One of my best friends is a Skydiver. She has been this way since university, and I very purposely say ‘this way’ as I think it communicates that something is ultimately wrong with her that she should get enjoyment out of risking life and limb jumping out of planes. All very strange, but I love her anyway.
Sometimes in life we get a thrill, an adrenaline rush, from doing things that we know contain some element of danger. Some people like to bungee jump, others swim with sharks, I’m also responsibly informed that others like to walk around the edges of very tall buildings. As I’m sure you can tell by now, none of these are quite my cup of tea.
Anyway, I got to thinking about this the other day and what could possibly make someone want to put their entire existence, their very being, at risk. It was dark at the time and I was walking home on my own. It took me a couple of moments to realise that I was also taking my life into my own hands.
But it wasn’t thrilling, it was terrifying.
And it shouldn’t be this way.
The Thing (or How I Learned to Live with My Anxiety)
Note – I’m writing this as a (I hope) humorous and honest depiction of how I learned to live with the anxiety (and OCD) that has been with me since very early childhood. I really hope that some of my strategies work for others in dealing with their own individual Things, whatever they may look and feel like, or that you at least enjoy hearing more from my uniquely disorganised (but always well meaning) mind.
I got my first visit from The Thing when I was very young. I don’t remember exactly how young, but I do remember exactly what The Thing looked and felt like. Funny how some Things stick in your head.
It was a confused, squishy, shaking mass (not unlike a jelly, actually) that had somehow got hold of my arm and was tugging on it, gently but insistently. The Thing wasn’t frightening and it wasn’t particularly big, but I did get the definite impression it needed to talk to me with some urgency. So I listened. This turned out to be a total waste of time because The Thing talked gibberish.
Now, I don’t know if anyone else has had this experience (I imagine so as we are all basically wired in very similar ways when it comes to most of the fundamentals, I am no brain snowflake) but after dismissing The Thing as a rather strange, rambling jelly phenomenon and carrying on with my day, something remarkable happened. Every time my mind drifted it made its way back to the little jelly being. Even more confoundingly, and much like my stunned mother on her first watching of the Teletubbies, I found myself trying to bring meaning to its weird noises. As I had nothing else to think about (those were the days) while I made my inedible fry up in my tiny plastic kitchen, I thought ‘what’s the harm?’
The harm, it turns out, is the mind’s amazing ability to attribute meaning to that which is completely devoid of it, and before long I was starting to wonder if my needy, gelatinous pal might have a point. The irony here was that it did not, in fact, have a point. It didn’t even have proper words or full sentences. What it did have was an amazing ability to leave me feeling uneasy and wondering what it’s visit meant. Was it trying to warn me about something? Was it’s desperate rambling and shaking a portent for terrible things ahead? If so, what did I need to do to avoid them? Was it trying to tell me? All of a sudden my harmless little Haribo visitor had become the raven to my Poe, not just planting seeds of doubt in my mind but also tending and watering them, nurturing them to bloom.
After that my jelly pal became a constant companion, warning me of my inevitable doom and giving ever more complicated instructions about how to avoid it. Instructions that only I could interpret and that increased in volume with every visit until it’s voice rose above all others. That’s when I began to think of it as ‘The Thing’. I still didn’t know what it was but it felt significant and nameless. Something I knew I couldn’t explain to others while simultaneously imagining that everyone else had their own Things (if you want to hear more about the strange logic of my childhood brain there’s plenty more in my other blog posts).
The other really annoying thing about The Thing was that it would not be appeased. It was very good at pretending it would be, that if I just did the thing that The Thing wanted me to do we would both be safe and The Thing would be quiet again and we could both resume our lives – me doing me things and The Thing doing Thing things (whatever they were). The Thing was so good at pretending, in fact, that I usually did do what it wanted and was (amazingly, as this happened on a far more regular than daily basis) flummoxed and disappointed to find The Thing still sitting there, looking up at me, wailing as noisily as ever for me to do something else.
Initial Strategies for Dealing with The Thing (these didn’t work)
Because living with The Thing in this way was annoying and draining, it didn’t take me long to develop some strategies that I used to try to manage The Thing. These included:
- Sleep The Thing away. Logic – if your eyes are closed then you cannot see The Thing. Pros – works quite well, apart from when The Thing starts appearing in your dreams and you wake up with palpitations. Cons – you lose a lot of time to sleep. Also, not all situations and settings are conducive to napping.
- Think violently about other things. Logic – if your mind is occupied then there will be no room for The Thing. Pros – sometimes works for a bit if you think really hard about something else. Cons – quite tiring. The moment you stop thinking of other things The Thing comes back with a vengeance, trying to make up for lost time.
- Pretend The Thing is not there. Logic – The Thing might get hurt feelings and go away if it feels like it is being ignored. Pros – it’s fun to pretend the thing isn’t there. Cons– The Thing handles this strategy in a similar way to a toddler and any hurt feelings manifest themselves in louder, more obnoxious screams.
- Deny The Thing’s existence completely. Logic – The Thing might have a very weak sense of self and by just refusing to acknowledge its existence you might undercut its very being? Pros – there’s always hope. Cons – The Thing eats hope.
So I hobbled on, more often than not dragging The Thing around behind me, trying desperately to pretend to everyone else that there wasn’t a Thing, and it wasn’t bothering me, and that it was normal to look and act exhausted all the time – that was just my vibe.
Then one morning, I woke up and The Thing was sitting on my head. Not only did I think that was incredibly rude, but it also made it difficult to move or function like a normal human being (not that I was doing an incredible job of that before – see previous paragraphs). There was no more appeasing The Thing either, it was there, it was loud, it made a really shit hat, and, as I finally accepted, it was ruining my life.
New Strategies for Dealing with The Thing (these do work)
I’m writing this today with The Thing sitting next to me. I think it’s colouring quietly. After The Thing had sat on my head for a bit, and I had cried and got angry and then numb, and then given up for a bit, and then decided I didn’t want to give up anymore, I finally realised two things:
- My Thing management strategies were not working.
- The Thing was not going to go away.
These realisations (and the fact that it was incredibly impractical to have a Thing living on my head) made me finally seek some proper help, and with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and jelly expulsions, The Thing and I finally found a way to co-exist. These Thing management strategies helped:
- Laugh at The Thing – The Thing is quite funny when you think about it. It doesn’t quite know what it’s worried about but it is extremely worried. See if you can cheer The Thing up by involving it in the joke. A great way to do this is to describe the ridiculousness of The Thing to it or to someone else that you trust, and have a laugh together.
- Question The Thing – If anyone else walked up to you, tugged on your sleeve and talked gibberish at you, you might have a few questions. While The Thing likes nothing more than getting you lost in a maze of your own thoughts and concerns, it doesn’t stand up well to direct questioning. So give it a try. ‘Why, Thing, are we worried again?’ ‘Could you just explain one more time why taking what appears to be a completely arbitrary action will somehow avert the certain doom of myself and my loved ones.’
- Embrace The Thing – When The Thing wibbles and wobbles and looks up at you with trembling eyes, desperately trying to communicate some unspoken nonsense fear, pick it up, hold it tight, and say, ‘Shush Thing. I know life can be scary, I also get scared sometimes, but we’re going to be alright.’ After all, the thing may be squishy, lumpy and confusing, with weird sticky out bits, but sometimes it just needs a cuddle too.
The Incident (or the Moment I Learned the Perils of Taking Myself Seriously)
I’m not saying that it does, but when I was seven I sincerely believed that it didn’t get any more refined than the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. Or maybe it did, but that was only when you went there with your extended family as a special treat.
I’m also not saying that I was wrong in thinking that I had reached the pinnacle of my intellectual maturity at seven, anyone who has met over the last twenty years will attest that the recent trajectory certainly hasn’t been upwards.
But, on reflection, and there has been much (too much over the years) I guess it was the confluence of those two parts of my seven year old belief system that caused the incident.
Maybe, just maybe, it was a bit my parents’ fault too. Both of them having come from working class backgrounds that would have sneered at my working class background for even claiming to be working class, they did have a tendency to get rather excited about visits to restaurants. I’m not knocking this, it left me with a healthy appreciation for eating out which still hasn’t left me to this day. All I’m saying is that it might have contributed to what happened. Just a bit.
Anyway, blame and causation to one side, it did happen, and I can honestly say it was the most mortifying incident of my childhood life. Now, before anyone gets preachy or initiates a game of ‘mine was worse’, I know that this incident was not, in the big (medium, or even small) scheme of things, a big deal. What you have to remember is that I was a painfully shy child who, for some reason that is beyond fathom, earnestly believed that she needed to be taken seriously at all times. This was especially unfortunately undercut by the buck teeth and lisp, but this isn’t a story about those things, this is a story about the incident.
So, on this ill-fated evening I was sitting at a table in the middle of a Pizza Hut in Perth, in Western Australia, making polite conversation with my extended family while scoffing down what was (knowing me) more than a healthy share of pizza, when I realised that I needed a napkin. Napkins were on the other side of the table. No big deal – ask for a napkin. Unfortunately, it was at this exact moment when delusions of grandeur and maturity coalesced and I decided, in an act of what I can only imagine was misdirected intellectual snobbery, to ask for a napkin in the most refined, intelligent way I knew,
“Auntie Charmaine, please would you pass me a tampon?’
Silence. For a blissful moment I thought that everyone was struck with awe. Appreciating how advanced the seven year old was for her years, how extensive her vocabulary. So when my Auntie said, ‘Pardon?’ I gladly obliged,
‘Please may I have a tampon?’
That was when the laughing started and my world collapsed (again, please remember that this is the roughly constructed, at best, world of a seven year old that has mainly been built around an understanding of life that would later prove to be completely wrong and more than a little ridiculous). I went a lovely shade of puce and retreated to the safety of under the table, in a way that even my seven year old brain knew was not the standard response of intellectual prodigies (which I was quickly deciding I was actually not), and remained there for the rest of the meal.
I would like to say, as per literary trope, that I grew from that humiliating (hyperbole of a child’s perspective, remember) moment and never again did I take myself too seriously. Unfortunately, that is not the truth. And I like to tell the truth, it’s usually funnier and always more interesting. In reality, although that moment had very much been the beginning of my education about the dangers of believing oneself to be anything but a confused child (no matter their actual age) in a world of shifting sands, it was not the last time my ability to believe myself a serious person (even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary) left me red faced and under the table, figuratively or otherwise…
So that’s it, really. Today’s lesson, folks, is ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’, at best you end up under a table, and at worst you spend your life trying so hard to live up to your own skewed expectations of yourself, failing miserably, and then beating yourself up.
Of course, maybe that’s just me. Maybe you, dear reader, are a paragon of erudition, knowledge and wisdom and would never mistakenly call a napkin a tampon or do anything silly like that. If so, please continue to take yourself very seriously and enjoy laughing at me, your ridiculous but now, unsurprisingly, thick skinned comparator.
‘Have Some Cups’
My other half and I bought some new coffee cups a couple of weeks ago. This was good as the other ones we had kept the coffee warm for all of 10 seconds and the new ones manage at least 5 minutes. It was bad because we then had two sets of coffee cups. As a hoarder in remission I knew it was only a matter of time before I found a completely ‘sane’ reason for having 12 coffee cups in the house, so getting them out the house before this could happen seemed key.
In a pre COVID world (for those who can remember it), when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we could all go out and hug each other with reckless abandon, I would have used those cups as an excuse to pop down the local charity shop and browse the latest wares. Unfortunately (and somewhat disappointingly if you ask me) charity shops don’t count as ‘essential’ so I had to come up with another plan.
Since moving to London I have been pleasantly surprised by the practice of people leaving some of their unwanted, but still perfectly serviceable, items outside their houses for others to take. In my time I have benefitted from this in the form of:
- countless framed pictures;
- a shelving unit for my kitchen;
- at least half a dozen books;
- a suitcase; and even
- a working PlayStation 2 with games
Therefore, it seemed the most logical option to leave my surplus cups outside, along with a little sign reading:
‘Have some cups’
Now, this is where things get interesting, namely because I am going to give you some insight into my mixed up psyche (and while reading this do please remember that this is the sort of scrambled logic that I have to contend with constantly).
For some reason I had visions in my head of some family who had always longed for a set of glass coffee cups, but for some unspecified reason that meant they were wealthy enough to be worrying about glass coffee cups but simultaneously not wealthy enough to have been able to buy some (and these were your run of the mill glass cups, mind, nothing fancy) walking past, seeing the cups, and all their problems being solved, their dreams coming true, and potentially the youngest child looking up at its mother, tears in its eyes and saying something like,
‘Mama!’ (yes, for some reason we are now also back in olden times) ‘Now we can finally have our Irish coffees and they will look marginally prettier than in our normal, perfectly serviceable, porcelain mugs!’
And then the family would take the cups home and forever praise the kindly stranger who left them the gift that they (inexplicably) most desired. I think at this stage it’s gone beyond a saviour complex, don’t you?
So I put the cups outside and waited. This is how things progressed.
Day 1. 6 cups are still outside. Perhaps no one has seen them yet. Perhaps they have been seen but are regarded as such a great gift (on the same street that offered up a PS2) that everyone is leaving them for their needier neighbours.
Day 2. 6 cups still outside. Earlier, when I went out to take the rubbish (not as an excuse to check on the cups) I saw a couple looking at the cups. Maybe they’re coming back for them after their walk.
Day 3. 4 cups outside. Some happiness but some confusion. Who takes 2 cups? Okay, I know couples exist without kids (I’m in one) but what about when you have guests over (not at the moment, but some time in 2050)? What cups will they use? Porcelain? While you lord it over them with your glass cups? Short sighted.
Day 4. 3 cups outside. It rained so the cups are now wet. Will this make them less desirable? Should I dry the cups? Also, who takes 1 cup? Horrible thought that someone might be taking the cups to smash. What about the needy glass cup-less family?! Have you no heart?
Day 5. 1 cup left. It looks lonely and peerless sitting there. The metal handle has also started to go a bit rusty (knew I should have dried them) so I think I’ll have to put it in the bin. Shame. I thought it was a nice cup.
So, that was the journey. And before you give me grief for obsessing over glass cups please remember that with the current ‘locked-down’ state of things cup watching made for quite an eventful week.
But, as you may have guessed, I have since reflected on my glass cup experience and how similar my hopes and expectations were when putting that box of cups outside as when I post a new piece of writing online. The feeling that someone might look at my work and think, ‘That’s it! That’s the thing I’ve been looking for! All my life I have waited for a poem about someone finding their roommate’s grandad in the fridge!’ And then what? Fame? Fortune? Fulfilment?
The truth is that’s just not going to happen. But that’s not actually where the real value lies in writing or in leaving things outside your house on the pavement. The real value is in the good feeling you get in offering something, even something small and inconsequential, out to the world. Sharing something of yourself that you have loved and now want other people to enjoy. The real value is in the person that comes by and picks up 1 or 2 cups, or 1 or 2 pieces of writing, takes them home and enjoys them in their own way, even if that’s a way you never would have thought of (I wonder if any of the cups became plant pots. Good job hoarder me didn’t think of that before I put them outside!), or a way that doesn’t make sense to you.
And, ultimately, like the final, ill fated cup, sometimes other people won’t pick up or enjoy what you’re offering, and that’s okay too. It doesn’t take away the enjoyment you experienced from putting it out there and it won’t stop you trying again when the opportunity arises.
Long blog today, but thanks for sticking with me and reading it!
Seriously though, what would someone want with 1 glass coffee cup? Answers on the back of a postcard…
I have always been a very impressionable human being.
When I was two I decided that I wanted to try soft boiled eggs with toasty soldiers because I had seen someone on TV eating them. My mother, as ever, obliged, but when the eggs and toast were ready and set out on the little plate and I was sat expectantly in my high chair, plastic bib secured around my neck, my little brother started screaming (a fairly regular occurrence). A little hesitant, but knowing that I was so well behaved it was almost boring, even at that age, my mother decided that she could leave me with my breakfast, and as she dashed into the other room she shouted back to me, ‘Make sure you eat it all up.’
Five minutes later my mother returned and I was finished (I have always enjoyed my food and have never been one to hesitate over a meal). Looking at the empty plate then quickly back up at me she asked,
‘Where’s the shell?’
I answered, my voice uncertain, suddenly fearing I had inadvertently done something wrong, ‘I ate it all up.’
Still confused and after a quick scan of the area for any debris of shell she looked me straight in the eye and asked,
‘How did it taste?’
‘It was nice,’ I said, ‘a little bit crunchy, but I got used to it.’
You might be wondering why I mention this story, apart from the fact that it is quite funny to imagine me (painfully obedient and diligent from an early age) chowing down on egg shells and thinking that that was what everyone did. I was reflecting on this story this morning and thinking how often in life I still eat eggshells without so much as a question as to why I’m doing it.
In the corporate world where the next promotion is always only a few successful projects away it is so easy to get caught up in working longer hours and sacrificing work-life balance to climb the next rung of the ladder. After a while what first felt more than a little crunchy – 12 hour days, having no time to chat to friends and family, not going on that run because you have to work mornings and evenings – is something you ultimately get used to, and, in doing what you feel is the right thing, the diligent and obedient thing, you forget that you even have a choice as to whether to eat the eggshells or not.
This blog is the start of my attempt to eat less eggshells, and to at least question those that I choose to eat. I have always wanted to write regularly. I used to do it a lot, it brought me a lot of joy and people seemed to like what I wrote. It is hard to balance doing the things that really bring us happiness with crunching eggshells but I’m determined to give it a go. I’d love for you to join me and we can see how it goes…