Fine Lines

I think the secret to a good life is found in the lines. The fine ones. The wrong side of the line, and life just doesn’t work properly. Too far on the right side of the line, and you’re headed for a giant fall.

Let me explain.

Feeling a little anxiety every now and then is good. A sharp kick of adrenaline keeps us fired up, alert, and ready for, well, stuff. All the stuff that challenges us. Even the stuff that threatens us. Our body has a fight or flight instinct honed in our cave-dwelling days wired up and ready to make sure we have it all covered. Step over that fine line, however, and alertness becomes wired, and a reasoned preparedness becomes spiralling panic. Feeling anxious becomes being anxious. Being constantly anxious, truly anxious, is absolutely no use. It makes us make mistakes and act irrationally Now, it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that one simply should not worry at all. One should be care free and laid back, the closer to horizontal, the better. But that’s no use either. We need a little worry, the occasional burst of anxiety. Otherwise, we’d run a daily risk of getting hit by a bus. And thus the need to pay attention to the fine line. The fine line between feeling anxious when it serves us and being anxious all the time. Walk along the line, and you’re pretty much okay. Fall into being anxious all the time, and you’re screwed. Fall into never feeling an ounce of worry, and you’re also pretty much screwed.

It’s true for almost anything.

There is a fine line between a couple of biscuits and the whole packet. One is a nice treat; the other is a recipe for not fitting into your favourite jeans. Attempt to resist all together and spend your time thinking about the yumminess you can’t have until you give in. The same applies for a couple of glasses of wine verses the bottle. The you of the future is always glad when you walk the fine line between a relaxed drink and inebriation, believe me.

There are fine lines between a deluge of things from the mundane biscuit to the influential role anxiety plays in our life. To name a few: nerves and fear; pride and vanity; accepting responsibility and drowning in guilt; the days with tinges of sadness and enduring depression; allowing people to lean on you and being a doormat; sticking to your guns and stubbornness; being principled and riding a high horse; relaxation and laziness; cleanliness and obsessiveness; sitting down to an episode of Gilmore Girls and binge watching half a season.  It goes on and on. And it’s exhausting. Plus, so many of these facets of life are hard, if not impossible, to control. (I mean, have you ever just watched one episode of Gilmore Girls in a sitting?)

So, it’s no wonder life feels hard sometimes. It’s no wonder we struggle trying to keep on top of things, to make the right choices, and to take control over what we’re feeling since we are always trying to find our balance. What’s more, everyone has their own position on where to draw the line. For one person, three hours on the sofa might leave them feeling rested and ready for the world while the next person despises such idling. There isn’t universal agreement on how far one should go to defend their ideals or at what point organised becomes too organised. We’re not only walking along these tightropes, we’re twisting the rope to our preferred level of slackness, then falling off anyway.

Is there an answer? Probably not. We seem destined to worry either too much or not enough and designed to be either too quick to please or not quick enough to bend our principles. We run around giving ourselves no time to breath, then veg out on the sofa until Netflix asks us how the hell we could still be in front of the TV (only more politely). Of course, we’d be robots rather than humans if we always reacted perfectly to every decision and choice. Still, perhaps a little awareness of the fine lines we walk might be the first step to not falling too far off the path.

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It’s Still Time To Talk

We need to keep talking about mental health until it is as acceptable to call in sick for a panic attack as it is a stomach flu.

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We need to keep talking about mental health until it is as easy to tell your family and friends about your condition as it is your diary. Visits to a mental health professional needn’t be a secret unless you want them to be. When grandpa Joe tells you about his blood pressure tablets, tell him – if you want to –  about your antidepressants. Until both are legitimate, we have a problem.

We need to keep talking about mental health until we can tell someone we are seeing a therapist as easily as we can tell someone we are seeing a physio. The reaction to either piece of information from a friend or colleague need only be:  oh, sorry to hear that. Hope you’re doing okay. Want to talk about it or want to talk about the game last night?

We need to keep talking about mental health until employers recognise that a mentally fit staff is as important as a physically fit one. If more people can admit that the working day is hard due to mental health reasons, the faster they can get support, the faster they can be work-fit. It’s a win-win deal.

We need to keep talking about mental health until good mental health stops being defined by how happy a person is. We don’t have an inbuilt happy-o-metre that we can just choose to top up. A mentally healthy person, however, is able to get on with the basics of life in a fulfilling way. They can feel happiness and cope with sadness. (Don’t take my word for it – ask the World Health Organisation.) It can be to do with how comfortable you feel in society and how comfortable you feel alone. It can be to do with how you cope with set backs and how resilient you are to stress. A mentally healthy person can still feel sad or lonely or worried. Just not all the time.

Yes, we need to keep talking about mental health until the mention of it no longer brings conversations to an end. We can peel away the awkwardness and the fear of saying the wrong thing slowly and surely. We can learn to talk about mental health in the same way as we do physical health. We show sympathy to someone with a broken leg without feeling we should know how to fix it. Mental health is no different.  Of course, each person’s circumstance is nuanced and varying, but that is true for all aspects of life from how well work is going, how well one is coping with illness x, or the state of a person’s finances.

So let’s keep talking about mental health until we can talk about it as we would any other issue in life: with respect, with an open-mind, without judgement, and in the knowledge that even if we all can do is talk and listen, that can enough.


 

Links and information:

  • Time to Talk Day 2018: Click here
  • NHS website about mental health.
  • Link to MIND’s website – a charity focussed on mental health

 

Talk Her Down

A decade ago, it didn’t seem possible. Watching her spin, it seemed nothing could slow the spiralling. She’d wake each morning exhausted, feeling as if she’d lived a day already. She started wound up and managed to squeeze herself tighter. She never stood straight. She moved everywhere with such speed, occupied at all times, but getting nothing done. Yes, it seemed unthinkable that she would ever be anywhere but on the edge.

She was scared of the edge, you see, and the only way to be sure she didn’t fall was to keep the edge in sight at all times. She feared mistakes, feared being on the wrong side of right, feared being blamed. She knew she could not cope if she got it wrong. She knew she would not cope when she eventually made the crippling mistake she was destined to make. And so she spiralled. Her nerves fuelled her, kept a part of her moments, minutes,  even months in the future. A chunk of her was always steps ahead of the now, scanning for problems, planning their prevention whilst preparing to solve them.

Oh yes, from teens through twenties she spiralled higher and higher, tighter and tighter, closer and closer to the unthinkable edge.

But that was a decade ago. That was before help came her way. A skeptical shell, she sought support, shared her shameful secret and took a vital step towards change. She learned what caused the spiralling, began to understand how her mind worked against her, and began the long and arduous retraining programme. She learned how to breath, how to pause, how to accept set backs and how to separate self from self doubt, self from anxiety.

And today, well, she still spins. She still worries about the what ifs and the what about whens. She still spirals inwards and cracks from the tension. But now I can talk her down. She is me plus. She is defined by me plus all the things that haven’t happened, might never happen, and would be manageable even if they did. And, even though it is hard, when I have to, I can talk her down, cut away the excess, and return to the person I am not, the she I can easily become.

 

Even Though

Even though I believe that a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body, 

And even though I advocate for taking mental well being as seriously as physical well being,

I feel guilty. I feel a fraud. 

I should have snapped out of it. I should have been stronger.

Even though I believe that our emotions can be as fragile as our immune system,

And even though I know a bought of depression or anxiety can hit as unexpectedly as a bought of sickness or flu,

I feel apologetic. I feel responsible.

I should have been more prepared. I should have coped.

Because looking back, I don’t understand why I felt so bad. I don’t understand why it hit so hard. I can’t even remember what it felt like. So like the flu, like a sickness bug, even though you know you felt awful and like it’d never pass, it’s hard to clearly capture how it felt when you’re no longer feeling it.

So even though I feel ashamed and embarrassed, even though I want to promise to do better next time, a modicum of forgiveness is needn’t. Even though I’d rather not repeat it, I have to accept that these things happen, that all the mental vitamins tablets, that all the healthy choices won’t always protect from being poorly sometimes. Even though you wish they would.

Down and Up and Down Again

Two and a half weeks ago, I sat down and wrote this:

I don’t want sympathy and I don’t want pity. I don’t really want anything from you, except for you to know that this is really, really hard sometimes. I want you to know so you understand when I cancel plans, so you understand when I am full of rage about the empty cereal packet left lying on the fridge, and so you don’t feel alone if you are feeling this too.

My life is pretty great. Amazing, actually. I was born fortunate and have had every chance in life. Now, I have a family and they are the most important things in my world. Two people in equal first place. However, I am desperately sad sometimes. My insides feel pulled towards an unforgiving centre as if there is a stone at my core, just above my bellybutton that sucks every good feeling from me and turns happiness into frustration, unhappiness, and guilt.

My lovely boy is a wonder. He is a joy to be around so much of the time. He laughs and smiles. He is developing just fine. He doesn’t sleep that well, but is not a bad sleeper by many people’s experiences. He’s a baby, after all, and babies don’t often sleep that well. I am no more challenged than most mums, I am supported by a husband who adores his son, and I have a midwife, a doctor, and family and friends to prop me up. 

The thing is, I still can’t do it, but I can’t give up either. And it’s killing me.

Some days I just function, going through the motions to ensure my baby’s basic needs are met, that we have something for dinner, and the house doesn’t look like a disaster zone. On these days, it’s a plus if I find the inclination to shower. I can’t play with my child for more than a few minutes. I spend nap times staring at a screen, taking nothing in. Sometimes I sleep too, but it’s a tortured sleep, full of dreams that could be reality, filled with crying babies and household chores, so that I wake unrefreshed and cheated. 

Some days I cry and cry, sobbing being the only way to release the tension that mounts inside. My nails are chewed and my skin raw from where I’ve tried to scratch away the tension. 

I can’t do it, but I can’t give up either. 

My mind never stops. It counts the hours, planning the day: wake, eat, play, sleep, wake, eat, play sleep. Every minute is accounted for, yet the minutes drag and drag. When the basic needs are met, then there’s the extras: cook meals, sort out winter clothes, fill the baby bag so we can go out, clean the high chair, pack for trips, work out the best time to meet friends around wake, eat, play, sleep. These things shouldn’t weigh a lot, yet my brain feels unbalanced on my shoulders and ready to explode under the burden.

The post stops there. O. probably woke up and life went on. Wake. Eat. Play. Sleep.

I returned to this piece several times, but I found that I couldn’t finish it in the same tone. I tried to pick up that voice again, tried to capture how terrible I’d been feeling, but nothing came. You see, these lows, these deep, deep lows come out of nowhere and vanish as quickly. A lot of the time, sitting in the peace of my house, playing with my son, or pottering about doing the laundry,  I don’t recognise the person who wrote the above. I don’t feel capable of feeling that awful. In fact, I feel like a fraud, an attention seeker who shouted at her husband, punched the sofa in frustration at something silly, and sobbed about not being able to cope.

Then there is the accompanying guilt. There are at least three woman in my immediate family with several kids and full-time jobs who hold it together. I have a good income, stability, a great social welfare system, and an incredible support system as well as a relatively easy baby and no post-birth complications or traumas. Compared to so many people, what right do I have to feel bad? I have so many luck stars that I might lose count.

Thus, I am living in a vicious circle of emotions that squeeze me tighter and tighter: Unexplained sadness, frustration and anxiety, a return to feeling well, guilt and shame over previous feelings, unexplained sadness, frustration, and anxiety, and so on. Each stage lasts different periods of time. Sometimes I cycle through the set multiple times a day; other times I go days and days before there’s a change. There is little rhyme or reason, no predictability, and no hints as to when the changes will come.

And now, 19 days after I first started writing, this post is no closer to being finished. There are two reasons, I guess. Firstly, because it’s scary to share things like this. Will people think it’s oversharing or will they think I am crazy or stupid? ? Maybe, maybe not, but I am damn sure I am not alone in these feelings and know that every time I read someone else’s tale, it helps me feel less alone. Thus I am willing to share because it might be good for just one other person and that’s good enough for me.

Secondly and crucially though, it’s been so hard to conclude because there is no conclusion. I wasn’t feeling bad one day, and now I am fine. There’s not a pill to fix it instantly or an obvious answer. And, as the original piece said, I don’t want sympathy or anyone to do anything. I just want to get these feelings out of me. So yes, things are up and down and everywhere in between. I feel ashamed and guilty about that sometimes, and other times I am forgiving of myself and accept that it is part of who I am at this current stage in my life. I am up and down and up again. I am everywhere in between. I am a new mum having a hard time of it, and I am both sorry and not sorry.  There’s no conclusion, only now, and right now I am somewhere in between. Tomorrow I might be the woman from 19 days ago or I might the woman below, enjoying the sunshine with her beautiful boy. I guess I can’t keep looking for a conclusion; I just have to keep on going.

 

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Tap, Tap, Tap

Straighteners, charger, dryer.

Tap, tap, tap.

Oven, kettle, fridge.

Tap, tap, tap.

Phone, keys, purse.

Tap, tap, tap.

Every… thing… off.

Tap, tap, tap.

Again. Once more.

Tap, tap, tap.

Taps get a tap. Tap, tap.

Shower, bath, radiator.

Tap, tap, tap and tap.

One tap too many. Round again. 

Tap, tap, tap.

One, two, three.

Once more for luck.

… … …

This time out.

Front. Tap. Door. Tap. Locked. Tap.

Main. Tap Door. Tap. Locked. Tap

Outside. 

Ready to go.

Tap, tap, tap. 

Deep breath, tap.

Heart slow down.

Boom, boom, slow.

Boom, boom, beat.

Deep breath, walk.

Deep breath, ignore.

Ignore the pull.

The pull back.

The pull to tap, tap, tap.

Bye Bye Quick Fix, Hello Plan

What can I do, what I can I take, what can I change to make this better?

These are common questions when it comes to anxiety. You just want the feeling to go the hell away. You think: if I quickly check that my straighteners are off, I’ll get some peace, some rest bite from the incessant nagging that if I don’t, I’ll be single-handedly responsible  for something awful happening. It doesn’t matter that the third sneaky peak on the way out of the house leads only to the fourth and the fifth lap of the house. There in the moment the only thing you need is to feel better, lighter, free of doubt.

Anxiety banks on you looking for the quick fix. It thrives on your hope that you can heal a flesh wound with a bandaid. Checking for the fifth time doesn’t make the anxiety go away; it briefly calms it before the storm strikes.

Why, then, do we keep relying on quick fixes?  Well, it’s natural to want to make our lives easier. It’s perfectly acceptable, too. It’s why a well-timed cup of coffee gets you through a tough morning.  It’s why washing detergent comes with an easy-pour spout. The problem, however, is that emotions can’t be turned on and off like a tap. Anxiety has no simple answer. Constant worrying can not be cured overnight.

Yet, lately, I’ve been all about the quick fix and it’s not working.

I know, for example, that my hair straighteners are off because I am looking at the plug where I used them and it’s empty. However, all I can see in my head is an image of them turned on. It’d be easy to go and look in my bedroom. It’d get rid of the doubt… for about ten minutes. Because, the more I check, the more I need to check. The more I try to calm the intrusive thoughts, the more strongly they imprint on my mind. Yet I can’t seem to help it. The cycle has started and the vicious circle is tightening its grip.

It’s time for some action. It’s time for a plan.

One treatment for anxiety involves pushing yourself through the stress of needing to check and coping with the intensity of sensation that comes from not checking. You have to force yourself not to give in to the misplaced notion that you can just check once and be better. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into a million times, yet one that’s all too often impossible to avoid. So, I’ve come up with the following in the hope of breaking out of this current pattern.

I will:

  • Allow myself to check once before I leave the house. That means a quick glance in each room to check that things are off.
  • Take a deep breath before the front door and accept the fact that I am feeling nervous about going out.
  • Leave the house, lock the door, and take another deep breath, again, accepting and noticing that I feel bad, but not allowing myself to give in.
  • Tell myself that if the feeling is as strong in five minutes, I can come home and check.

 

It will probably work about a third of the time for the first few days. It will probably never work all the time. It’s a reality I’ve long accepted. However, it is action. Since my little guy came along, I am even more aware that anxiety is a poison in my life, and a learned behaviour that I desperately don’t want to pass on. I’m fighting it for two, now.

It’s easy to write this down. It’s a list that’s meaningless until the next time I go out. It even seems to trivialise something that’s incredibly complex.  However, I gotta try, haven’t I? Nothing will change without recognising what’s going wrong and thinking about how to fix it. This half an hour of thinking it through, of typing it out, of sharing it in the hope of calming it is step one. It’s my way of saying bye bye, quick check, hello plan.