The Microscope Of Self Isolation

This week has been something of a rollercoaster, not just for me but for many of my nearest and dearest too. It seems there is something about being so intensely alone or confined to a space with the same people that turns the volume up on the voice in our heads.

It is proving challenging to work out when that is a helpful thing or a destructive thing, but one thing that is definitely true is that this time feels like putting a magnifying glass on relationships, work, self image and who I want to be in the world after this is over (if it ever is).

This week I have felt joyful, happy, content, angry, sad, bitter, resentful, awkward, embarrassed, ashamed and determined all in the space of a few hours. I commented to a fellow friend in recovery how much it feels like early sobriety, when suddenly the thing you used to numb you from the pain of life is removed and you have to learn to navigate without it.

Right now the tasks, structures, routines and busyness we all use are no longer there and the way I see it is that I have a choice – I can fill every moment of this time with more stuff (which I have been very successfully doing so far) or I can pause for a moment and consider what I want to be in their place.

The trouble with the ‘pause’ is that it is painful. I am starting to see that the way I have been living life is perhaps the reason I have been so unhappy over recent years. I have been like a chameleon, changing my personality and interests, even my looks, to try to fit in then been devastated when I don’t or exhausted from pretending when I do.

I was listening to my often mentioned favourite podcast ‘How to Fail’ yesterday, as Elizabeth Day is doing a series of specials about dealing with this time. This week she had Alain de Botton the philosopher on it. She prefaced the episode with a warning that he would not shy away from the darker aspects of this situation and I immediately found that strangely comforting.

This is challenging and to pretend it isn’t feels like denial.  As Alain says, ‘It would be rather strange to not be distressed by this….to be human is to be visited regularly by pretty large stuff which for a time unbalances us, and of course it should and it does and the only response is to cry and to love’

My friend Rachel succinctly calls it ‘being unzipped’.

The truth is I am a bit of a mess, and I am tired of pretending not to be. There is something intensely freeing about that.

Stay Safe

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.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me (A.A. Just for today card)

These are strange times. On the 26th February this year I wrote a blog post called ‘The illusion of certainty’ which talks about how none of us know what will happen in the next 10 days let alone the next 10 years and that my drive to control everything and create ‘security’ can be counter productive. When I wrote that, there was no global pandemic, Spain, Italy and France hadn’t essentially closed down and the US borders were still open.

Like many others I am sure, I am alternating between being terrified (Twitter and newspapers help with that), making dark jokes (‘I have been getting ready to self isolate for YEARS’), being cross with world leaders (I won’t identify which ones on here) and worrying about/checking in on friends and family. I am one of the lucky ones; I live in a remote area, on my own (well, with Rocco) and my ‘job’ currently (writing) is at home, but that doesn’t stop me a) catastophising on behalf of those I love and b) thinking about the future as a variety of dystopian scenarios.

The truth is, as I so presciently put it 2 weeks ago, no one knows what will happen and in my case, I would be better to leave the scenario planning to others more qualified and less prone to dark thinking than I am. If I am going to put my energy anywhere it’s on today. The next 12 hours are really all I have much control over (and then less than I think) so I am going to make the most of those and do everything I can to take care of myself and to care for those I care about.

As someone who got sober in AA, it is at times like these that 12 step groups/ philosophies/sayings come into their own. The Just For Today card, part of which I have quoted in the title, starts with: ‘Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do something for 12 hours that would appal me if I felt I had to keep it up for a lifetime’. Whether its handwashing 100 times a day, self isolating, eating store cupboard food instead of fresh food, not being able to see family, I can do that if I ‘keep life in the day’ (another AA mantra), and sometimes in the hour/minute. At the risk of descending into what a business journalist I was listening to this week called ‘yoga babble’ the only thing I can really be guided by right now is love and care for myself and others. 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 girl with the birthdate tattoo

We met 11 years ago when you were 16 and I was 38. I remember it vividly – you were a tiny, very cool scowling teenager with platinum blonde hair, the most beautiful face and the longest nails I’d ever seen. I was a corporate, snobbish, running obsessed woman with always perfect hair and make up and we had zero in common. There was just one thing that united us, the fact that we were both newly sober having accepted that alcohol was a problem for which the only solution was to stop.

The first time we met I think we barely spoke to each other – in fact if I remember rightly, you said pretty much nothing at all. I certainly had no interest in a friendship with a teenager and I doubt very much that I would have been anything more to you than a faceless grey adult. But we kept bumping into each other, and eventually started to arrange to meet for coffee, where we would both only drink Americano’s as we were obsessed with our weight (as often happens with alcoholics, we also both struggled with food) and we would talk about being sober/staying sober and how we were navigating life without alcohol.

Somewhere along the line our chats grew to being about our lives and we started to hang out with each other. We pretended to people who didn’t know or wouldn’t understand how we met that we were cousins, and we met for lunch/dinner/shopping whenever we could. We laughed a LOT. We shared silly jokes about ourselves (one of the reasons I love you so much is how self deprecating you are) and would laugh at other people too – always sharing the same views on the people we met and knew. We also cried a LOT. Early sobriety is incredibly hard, but we also both had difficulties in our relationships that we talked about and had patches of depression and sadness that it often felt as though we could only talk to each other about. In you I felt I met a kindred soul, someone who I could be myself with and who loved me unconditionally and vice versa.

After a couple of years you started to drink again. I remember being anxious about that, but completely understanding why. I couldn’t imagine having been 18 and not drinking and I hoped that you would be OK, and maybe that 2 years of sobriety would be enough. If anything our friendship got closer. I got involved in a damaging and ultimately doomed relationship and you held my hand throughout it. You got so skinny you almost disappeared and had a very controlling boyfriend and I was there for you (and made you eat!). We went to New York with another of my friends (who grew to love you too) and I ran the marathon and you cheered me on, giving me the strength and love I needed to make it through the 26.2 miles in -5 temperature. That was the best trip I have ever been on and during it we coined the phrase ‘The Triers’ to describe us, because we knew we were far from perfect but we were always trying. We spent Christmas mornings together for years and made pancakes. You got a tattoo of my birthday as a mark of our friendship. That remains one of the most moving symbols of love I have ever experienced.

I got into a more stable relationship and you and my boyfriend would laugh at me, you liked each other enormously. When it ended, it felt as though I crashed and burned and you were there for me throughout that time, and even when I disappeared into isolation, you were the person who could draw me out. For you, alcohol was never going to go away and over the last couple of years I have watched addiction take hold of you again, along with periods of anxiety and depression. I too have struggled with my mental health and we have once more held each other up and loved each other unconditionally, even though I have since moved to the other side of the country.

You were, and are the sweetest, funniest, wisest young woman who I love more than I can say.

Yesterday you were put in prison for 2 years, the crime you committed being all over the tabloid and mainstream press. I made the mistake of looking on social media, where you were trending and I saw more starkly than I ever have what a distorted and unhealthy world it can be. People were writing things about you and your life which were completely untrue and one dimensional. The picture painted of you was of a person I do not recognise and people talked about how you ‘used’ your mental health to try to ‘get away with it’. They don’t know the person I know. The person who regrets the crime you committed every single day, the person whose whole life has been turned upside down by it. The person who has been working hard to stay sober ever since. The person who is SO MUCH MORE than this one event. I wanted to tell every single person who cast judgement and made comments about you about this person, but realised I doubt they would be able to hear me, so I wrote this instead.

I know you will be strong enough to serve your time and I will carry on unconditionally loving you as I always have.

Your Cousin x