Dread

I can remember it vividly. I left the gym at Belvedere’s, my senior school in Liverpool, and walked past the netball courts and out onto the street, where Mum was sitting in the car waiting for me. I was sobbing before I opened the door but when I got in, dragging my heavy bag of books onto my lap, the tears flowed even more. Mum didn’t know what to do or say. What could have happened? Who had died? Why was I so distraught?anxiety

“Mum, I read the question wrong!” I cried, as my shoulders heaved and I gulped for air.

I’d just done one of my ‘A’ levels and I was convinced I’d misunderstood the question and had therefore failed. I was inconsolable for hours, if not days.

A few months later, when I picked up my results, I got a string of A grades, not a B in sight and definitely no fails.

I remember another time at school when I was asked to run cross country for Liverpool in a race in Coventry. Quite an achievement, perhaps. An honour, even. Only the race fell on a school day and I had to miss drama class. I worried all the way to Coventry and back. I had two relatively new friends at school and I was convinced they’d bond with each other in drama and that when I got back, I’d feel left out. I didn’t enjoy that day or that race. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement. I was in a permanent state of dread, worrying about something that probably didn’t happen (I can’t recall if those girls bonded in that class but I was never short of friends at school).

Jump forward several decades to the time I bought my London flat and you’ll find me in a similar state of panic. In my mind, it was the wrong flat, too far from the Tube, too far from the shops, too this, not enough that. I decided to buy it in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy, but I didn’t trust myself and I beat myself up for months afterwards. Eventually, though, I grew to love that place. I made it my own, I gave the living room a red feature wall, painted the bedroom walls green and invited my friends around often for tea. And then the Tube came to me, hooking up with a station on my street, helping to more than double the value of my attic flat and enabling me to buy another home by the sea.

There are so many other occasions when my anxiety has got the better of me – too many to list, so I’ll just highlight a few.

When I refurbished my flat and decided one of the radiators was too small and the kitchen was so badly designed I couldn’t use a corner cupboard – I obsessed about those ‘mistakes’ for ages, losing nights of sleep, beating myself over the head with an invisible frying pan. When I decided to fly back from Spain on the Thursday instead of the Saturday or whatever day it was and as soon as I booked it, convinced myself I had to change it and set about reading the small print about alteration fees. And all the stress I created over buying my wetsuit and my little mini (which you heard me enjoying in my last blog post). In my mind, the wetsuit was too small and I’d made a huge mistake with the mini because it wasn’t red or blue, the tax was too high and it was too heavy on petrol. Only I’m quite happy with both now.

Which brings me to today. Today, our house purchase completed and later on, my partner and I will pick up the keys to our new home.

“Are you excited?” people have asked me over the past few days.

“Apprehensive, nervous, anxious,” I say, and I’m not sure they understand. It’s not what they want or expect to hear.

How can they understand? How can they get inside my worrying mind? How can they grasp how tortuous these decisions are for me? If I tell them I lay awake last night, worrying that we bought the wrong house, on the wrong street, next door to the wrong people, will they get it? If I confess I’ve been obsessively scouring Rightmove to see what bigger, better, quieter house we could have bought if we hadn’t bought this one – in the exact same way I used to get straight back onto dating websites after getting together with a guy to see who else was out there – would they comprehend? Given house purchases and relationships have the ‘C’ word in common – commitment – it doesn’t surprise me I behave in the same way.

There’s a reason for my nervousness around houses. I have history here. We moved a few times when I was young and I remember, every time, my Mum struggling with house-related woes: noisy neighbours, barking dogs, traffic, subsidence and so forth. Seeing my Mum stressed, worried and sad is an early memory. It’s one of those very deep wounds. It’s not surprising it recurs.

Relationships are similar. In my early years, love meant loss; love meant hurt; marriage meant divorce and Dad moving out. There are some wounds there too, buried deep in my psyche.

But the anxiety I so often feel extends beyond houses and relationships. It’s pervasive. I have a sense that there’s a crisis around every corner, something to be feared. And fear breeds control. If I can control my circumstances, I can reduce the likelihood of feeling pain. So a detached house means less chance of neighbour noise. A ‘perfect’ bloke means less chance of getting hurt. Lots of money and loads of stuff mean less chance of ending up homeless and sleeping on the streets.

Only it’s never enough. The outside stuff is never enough because the problem is on the inside. Outside stuff can help for a while – excess food and overeating used to act as a sedative to the anxiety and the pain, until they stopped working. Money can give me the sense that I’m secure, but that security is an illusion. I can try to control my environment and what happens to me as much as I want, but so much of the important stuff is out of my control.

Why am I writing this? Partly because I read this article on Facebook this morning and it really resonated with me: How to Make Anxiety Work For You, Not Against You. I liked what the author said about making friends with anxiety, embracing it, seeing it as an ‘unbelievably creative imagination’ and channeling it through writing.

After reading it, I did five minutes meditation, which brought me to tears. I’d had a sleepless night, obsessing about the house and all the other mythical houses we didn’t buy and in those five minutes of stillness and silence, I got underneath all the obsessive thoughts and connected with the pain – the deep, deep pain; the pain that so often is lurking beneath the hyper-activity, obsession and control.

Then after crying, I looked at myself in the mirror opposite my bed as I typed some notes on my laptop, curled up in my pjs. I saw my furrowed brow, the way my eyebrows were angled down, almost connecting in the middle above my nose. I saw the wet patches beneath my eyes and the red, flushed cheeks. I saw the lips, so often smiling, turned downwards and the flecks of grey in my hair. Anxiety takes its toll on my face.

So I’m writing this because it helps to share my pain and I’m writing this because it seems to be what I’m meant to do.

I’m also writing this because I want you to understand me. I want you to know this is part of me, a part I really struggle with, a part that can be painful and debilitating, but a part that somehow, as that article said, is worth embracing, even cherishing.

Please don’t judge me for it and please don’t laugh at me. Try to understand me. Hear me out. Hold me if I ask you to. Understand that we all have our strengths and our lesser strengths. Understand that the things I struggle with, you may find easy, while the things you struggle with may be a walk in the park for me. I, for example, am pretty good at public speaking, I’m not daunted my appearing on television and I’m persistent and determined when hassling banks for mortgage money. But other things – decisions, big and small; commitment; buying a house; choosing flights – cause me anxiety or fill me with dread. We all have different strengths and struggles. So let’s understand each other.

There are some things I’ve found that help with my anxiety: making a decision usually helps for a start, even if it causes short-term pain. Action and moving forward help (funny – once I heard this morning the house purchase had completed, some of my anxiety subsided and I did feel excited; the build-up was the problem). Meditation helps. Swimming in the sea helps. Chris Evans’ Radio 2 Breakfast Show generally helps, because it makes me laugh. Yes, laughter helps. Writing helps. Exercise helps. As does having some ‘bottom lines’ or boundaries around my behaviour – so no more checking RightMove for houses or Gumtree for minis; and no more swapping wetsuits for smaller sizes. Anti-depressants may help, of course, but I’ve also been too anxious to take the stupid things!

I could also tell myself to lighten up, to count my blessings, to see my issues as high-class problems other people would love to have. I do that often, but it doesn’t always work. Somehow, that seems like the path of resistance – trying to quash the anxious, worrying side of me, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or telling it it’s not allowed to have a voice.

Maybe the better route is to accept it, to embrace it, to surrender to it, to create something with it and to write it all down on this blog, so that I can look back in a few weeks and see, as so often has been the case, that I had absolutely nothing to worry about.

 

Posted in Addiction, Creativity, Eating disorders, Perfectionism, Recovery, Relationships, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Choosing change

I went for a swim in the sea this morning, in my new wetsuit, cosy swimming socks, neoprene gloves and cap. And I wasn’t even cold.

On the way down to the beach, I had one of those ‘I think I need to pinch myself’ moments. I was driving my little Mini Cooper S (cream with black bonnet stripes), I had my swimming gear in the boot and I was thinking that this time next week, my partner and I will get the keys to our new house. Our first ever home together. The first house either of us has ever bought with anyone else. Our three bed semi with wood floors and decking onto a sunny garden, walking distance to the harbour and a bike ride to the beach.

How did I end up here? How did I end up in love, buying a house, living by the coast, writing my blog in a cafe while looking out to sea?

I made it happen. I made choices. I took risks. I pushed through my wobbles.

Remember this blog: The life I want to lead from October, 2012? I do. I was single, unhappy and staring at a box of unopened antidepressants tucked away in my tea drawer. I’d just done my motorbike test – driving a scooter on busy roads through disgusting weather as big lorries sped past – and it felt like I’d just sentenced myself to many more years of living alone in London. How on earth did I end up here, I asked. I pulled myself out of it, taking myself off to Mexico for five weeks, realising that if I want my life to change, I have to change it, but while I had a fabulous time away, I felt sad and miserable again when I got back.

So what changed?

I made some choices.

In October 2015, a few weeks after taking my first anti-depressant and then deciding I didn’t want to go down that route, I took a few big decisions and resolved to stick to them.

I committed to giving a relationship with my partner my best shot – no more wavering, no more one foot in, one foot out, no more looking over my shoulder or his to see if there was someone else around. I also committed to writing my book and to spending money on a writers’ retreat to prove to myself that my book was worth investing in. And I committed to putting my health and happiness first. That was the Rescue Remedy I blogged about. And it worked.

Not long after that, I made another choice – to move out of London to the sea, something I’d been talking about for years but hadn’t had the courage to do. And that’s where I am right now, writing this while looking at the beach, my wetsuit in the back of my little car.

It hasn’t been plain sailing, as you well know. How could it be? I’m prone to my ups and downs whether I live in Islington or Poole, whether I’m in love or lonely. And I’m prone to overdoing it, working too hard at things that don’t nourish my soul, not getting to the beach enough. But on balance, I’m a lot more balanced down here. I can thank the sea for that, as well as all the work I’ve done on myself and the steady, solid, oak-of-a-bloke I love.

So if I want things to change, I have to change them. If they don’t work, I can always change them back but I believe choosing to change is the answer to being stuck.

Change is tough, especially if you carry around several bags of anxiety like me, but I’ve seen over the past few months, much more than ever before, that Mark Twain was on to something when he said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

The difficult things that happen to us often come out of the blue, with no warning, knocking us for six. But the things I spend most of my time worrying about, trying to anticipate, rarely come to pass. For example …

All being well, my partner and I will complete our house purchase next week, saving us a huge amount of money in extra stamp duty. I didn’t think we’d manage it. I’ve worried about it for weeks. But the whole thing has flowed, with only minor hiccups. It’s not entirely clear whether I needed to stress so much, to intervene, to make so many phone calls, to stay on top of the process every minute of every day. I wonder if it would have flowed just the same without my control freakery. I certainly would have slept better if I’d have believed it would all work out in the end. Who knows?

And take our recent ski trip. I thought I’d be miserable. I thought my hands and feet would freeze and I’d poke my eye out with a ski pole. I thought I’d be lonely since all my pals can ski and I can’t. I thought I’d hurt myself when I fell and it would be a painful, expensive week.

SkiingBut no. I absolutely loved it. The sun shone every day but one, I was generally too hot, not cold, I enjoyed learning with the ladies in my ski school, I adored dancing in my ski boots as the sun went down and I didn’t hurt myself, not even when I slid backwards down a red slope for quite a stretch.

Fabulous. When can I go back?

So how did I end up here?

I used to ask that question in tears in the bedroom of my Islington flat or at the end of that horrible motorbike test. I still ask it, but the tone is different now and I’ve got a smile on my face. How did I end up here, living this wonderful life?

The answer is I made it happen.

So if you’re feeling stuck and want to change, why not give change a shot? Move towards it, grab it with both hands. Discover the patterns that get in the way of your happiness and do the opposite of what you’ve always done.

The worst that can happen is that you have to change back.

 

Posted in Happiness, Love, Relationships, Women | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Living the dream

It’s not always like this. In fact, the past few days haven’t been great. My washing machine head has been on spin cycle, thoughts thrashing around inside at high speed, keeping me up in the night as I flip from side to side, tying the duvet in knots. I’ve been beating myself up, for all the things I’ve decided I’ve done wrong or all the things I haven’t done. I’m feeling bruised. And I haven’t had enough sleep.

But today it’s different. Today, the sun is out and I cycled to work.

Cycling to work, these days, doesn’t involve riding through busy streets, avoiding double-decker buses, big lorries turning corners and hurried pedestrians dashing across the road.

I live by the sea. It’s different now.

Inspired by the sunshine, I decided to cycle this morning from Poole to my studio in Boscombe along the seafront, from one end of the beach to the other.

It reminded me why I live here.

The waves were crashing to my right, rows of colourful beach huts were gleaming in the warm sun to my left and I saw the kind of life I love to see: surfers, walking along in their wetsuits with their boards on their heads or catching waves out by the pier.

IMG_2787

Disclaimer: my camera’s broken so this picture wasn’t taken this morning but it’s the right beach!

I’d much rather see surfers on my way to work than men and women rushing around in grey suits. They remind me there are more important things in life than computers, screens, emails and deadlines. They remind me why I do what I do, why I don’t have a well-paid, full-time job, why I juggle and write, teach, train and coach and sometimes worry about where the money’s coming from. It’s because I want a different life for myself, a life where I can take a sunny morning off to swim in the sea or body board (maybe I’ll learn to surf properly some day) or take the afternoon to see the people who are important to me.

Peace, freedom, joy, love, time. They’re my goals. I sometimes get in my own way. In fact, I often do. But this morning I felt closer to where I want to be than I have in a while.

I grew up riding along the prom – Otterspool Promenade in Liverpool – with grass on one side and the River Mersey on the other. The Mersey is nothing like the sea I have here – and nowhere near as clean – but it’s a large expanse of water and it looked particularly big when I was small. This morning, I wondered if I’m living here because I needed to come back to my roots: to water, to the coast, to fresh air, exercise and the Great Outdoors. It feels good to be on a prom like the one I rode freely around as a child. It feels like I’m getting back in touch with the real me, the adventurous, free-wheeling little girl I temporarily left behind.

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Becoming whole

This blog post, like me, is a work in progress. But I’m going to post it anyway. In fact, I’m going to write it in half an hour and post it immediately, so I have time for lunch, to get ready and to get out the door to catch a train to a meeting. I’m not going to stew or stress over it. I’m not going to edit it for hours. I’m just going to write it, read it once or twice and press send.

It’ll do. It’ll do for now because I know I’ll be coming back to this topic of ‘becoming whole’ many times. It’s what I’m about. It’s what my book is about. And it’s what I want my work, going forward, to be about. I want to become whole, as much as humanly possible, and I want to help others to become whole, through writing, coaching and speaking.

So here goes.

oakLet’s start with what I mean by being whole. Think of the oak tree, with its wide, solid trunk. It stands firm in the wind. It doesn’t sway, waver or bend. It’s grounded, solid, safe from the elements, from outer influences. It’s connected to the earth. It’s resilient. It’s sure of who it is and what it’s about.

Now think of a thin, scrawny tree with spindly branches. It gets blown about all over the place. It may get uprooted, knocked over, or its branches may snap when the wind blows.

Or think of a feather in the wind. It gets blown back and forth, up and down. It has no substance. It’s not able to resist. It’s vulnerable, flighty. It goes where it’s pushed. External influences decide its direction of travel. It has no course of its own.

I want to be like the oak tree, grounded, rooted, secure. I want to know who I am and what I’m about. I want to stand tall and strong, with my feet planted firmly on the ground, connected to Nature, to my source. I don’t want to be like the scrawny tree or the feather. I don’t want to be blown about. I want to decide where I’m going and stay on that path.

The oak tree is inside me somewhere. It’s growing, taking shape, slowly inhabiting my insides. But it takes time and effort to develop a solid core, particularly if we’re starting from a scrawny base. I want to embrace my inner oak and nurture it. And I want to help others do the same.

It’s hard to trust yourself when you never have before. It’s hard to believe you know what’s right for you when you’ve lived with so many years of insecurity and self-doubt. It’s hard to break the habit of listening to other people’s opinions and handing them authority over your life, thinking they’re right and you’re wrong. It’s hard to say No when you really mean No when you’ve spent a lifetime saying Yes to things you don’t want. It’s hard to stand up to ‘authority’ figures when your first attempt of doing so – perhaps as a child, standing up to a parent – went horribly long.

But we can learn. How do we learn? Through practice, by practicing being whole, saying No, standing up to people, trusting ourselves, taking up our rightful place in the world, even if doing so makes us scared, even if it makes us sweat, cry, shiver or start running for the hills. We learn by spending time with ourselves, feeding and watering our inner oak in whatever way works.

What works for me? Meditation, prayer, writing, walking by the sea, taking time to listen to the ‘still small voice’ inside, speaking to friends to build up my courage and by exercising the muscles that have been under-used (saying No, trusting myself, making choices and accepting my mistakes).

Becoming whole, or as whole as possible, will take time. I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my life. But it’s probably the most important road I will walk. And it’s a road that’s well worth travelling.

Whole. Authentic. Free. True. This is what I want for my life.

Becoming whole doesn’t mean I won’t cry anymore or I won’t make mistakes, mess up or get hurt. It means I’ll cry as much as I need to and want to because it’s healing and freeing. It means I’ll accept my mistakes and learn from them. Maybe I’ll even laugh at them.

I know I’ll have days when I feel less whole, days when I’m more like the feather in the wind than the sturdy oak tree, but that’s OK. The inner oak is there. It’s growing. My core, my authentic self is becoming strong.

I watched a talk the other day by a woman called Johanna Walker that inspired me to continue on this journey of becoming whole and to continue to share my story with absolute honesty. I’ll leave you with the Youtube clip of the talk (see below). I think it will inspire anyone who’s struggling to come to terms with a life that looks nothing like the one they thought they’d be living. Johanna talks of the power of storytelling to make sense of our sorrow, whatever it may be, and shares how she came to terms with her grief around not being a mum. Johanna says she was inspired to speak by watching Jody Day of Gateway Women do the same. Jody talks openly and honestly about her grief around not having children and helps other women come to terms with their infertility and lead fulfilling lives. Jody’s new book is out very soon. I’ve read the first edition and can highly recommend it.

So that’s me for today. I’ve written and edited my blog post in just under an hour, not quite half an hour but still quick for me, and I’m trusting it’s good enough. Perfectionism holds me back. Perfectionism is a result of not feeling whole. When I don’t feel whole, I need to be perfect; I need other people’s approval to feel OK, to feel good about myself.

I’m done with that.

Today, I’m embracing my inner oak.

 

 

Posted in Childless, Empowerment, Happiness, Infertility, Perfectionism, Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love is …

I wrote a first draft of this blog post a few months ago. I woke up one morning and felt moved to tell you all how much I love my boyfriend (OK, so I think I’m going to have to call him ‘partner’ from now on. ‘Boyfriend’ seems a bit silly as I’m nearly 45 and he’s nearly 50 and we’re looking to buy a home together).

But then I got sidetracked explaining why I hadn’t written my blog since August, reassuring you I hadn’t given it up, filling you in on my summer and autumn – lots of beach days, sea swims, good times, tough times, particularly as the winter nights set in and everything went dark and quiet down here on the south coast). And before I knew it, the day was over and I hadn’t finished my post – I must be out of practice. Then, when I came back to the blog a few days later, I didn’t feel quite as in love with my partner as I had a few days before and I felt very hesitant about declaring my feelings for him on the World Wide Web. So I stalled, returning to the post a few weeks later when I felt smitten again, but then somehow failing to finish it before Christmas arrived.

Now here we are in 2016 (Happy New Year!) and finally, I’m ready, not just because I really love him today but because I’ve come to understand that it’s natural for my love to ebb and flow. It’s nothing to be scared of. It doesn’t mean I need to jump ship. It doesn’t mean it’s not right. Maybe it just means I’m normal.

I’m also noticing that even if my love ebbs and flows, it also steadily grows. That may sound contradictory, but it feels true for me.

I used to have a very different concept of romantic love. I used to think that it wasn’t love, it couldn’t be real if it didn’t feel desperate, urgent and all-consuming; if I didn’t feel on edge and high on adrenaline.

I used to think it had to be like on Fatal Attraction (without the bunny boiling or sharp knife), or I had to experience an intensity like Baby on Dirty Dancing: “I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you,” Jennifer Grey told a bare-chested Patrick Swayze, in a breathless whisper.

I’ve experienced crazy, breathless, got-to-have-you-right-now ‘love’ before, but it didn’t grow into anything. It went up in smoke or it fizzled out. Sometimes, it was all in my head. Once, I fell for a stranger over email. Over weeks, he wooed me with poetic words. I imagined us meeting and falling into a passionate embrace. But as soon as I saw him, as soon as he became real, the bubble burst. I felt no spark. I walked away. He was upset. (I’m sorry, if you happen to be reading this).

I see now that my understanding of love and the journey I’ve been on to get where I am today reflect my personality, my inner battles and my challenges. These may be unique to me, but I share them in the hope some of you can relate.

dreamstimefree_1054567I first had to choose to love. I had wavered and wobbled and been in and out of a relationship with my partner for a few years. I thought I needed to stay away but I kept going back. Tired of not knowing what I wanted or what was good for me, I made a decision to commit to the relationship for six months and to give it my best shot. I promised myself, a few dear friends and my incredibly helpful therapist that I would do my utmost not to doubt, not to question, not to find fault and not to look for ways out. I agreed, for that time, to stop thinking there was someone else.

Choosing to love in this way may not sound particularly romantic. It’s not very Hollywood. But I’ve had a lifetime of ambivalence, of push-pull, particularly in my relationships with men. ‘I want you, but I don’t want you. I want to love, be loved and be in a partnership, but I’m terrified of loss and of being hurt. Come close; now go away.’ My mixed messages must have left a few of my ex-boyfriends feeling bewildered (if you’re reading, I apologise).

Ambivalence plagues me in other areas of my life too – ‘I want my work to get noticed. Wait, no I don’t. I’m scared and I want to hide’ – but I’ve written about that before (Ambivalence) and I can come back to it, so I’ll stick to love in this post.

I chose to put two feet in and keep them in and every time my feet got cold and I wanted to yank them out and run, my friends reminded me of my decision, of my commitment. Stay with it, for six months. Those six months came and went and I felt ready to move out of London to the sea, where he lives. We’re now at 15 and I’m ready to move in.

So I made a choice and I pushed through my doubts.

I used to think he couldn’t be the right guy if I had so many worries and reservations at the start. I kept waiting for the man to come along with whom I’d enjoy an immediate honeymoon period. (For more on that, see my 2013 blog ‘Waiting for my honeymoon’). I kept waiting to meet someone and be instantly enveloped in a pink fluffy cloud. I’d heard others talk of love like that. I’d heard others say ‘I just knew. As soon as I saw him, I just knew’, so I thought that had to happen for me too. I thought, to misquote Michael Bublé, that I just hadn’t met him yet.

(“You had to keep looking, just in case,” my partner joked with me yesterday morning.

“You kept looking too,” I replied.

“I was just passing the time, sweets, just passing the time.”)

But I never found my honeymoon. I was always wracked with doubts, judgements, criticisms and reasons why it wouldn’t work out, often right from the start.

I’d judge men on their height, weight or amount of hair, on their attitude to work or their career choice, their shoes or socks or the way they crunched their Cornflakes at breakfast. I could go from feeling incredibly attracted to someone one minute to not being able to stand the sight of them the next – ‘Come here. No, get away from me!’ – and when I felt repelled like that, it had to end.

I used to think my turmoil meant there was something wrong with him, until I realised it was more likely there was something wrong with me. I read He’s Scared, She’s Scared and began to understand there was a reason why I was attracted to men who couldn’t meet my needs and who feared commitment – because I feared it just as much or perhaps more. I was the common denominator in all my failed relationships. I was the one who made these judgements, who pushed men away. So I began to try to understand myself, to challenge my own commitment-phobia and to tame my urge to run.

Do you push love away? Are you attracted to people who aren’t good for you? Are you still holding out for the instant honeymoon, for someone about whom you won’t have any doubts? It’s helpful to become aware of our patterns and what lies behind them. Only then can we change.

When I finally became ready and willing to push through my reservations, I chose someone who showed willingness to push through his baggage too. My therapist reckons we’re attracted to people with a similar level of ‘stuff’ as us, to people who are at the same level of maturity or emotional wellness, who have the same level of commitment-phobia. The key is to find someone who’s also willing to grow, who’s also willing to push through.

This process – the choice, the decision, the compromise, all the deep and meaningful conversations (D&Ms, he calls them) that we’ve had to have to sort through our stuff – isn’t how I imagined love to be. It’s not how they portray it in the movies and it’s not the message I heard from those people who ‘just knew’. But it’s my process. Our process. And it feels real.

I’d say be wary of the lightning bolts. Remember some of us get an addictive fix off men – or women – who are unavailable or unreliable or both. I did. We can be magnetically drawn to people who can’t meet our needs, sometimes because we’re subconsciously repeating a pattern from our childhoods when we craved love from our parents and it didn’t come. As adults, we replay the tape, hoping to engineer a different outcome. This time, he’ll love me. This time, he’ll stay. But too often, the ending is the same.

What if you find someone you think you can trust but something inside you still tells you to run for the hills? I’d suggest asking yourself if this really is your gut instinct or if it’s your fear. I reckon this is the hardest question to answer – gut instinct or fear? It’s so difficult to discern. But if love has left its scars – the love of a father, a mother or a previous partner – we may be reluctant to get hurt again. So we put up barriers, in my case in the form of criticism, judgement and ambivalence.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;These days, my wobbles about my partner are few and far between and, while I had to take a long-haul flight to get here, it feels like I’ve finally arrived on my honeymoon. Both my feet are in deep and all I want to do is sink them in deeper.

This love is different. It feels certain, long-lasting. I even feel able to write, here on the Internet, that I am ‘in love’ with my partner. I’ve always been afraid and embarrassed to utter those two little words. I never dared to. I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t think I belonged to the club of people who fell ‘in love’. I didn’t think my love looked like the kind of love I saw on TV, in movies or between other people.

But I’m owning those words now. And the more I say them, the more it feels true – and this isn’t about convincing myself of something that’s not real. It’s about challenging the harmful, self-sabotaging, ambivalent, shaming, ‘I don’t deserve’ messages that have inhabited my core for many years, embedded deeply in the same way the word ‘Blackpool’ runs through a stick of northern rock. This love feels good for me. I feel calmer, more grounded, I laugh a lot more. And there’s space to grow.

My regular readers may be wondering about the baby thing, by which I mean the fact I’m nearly 45, don’t have children, thought I wanted them, am unsure and ambivalent (no surprises there) about both motherhood and about childlessness and I’m wondering what will happen and how I’ll feel if I don’t have kids. It’s been a recurring theme on this blog as I’ve aged from 40 to nearly 45 and it will feature in my book, which I’m still writing and will finish this year. But that’s not something I’m going to tackle now.

Suffice it to say I’m focusing on one miracle at a time. It’s a miracle that someone who was once so obsessed with her work, her looks, her diet and her weight and who was shut down emotionally and unable to deeply connect can love like this.

If you’re reading this wondering if you can too, take heart. You can.

Posted in Childless, codependency, Dating, Love, Recovery, Relationships, Women | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Taking the plunge

“… I have a dream to follow my heart to the sea, to write, to teach, to love, to cycle, to swim, to jump off rocks into the water, to stretch on the sand, to have endless visits from my lovely London friends (please), to have more spare time, a slower pace of life, more space to create and to make my heart and spirit sing – in a small or a big way – every day” – Ode to London, I love you … but I’m leaving, October 10, 2013

I’m here. It’s happened. That dream has come true.

Two weeks ago, I packed up my lovely little London flat, put half of it in a storage cupboard and squashed the other half into a small car and headed south to the sea.

Swimming off the rocks

Swimming off the rocks

Since then, I’ve swum off fabulous sandy beaches – once at night under a full moon – I’ve jumped off rocks into the water and I’ve stretched out on the sand in the sunshine. I’ve spent lots of lovely time with my boyfriend, I’ve worked on my book most week days and I’ve experienced a slower pace of life. I have some teaching work at Bournemouth University lined up for the Autumn and four of my London friends will be visiting here over the next few weeks.

It’s a year and ten months since I wrote on this blog that I was leaving London, so the move took a while, but as I write this today, I’m a little bit amazed that my dream to live by the sea has come true. For a long time, I think I assumed everybody else’s dreams came true, but not mine. But now I know my dreams can come true too. And I understand the importance of having dreams, of writing them down, of drawing pictures of them (which I did – I have a number of pieces of A4 paper with colourful drawings of me living by the sea) and of taking small steps towards them, little actions to make them happen.

It would be easy to dismiss or ignore my efforts in making this particular dream come true. I’m good at that – good at not celebrating my successes. But I had the courage to dream, to write that blog post, draw those pictures, to put the ad on Gumtree to rent my flat out for six months and, when a good tenant came along, to say ‘Yes’. I drew up the contract, sorted all my flat safety certificates, had the cracked windows fixed and did all the other grown-up admin – reams of it – that comes with being a landlady. I arranged a room to rent down here so my boyfriend and I could have a little bit of space apart from each other and I managed to pack up 13 years of London life and all the mementos from years before into large plastic boxes and, with the aid of my very helpful and patient boyfriend, squeeze a lot of it into his car. I knocked on the door of Bournemouth University’s Media School, a number of times, and found some teaching work, and, once here, I got myself out of the house in the early morning and at night under the full moon to go for a swim in the sea.

An early morning dip

An early morning dip

Sea swimming makes my heart and spirit sing. When I plunge my head into the cold water, something lifts inside me. I skip on the inside. I smile. When I lie on my back, looking up at the sky, or when I explore a little bit of the world under the sea, everything is put into perspective. No matter what day I’ve had or what worries I’m carrying, everything seems brighter. And the other day, when the wind was up and the waves were bigger, I went body boarding, which was such a giggle. My inner kid loved that. She felt truly alive.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Packing up my flat, separating the things I wanted from those I didn’t (I seemed to want and need everything with me – it was painful to let go of anything from my past), journeying through 13 years of notebooks, diaries and photographs as well as memories from my childhood, my university life or the days I spent living abroad, was hard and brought up lots of feelings.

Giving up my safe haven has been hard too – that space where I can be completely alone, where I can shut the door, pull down the blinds, eat whatever I want and watch whatever I fancy on TV; the first home I’ve ever owned and the first place I’ve invested in and made my own. It’s been tough to leave my cosy flat and divide myself between a rented room in a friend’s house and my boyfriend’s place – neither of which is my own; I can’t do exactly as I please or shut myself away from the world anymore.

And although living at the beach is a dream come true, there have been times in the past few weeks when I’ve felt all at sea.

I’ve felt grief, grief for all the things I’ve left behind. I’m missing my London friends a lot and all the networks I became part of over those 13 years – church, my recovery meetings and the huge number of relationships that sprang from those. I’m missing the Southbank, the Thames and St Paul’s, Clissold Park, the fab grocer’s on Newington Green and the buzz of Upper Street at all hours. Sometimes I cycle, scooter or drive around my new home town and ask myself, “Where has everyone gone? Where are all the people?” And I see my London friends’ photos on Facebook, of them out enjoying London things, and feel a pang.

But such a big change was bound to throw up grief. Choosing to come to the beach meant choosing to leave London. Every choice involves loss, leaving something behind, and if we’ve experienced a lot of loss in our lives, loss is going to be especially hard. I’m also still in transition mode, finding my feet, exploring friendships, groups, activities and meetings, discovering a routine that works, working out how to get around.

It’s early days.

The good thing about this particular decision, though, is that I’ve never really had second thoughts – and for someone who finds decisions so hard, that’s amazing. I’ve felt grief and sadness and experienced loss, but I don’t want to change anything. All I want to do right now is to get more involved here, make more friends, find networks that feed my soul and places that bring me peace and joy.

So far, I’m pleased I’ve found a lovely working space for a few days a week (The Old School House in Boscombe) and my Vespa is back on the road, so I can work in my lovely shared office – or at home – and then nip for a swim at lunchtime or in the early afternoon. Going forward, I’d like to buy a new (or second-hand) mountain bike, a wetsuit and maybe a kayak or a paddleboard (all of which involves finding more work and increasing what I earn, so that’s my next big challenge); and I’d like to make sure I swim in the sea as many days as I can, with or without sunshine.

Happy after a sea swim and snorkel

Happy after a sea swim and snorkel

Moving hasn’t been easy but it’s definitely been the right thing for me right now. It’s a fresh start, a move towards a lifestyle that I think suits me better than the big city. It also gives my relationship the space to grow, which is a good thing.

And if I ever do have doubts, I can jump on a train to London, which is only two hours away, and spend time soaking up the buzz and seeing my lovely friends. Or you can come and visit me, we can get up early, scoot to the beach, dip ourselves in cold water … and smile.

Let’s keep dreaming. Dreams, I reckon, are good for the soul.

 

Posted in Happiness, Health, Leisure, Love, Women, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Authentic living

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them.”

That’s a quote by American author, poet and philosopher Henry Thoreau. It dates back to the 1840s but I fear it’s just as relevant today, if not more so, and, of course, to men and women.

I was heading that way, pursuing a career trajectory that, I only realised afterwards, was taking me further and further away from my authentic self, from my song. There were days of ‘quiet desperation’ when I’d stare at the computer screen, unable to muster any enthusiasm for my work, despite being in a job many people would have killed for. My soul had clocked off, my spirit had gone to sleep.

It’s taken years to discover who I am at my core, to identify the kind of work that makes my heart sing and understand the rhythm of life that’s good for me.

I need variety, flexibility and freedom – freedom to work how and when I choose (even if that brings its own struggles). I need to be creating – building, making or writing something unique. I need a combination of solitary and group activities in my week, to satisfy both sides of my personality, my introvert and extrovert. I need to be out there, leading groups, running workshops, giving talks, but then I also need to retreat, to rest, recharge and to create in silence.

I need to be fulfilling the side of me that loves to teach, coach, train and mentor, that wants to encourage, support and nurture, that wants to help others to fulfill their potential and live their dreams. I need to be working with people, writing things that help people or coaching them to live their best lives. And at times, I need to be at the front of the room, on the stage, in the spotlight, being seen, in a very visible role.

I didn’t know this before, or perhaps I didn’t need these things before. Perhaps my younger self was satisfied with the adrenalin buzz of news journalism. And my previous job did come with its fare share of highlights.

I got to tell stories, which is one of the things I enjoy most. I worked in a team and got to interview people from all walks of life. I got to travel the world, experience new cultures, speak my languages, give free rein to my gregarious self. All that was good, but there was always an undercurrent of low self-esteem, of “I’m not good enough”, which held me back and caused me stress.

Then, as the years went on and I climbed higher up the ladder, moving into political reporting, I spent less time out in the field meeting new people and hearing their stories and more time sitting in an office, writing what seemed like the same news stories over and over in a set formula, which began to feel like a straight jacket. And as my job became higher profile and my stories more widely read, the volume on the “I’m not good enough” voice went right up.

The more dissatisfied and bored I felt, the more I felt I was putting on an act and the more scared I felt that I was about to be found out, the more I fell back on the coping strategies I’d been using for years to mask my shame and fear – primarily binge eating, starving and compulsively exercising to lose the weight.

As I see it now, from this vantage point, my inauthenticity – an ever-widening gap between who I was on the inside and the role I was playing on the outside – caused a huge amount of stress. I was contorting myself into an unnatural shape, squeezing myself into a box where I didn’t fit. Food was my stress relief, along with compulsive work as I battled to prove my worth.

Now I’m on a different path. Writing my book and making good progress, yes, but also building a business that’ll allow me to achieve my unique potential and play to my strengths while helping others to do the same. I’m using my experience, my natural abilities – including coaching, encouraging, communicating and leading groups – and a really effective tool called Packtypes.

Packtypes is a simple card system that helps people quickly identify their strengths and their areas of natural talent and ability. It uses dogs as metaphors for personality types and traits, although it doesn’t put people in boxes. Instead, it helps people take responsibility for their own development, shows them how to play to their strengths and how to work on their blind spots. It builds self-awareness and confidence and increases motivation. It helps children and adults find their path, discover their song.

You ain't nothing but a Hound dog - or are you?

You ain’t nothing but a Hound dog – or are you?

So are you, like me, a people person, a natural teacher and coach (a Coachdog), who also has a penchant for communicating, leading groups and being centre of attention (a Mastiff)? Are you the ideas person on a team, the inspired entrepreneurial type (a Hound)? Are you the researcher, who loves facts, figures, logic and making sure everything has been checked out (a Pointer)? Or are you super organised, with a love of writing lists and ticking things off (a Sheepdog)? Do you love rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in (the Terrier)? Do you have strong moral principles, proceeding with caution because you’re keen to do things for the right reasons (a Retriever)? Or are you determined, ambitious and results-driven, a bit of an Alan Sugar type, without pointing any fingers (a Guarddog)? Your profile will be a combination of these cards – some people will be more specialist and others will have a broader array of strengths.

Packtypes helps you identify your natural comfort zone and then move out from it, without creating too much stress for yourself. It helps you understand how to relate to and communicate with other types, helping to improve relationships. And it’s great for identifying gaps in teams – be that in schools, charities or the corporate arena – so you can make sure everyone’s in a role that matches their strengths and you can get your recruitment right.

All the research suggests we’re living in an age of huge dissatisfaction and disengagement at work. We’re medicating ourselves more than ever before, with pharmaceuticals, alcohol, food, sex, money, hard drugs or compulsive work, amongst other things. Addiction is widespread, in children and adults. We’re ashamed to admit what we’re doing, to be vulnerable, to share our true selves, as Brené Brown so eloquently describes in her fantastic Ted talk: The Power of Vulnerability.

I honestly believe one of the reasons we’re feeling disengaged, depressed or are self-soothing with unhealthy, often harmful substances or behaviours is that we’re squeezing ourselves into boxes where we just don’t fit, we’re contorting ourselves into shapes that were never meant for us.

Picture a large round ball of dough and a star-shaped cookie-cutter. To fit the dough into the star-shaped mould, we have to squidge it, squeeze it and lop bits off. It gets in, but it’s an uncomfortable squash and some of it gets left behind. Or think of a plasticine man and a square box. To fit him in, we have to compress him into a different shape so he no longer looks like himself.

Is this what we’re doing to ourselves? Are we working in something we hate that doesn’t play to our strengths? And is this what we’re doing to creative, free-wheeling kids when we force them to sit and conform to one-size-fits-all schooling, exams and results?

Do we feel squidged, squashed, contorted, compressed or incomplete? Do we feel bored, like our souls have gone to sleep? And what do we do to compensate, to feel better, to give ourselves some relief?

I imagine a world where everyone is playing to their strengths, doing work or pursuing studies that make their heart sing and doing so in a balanced way that allows space for all the other things that bring them joy and peace. In this world, there’s less depression, less obesity, less alcoholism, less illness and less stress. There are fewer hunched shoulders, fewer bad backs and fewer heart attacks.

Utopia? I hope not. And I’d like to think I can do my little bit to help. I can lead by example by making sure I live a balanced life and honour my talents, hopes and dreams and I can use my natural abilities and the tools I’ve discovered to help others find their path and the courage to pursue it.

When I’m doing this work, which feels so aligned with my authentic self, I can barely hear the “I’m not good enough” voice. It’s not a struggle. Everything just flows.

My goal is to help people break free from their lives of ‘quiet desperation’ and find fulfilment and joy; to help them discover their song and sing it out loud. If you know of anyone who I might be able to help – individuals, schools, companies, charities – do share this blog and my website: How to Play to Your Strengths.

Thank you.

Posted in Addiction, Creativity, Happiness, Mentoring, Recovery, Women, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment