How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.
This little poem or list is called Self-help, and comes from a lovely book I’ve just read by Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive. Straight away, I shall point out that I’m not in desperate need of a reason, but I was rooting around my Kindle for something to read and found it.
It’s his honest story of when, as a younger man, living a party life and working in Spain, he had a breakdown from severe depression and anxiety, then considered jumping off a cliff, before retreating to bed. He drugged himself up enough to manage the journey home, but other than that initial period, he avoided medication, even becoming fearful of it as part of his anxiety. With the help and love of his parents and his amazingly patient girlfriend, he gradually healed himself by reading, running, travelling, writing and keeping on trying to do things that scared the shit out of him. Aside from the running, this immediately struck a chord with me.
Some of the book is lists of things that have helped, in particular the books and poetry (some of which are my personal favourites) he devoured while ill, that lead to him becoming a writer himself. Putting things down in words led him out of his depression; the anxiety taking longer to go away, with success as a writer bringing its own worries. The book identifies some of the physical symptoms of these so-called mental illnesses (because they are more than that), or the behaviours often accompanying them, which is helpful for anyone to read about.
If you have never suffered, then you know the signs to spot in others, or for yourself, the first time. One of the theories in the book is that depression is in some ways, a natural reaction to how the world has changed, and become essentially difficult for the vast majority, reasonable with effort for a substantial minority, and fabulous for a privileged few. War, terror, fear, rape, death. Why the hell wouldn’t we be depressed, all walking Woody Allens?
After the first time it happens, you know when things are going awry. You have your own strategies for coping with extreme panic and sadness. Reading this book, and lots of old, favourite, comfort books & poems, has been helping me through a tough time. Never forgetting we learn from the experiences we have, the painful ones most of all. The book has lots of wonderful quotations throughout, from all sorts of interesting people and thinkers. This is one, from one my favourite writers:
‘…once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.’
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
The other thing I have taken from the book, is that once you recognise that you are starting to frazzle and fry a bit, you need to slow down. It’s been a reminder of some of the Buddhist type thinking about acceptance and letting go. And kindness, to ourselves and others.
It’s with that in mind, that I am slowing down a bit, giving myself some kindness. While still adjusting to the new normal, it’s a case of feeling fine some days and meh on others, so I am going goal free until the end of the year. Given that I am clinging on, flagging with the effort of pretending to be normal every day and with less than two weeks to go until my break from work, the pressure is coming off.
Yep, no more targets. If I want to go to the gym I will, but I’m not freaking out if I don’t, because I know I will be back on it when I have more energy, after a rest. Yes, exercise makes you feel better, but I’m feeling too knackered for much more than my usual brisk walking, which I will do in all weathers. Lesson: be kind to thyself first of all. Then you are more inclined to share that benevolence.
It’s not just exercise though, it’s everything. For example, I’ve done a lot of planning and thinking about writing stuff; all that remains is sitting down and getting it done – the tyranny of the blank page. But the thought of the good practice of imposing a daily word deadline, for example, is stressful rather than motivating right now. It’s a temporary thing. That stress will pass once I’m on holiday, so for now, nothing is to be forced, only done when it feels right.
And it feels so good to let it all go, to take that pressure off. People who are generally laid back will have no idea what I am talking about, but others who set standards for themselves will recognise the agony of that harsh self-judgement. In Strictly Come Dancing terms – and dancing I will come to in a minute – I need to be a bit more Bruno and a lot less Craig on myself.
But there are hard things. Despite knowing that it’s right and fair to share the parenting as much as possible in this situation (i.e. neither parent is a bad one, the environment in each home is generally good etc), it is still hard, I presume for both of us, when he is not there. All parents relish moments of freedom, and on paper, the idea of regular days by yourself is exciting and liberating. Think of all the things to explore and do, time to get things done, or to relax, or see friends.
It is also horribly lonely at times. When you are used to seeing your child in bed asleep, every night. Knowing they are happy and safe nearby is not the same as being able to see them, and cuddle and kiss them immediately before bed. It is a sweet and sad pain, that you don’t understand until you are a parent who is not with your child all the time. It gives you empathy with a certain kind of loneliness.
Some of this feeling right now is all about the relentless rain, the wind and darkness setting in, bringing me down. I was all positive about my independence during the summer, when I was out and about climbing hills and over all, I still am. However, in the cold, dark winter, it’s tougher. On those nights when all you really want to do is batten down the hatches, it can be lonely. There are strange creaky noises in the flat that are just the pipes and the wind, or the electricity humming, but you never noticed it when there were other people there.
On top of all this, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I’ve stopped doing more than keeping on top of the headlines of the news, because I just can’t cope with more sorrow. Sometimes, the cocoon of coming home to an empty flat, where you can freely be sad or happy without filters is just what you need. You squirrel away feeling safe and happy. Other days, you feel a little more like this:
(cartoon from Elephant Journal)
Every single person who lives alone knows that feeling some of the time. I know I need make more of a balance of going out/learning something/writing/relaxing in my new spare time. And I am trying not to dwell on some of the terrible stuff going on, instead thinking of practical things like toy and food bank donations, and other things that are useful. Or being inspired by the kindness and courage of everyday people, like a woman I know, who gave me crucial support at a hard time way back in my life in London, who now has her own health problems, yet is away to Calais tonight to help the refugee effort.
Or the shopping centre Santa Claus who knew sign language and communicated with a little deaf girl, to make her pre-Christmas. Even my coach, despite getting paid anyway, texting me regularly to try and get me back into exercising properly, while I am being crap. Or today, the emotion of my son’s first school nativity play, a surprisingly poignant reminder of the innocence and beauty of childhood.
Most of all right now, I am excited by the beauty and possibility of dance. A friend and I went to see The Last Tango Show by Vincent & Flavia, the beautiful, pocket-sized dancers, ex of SCD. And it was a gorgeous show, of beautiful, magical, romantic dancing. And that night I decided, right there whilst floating on a cloud of dancing bliss, that I would go back to learning the Argentine tango, a dance I had got to just beyond the beginner level, many moons ago.
I have a one to one lesson tomorrow at lunchtime to see how much I can recall, and I am beyond excited. My teacher is a tall, elegant, Finnish woman, who has taught tango here in Glasgow for years and who I assume will be dancing as the man. Either way, my dancing shoes are ready and I will report back on my endeavours in the world of tango.
I leave with words from John Lennon, shot thirty five years ago yesterday. He is a musical hero of mine, despite my understanding that he was probably a bit of an arse at times too, like most humans are.
‘It matters not who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love or how you love. It matters only that you love.’
Until next time,