Battling anxiety – or: Valhalla lies in the Netherlands

Fighting to be writing again – a very personal battlefield

Sarah DahlI’ve said it before, and you all experince it: sometimes life gets in the way. I had to postpone the last release (“Healer,” finally out April 13) due to a the flu knocking me out. Only those having suffered from that virus can understand what it does. It sucks the life right out of you. It’s never just a severe cold, it is so much more. Even my closest family couldn’t entirely understand what was going on. Especially when after the initial daylong fevers and weakness the mental instability set in. And by the gods, have I been battling Hugo and his troops for two decades now. And you just can’t anticipate it. What I learned is also a Viking wisdom:

Never walk away from home ahead of your axe and sword. You can’t feel a battle in your bones or foresee a fight. – The Havamal

Opponent 1: The virus

I got so weak I wasn’t able to talk or sit up. I just lay flat, dozing, unable to read, watch tv, or have a light conversation. There were times when I not only feared but believed my career was over. I scared the crap out of those close to me. They know me as energetic, lively, a shield maiden. But this time, mid- to end of February? Forget it. Even lifting a spoon to eat soup was a task. And don’t you dare talk to me. That in itself was frightening for me: not only this being unable to “function”, but seeing myself unable to “live” at all. What I managed was drinking, breathing (and even that was hard when anxiety hit) and lying around, staring inwards. Which is always unhealthy – and worsens the symptoms of anxiety, which followed my complete loss of control.

Opponent 2: An anxiety called Hugo

That’s how I picture Hugo

I’ve suffered from anxiety and panic attacks since I left home, overconfident and naive, into a life the practicalities of which I had underestimated. Add to that a fragile young love and constant interference by someone who had too much influence on my partner and me … and I ended up in therapy the first time. Which was brilliant. It was the first time I understood what was going on and that my dizziness, vomiting, heart racing and other symptoms weren’t physical but caused by my mind saying STOP. I gave the anxiety a name (He’s called “Hugo” for some reason I forgot) and made him my friend and critic. Hard work, sports, and a new fulfilling hobby called writing made me recover and move on, all those 20 years ago.

Opponent 3: Welcome to the Netherlands

I had to go back to therapy once we found out that something was “wrong” with our first child, son Finian, and that he was totally in the wrong place at kindergarten. There, they blamed his odd behaviour on us, and collecting him became a daily horror. Only a mother can understand the mental strain you go through. Denial, pain, enless questions. Why is he different? Who can help? What more can I do? Waking nights, endless searches for answers, worries beyond everything you anticipated with motherhood. My therapist said with anxiety it’s the same mental stages as those you go through when mourning a loved one’s death. Take that in. But as you go through these stages, you learn – with the help of my brilliant therapist, I must stress – to accept that your life is suddenly changed and not what you thought it would be. And that there’s still a long journey ahead and so many, many question marks. Daily life will be tough, choices be grave, and you understand that your hopes for your child’s and your own future were quite … naive again.

Sometimes you don’t have a map – pic by

My therapist said it’s like you’re sat in a plane, pregnant and so excited to fly to, let’s say, sunny Italy. It will be a great journey, you think as you stroke your growing belly. But suddenly the pilot makes an announcement you’re not at all prepared or equipped for:

“Welcome to the Netherlands!”


Of course you can’t believe it, you rage and cry and question everything. You search for answers as to how this could go so wrong. Can you somehow still make it to Italy? Maybe on foot, with detours? No? We’re stuck there forever without warm clothes?? This can’t be true …

But the longer you stay in the Netherlands and learn its maps and know your way around – you find it’s not at all bad. It’s a rather lovely country with amazing people. It’s more a strain to battle the weathers and tides and you don’t always have the right clothing still. But there’s so much beauty, too. So many good people, new outlooks, a whole different language. So many experiences the usual Italy-tourist will never make or understand.

Again, the Vikings put it like this:

Wisdom is welcome wherever it comes from. – the Bandamanna Saga

You learn the language, although Dutch isn’t lovely Italian

What I’m saying is: You grow into it. You grow with the task. You learn, you accept, you move on. We love our life and can’t imagine it without Finni, because as much as he takes out of us sometimes, he gives even more. He changed us, made us stronger and braver and kinder. He teaches us to see the world a little with his eyes and his struggles. And his victories!

And suddenly the moment he bravely walks up to a hand dryer, his mortal enemy, and with all the strength and bravery he can muster manages not only to endure the noise, but even stick a hand in it … suddenly THIS is the mightiest victory for us all. He overcame a huge obstacle, a deadly fear that hindered restaurant visits and motorway journeys, and all by himself. He is a hero.

I’m the mum of a warrior.

That’s how you gotta see the world.

The true warrior isn’t immune to fear. She fights in spite of it. – Francesca Lia Block

Bird’s poop or Valhalla: it’s all a matter of point of view

So what is a flu? Bird’s poop compared to his struggles, but my point is: anxiety and mental illness have been there before we had a special needs child. So when I was down with flu, it was bad for me, but worse for the rest of the family. My kids struggled just as long as I was non-existent, even worse for Finni who is connected with me via a very sensitive bond I can’t grasp myself. But we mirror each other often. And on top of that came the fears for my career, that I couldn’t work at all, had to put everything on hold and hope fans and bloggers would still know me whenever I returned.

IF I returned, because: Hugo the bastard made good use of my weakness. As usual he overreacted and created a mental Hel for me when most likely there was no reason to fear I’d die or stay that weak forever. I was just in “power save function”. Everything else was too much. I avoided tv, radio, conversations. Everything stressed me out. And that, you people knowing my gritty and straightforward writing, was scary as Viking Hel.

After the Battle, you come out stronger

BUT: I did survive, I battled with Hugo in many endless duels – but slowly and gradually I put to use what I had praciced in therapy. I had new weapons. And a warrior band to help. With the support of family and friends I crawled back to life and became stronger than my worst enemy, the fear. I see now that I grew during that time. I have a healthier distance to negative things and more patience and focus on the important things in life. The knowledge that I survived the battle against the virus and the subsequent duels with anxiety made me stronger. I haven’t had a panic attack for months now, and when Hugo taps my shoulder I just breathe and focus away – and he leaves before we duel. I say “just” but it’s of course harder than that. But that’s what shield maidens do: they gotta stand up and fight.

“You’re gonna be happy,” said life, “but first, I’m gonna make you strong.” – unknown

Going to Valhalla is the best thing that could happen

So when I say I feared I’d go to Valhalla – either for real with energy levels that equalled those of a pinched balloon, or mentally, by having Hugo occupy my entire physical and mental being – I can now say: I DID! I reached the eternal halls of feasting.

At the moment, Valhalla’s joys are real. That’s how I feel, because: I started writing again! I feel back in creative control. I’ve been trying to find a way back into working two months ago, of course, as soon as I was back home and functioning. But the writing mojo … was gone. Trauma needs longer. So I edited and read and researched and prepared the imminent release of “Healer”, finding: all the good people were still there! The book came out, the fans read it, reviews were better than ever. The world hadn’t left me behind. I used the difficult times to edit the shit out of my shield maiden novel that I’m working on for years now. One day, it will be done and out and my greatest victory. So I took and take small steps that lead in that direction. A scene a day. Then two a day. Sometimes three.

Patience is the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you had in mind. – David G. Allen

Writing “After the Battle” is like feasting in Valhalla

And since this weekend I can say: I am writing creatively again! I started a completely new story, the last one for the collection Tales of Freya, working title “After the Battle”. It continues and closes the story of our favourite Viking couple, warriors Aldaith and Nyssa. I’m lusting to write it! I have the mojo back, this is fresh and exciting and I have regained the confidence (also thanks to the good reviews for previous stories!) that it’ll be good enough. Not perfect, but good enough.

Managing fighting resources: Let good be good enough

That as well is something I learned when I was thrown back to my basic functions and had to learn to be content with another day I survived, doing nothing but battling weakness and anxiety. Which is like winning strategic territory in a major battle, really. And it made me grow and learn: Perfectionism kills the fighter and the writer. Good is enough. That exhausting enemy “Perfect” kills your ability to enjoy writing, like the flu kills your ability to walk. If you overthink it, another warrior will have chopped off your hands before you know it.

Life has taught me that when we come out of our toughest battles, the ones we thought we’d never survive, we gain a strength despite our battle wounds that carries us through the next chapter. We adapt to viewing the world and ourselves through the eyes of someone with a new normal. – Ellen M. DuBois

Stay flexible, be kind to yourself.

I chose to enjoy writing, to be grateful that I feel strong again, and that I have a very special son I can cuddle when I need a break from it all.

“After the Battle” will be out July 6th. If there’s no more flus on the way 🙂


Do you too have experienced struggles that changed your life and perspective on it? What did you learn? What do you feel like sharing in this context – or do you have a message to me or others who struggle with having ended up in “the Netherlands” or other battlefields? I’d love to connect, if you prefer: email me at mail@sarah-dahl(dot)com. Together, we’re stronger!

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