Being a beginner again

Over the last 20-25 years I have been working hard to become an expert; at my job, addiction, applying make up, skin care, anything to give me a sense of control and security. This worked pretty well for me. I became senior and successful at work, got sober, can apply lipstick like a boss and have the skin of a younger woman (apparently).

This last couple of months I’ve been having to accept that I am a beginner again and while I am loving what I am learning I am not enjoying the associated emotions AT ALL. I had forgotten that learning something new can mean feeling insecure, awkward and downright embarrassed at times.

I think I’d expected my novel to just fall out of me, perfectly formed and a masterpiece. This is most certainly NOT the case. I did 10k words of my original idea and on listening to Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ tore it up, realising it was flat and cliched.

I started another, completely different story idea which I KNOW is good but can see that my writing is overblown and far too ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’ (thanks to feedback from a trusted friend) and I’m not leaving enough room for the reader. I’m just not sure yet how to fix that.

As a consequence I’ve joined an online writing group which started today and the experience is like the first day in a new school when everyone else has been there weeks before.

Everyone’s much more experienced than I am, all talk a language I don’t yet understand and I feel nervous and squirmy 90% of the time. Even the introductions sent my head spinning as I heard everyone’s book ideas and couldn’t explain mine nearly as eloquently. I am forcing myself to keep going as I know that unless I allow myself to go through this I won’t come out the other side but I SO want to be the expert.

I was on a course last year in the US (psychology related) and had a similar experience which caused a mini meltdown and my saying to the tutor that I felt like the bottom of the class. He gave me the widest grin and instead of issuing platitudes he said ‘well now isn’t that great. You’ve got all this learning to look forward to’. In that moment I wanted to tell him where to put his learning, but after a few days I started to see that he was right and I left that course having shifted considerably.

That’s what I need to do now. Hold on through the discomfort and not give into it. I need to keep remembering that being a beginner means there’s so much to learn and that’s a GOOD thing. If we stay in our expertise, life becomes small, and I want a big life (even if it is isolated indoors).

Stay Safe

Calm and Chaos and Coronavirus

Knowing that I suffer from anxiety and depression I have had many kind friends contact me over recent days to make sure that I’m OK in these increasingly surreal circumstances (the UK, like many other countries is currently on lockdown). And the truth is, most of the time, I am.

The journalist Jon Ronson tweeted (I haven’t managed to stay off social media but have got it down to once a day) about this very thing, pondering whether he, as a fellow anxiety sufferer, was so calm because he’d been in training for this for so long with years of panic attacks. It made me smile while also wondering why it is that actually I am less anxious now than I was a year ago, when there was no Coronavirus and I was in a stable, lucrative job. A few things come to mind;

1) I have no control over this. Apart from washing my hands, social distancing and taking care of me and Rocco I cannot effect a global pandemic and that has somehow freed my mind. Were it something I felt responsible for I would no doubt be crippled with anxiety.

2) I am doing something I am in love with. Writing. The fact that I am on a creative roll and loving every minute of it means I get lost in the flow of the book and research which leaves me less time to worry about the end of the world as I’m too busy. I had a moment a couple of days ago of wondering if I am fiddling while Rome is burning but see point 1) what else would I be doing?

3) I am more connected to my people than I am usually. This is bizarre. I have FaceTimed, Zoomed, messaged, called and talked to friends and family more, and on a more connected level than I have for ages and am ironically way less isolated. Go figure?

4) I have a dog. I probably should have started with this one. A couple of years ago if you’d asked me if I would ever get a dog I would have said no, for 2 reasons; I couldn’t pick up poo and I’m too busy. Cut to today and Rocco makes me laugh so much, has such a big personality and so much love in his heart that he can bring me out of sadness (and also gets me out of bed!) and I can’t imagine life without him.

5) This one is more difficult to admit. It’s making me less self obsessed. I am truly concerned for my Mum, my sister, my wider family, my friends, the people who are suffering and am trying my best to give what I can when I can – today I ran a home school lesson via Zoom for my gorgeous Godchildren (thanks to my teacher friend for the lesson plan ideas) and it was so good to see them and laugh with them. I sent a care package to my friend in prison 2 days ago as she’s panicking at the lack of ways to combat the virus inside. For once it’s not all about me (I doubt that will last too long though!).

I don’t know if the calm will last, but what I do know, and this has proved this to me more than ever, that my state of mind is less reliant on outside circumstances than I think it is, and we have no idea what the future holds. That is somehow liberating right now. Keep well.

Real life vs social media during a global pandemic

Yesterday I took my dog for a long walk through the surrounding countryside. Because we live so rurally we didn’t see many other people but when we did, each and every one of them stopped (2 metres away of course), asked how I was (and vice versa) and offered support. So much so that I was quite tearful by the end of the walk at the kindness of strangers. I also had a number of calls and messages from friends and family just connecting, and an emotional call with a close friend where we reminded each other that we are always there and of the love and strength of our relationship.

Contrast this with Twitter. There seems to be a few common ways to handle the current crisis on Twitter (my primary social media, am sure Facebook is similar):

1) Telling everyone else what to do – this is a favourite of some people whether there is a global pandemic or not but at a time like this seems to be their only way of interacting. I get why, it’s a way of attempting to control the situation by controlling others 2) Frantically get into action – there are people setting up action groups/committees (a very worthwhile endeavour) and some are angrily calling out those who are not getting involved – this tends to be the more ‘alpha’ individuals who I think might be terrified of this level of downtime 3) Getting into the politics – I’ve seen people linking this to Brexit, the latest election, how a different leader would mean a different outcome, capitalism, socialism etc 4) Sharing anything and everything relating to the situation – these are the folks sharing various instructions/ insights/ warnings from ‘NHS workers’ or ‘Doctors in Italy’ unfortunately sometimes the science is dubious 5) Every tweet is a prediction of the worst case scenario, and showing the worst of humanity to make sure that we are all taking it seriously and these are TERRIFYING 6) There is a wonderful group of people who are looking at what they do/what they are good at and offering that people who are struggling/in self isolation and finally, and thank goodness for it 7) Humour.

Instagram is another story (pardon the pun) but there are similar common threads.

There is nothing wrong with ANY of these ways of reacting. We cope how we cope (and this is completely unchartered territory), but I’ve noticed something interesting from my own perspective. I’ve been quite busy during the day (I am in a highly productive writing phase which is for a future blogpost and is so exciting) and am now only really looking at social media in the evening. What I notice is that my mood as I start to scroll through the tweets of the day completely changes and I can start to feel it going down as I read and take in and add to my own fear, anger and denial (in some cases). I also become increasingly confused at the endlessly conflicting information. So I should probably stop looking right?

This is where I am struggling. I am an addict. One in recovery from my primary substance (alcohol) but you can see by my extensive collection of make up palettes that addiction can take many forms, some more harmful than others. I remember in my drinking days, non alcoholics would look at my quizzically and say ‘just stop drinking?’. This weeks task for the Artists Way was to stop reading for a week, and the writer identified that this was the week people react most violently to. She’s right. I have completely failed to stop reading, but this, in combination with the current situation has brought my social media habits into sharp focus and I am not sure that mindlessly scrolling is healthy for me right now. Today, I am going to attempt to stay away from ALL social media for the day and see what that does (and if I can achieve it). Will report back on my success or otherwise later in the week. Stay safe.

‘The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes’ Agatha Christie

Today I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Full Coronavirus barrier clean (though the fact I live miles away from anyone or anywhere I think means the risk is low!). This was something I’d been avoiding for a while, because like many people with depression, cleaning comes under the category of what M.Molly Backes (a Chicago based author) called The Impossible Task; those things that are normally routine and that everyone does e.g. admin, bill paying, shopping, cleaning, driving and that in the midst of a bout of depression feel completely insurmountable.

Given that the world is in the midst of a pandemic, it felt imperative to get through this particular impossible task so I decided to experiment with it. Firstly, inspired by an article I read of an interview with Kate Garraway (don’t judge) I broke the time into half hour intervals and set an alarm for each one. During the cleaning half an hour I focused and took pride in being slow and thorough. As soon as the alarm went I stopped and did something else for 15 minutes before going back to it.

I’ve also been meaning to listen to the audiobook of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, but as I haven’t been on many long journeys lately (another impossible task) which is where I normally listen to audiobooks, I haven’t got round to it, so instead I put it on while cleaning and found myself laughing out loud at what turns out to be a very funny memoir but also heartened by what he has to say about writing, and how many rejections he received! The only problem is that I now want to rewrite everything I’ve ever written.

Finally I decided to make the house clean the ‘only’ task of the day, instead of trying to accomplish it on top of 25 other things and then berating myself for not achieving them. And it’s done. And it feels great. And it wasn’t actually that difficult. And I can’t believe I’ve just written a blogpost about cleaning.

The Arctic, the Mountain and Depression

I was reminded by a friend today that 6 years ago we were on an expedition to the Arctic, part of a challenge for women at the organisation we both worked at and a charity fund raising effort. It was terrifying. At one point we were caught in a snowstorm miles away from anywhere and had to make camp for 24 hours before Nordic walking back to our base camp. I’ve never been so cold or so scared. The year before, we climbed Mount Mulanje in Malawi (a peak whose name translated as ‘Don’t Go There’) where our mantra was ‘trust your boots’ as we scaled steep faces of rock in 35 degree heat. Both challenges showed me how resilient I can be and how I am a lot more courageous than I give myself credit for.

Neither of those challenges or anything else I’ve faced in my life prepared me for the depression that has plagued my life for the past few years, and I felt prompted today to write about that more openly than I usually would. The last couple of days I have struggled to function, to think clearly, to look after myself and to see any hope or future. I’ve managed to walk the dog, bake a cake, do some exercises from the Artists Way and do a food shop, but it’s been with a feeling of pointlessness, a greyness, and has taken the kind of physical effort that makes the Arctic and the mountain look easy.

I know that many people who have not experienced it conflate sadness or a bad mood with depression and therefore see it as something that is relatively easy to change. I am lucky, most of my ever patient friends understand when I’m going through something and gently stay in contact till I emerge, but every now and then from the most caring and positive of motives someone will try and fix me. They’ll tell me to read this book that will change my thinking (I have a bookshelf FULL to bursting with every flavour of self help and psychology book) or watch that positive thinking film (The Secret being my most hated recommendation). They’ll advise I do some exercise (I walked Rocco for over an hour today) or have a lovely soothing bath (done that too). They’ll explain to me that ‘everyone feels like this sometimes’ and/or that they’ve heard about some way of eating/treatment or hormones that will help (anti depressants/CBD oil/St Johns Wort/HRT I’ve tried them all).

The implication behind the helpfulness is that if I just tried harder/did more work/reading/research/exercise I’d have this depression thing licked. My experience is that not only is that not true, it’s also supremely UNhelpful. It adds the pressure of more expectation and effort onto an already overloaded mind and body and leads to further isolation and disconnection as well as self judgement that I’m too lazy/selfish to fix myself.

The only thing I can do on days like today is just accept the feelings and look after myself as best I can until they pass (which they will) and remind myself that the person who is struggling to get out of bed is also the person who climbed a mountain and hiked in the Arctic; that I am capable of more than I think and more resilient than I know in this moment. And I am so very grateful for the people who love me anyway, however I am.

We’re off to see the Wizard…

Over the last few weeks storms have been battering the UK, and as I live on a hill, exposed to the elements, in a wooden house, I’ve been comparing myself to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, worrying that the house may take off at some point. Today, as my coaching comes to a close I realise just how much I am like the always searching Dorothy.

I came into this week of coaching looking for something; a surety and confidence that I am on the right path, some kind of shield against insecurity and pain, ultimately the secret to life and perpetual happiness (!) The secret I think that everyone except me has.

I tend to look around at other people and only see how successful, confident and happy they are and spend my life in constant comparison, wondering if someone forgot to give me the manual to life. In AA there is a saying ‘never compare your insides to other people’s outsides’ but I seem to have bypassed the fact that that’s what I endlessly do.

This week I suddenly saw that what I’m looking for isn’t real. It’s the Wizard of Oz, an illusion. I’ve been going around in circles imagining that ‘well, if I had this/looked like that/ did this for a living then I’d be OK’, but even when I’ve had those things I imagine will make me OK I’ve still been endlessly seeking a feeling that none of those things have given me.

I’d wanted this week to be reassurance that I’m on the ‘right’ path and making the ‘right’ decisions but I really can see today that muddling through is not just absolutely fine, it’s what most people are doing most of the time.

Interestingly, my latest podcast obsession is about the crash of ‘WeWork’, at the helm of which was a CEO who seemed to have all the things I was looking for. He was 100% sure of himself and of being ‘right’… a misplaced confidence that ultimately led to the destruction of the value of the organisation.

Maybe I’m OK now. Maybe this muddle of a life is perfect. And maybe what I’m actually looking for is inside me. This illusory place of perfect happiness and light not only doesn’t exist but would potentially be really dull if it did. There really is ‘no place like home’.

The illusion of certainty

This week I am taking a week off writing my book and am instead having some intensive coaching with a friend of mine. The idea was/is that I spend 3 or 4 days really strengthening my emotional resilience and working out what’s next for me/whether writing is the right next step.

I’ve just finished day 1 and it’s already so insightful. One of the things we’ve talked about a lot is the illusion of certainty (ie if I plan exactly what’s going to happen and make myself feel as secure as possible then everything will be OK) and how NONE of us know what’s going to happen in the next 10 days let alone the next 10 years so while of course it’s worthwhile to plan, it’s also a really good idea not to be so attached to that plan that we can’t be open to anything else or that anything else feels like a failure.

Take my life. I moved to Somerset to do a particular job and within a year I’d given that job up. I could see that as a failure or I could see that as a great move for me to be able to write. I could see my writing as a pointless exercise as I’m never going to get published or I could be open to being published OR that something else will come up that I have zero knowledge of at the moment but that will be completely right for me then.

The conclusion I came to today was that all the energy I spend trying to work my life out and worrying about what’s next might be better spent getting on with what’s in front of me and trusting that the universe will keep pointing me in the direction I’m meant to go.