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BREATHING SPACE

Me and my anxiety axe

When Zoë Beaty needs to feel better or deal with difficult emotions, she goes to the bottom of the garden, picks up a hammer and "Thwack!"

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By Zoë Beaty on

 

At the end of a concrete path older than me, past some makeshift stepping stones, right at the top of my mum’s garden in Lincolnshire, there lies a log. It is thick and its brown outer layer is slightly flaking away, while a few old branches still protrude from its bark. Covering its surface are hundreds of indents: singular marks, hacking dints, hollow craters and uneven little pits – the marks of petty revenge, and shallow retribution. 

Because, while some people might find solace in sport, or calm in mindfulness, my mum and I have something slightly more off the beaten track. We grasp at inner peace by beating the shit out of that log. 

It wasn’t always just a log. Once upon a time, it stood upright, looming over the garden, a deep green giant, fat and stubbornly unscalable. Looking up into its branches I spent afternoons imagining (hoping) that, if I could only climb it, Moon-face and the Saucepan Man and Silky might have jumped off the pages of Enid Blyton’s books and right into my back garden. Its fruit – tiny, messy little wooden balls which it shed continually to my mum’s frustration – became the fillings of the “pies” I made in neon plastic kitchens, or makeshift marbles. In the summer it was the shady tree, and in the winter I watched from my bedroom window as its highest branches fought invisible enemies hiding in the wind. 

When I was a teenager, the tree was chopped down and laid lengthways instead, but stuck around. For a long time I didn’t know its new significance – of why my mum kept a chunk of old bark, or why it hadn't been chopped for firewood. But then, one summer, around five or six years ago, I found myself back at home for two weeks’ respite after a particularly volatile relationship had ended. I felt incredibly sad, I wasn’t really speaking much out loud, and my exasperated mum spent the time bringing me hot drinks, and hugs in an attempt to lighten my mood. She would come through to the new conservatory, where the tree once stood and where I was stationary for much of the duration of my stay at home, and place a mug in my hands. I’d thank her, and we’d sit. Later the tea might be upgraded to a glass of wine, we’d talk a little, and I’d recluse again. Then one afternoon, late in my stay, she swapped the tea in her hands for a hammer.

“What on earth is that?” I asked. She held it out to me. 

“Come with me.” 

We stepped out of the back door together, into the fresh air and up the concrete path and turned to face the log. 

“Hit it,” she said. “As hard as you can.” 

I thought she was mad. But I did as she asked. And I felt immediate release. 

I hit the log with all the fire in my tummy, with the freedom of a child running as fast as possible, and released some of what I’d absorbed over the years just passed

Thwack! That’s one right back at you. Thwack! That’s for telling me I deserved it. Thwack! That, and this one, and the one after that, is for telling me I looked ugly when I cried about it. I hit the log with all the fire in my tummy, with the freedom of a child running as fast as possible, and released some of what I’d absorbed over the years just passed. Each one was more cathartic – and probably more comedic – than the last, until eventually I found, to my surprise, that I was exhausted, breathing hard and thinking of absolutely nothing for the first time in weeks. I was laughing out loud. 

Mum had a go too, on my behalf. She shouted and swore at it, hacking at the bark, and probably startling the neighbours, with gusto and little care. We took it in turns until we were so out of breath we could hardly raise the hammer above our heads, and then turned to go back inside the house, a little lighter. 

Mum and me chatted for longer and with more wine that night, and I felt for the first time like I might feel better. She told me that the log had helped her – and some of her friends, too – many times in the past, but she’d never thought to introduce me to it. During arguments, and break-ups of her own, and frustrations with work and with banks and everything else that life throws at you, mum found some solace in throwing hammer – or, as we've used since, an axe – at the log. She’d snuck out whilst I was asleep when I still lived at home, or waited until I was out of the house. When things got too much, or when people let her down, she got her own back with her weapon of choice. 

The Log is now shorthand for emotional hardship – a call that we “need the log” means we’re getting to the peak of what we can withstand. The chips peppering its surface hold a million thoughts and memories that we might rather forget – the words that gnawed at us, the thoughts we can’t physically say out loud and the things we might like to but we can’t. We still use it to this day, and it’s still just as effective. Perhaps much like the people who can pound out their frustrations on the pavement running feel, there’s something about being outside in the open, doing something physical, that just can’t be beaten.

Plus, it feels deliciously satisfying to do something so out of character. I’m in no way violent, and my mum is more gentle than me. But when we’re mindlessly hacking through the surface of that log, you’d never guess it. 

When the log was a tree, it watched over memories I made and fuelled my racing imagination. Now it’s a sturdy pal, solid in the middle and reassuringly unmovable. Get one for yourself. Take it to the bottom of your garden, choose your weapon. And breathe. 

@zoe_beaty

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Breathing Space
Anxiety

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