If you managed to read to the bottom of my last post, I congratulate and thank you. It was a long one. I realise blog posts are supposed to be short and I should probably be saving a lot of this writing for that book I keep talking about. But once the memory train has left the station it seems to hurtle on down the track, only coming to a halt when another appointment or deadline obliges me to wind up my writing.
I confess I cried as I blogged my Mexican memoir – when I wrote the line about my family likely not caring if I’d have returned home penniless and unemployed. I was so proud, so determined to achieve and impress and so reluctant to admit defeat or failure that I didn’t feel I could come home without a job or some amazing accomplishment. Of course, I can still be proud and reluctant to admit defeat but today I see how that façade, that lack of vulnerability blocks me from real relationship, from real connection with myself and others (more on that later).
That memory of sitting on the Mexican side of the Tijuana border crossing in my early 20s, watching my British travelling companions walking back to the States and bursting into tears as the extent of my aloneness hit me is a particularly vivid one. But then I did what so many of us do: I put my sadness, insecurity and fear in a little box, replaced it with a smile – and in my case with bravado and recklessness – and set off on the next leg of the adventure.
Since I wrote that post, I’ve been pondering what it was all about: the extreme risk-taking and the pattern of putting myself in dangerous situations. Did I have such a low opinion of myself that I didn’t think I was worth looking after? Did I actually want to get hurt? Or was I oblivious to the risks I was taking, seeing them as part and parcel of an adventurous, curious spirit? Was I naively trusting, or was I testing the boundaries to see how far I could push them without anything bad happening? Was it the adrenalin I was chasing? Perhaps it was a combination of all of those things, wrapped up in a sense of youthful invincibility.
One thing I do know about those ten years I was abroad – eight in Latin America – is that a lot of my activities, experiences and choices were based on a deep desire to feel alive. Hence the risk-taking and the highs from the sugar and alcohol, but also the healthier, exhilarating activities like exploring, dancing salsa, swimming in the wild ocean, water-skiing and singing very loudly to catchy pop tunes on glorious, sunny drives across Mexico or Brazil. I heard the Cher song ‘Strong Enough’ on the radio the day after writing my last post and it reminded me of a drive with a friend from Sao Paulo to Rio, via the beautiful town of Parati where we stopped to take a boat trip on the glistening waters. I challenge you to listen to it without tapping your foot or singing along:
But two questions remain: Why that urge to feel so intensely alive at any cost? And how to create that sense of aliveness today, as a 41-year-old woman living in drizzly London on a modest income, without getting into danger, returning to unhealthy habits or hurting others or myself?
The answer to the first question goes back a long way. The feelings I was running from were so low that I had to go high to avoid them, hence the anaesthetising behaviours that produced those highs: the binge eating, starving, over-exercising and over-working. That quest for aliveness was also a reaction to feeling stifled and blocked from real joy and freedom as a child. I wanted so desperately to fly but felt weighed down by worries and troubles that had no place on a young girl’s shoulders. Back then, the phrase ‘the only way out is through’ made no sense to me. Instead, the only way through those painful emotions was to circumvent them, to hurdle over them, to go to the opposite extreme.
That explains why I loved anything that gave a surge of emotion: the parachute and bungee jumps; the headiness of spinning around a dance floor to a live salsa band; the excitement of being pulled along on skiis by a speed boat and jumping across the wake; the exhilaration of swimming through the powerful Pacific waves and the sense of freedom from standing on top of ancient pyramids, trekking through rain forests, canoeing on the Amazon, swimming in rivers with crocodiles or jumping off high rocks into water.
Of course, exhilaration is all well and good but push that desire to feel deeply alive a little further and it’s no surprise you end up at the unhealthy, dangerous, addictive end of the spectrum.
Years later, the time comes when those crutches – the food, the drink, the compulsive drive for adrenalin, attention or achievement – stop working and you learn to put them down. Life, at first, seems rather dull and all the fear and insecurity you were masking with them bubbles up to the surface. Instead of being a daring risk-taker who dived through Pacific waves, you end up scared to put your toe in the waters.
You draw this line between the ‘old you’ and the ‘new you’ and life becomes about analysing why you did what you did and avoiding potential harm. You run away from anything associated with that old way of being, scared you’ll fall back into painful patterns. Add the British weather into the mix – rather than the sunny climes of Brazil or Mexico – and you start to wonder what life’s all about. Is this it? Wasn’t I better off riding the highs, irrespective of the dangers, rather than wandering around these grey flatlands? It’s little wonder people with addictive personalities fall off the wagon.
But the problem was we’d swapped one extreme for another. Eventually, we’d have to find the middle ground: that elusive place of balance.
And for me, given I can’t change my fundamental nature, that also means finding healthy highs. It means working out what I can salvage from that old life that isn’t harmful to my health or devastating to my self-esteem.
Fortunately, I’m discovering there are plenty of options. I still have dancing, singing, swimming, travelling, exploring, laughing and the adrenalin rush that comes from sport. I can still go to the sun, water-ski, canoe, cycle, climb up mountains and abseil down them. I can still experience the thrill of new cultures.
If, that is, I can get myself there. Now those feelings of fear and insecurity roam freely, it’s a lot harder to make choices or be spontaneous. The ‘what ifs’ can hijack the whole process and before you know it, you haven’t taken a risk for years. That’s why, in this new life, I need different tools in my toolbox: faith, meditation, support from friends, greater self-esteem, more authenticity, trust in my true self and a growing awareness that it’s absolutely fine to make mistakes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Along a similar theme, last night I heard author, columnist and agony aunt Sally Brampton speak at a Psychologies Magazine event and was incredibly moved by her honesty and realness. She talked candidly about her struggles with depression – which she’s covered in her memoir Shoot the Damn Dog – and why we all need to come out of “the prison of self-consciousness”, take off the mask and learn to “inhabit ourselves”. I loved what she said about not being able to do small talk anymore. I feel the same. I always want to know what’s really going on with people. Of course, not everyone wants to share their innermost thoughts and feelings but I agree with Sally that once you’re used to connecting with people on a deep, real level, it’s hard to make do with the “I’m fine. How are you?” kind of chit-chat. Sally’s openness and honesty set the tone for the post-event drinks where I had some great, real conversations with fascinating women.
Sally’s talk reminded me of the power of our experiences to encourage and inspire others – a central theme of this blog. She’s not a qualified psychotherapist. She speaks and writes from the heart about her own experiences and others relate to them and learn from them. There’s great power in her honesty and vulnerability, which takes me to the last thing I wanted to share. A friend sent me this link today, a TED talk (from 2010) by Brené Brown, a university professor who’s researching a concept she calls ‘wholeheartedness’ – living with authenticity.
You may have seen it before but I found it really moving to watch. Here are a few nuggets: Courage, coming from the Latin root cor meaning heart, literally means ‘to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart’. I love that. Friends and strangers have told me I’m courageous for sharing so openly on this blog and in newspaper articles. If that means I’m telling the story of who I am with my whole heart then I’m delighted with the complement. Brené also said that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love, which also struck a chord for me in terms of this blog – it’s the most creative space I’ve found yet and it gives me great joy – and in terms of my relationships with others. But we often try to numb our vulnerability with addictive behaviours and substances, she said, at the same time numbing our joy. I can vouch for that too – often I’ve thought I was experiencing joy or having fun but really I was on a high and wasn’t feeling anything at all.
But having heard Brené’s talk, I now feel I’m on the right track. And as long as I keep on being vulnerable, I can expect greater joy, creativity, belonging and love. That’s worth opening your heart for.