After years of rushing, racing and running, coronavirus has forced me to slow down.
It’s like I have a brake in the middle of my chest. As soon as I start to rush or hurry, or as soon as I get anxious or stressed, the brake comes on automatically, in the form of a sharp pain in my sternum (official name: costochondritis).
This pain slows me right down. It literally presses against me like a giant hand, until I cut my pace.
For a lifelong rush-aholic, it’s fascinating to observe. Has my body finally run out of ways to tell me to be still? Is this its last resort – inflicting pain that at times feels like a heart attack?
I fight back, of course. How could I not? I’m a struggle-aholic too, addicted to battling through life. So I dipped myself in the sea this morning. But I’ve surrendered enough to give up the fast front crawl. Instead, I did some meditative backstroke, slowly, gently, ever so slightly opening my chest. Then I did some equally slow breast stroke, for a minute or two, followed by a period of simply lying on my back, in a star shape, floating, observing the sky and the clouds, in that vast expanse of sea and space.
What a gift.
This pace is such a change for someone who’s been permanently on the move, permanently chasing something elusive at high speed. My nickname used to be the Duracell Bunny for my non-stop energy.
It’s such a change for someone who’s sought out adrenaline rushes and anxiety spikes, as a way to numb the deadness and the pain she’s often felt inside.
It’s such a change for someone who for years felt she had to keep moving fast to work off all the calories she’d consumed in her latest binge. I no longer binge or overeat, and I no longer engage in punishing exercise, but my muscles must remember the perpetual motion, as must my mind. I am still compelled to keep moving.
It’s an annoying change, that’s for sure. I want to run and cycle and swim fast. I want to paddle board and climb hills. This is who I am. This is what I do.
But good is coming out of this too – some useful life lessons, and more time and space to be and to write.
The pain is reducing. My body is healing. I know this from listening to a voice note I recorded into my phone almost a month ago. Here’s an edited version of those words:
My body has stopped me in my tracks. Normally by this time in the morning, I’d have walked the length of the beach, if not jogged it, or I’d have cycled to the sea, swum and cycled home up a few hills, perhaps doing a few leg lunges in the garden once I got back.
Today, though, I parked the car as close as possible to the beach, walked along the pavement at snail’s pace and then inched my way along the sand, tentative step after tentative step, breath by breath, until I reached the nearest sand dune, where I flopped.
I have costochondritis (inflammation of the cartilage around the breast bone, thought to be connected to what was presumably a case of coronavirus, brought back from the French Alps) and the slightest bit of exertion causes pain in my chest, or rather it exacerbates the pain that’s been there constantly for the past few weeks.
So instead of moving on the beach, today I sat. And I meditated, using a guided meditation that encouraged me to open my mind and to think expansively, and as I did so, I looked out to sea and a man went whizzing past, on an electric surfboard, several feet out of the water. He looked like something from outer space. I want one of those. I want to do that!
Then I observed all the other people doing stuff: the fishermen on their boats, the paddle boarders and the dog walkers, including a woman who wandered down the steps from her beach-front home to walk her dog in a tiny silk dressing gown that skimmed her bum cheeks. I’ve never seen a dog walker dressed like that before – perhaps because I’ve never sat still for long enough.
Perhaps this is what writers do. They sit and observe everything. Maybe it’s time for me to observe more and write more.
As I sat, the emotions came to the surface, including a terrifying thought: that if I’m not perfect, if I’m not super healthy and fit, my dear husband of only one year will leave me. If I’m not able to join in our bonding outdoor activities, he’ll be off.
I know he won’t. I’ve checked a few times. Yes, I’ve actually asked him. Will you leave me if I don’t get well? He won’t. In sickness and in health and all that. But the fear is real.
Is this how I was dating for all of those years? Is this how I was looking for a relationship? Gripped by a deep fear that if I wasn’t perfect, if he found me out to be faulty somehow, he would walk away. What a weight to carry. What an obstacle to overcome. No wonder I sabotaged my love life for so many years.
My mind wandered back to the pain and I started to beat myself up. This chest pain is my fault. I didn’t ease myself gently back into exercise after having coronavirus. I went too fast, I did too much, I pushed myself. And this is the result.
Then I remembered that the pain reduces considerably after lying still for 7 or so hours in sleep. So stillness is the solution.
My next thought was: how am I going to get back to the car? I started to plot an easier route to avoid the soft sand. My eyes followed the path I would take – down to the water via the rocks, along the wet sand and back up the next walkway.
I set off, treading carefully, breath by breath.
Nearly four weeks on, I am still walking at this slow pace, but I can go a tiny bit faster before the brake goes on. It’s so interesting to observe myself, and to observe how fast other people move.
Today, I stepped aside to allow a woman a few decades older than me to overtake on the uphill steps. I also continued at my slow pace when a woman paused on a narrow path to allow me to pass at a safe distance. I would normally rush, so as not to inconvenience her, but I can’t. I had to live with the discomfort of keeping her waiting.
I reckon this physically painful period of my life is another layer of the onion, another phase in my development. I used to thrive on adrenaline and stress and I’ve always done everything at the last minute. But I don’t like the feeling it brings me anymore.
Last night, I got anxious preparing for a Facebook Live for Psychologies magazine on finding love after lockdown (you can watch the replay here). I grappled with the tech and the tech grappled back and time flew and before I knew it, it was almost time to go live and I hadn’t combed my hair or applied my lipstick.
Stress. Anxiety. Rushing.
Then pressure on my chest. The brake again.
Telling me: calm, Katherine, slow. It will be good enough. Breathe …
I’m also learning to pay attention to my breath, which for many years I’ve ignored. I reckon I’ve been a shallow breather most of my life. That’s what happens if you live with panic, dread and an expectation of catastrophe around every corner. That’s what happens if you live on high alert, hyper-vigilant, awaiting danger.
I’ve been doing a breathwork course with the wonderful Sonja Lockyer. Only at the start of the course, I couldn’t actually breathe very well. It felt too scary and too painful to hold my breath. So instead of holding it at the designated points, I simply noticed when the in breath ended and the out breath began, and when the out breath ended and the in breath began. Not doing anything. Not holding. Just noticing. Observing. That’s a change for me.
This pause in my life, in my activity, has also allowed me to explore my deeper health issues: recurrent inflammation and digestive problems, with the support of Kim Talbot, a nutrition expert and a long lost childhood friend of mine, who has the most incredible story of recovery from chronic pain. It’s going to be a long journey of gradual changes but I’m looking forward to the benefits.
In summary, coronavirus and costochondritis have taught me so much:
Patience, surrender, acceptance and trust.
I don’t have to be perfect in order to be loved.
I won’t get fat if I sit still.
I am enough. I have enough. I do enough.
My health is my wealth.
And stillness is the route to my inside world, to creativity and to peace.
I’m excited to announce the next dates for my transformational How to Fall in Love courses – Laying the Foundations & Date with Courage, Clarity & Confidence. Both courses begin at the end of July. Take a look at my course page if you’d like to join inspiring, courageous women like Anna who are blowing me away with how they are transforming their lives and relationship patterns:
“I want to say a big thank you to Katherine Baldwin for her brilliant courses because today I went on my first date in 14 years and it was okay, in fact I enjoyed it!”
The courses are also available to take at your own pace if that suits you better. Click here.