Lady of leisure

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My last post was all a bit doom and gloom, wasn’t it? Not even any pictures. Sorry about that.

It spent a long time in the drafts folder, to be fair – a long time waiting for me to tie all the strands together, even though it did turn out to be like a loosely made pom pom: one weak central point and fluff scattered everywhere. But as I mentioned, it wasn’t easy to write. Time to look forward.

This one should be easier for both you and me – as I type I’m at the end of a week off from work with no particular agenda other than to rest, write and run. It came about after a gentle but firm reminder from HR to everyone who had ten or more days of annual leave: take it or lose it. As odd as it sounds taking holiday right after Christmas, the festive season isn’t exactly restful or relaxing and the first two weeks of January turned out not to be that busy, so it made perfect sense to take the time off. Andy’s already used his holiday days waiting for Thames Water to fix our sewer and we’ve neither the money nor the inclination to go abroad, so I treated myself to a staycation on my own. A whole week of wearing yoga pants and not talking to people.

The plan – because even on my day off there’s always a plan – was to use the mornings for running and the afternoons for writing and life admin; the longer game was to try and reset my routine altogether, hopefully making a few good habits that I could carry forward. Although a bit of rest (otherwise known as binge watching Fortitude on the sofa) would also be key, there wouldn’t be much point in getting used to a life of leisure only to suffer a massive culture shock on Monday. I didn’t just want to recuperate, I wanted a fresh start for a fresh new year.

So after moaning for eighteen solid months about never having time, what exactly have I been doing with my precious time off?

Running

Obviously. Getting into a training pattern of any kind is often an exercise in creating a good habit more than it is about the training itself. In my experience, a good habit can help in two key ways: normalising an activity, making its absence more notable than its presence, removes the conscious decision whether or not to do something out of my comfort zone and the risk that I’ll avoid it; and establishing a routine provides a reassuring constant which strengthens my defence against anxiety and doubt. It’s not just helpful for those who suffer with anxiety though; a good habit is crucial for succeeding at any new challenge. When it’s a one off, or if it doesn’t have a place in your schedule, there’ll always be more reasons not to do a new activity than there will be to go for it. It’s sort of why I get so into streaks, I suppose. And, to me at least, there’s something very comforting about having milestones to look out for in my day.

This week’s target on my training plan is 42 miles, mostly at a general aerobic effort or recovery pace, meaning that my effort shouldn’t ever really exceed the ability to hold a conversation. I’m used to that being somewhere in the 8:30 – 9:30 minute mile bracket but my fitness and my health are so far below where they used to be I’m barely going faster than 10:00mm, even when I bust a gut. It’s a fairly depressing place to start, but the only way to improve it is to persevere. So I found a neat little way to fit the miles in without doing circles around my house all the time; driving Andy to work and following up with a run around Richmond Park, with the added bonus of parakeets to play with. It’s been slow, but utterly joyful.

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Word of the day, biophilia, has often popped up in my discussions with trail runners about motivation: a hypothesis that being surrounded by nature and living systems can help reduce stress and promote well-being. Spending time in woodland and on open hills, soft ground underfoot and fresh air in my lungs, never fails to improve my state of mind. And another effect of going off-road is a drastic reduction in the perception of effort; I can tootle along the North Downs Way for hours and barely feel it. But when I haven’t got time to play tombola with the Southern trains timetable (“Will the 8:30 to Epsom Downs turn up? Roll the barrel and take your chances!”) there are still plenty of green spaces for me to explore in the city within reach of a tube or my bike: besides Richmond Park, Wimbledon, Tooting and Clapham Common are all regular haunts, as is the Vanguard Way.

Having done my run I’ve been getting back home mid morning full of pep, usually around the time I’d be getting into a meeting if I was at work and resigning myself to no achievements. That pep has been put to good use giving the house a bit of a spruce – cleaning is loads easier when you don’t leave it for weeks at a time – which means a much nicer space to work in. Having done that I’ve been trying to get in at least 20 or 30 minutes of yoga, again something I’ve neglected horribly. Once I’ve unfolded myself out of “corkscrew” and popped my joints back in place the rest of the morning is reserved for correspondence (that sounds more romantic and Jane Austen-y than “checking emails”) or any other odd errands.

Resting

There needs to be some rest in there, I am a lady of leisure after all. I got through both series of Fortitude in four days – now of course anxiety dreams are replaced by nightmares about rabid polar bears – while balancing lunch on my belly. It’s Friday as I write this, and time for a change of mood, so I’m watching Dinnerladies from the start. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Dinnerladies was. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Victoria Wood was. Victoria Wood taught me about humanity and about comedy, which are always the same thing, and had a massive influence on my sense of humour (when I have one). It seems appropriate to take inspiration from her when retraining myself to be human.

Writing

Then from three o’clock onwards I’ve been taking my laptop and a cup of coffee down to the summer house to write. I was lucky enough to get on the shortlist of Penguin’s WriteNow project, a scheme offering mentorship to unpublished authors from under-represented backgrounds, but my third of a novel with no discernible narrative written in a tense that made the editor wince didn’t make the final ten, surprisingly. However the WriteNow team gave us so much valuable support and advice that I’ve decided to finish the damn thing and try my luck the old fashioned way. I’m still not changing the tense though.

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The novel is a folly for which the optimistically named “summer house” is a perfect setting. The summer house is really just a cabin at the bottom of the garden which seemed to have been used for storing catkins and spiderwebs when we first moved in, but we’ve since furnished it as a bedsit for when my brother stays and now it’s basically the biggest and nicest room in the house. My aim was to try and get around 1000 words down a day, and the cabin is just far enough away from the house that the wi-fi is useless without a booster, which is handy for avoiding distractions. With the help of a new carpet and insulation, an electric heater and a hand knitted draught excluder, it’s actually super cosy down there now. In fact it’s almost as well equipped as Roald Dahl’s hut – all I’m missing is the Thermos flask. I manage a couple of hours without fresh coffee then it’s suppertime.

Recharging

As we do every January Andy and I have committed to cut down on stodge and make healthier suppers – not that we’re ready meal addicts, but anything requiring more imagination than a diced onion doesn’t get a look in on worknights. Since I’ve been home this week we’ve treated ourselves to square meals that have multiple vegetables and more than one colour in them, and again I find myself surprised (perhaps naively) at the effect proper food can have on mood. I know it’s pretty obvious, but it’s hard to be hangry when you’ve had your five a day. As with all these good habits, it tends to feed itself – you just have to get going in the first place. Or rather, you have to want to get it going. That, I think, is the biggest shift for me – after just one week of R&R I’ve started to care enough about my body to want to feed it decent things, not just to pay lip service to better living.

So I have to admit our HR department were on to something by insisting that people actually take their annual leave. This is usually where someone throws around the term “work-life balance” but as someone whose work patterns have traditionally been of the feast or famine model I’ve never been able to define what that means at all, let alone for me. Now I know what it doesn’t mean: pushing through fourteen months without a proper break, piling exhaustion upon sleep deficit, burning out and going mad. All feast and no famine. I could keep up that kind of pressure in my previous job because I knew there would be fallow months, but it’s taken me some time to adjust to this new, consistently busy schedule, one which requires me to take responsibility for my own health and rest even when we’re busy. It’s going to take time for me not to feel guilty about that.

Although I can’t keep up this lady of leisure act beyond Sunday it’s been just enough to taste what a properly structured life could look like. Work shouldn’t stop me from fitting in an hour of running and an hour of writing a day, or allow for the occasional lazy evening doing nothing of worth except rest – and to be fair it doesn’t, I do. In exposing myself to a routine I’d like to live by, in defining that for myself, I’ve given myself something to look forward to. I haven’t looked forward to anything for over a year now – I’ve been too tired to appreciate it or too afraid of making myself that vulnerable.

If you find yourself in this position, try to find time to take stock – OK you might not have a whole week going spare, but even one day or an hour every morning for a week is better than putting off your recovery over and over until it’s too late. It’s a bit like cleaning your house: if you do twenty minutes every day nothing gets too far out of hand. If you ignore it for months, you’re eventually going to have to call in the professionals.

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Crazy talk

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I’m going to talk about mental health. It’s not an easy thing to talk about; partly because of the stigma, although that tide is on the way out. Mostly because, for many people, it can be hard to define. Good or bad, mental health is a vague, shapeless thing, often recognisable only in the negative spaces. I think you know when something’s wrong but do you know when something’s right? Do you know how to articulate what’s wrong?

I found myself in this position recently, having finally decided to talk to our company’s welfare counsellor. It took a while to build up the courage and make the appointment – what finally made the decision for me was the need to do something about my mental health not for me, but for the effect it is having on my partner and my friends. I can be as self-indulgent and -destructive as I please, but I have no right to take anyone else down with me. So she asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I said that I was struggling. I couldn’t think of another, less euphemistic way to describe it than that. Just that I was struggling, and I knew that the way I respond to things wasn’t normal, and I needed to do something about it.

I described being so stressed that I vacillated between insomnia and fatigue; actually, tiredness so profound it was paralysing. I described getting home from work one day and slumping to the floor in front of the sofa, unable to get up on to it to be more comfortable, unable to move at all, frozen there until Andy came home an hour later and helped me up. I described being in chronic pain quite a lot of the time for no specific reason and in no specific area, alleviated only by a good long run. I said that I suffered panic attacks. She stopped me there.

“What do you mean by panic attacks?”

As soon as I said it I realised it was a daft thing to say. I had grasped for a phrase to explain what I normally – again, euphemistically – call ‘episodes’, where terror grips my heart for no apparent reason and I burst into hysterics, hyperventilate, become numb, become paralysed, all at once. But of course it’s not panic and it isn’t an attack. I hate that phrase anyway – it infers that a panic attack is something that happens to you: a passive activity thrust upon you, an external influence. It isn’t, of course. It comes from within, it is created in my head and there is an unconscious decision to unleash it. It is, perhaps more appropriately, a stress response, and I am – to some extent – responsible for it.

If what I’ve described there is the tip of the dagger, then what comes next is the wound, which bleeds out if left unchecked. The emotional effort of an “episode” has a very physiological effect on me, quite similar to the effort of a marathon but without the endorphins. Or the sense of achievement. Or the permission to eat tons of cake. The most noticeable effect is that it wears me out, which is probably my body forcing me to rest by simply rendering me immobile for a day or two, but the flipside is that if I have to stay awake for any reason (you know, like gainful employment) I end up behaving like an overtired toddler at a New Year’s Eve party. Only now am I waking up naturally after less than ten hours of sleep; for the best part of 2017 I’ve been going to bed before half 8 (when I am able), and either being wrenched awake at half 7 the following morning feeling like the living dead, or staying awake until the small hours panicking about utter bollocks and seeing a liquid three hours of tearful, fearful sleep. I don’t think either of those make me a fun person to work with.

In fact I have a little sleep app which I set when I go to bed, which measures REM cycles and quality of sleep and on which I record notes relating to my day, such as whether I drank tea, coffee or alcohol, whether I worked out, whether it was a stressful day. Using that information it can tell me how those parameters affect my sleeping habits; it is not surprising that a stressful day generally correlates with poor quality sleep but working out and a solid 8 hours tends to give a higher score. It did, however, turn out to be a surprise one day when I noticed that for the first time since starting to use the app regularly I didn’t tick the box for “drank coffee”. I went one day without coffee. In over two years. Which makes the coffee parameter somewhat irrelevant and the whole enterprise less than scientific.

I say “less than scientific”: it’s just an iPhone app, a product designed to meet the current trend for simulated empiricism (among other things), so that people have the illusion of control over their lives because a fitness or lifestyle or health app is helping them track their every move. Scientifically speaking this kind of data analysis is at best valueless and irrelevant; or at least, it’s about as relevant as those Facebook quizzes that list your character attributes (they’re never really negative are they?) based on the third letter of your name or the date you were born. My point is that this very unscientific thing, this cynical tool of consumerist juzsh, has become a crutch in my daily life simply because I’m afraid of losing control, and this app makes me feel as though I have it. Copy and paste for MyFitnessPal.

Which brings me to what I believe is the contributing factor to these episodes: a fear of loss of control. My family, god love them, will tell you this is nothing new; I’ve been called a control freak many times before and not usually in the context of a compliment. The mistake I think they make – perhaps I should stop putting words in their mouths if I don’t want to be called a control freak – is that they think what I desire is control over everything, when in truth all I need is control over a fraction of myself. Control over everything? I’m not that ambitious. And I don’t like other people enough to care about controlling them. I just want to feel the tips of my own fingers.

Because that’s literally where every episode takes me. To the feeling that every molecule in my body becomes loose and starts to float away, that the bonds between them disintegrate and I become nothing. This is a waking nightmare I have suffered almost all my life, or at least since I was about ten years old; it’s also a recurring dream that plagues the few hours I do sleep at the height of my anxiety episodes. It can approach by degrees, perhaps at a professional or social occasion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, where I try to hold back the tide of anxiety for as long as possible and jump on a train home when I’m about to succumb; or it can hit me like a tsunami, where I’m coping one minute and the next I’m dissociating first from my surroundings, then from my peripheral senses, almost from my sense of self altogether: stranded. When I talk about losing control, I’m not talking about frustration that other people won’t bend to my will. I’m literally talking about losing the link between my physical body and my sense of self.

At one point or another this has manifested itself in the form of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia (it’s possible, look it up), as an eating disorder, as compulsions, and not at all. The common factor to all these self-prescribed treatments is the same thing: a misguided belief that activity X equals outcome Y, and I will regain control of all my molecules. But that fear of disintegration still tortures me. If I stand on a bridge I panic that my belongings will jump out of my pockets into the water, or that I’ll fall in even if I’m nowhere near the edge. If I drop something on the floor, I briefly imagine that it will fall into a black hole and be gone forever. If I stand still for long enough, I feel as though I will turn to dust.

This is what I wanted to tell the counsellor, and didn’t. I said a lot of things but I couldn’t articulate this. Six months on, and only now have I got the building blocks of the language I need to describe it to you – even then these words are to actual building blocks what Lego is to bricks and mortar.

It was far from a waste of time though – those two short sessions were enough to start the process of recovery, even if all they did was make me confront and find a way to define the immediate problem. We discussed the importance of running to my mental health, acknowledging that that one very simple treatment has never failed to alleviate my symptoms and working out how to make the most of it. I half expected her to tell me that actually there is no provable link between exercise and good mental health and that it’s all a placebo sold by Runner’s World – but then I thought, what does it matter if it is? As long as it works, and the worst side effects are boring your friends and never having clean hair, then I’ll take a placebo over losing hope that I’ll ever feel human again. It’s either that or knitting.

To anyone reading this who can relate to what I’ve written, or who recognises even a scrap of themselves in the chaotic fragments of my story, I say this: I know how lucky I am to have this resource available, and how stupid I am for not taking advantage of it sooner. Many people don’t have the luxury of a welfare counsellor at work or even know if they come on the NHS. If you have such a resource, use it. Not because a counsellor will fix you like a plaster on a papercut, but because they will start to teach you how to heal yourself. They might sow the seeds of recovery, or show you how to sow the seeds, or they might even start by explaining to you what seeds are.

If you don’t have access to a counsellor directly, be reassured that help is closer than you think. The Mind website is a great source of information on mental health, as are SANE and Rethink. And be reassured that mental ill-health is commoner than you think too, especially in this age of enlightenment. With the privilege of more and more instant access information comes the responsibility to evaluate it all, at an increasingly faster pace and with less and less tolerance for error. It’s like working on a factory assembly line, where the machine churns out parts at the same pace for years and years, and all the line workers have to do is put them together. Suddenly one day the machine doubles in speed and your boss docks your pay for every incorrect assembly. The effort of trying to keep up compounded by the fear of failure is a disaster waiting to happen, and yet we have to treat this situation as if it’s perfectly normal. Eventually, it is normal. But normal still isn’t the same as right.

If me and my molecules have been of any help to you then maybe it’s a step towards us all keeping up with the machine. And if they haven’t, then please know that you’ve been invaluable to me.