Which – seeing as life is basically an unfurling toilet roll of terror and disappointment, occasionally punctuated by nice moments – is pretty anxiety inducing.
I said, “Hm”, and stared at him like he was art.
So thank you, TfL, for taking this – well maybe not this specifically, but you get the idea – into consideration. Aside from piping Enya onto the trains in lieu of announcements about delays, or Valium vending machines on platforms, I really don’t have any other suggestions. For once, good work.