AS detectives continued to question a man suspected of murdering her daughter yesterday, Joan Lawrence was doing her best to block out her "living nightmare" and carry on as normally as possible.

"If I think too much about what's happening, I'll go insane," she said.

Just after 8am on Tuesday, she was still in her dressing gown when two police officers called at her home in Malton, North Yorkshire, to break the news that a man had been arrested, more than five years after her daughter Claudia disappeared on the way work as a chef at York University.

"It was a bombshell," she said. "They wanted me to know before they told the press. We've always said we prefer no news to bad news but I was in utter shock and still am."

On the previous weekend, her spirits had been lifted by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, at a civic service to mark her years as Mayor of Malton.

"He just has a way of making me feel better," said Joan. "Then, after all the excitement of the weekend, I just felt I'd been plunged into a dark hole with news of the arrest. After more than five years, it didn't seem real."

Joan wasn't told anything about the arrested man and spent the day trying to avoid watching television or listening to the radio. As usual, she went to her Tuesday morning keep-fit class, and it was while she was having coffee with friends afterwards that the gym instructor came over to let her know that the news had broken.

It wasn't until Tuesday night that she saw the picture of 59-year-old Michael Snelling on the television news.

"He didn't look like someone capable of doing anything," she said.

After Joanna Yeates was murdered in Bristol in 2010, Joan had contacted the victim's mother, and she is acutely aware that an innocent man – Christopher Jeffries – was arrested and vilified by the media.

"I want justice but I don't want anyone's life to be wrecked. We don't know what's going to happen and this man may be totally innocent," she said.

Yesterday, Joan resisted the temptation to stay in her flat and wait for news. Instead, she drove to her home town of Darlington for a reunion with former colleagues from the town's telephone exchange where she'd worked 40 years ago.

Joan was born in Greenbank Maternity Hospital in Darlington and so was her eldest daughter Ali. Joan married former husband Peter at All Saints Church in the town in 1970.

"When I get to Darlington, I relax," she said. "It feels like home and the people here have been so kind to me."

There were "plenty of hugs" from her ex-workmates in the William Stead pub, in Darlington town centre, but they are sensitive to Joan's situation.

"We talked a little bit about Claudia but we mainly talk about the old times and look at pictures," she said. "It helps me to keep my mind off things."

Messages of support have flooded in for Joan over the past five years, including many from Darlington. Her old friend from Arthur Pease Primary School, Eileen Furlong – now Eileen Simpson – sent her a prayer from Australia which she keeps on her mantle-piece at home.

The prayer is called Good Morning God, by Helen Steiner Rice, and she reads it most days.

"No one could get through this without faith," she said. "I can't reply to everyone personally but I want people to know how much their messages and support mean to me. It keeps me going."

At various points in the interview, Joan stopped to check her phone and ask, fearfully, if there had been any news.

"I don't think anyone could really imagine what it's like, not knowing," she said, fighting back tears. "I have nightmares, wondering what Claudia might have gone through. Had she been calling for me? I just don't know. All you can do is live hour by hour, day by day and keep on hoping."

And then she said it again: "No news has to be better than bad news."