Saturday, 14 November 2015

It's not working any more

I haven't written a lot this year. I haven't felt that I had anything much to say. At my tender age of 36 I seem to feel more uncertain as time goes by. Things I was strident about and sure of seem to have slipped through my fingers of the last decade or so thanks to the realities of real life and the awareness that there is no one size fits all list of answers and advice. As well as uncertainty over the more existential issues one wrestles with, I have also had a few years of facing my limitations mentally, physically and emotionally. Depression relapses and the vulnerability of knowing my mental health is fragile means that I have learned the hard way that great ideas my not be a great idea in reality when I have to actually deal with the pressure, anxiety, work load and lack of sleep such great ideas usually involve. Great ideas don't usually involve doing less and having less responsibility. At least not for me.

I have also learned that I don't enjoy the tension between my family life and work and all the other things I could get involved in. I find the juggle and the constant feeling that I am not doing anything well, torturous. I think it is becoming the normal state for many women. After finding life at home with pre-schoolers was driving me up the wall, work has been a blessing in so many ways. It has filled my cup and made me a better wife and Mum and person all round. But the balance tipped after having a second child, and especially since my daughter started school. The commute and the anxiety over getting to work on time and then getting back to pick up kids on time is so tough. I can't put my heart into my job in the way I would like to because I have no extra time or energy to do so. And even being so physically far away from my kids each day has it's own special almost psychic tension.

This year I got more involved in our church. I love church. I know that many people have some very good reasons to avoid church and all its associations. But for me the church we attend has brought hope and challenge and healing in so many good ways. Feeling part of a community who loves and cares for me is like gold. And feeling able to contribute is such a delight and privilege. For years I have felt on the outer of the churches I have attended and struggled to build close enough relationships to feel like I belong. Having that now is just amazing. But it is also something which I have to manage.

I have always been a problem solver and community builder. I can see where things could be improved or where there is a gap that could be filled. And I often have really good ideas about how to achieve those things. I can articulate myself well and as a teacher and someone who can speak confidently, I seem more than capable of getting things done. But, don't be fooled. Sometimes the ideas people are not the right people to take the lead. Feeling like I am the person with sole responsibility for something brings me out in hives. I feel the weight of it and because I want it all to be perfect I struggle with it. I have so many ideas but my resources and energy are limited and it is hard to find a balance between my perfect vision and my imperfect self. I am getting better at that but it still triggers my anxiety.

I think if I was a details perfectionist, maybe it would be different. But I am a relational perfectionist. I want everyone to be ok, to feel great about my ideas and plans, to feel valued and happy and I also care too much about what people think of me. And since I don't have the gift of mind reading, usually I am guessing based on very flimsy evidence and my current emotional state. I have no real idea what people think and I am likely to believe the worst rather than the best.

As well as the vulnerabilities of perfectionism and depression, I am a pretty low energy person. I need my eight hours a night. I need time to do the simple things and I don't do well without visual order in my home. I need my routines and space to think. So filling my days and evenings up soon leads to illness and exhaustion. All the great ideas start to look like terrible mistakes and I find myself backing out of commitments as fast as I can. But I still want to have a project and I still yearn to be involved.

And hear I find myself. My health has packed up in a big way. I have some sort of post viral fatigue and general exhaustion, my neck and back are causing terrible headaches every day. I struggle to get out of bed in the morning and have missed a lot of days of work. My kids are spending a lot of time in front of screens while I lie in bed and we are eating meals given to us by lovely friends because by the end of the day, cooking dinner is beyond me.

I am gaining a new appreciation of the suffering and pain of those who deal with chronic illness. The stress of not being able to manage the essentials of being a Mum and looking after my kids and home is indescribable. I try to accept help as much as I can manage, But it slowly erodes my self confidence and feels awful in the deepest parts of me. In the last 6 years I have had to have help a lot. And I think I am becoming allergic to it. I appreciate it all so much, but I hate having to have it at all.

Becoming well is not a clear cut treatment plan. Rest doesn't seem to be making a difference but trying to do everything leaves me unable to get out of bed. So just waiting to get better probably won't work unless I do something more than lie in bed. And everything that will help is going to be pretty tough. No magic pills to fix this. Diet changes, exercise, changing how I move, giving up things I use to cope which undermine my well being. I often find myself feeling so angry. It seems that other people can drink red bull, work long hours, party hard and still come out full of beans. But really it is irrelevant what other people do. At the moment a cup of tea after dinner has me awake all night and sitting the wrong way brings on a migraine like headache. I can feel sorry for myself, but it won't change anything.

I keep trying to find the reason why this is happening. What am I supposed to be learning through this? When will I be able to move on from this season into one where I can be productive again and feel like I am capable and strong again? But I also am starting to wonder if the "successful and well" me I have in my head is ever going to be possible.

My physio who is treating my back and breathing issues said something interesting the other day. She said that possibly all the things I have done to cope and survive have worked up till this point. But now with children and a home and work and other responsibilities and then you add a virus, my coping techniques and behaviours suddenly become problems rather than a help. Neglecting my diet, not making time for exercise, using anxiety as motivation and care too much what others think have become the exact things which have left me like this. So I can probably never go back to how it was. Cause how I have been living and doing life won't work any more.

Becoming well is beginning to look like learning how to be me from scratch. Dropping the ways that don't work and learning to welcome the ways that do. And I don't think it is going to be easy. I don't think much of it will involve taking the easy path. But I hope it can be self loving and gentle. I hope I can learn to achieve wellness without perfectionism and because I am worth it, rather than because I feel that I am failing otherwise. I didn't get this way by using alcohol, drugs or any other stereotypically destructive habits. But what I have been doing hasn't been that great. So I have to find the self discipline to put down the junk food, turn off my phone, put on my yoga pants and pick up the kale. To breathe and be still.

I know I should feel like it will be a wonderful journey, but at this point I still feel like crawling back into bed for an indefinite period. I think getting well will be hard work and confronting. No excuses or putting it off. Why does looking after myself seem so much harder that helping other people?

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Don't be amazing

So much of the advice for living well and being successful at life uses adjectives like "amazing", "unique", "authentic" etc. And 2 minutes on pintrest is full of lists of steps, commands and changes which will give you and "amazing" life. When you add the highlight reel of facebook profiles and magazine articles about people who achieved the extraordinary, it can create an expectation that if it's not amazing then your life is a failure.

And I just want to call bulls$#/@ on that, for myself, as much as anyone else.

It is not that I think there is anything wrong with adventures and proving you life satisfaction. I think achieving wonderful things and setting goals to work towards are fantastic. My problem is with the expectations it sets up and the pressure it creates to have an amazing life.

I think the word "amazing" needs some interrogation.  Does it mean a perfect life of only mountain-top moments and pinable pics? Is it a life curated and constructed for an audience? Or is amazing all about achievement? Do you need to run a marathon, lose your own body weight, publish a novel, make a million bucks to have an amazing life? And what about those amazing experiences? Travelling to your dream destinations, riding the adrenaline rush of jumping from a plane, hosting a party people will talk about for years...

To be honest in my rather fragile state it all seems rather exhausting and completely out of my reach.

None of the above are bad and all are amazing, but maybe that's not what life needs to be about.

If amazing is the qualifying criteria for a good life then I guess most of us won't get that. And a lot of people may feel like their lives are spent as spectators of other people's "amazing". There are a lot of things which can get in the way of amazing; illness, responsibilities for others, financial realities, time and energy.

But I think everyone can have a life they love and are content with. And a life where they choose a good and whole and peaceful way to be. Where you use you talents and enthusiasm for things which matter to you and where you sleep a deep and restful sleep at the end of each day.

Where did this expectation of "amazing" come from? My parents didn't expect it. Their parents lived through two world wars and a depression. Surviving was pretty amazing. There was so much less to compare your own life with. Other people's homes, clothes, money and families were restricted to the people you knew in real life. Celebrities were far away characters on a screen you paid to see. Celebrations were simple and over the rhythms and moments that mark most people's lives. And you couldn't design your moments based on millions of people's moments. The suggestions came from the pages of a women's mag and included a recipe or two. Travel was slow and expensive. Leaving town was pretty amazing.

But now anything and everything is on offer. And the normal and everyday can seem a bland and boring life.

As I contemplate having barely enough energy to get out of bed, I can't be bothered with an amazing life. I think it is a carrot on a stick used to make people buy stuff and experiences and to drive economic growth.

Instead I want to be happy and free to do all the simple and humdrum things which life is really made up of. Meals, housework, playing at the park, a hot cup of tea and a nap. Loving my little family well. I want to do all of this and be satisfied and content. I don't want to dismiss this life as not enough cause it doesn't look "amazing".

And for two thirds of the world my life looks pretty, darn amazing. Yes, go after your dreams, have adventures, go for impossible goals. But don't do it so you have an amazing life.  Don't do it to prove anything or for some audience judging the worth if your existence.  Do it cause you want to and it is part of who you are. And at the end of each day you can be at peace with yourself.

I hope you can take the pressure off and just be you doing your life. And im pretty sure that's what us truly amazing in this crazy time we are living in.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Let it go

Oh the joys of Disney and the power of animated princesses. That little phrase will never be the same again. It was a hit at our house too. Ella loved the princesses and the music. George loved the snow but wasn't  too keen on the snow monster. I liked Olaf and his dreams of summer. His blissful ignorance that the season he wished for would lead to his demise had something tragically poetic about it.

But that song. Despite how annoying it became (Ella actually screams with pain if I sing it near her. Five year old girls love to be dramatic), there are sentiments I like.

Spoiler alert - if you have not seen Frozen then maybe save this post for another day...

Anyway, I like the words of the song as princess Elsa sings about the struggle to be good and acceptable and keep her ability to freeze things around her, under control. When she runs away she sings about being able to finally be free and let go. To be who she is and no longer locked away and afraid. Of course it is not that simple. But the freedom of being herself and expressing herself is clear. As I pondered why I found it so profound, I was struck by how easy it is to suppress my passion, enthusiasm, gifts or interests due to the fear that somehow that might not be acceptable to other people. Or that if I truly revealed who I am, and stopped trying to be what I think other people want, that I would be rejected and abandoned.

And that fear is not without reason. I imagine many of us have experienced times when others have rejected us because we have turned out to not fulfil their expectations of who we should be. Or someone has discovered that we are not the person they thought we were and they find it difficult to accept this new facet of our identity. It doesn't have to be something major. Maybe you became friends with someone through a mutual interest and all was great until you broadened the friendship. And suddenly it wasn't so easy. Maybe you have divergent views or ideas. Maybe you just don't understand each other. Or perhaps in a work situation you took a different view than a colleague you usually see eye to eye with. It can be so hard to let each other go. To let each other be who we are and not hurt each other in the process. Because none of us fit together comfortably all the time. There is always friction and discomfort because we are separate people, each working out our lives in different ways.

I am often hyper aware of the underlying expectations others may have of me and the narrow view they may have of my identity. Sometimes I cultivate that. I don't think it is deliberately deceptive. I think most of the time we want to find common ground with others and we emphasise what we have in common. And after a while it can be hard to bring attention to the parts of ourselves that don't fit the relationship so neatly. It is like when someone calls you by the wrong name and you don't correct them and after a while it is just too awkward to say anything. The same can be true when I realise that the box I have thrown myself into for the benefit of connection with someone, has become a bit of a cage.

And then I have a choice. Do I keep sitting in the box or do I risk stepping out and possibly breaking the relationship. You might think this is a bit dramatic. But have you got friends who you always expect to respond in a certain way to you? Do you have people who you expect to always understand why you are late cause they struggle with lateness too? What if they suddenly said when you turned up late to meet them for coffee "Hey, I am getting really frustrated that you are always late. I know I said I was also someone who struggled to be on time, but 45 minutes waiting for you is just too much". It is highly likely that you would feel hurt but also betrayed. You were buddies who were late together and she was supposed to get it. And she doesn't any more. Another example might be someone you met through a baby group but as your children get older you realise your parenting approaches are getting further and further apart and it is getting harder to spend time together cause at some point the differences will become so awkward that hanging out is not fun at all.

These boxes we find ourselves in are no-one's fault and often if you take the risk of stepping out of the box, your friendships and relationships will actually deepen as you get to know each other better. Suddenly the 2D cut out becomes 3D and that growing knowledge of each other can fill in so many of the gaps and make it so much more joyful to share life together.

But if you are people pleaser or someone who fears abandonment (both my hands are raised) it can be very hard to let go of the impression I have created and projected and allow myself to be seen as I really am.

At the same time it can be very painful when someone I know steps out of the box in front of me. Suddenly they aren't playing the game by the rules I expected. Suddenly I am not sure who they are anymore. My expectations are not being met and I .might be disappointed, or outright angry.

However, the only choice which will allow the relationship to remain intact, is to let it go. (Thanks Elsa). I need to let go of the need to control the opinions of other people about me. If I step out of the box and get rejected well it is probably for the best. I only want to be close to people who love me and accept me in all my mess and complexities. And others have the same rights too.

And who am I to know what anyone else thinks of me anyway? What a lot of wasted energy trying to manage other people's opinions. Instead I could be just getting on with living.

I remember a colleague talking to me about being in her 30s. I was bright eyed and angsting through my 20s. She said that the best thing about being almost 40 was that she just didn't care what anyone thought about her anymore. She was too busy getting on with living. I hope I can get busier living and let the opinions of other people go. They are just people anyway, and with just as many flaws and weaknesses as me. Well maybe not that many ...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


The summer holidays are always a surprise to me. With working part time as a secondary teacher and the pressure to complete all assessments, reports and end of year prize givings, plus now all the end of year events for my school age daughter, it seems I just stagger over the finish line as school ends. As I lie their gasping for breath, Christmas looms. I deliberately do no preparations for Christmas before about the 12th of December. Some may think I am unwise, but actually I think I am a genius. Having so little time to do anything before the big day means there can be no overly ambitious handmade, pintrist inspired, creativity. There are definitely no Christmas cards or family letters to post and even if I had the cash for lavish presents, I certainly don't have the time to buy them. This year I had a total of 3 hours to do all my Christmas shopping. George was at daycare and Ella was still at school. That meant I visited two shops and was done.

Now from that extremely utilitarian description of my lead up to one of the most significant days in the year, it would be understandable to conclude that I am not a person who enjoys the season and that gift giving and the traditions of advent don't really interest me. But that assumption could not be further from the truth. I love traditions and building them into our life as a family. I love buying presents for people and try to think about who they are as a person as I pick them. I also really enjoy baking and putting together food as a gift. I especially enjoy trying to make it a special day for my children. But over the last few years I have learned to set my expectations at the same level as my energy, and our finances. The result is that I have learned to accept what I am able to do, and though I look forward to a time when I can do more of what I love, I can let that go for now. I had moments this year of wishing we had all decorated the Christmas tree together (hubby took the kids and did it with them), or that I had made more handmade gifts, or that I made sure I had the Kings College Choir Christmas album to listen to as I wrapped presents (a tradition from my own childhood) or that I could buy more presents for more people and not worry so much about how to afford it. But it was still good. Perfect is not possible and isn't worth trying to achieve because it doesn't actually exist. The meaning of Christmas remains a constant no matter how much or little I do in preparation. An authentic Christmas means coming to that special day as I am.

And this year I was in bed with vertigo. Horrible spinning every time I moved my head. In days before Christmas I was so exhausted that getting up to prepare breakfast for the kids took superhuman effort. Every cell in my body yearned to sleep. I would have volunteered for a human version of hibernation if it had been offered to me. On Christmas morning I had hoped that rest and doing basically nothing for a week would mean I was fighting fit. But I wasn't. I managed that excitement of stocking opening and pancakes for breakfast but then had to crawl back to bed while hubby took the kids to church by himself. Then afternoon was thankfully spent with family and not at our house and I was so grateful that I didn't have to contribute much and could just sit still. It was a good reminder that there is no controlling this thing called life. Poor health and a mystery virus can strike at any time and is no respecter of circled days on the calendar.

The summer holidays have felt like extended convalescence and recuperation. Every day I napped and when I could I lay down. Hubby did most of the housework and keeping the kids entertained. I was really only useful to change the odd nappy and have cuddles on the couch. I have read about 5 novels. Probably 4 more books than I read all of last year. The heat has meant that lethargy is an acceptable way to be. And I have embraced it. Only two weeks ago did feel close to normal and back to myself. And finally this week I can imagine returning to work and not keeling over on the first day in exhaustion and shock. I am grateful beyond measure for my job which blesses me each year with so many holidays. This extended break over summer is a life saver.

I have also used the time to really focus on changing my diet. (I will write more about this later) I have also stopped having coffee, milk and gluten. This was all on the advice of a dr. I have been teetering all year on the brink of deep depression and increasing my medication regularly in the hope that finally I will reach that magic dose where the clouds lift but the side effects don't disrupt my life to much. So far no magic and so I am also beginning the process of weaning down. Too many side effects including this chronic fatigue that plagues me. And who knows what has made the difference and has me feeling well enough to actually write tonight. Maybe it is just having some Vitamin D, maybe it is getting more rest and not having stress or pressure. It could be the many supplements I am now taking or that somehow my diet is helping my body to function properly again. Who knows? All I know is that in December I was asking myself how I could actually do my life with so little energy and wondering whether other people had some sort of super power secret I wasn't privy to. Now I think I am accepting that I was physically burned out and that my stamina for busyness and stress is low. That's just how I am.

So 2014 was my year of No. I said "No" to a lot of ideas and opportunities. I said yes to one thing - planning and organising our church preschool programme. It has stretched me in some ways but in many ways it has refreshed me by reminding me of the core beliefs I have despite my times of struggle and questioning. And in the end any positive growth in me this year stems from the renewal of that foundation which I base my life upon.

2015 seems to be rolling along at a frightening pace already but I have been so grateful for the easing into it which I have been able to do. I have been considering what the focus for this year might be. I am thinking about choosing my attitude and actions rather than letting thoughts and emotions drive me and feeling powerless to their influence. I don't believe in denying how I feel but I do believe that once acknowledged, I can then choose my response in the light of wisdom and in the knowledge that my perception is often clouded. A blog I read a lot uses the phrase "we can do hard things". This is my hard thing. To establish some self control over my mind and heart and choose the right thing, even when it will challenge me. I am not thinking of any massive situations. I am thinking of those days when I wish I didn't have to go to work. Instead of frantically searching for a way to quit, I want to remind myself that my job is a blessing and that today is just a hard day. This will save me the exhausting tension of rethinking everything all the time just cause it feels hard. So I am welcoming 2015 knowing that I am going to need to build some muscles and do some practice but I "can do hard things".