A podcast just for me

I received a notification last week that there was a new Fun with Bells podcast for my entertainment, Take a deep breath,….. by Nicky Carling, a ringer and therapist ( https://funwithbells.com/for-those-who-are-anxious-about-returning-to-ringing/). If you have never listened to any of these podcasts, they are worth investigating.  Cathy Booth interviews ringers – from the less experienced to the most experienced and peers into many aspects of ringing. There is something for everyone. Take a deep breath……. was clearly directly commissioned to meet my current needs, although how the producers knew about my present predicament quite so quickly is mysterious and a little worrying. Does everyone know that I am a choker, scared of bells and suffering from anxiety?

I had been discussing my problem with my brother on Tuesday.  He is a CBT therapist and he recommended a colleague, a sports therapist, who helps athletes deal with performance anxiety. Was the room bugged?

Probably not.  It is more likely that I am not the only one suffering from anxiety as we return to real life towers. It is not that I am scared of mucking up and looking like an idiot. I ring handbells and am perfectly comfortable with making mistakes and having the touch fall apart because I went one way when I really should have gone the other. I am not worried that someone will shout at me across the ringing room. My teacher is not that sort of teacher and if someone did shout at me, I like to think that I have the confidence to shout back and tell them that they are not being helpful. My problem is that I am physically scared of handling the bell.

I was not the sort of ringer who only rang one particular bell in one particular tower.  Within my first year of ringing I had visited probably 2 dozen towers, sometimes accompanied by a teacher, but also on my own.  I had been ringing less than a year when I was on holiday in Scotland and asked to join in Sunday ringing at Edinburgh Cathedral.  They kindly allowed me a few call changes and although the traipse across the roof gutters to the ringing room had me all of a flutter, the actual bells did not worry me. I was never a particularly brilliant ringer, but I was safe. People did not hover in my immediate vicinity in case I required rescue. My bell might have been wandering, but my rope was usually where I wanted it to be.

But that has changed. I think it started a few weeks ago when I was setting up for our first practice and  I checked for sound on the training bells.  I absent-mindedly stretched out my arm and pulled the nearest sally to make sure that the computer was working. There was some resistance so I gave the rope a smart yank. Someone had left the bell up.  My arm shot in the air and because I had not pulled a bell off a balance for months, it took more than a split second to process what was happening and I held on too long. It hurt and I realised that I could have easily dislocated my shoulder.  If the rope had been wrapped around my hand (it wasn’t) I could have broken a finger.  It was my own fault.  I had made a rookie error, but we all make errors from time to time. It was fortunate that I made the error on a dumbbell and not a 10cwt tenor.

My first foray back to an actual tower, rather than to forgiving training bells, and the familiar ropes that I learnt to ring on had been changed. They are not particularly springy because they have posh tops, but the sallies are fat and slippery.  They no longer fit comfortably in my small hands.  I do not trust them not to slip through. My first attempt and there were a few fumbles – nothing disastrous, but enough uncertainty to make me anxious, and the more anxious I became, the worst my handling became.  I started to make wild, premature grabs for the sally, which had the knock on effect that I failed to finish my backstrokes, which caused the rope to pile up, which made my frantic sally grab even more precarious etc etc. Consequently, I started to miss the rope entirely, which just compounded everything.  The well-behaved bell that I once compared to a reliable family labrador, has become a malevolent foe that requires me to do battle with it.  I am the loser in this battle.

I have tried very hard.  Three practices in the tower and a Sunday ring. Many, many drops of Bach Rescue Remedy to try and control the panic but it seems to be getting worse and not better. I try to visualise the ringing room with me in perfect control, but all that happens is that I feel faintly sick.  I have talked about it with others to obtain perspective.  Nothing seems to help. No band needs a ringer who loses control at the drop of the hat and has to ring down and then up again (quite a slow process in my case) before continuing. I have therefore withdrawn from the fray until I can overcome my anxiety and behave normally. I think that the best way to do this is to start from the beginning and learn to handle from scratch.  I hope that it will be quicker second time around.  I need someone to stand by my side whilst I build up the handstroke/backstroke combo. I will hand back the responsibility for catching the sally to someone who is not a choker and then perhaps I will be relaxed enough to catch it myself. They can judge when I am ready to resume normal activity, because my judgement is not reliable. I no longer believe in myself and my own capabilities.

Meanwhile, I can be found in the church porch during practice night, having fun with little bells. It means that I still get to go to the pub with the others and more than 6 of us can be involved each week. I am also still learning, because methods on handbells are still methods, although listening to the big bells ring out over our heads does make me feel wistful. I will also try to ring at my actual home tower, because it may be that the anxiety is connected to a particular ring of bells (blameless although they are) and location specific. I hope so.

I hope that anyone else who, like me is struggling, finds something in the podcast to help them. Giving up because of acute anxiety would be such a waste.  We just need to find a way through and back onto even ground. It may take a little more time for some of us than for other people, but no-one ever claimed that ringing bells was simple.

Meanwhile, thank goodness that I discovered handbells.  I remain connected, if not immersed.

One comment

  1. Hi – I, like you, have had periods where ringing made me incredibly anxious. It started when I broke a stay when I was learning (a very long time ago). I overpulled for years to give myself a false sense of assurance (great for my teenage abs, not so great for my bell control). Then I took a bit of time out because other things came along and turned my head and when I returned in my early twenties I found I was terrified of not being able to catch the sally because I might not get my hands off the tail end. Not a fear of dropping the tail end (this is quite a common ringing anxiety), quite specifically of being glued to it. Weird, I know. This always happened at backstroke, particularly when holding up, and I would do all sorts of things to accommodate it – catch the sally with one hand, make a funny jerking grab and catch the sally too low, do weird things with my right hand to manipulate the rope into one hand… It also made it very difficult to move up and down the tail end. I remember long periods of abject terror during peals and quarter peals when this would take me over – then I would manage to distract myself and it would go away. I discovered a manual trick to tell my brain that everything was fine – I think this is likely to be specific to my phobic thoughts, but for what it’s worth if I concentrated more on my left hand (the lower one) at back stroke, I could reassure my brain that the right one was perfectly able to release itself and perform a beautiful sally catch. I think this is similar to a “geste”, which is a physical trick that patients with movement disorders called dystonia can use to trick the brain out of the abnormal movement (although I don’t think I have a dystonia!). Learning how to teach with ART also really helped – deconstructing the movements of bell control and helping other learners to manage their own anxieties and fumbles also helped me manage my own. It hardly ever happens now, although occasionally it tries to inveigle itself back into my life like a wee demon, and has to be placed firmly back in its box. Good luck – I am sure from what we all see if you through this blog that you will have the determination to find a way through this, and you are not alone. And by the way, the bells at Edinburgh Cathedral are pigs (or at least they used to be when I was a child). If you can ring there, you can ring anywhere 😈

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