Things to do when you’re Anxious, if you’re me.

Life moves Pretty FastAnxiety is a tricksy bugger. At times it seems so normal that it sneaks in beside stress and picks away at you until you’re an empty shell of anxious and hadn’t noticed until it’s too late and you’re crying that your pen just ran out.

When I am busy, or tired or worried or stressed, anxiety likes to walk with me and be helpful. I makes me jittery and wired, which, at first, is great for banging out tasks and staying up late to be productive. But eventually it leads to indecision and doubt and distraction and a constantly vibrating thrumming feeling in my chest even when I’m trying to relax. It’s thinking about things to do next month when I’ve particularly set aside twenty minutes to read or watch tv so as to NOT think about my current to do list.

I know how to recognise my anxiety a little faster now. Not all the time, but often. I know that I can’t make it go away. I’m an anxious person who suffers from anxiety and pretending I am not is helping no one. What I can do is try to manage it. When I can see that anxiety has a grip on me like a too tight sweaty itchy jumper, I try one of these:

– lying down on the floor for ten minutes and just not moving. It feels like torture to be thinking and not doing, but it gives my body an actual rest in an usual place which is mildly distracting. Even if it does make me need to hoover the moment I stand up.

– putting on a stand-up show while I buzz about and do things on my To Do list. Hearing someone else’s voice and humour distracts me from having second or third thoughts about my decisions. It also makes me laugh, which is more important than I would have expected. I like to listen to the same shows again and again. The wordy clever ones with minimal visuals. I like to hear one person talk for a solid hour. I also like to listen to the Six Music podcasts of Jon Richardson & Russell Howard because they are so wonderfully balanced. Jon is grumpy and curmudgeonly while Russell is enthusiastic and ridiculous. Russell Howard once described his mum as “not the full tambourine” and l just love that.

– walking quickly along the river while listening to loud music. The light on the river soothes my eyes and rests my head while my body is physical and productive. The music distracts me from the endless repetitive thoughts and takes me out of my brain.

– sitting on my bed in the dark watching a fun story dvd. The bed supports my whole weight, so my body rests. The dark prevents me from doing anything else. The story dvd is usually a comedy or a crime drama and it commands my whole attention. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort and heart into making this story. It would be rude of me to only pay half of my attention. I light candles for the scent and the atmosphere and immerse myself.

– eating a lot of carbs. When I’m anxious it is really hard to make and stick to a decision – even about what to eat of an evening. That’s when I have to take away the decisions and focus on one thing at a time. To watch potatoes boil and mash them, to chop a stack of vegetables and make lasagne with its many layers, to bake a cake and not do the dishes, some laundry and download four podcasts at the same time. To eat something warm and filling and just for me.

– saying a mantra reminding myself I am safe and that the to do list has no impact on who loves me or how they love me. Anxiety can feel like panic. And panic lies. Panic tells you that everything is life or death and that the wrong decision or action is fatal. I try to play Worst Case Scenario and see how bad it could possibly be. Logically, I know it won’t be terrible, but emotionally it does not feel like that. I try to connect my logic and my emotions by saying the words out loud.

– having a gimlet and singing along to some Beyonce. She’s powerful and takes no prisoners while being fun and vulnerable. The gimlet knocks me on the head and lets me try and be silly for a half hour.

– painting my nails. It takes a lot of concentration because I am clumsy. I choose a red and I watch it deepen with coats. I glide a top coat on over that and wonder how to get the colour out of the brush. And then I have to either sit still or only type for an hour or else I will smudge my work. Throughout the day, I notice the coloured fingertips and remind me that I am worth a little bit of colour and attention.

– finding a cat and stroking it utnil it becomes bored or threatens to follow me home. Fur therapy is excellent. I miss having a cat so much that I am quite the crazy cat lady out and about. Luckily, the universe sometimes sends me a cat on my way to Sainsbury’s and I thank the universe.

– rereading an old novel. Security comes from the known. Give me a tale I already love and let me enjoy it again and again.

– communicating with friends. I am unlucky to have so many wonderful people scattered across the globe and not within reaching distance. I am lucky that these people have whatsapp and email and facebook and I can text them or call them or leave them a voice note and some photos to stay in touch no matter how far away they are. I’ve recently gone on a massive voicenote kick and I’m loving it. To hear their accents and expressions and backgrounds is everything. They remind me I’m not alone and that there’s always something going on, but friends are a constant.

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Good Grief!

Let me tell you a little bit about handling someone’s grief: IT CAN’T BE DONE. They handle it, you carry on and try not to make it worse.

As a British-Irish person, I come from a very reserved background. As a person under 40, I don’t know a lot of people who have experienced grief. As a person under 40 who has experienced grief, I can tell you that our age-group are BAD at dealing with it. Grandparents and pets are about as much as we’ve experienced. We do not know what to say. We do not know how to be quiet either. Older people don’t know how to say the right things either though, so it all works out.

My uncle died unexpectedly. He was on his way home from an engagement party, some young men attacked him for no reason and he died. There was a funeral. There was a court case. He was a big man with a big heart and a big spirit and he left a big hole.

I did not have the language to explain this to people. My dad broke the news to me over the phone on my birthday. He didn’t have the words either and made a hash of it. It was all awful. My dad was a medic. He was not unfamiliar with trauma and loss and tragedy. It was all just dreadful.

Being Catholic, even culturally Catholic, was a relief for the weeks around this incident. There was a procedure. There were Things To Be Done. There were reassuring motions to go through to give your body something to do and your mind something on which to focus.  The Church has it worked out. Grieving people aren’t good with decisions or thinking, but muscle memory is forever.

There was a church ceremony (“reception of the body to the Church” which sounds ghoulish to my mind, but is exactly that) the evening before the funeral. The coffin is brought to the church to remain overnight. There is a service with prayers and movements and everyone knows what to do. There is an activity. You have a leaflet to hold, you have a hymn to sing, you have reassurance for the next hour as to what you will be doing and what is required of you. The family (“chief mourners”) stand in the front pew of the church and the people attending the service queue up to give condolences and shake their hands.

We did that for my uncle. It went on for hours.

Irish people, myself very much included, love a chat. We’re not great at Twitter, we need more characters. These people I did not know shook my hand and shared a story about my uncle, how they knew him and what he had meant to them. This included an elderly couple he met in a supermarket and explained to them about reduced stickers and how to bag a bargain when the chap goes round with the sticker gun. He was a journalist, he had a lot of friends, he knew a lot of people. A lot of people knew him or of him.

That day I learnt a stunningly useful expression that the Irish have for funerals and wakes.

“I’m sorry for your trouble.”

It’s good isn’t it? Encompasses a lot. Doesn’t require a response.

When my dad died of brain cancer (there’s a  sentence that never gets easier), I had to learn a script to give to people I met. It wasn’t for me. It was for them. People didn’t know what to say, so they said stupid things. How old was he? What did he die of? What kind of cancer? How long did he have? When did he lose the battle? I would be furious and there was nowhere for that to go.

Are you keeping a database on mortality? Why do you need those details? Why are you making me say these things? What on earth are you doing asking me this?

I developed a script so that I could say I was sad, but I was fine and then we could move the conversation onwards to less rocky waters. If I didn’t, there would be a hugely awkward pause where someone tried to apologise that he was dead (it’s not your fault, let me make you feel better about this), where they would share a story of cancer (it’s not a competition!), where they would suggest God had a plan (I doubt that very much, but let’s not begin a theological debate), where they would say “at least” we had some time (true! But not enough!), where they would say that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” (oh, HELL no) or say things involving the words “better place” (to be frank, the only better place for my Dad would have been St Andrew’s Golf Club, so you are entirely incorrect there, stop talking immediately).

I’ve been that person. Awkwardly trying to let you know I understand you feel sad and I want to make that better. People feel pressure to fix things. They want to comfort. They want to make it better. That’s not for people to do. Grief comes and sits with you and it hangs around whether someone say something trite or not. Young (or younger!) people don’t like to wait. We want things quickly. We have iPhones and streaming and netflix and Amazon Prime. We are not excellent at waiting things out.

Worse than the people saying stupid things, were the people who didn’t say anything. Where I would tiptoe through conversations thinking, “Does this person KNOW he died? Do I have to break that news? Or are they just awkward?” and would try to drop it in “casually” (HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING) to see how they responded, so I knew what I was working with, so they wouldn’t feel bad. That says a lot about me as a person, I know, but it’s something a lot of Young Grievers (that’s not a real term, I just made that up) have to deal with.

When someone dies, you feel incredibly sad. For most of the time. But there are still laughs and smiles and anger and fury that there are never any clean tea towels in this bloody house. Grief binds people together. Outside people don’t necessarily understand that. They hide the fun away for fear of seeming disrespectful. Luckily, my family is quite crazy. We would take it in turns to be cracking bon mots about how my dad would be horrified at all the visitors or how my uncle’s funeral would predominantly be populated by ex-girlfriends. We had a proper Irish wake for my uncle with guitars and whiskey and Irish singing and spontaneous poetry (I kid you not, it was like something out of a Beckett play) and it was hysterical and tragic and helpful and made me wish I could play an instrument. The English don’t really go in for that. Too many emotions, perhaps. It’s a shame, because it helps. The emotions are channelled. Aired out.

The funeral is a ceremony. In the Catholic Church it’s irritatingly not about the person who died. It’s about GOD and the Church and the coffin is not the focus of the room and there is no Eulogy like you see in films. That’s what the church-less wake is for the night before. Where you don’t have to behave because the priest is there (or, in my uncle’s case, he WAS there and I got into a heated argument with him because “I’ve been writing prayers of the faithful since I was a child, I think I can write them now, thank you very much, Father!” and my nother kicked me under the table and I had to go drink outside with the Bad Cousins who smoke) and can say what you think and feel about the person who should be in the middle of that room, but is not.

I sent an email to my friends about my dad. It basically said “This happened. I’m going to be away for a while. Let people know.” Very modern. Very weird. How do you even find a subject line for that? Most people responded with something comforting and/or blissfully minimal. My friend Dan wrote a massive email about how he knew my dad loved me and it was perfect. He’s a dad to two little girls now and I hope no one ever has to write an email like that to one of them, but I see it now.

A lot of people did not know what to say.

This is what you say: “I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be terrible. I’m here.

You have to acknowledge it. Don’t try to fix it. It is remembered when you don’t say something. It does not go unnoticed that you put your comfort above the social awkwardness you think you’ll feel. Be around for them. Check in with them. Check up on them. If you are not good with real time, send a card. Send an email. Maybe don’t send a text, it seems a little gauche, but if that’s Your Thing, then go for it. Do not make this about you. None of this is about you. Have your feelings somewhere else. F*ck off with YOUR feelings, it is not your f*cking turn to have a feeling.

It’s also very strange later. People think you’ll get over it. They expect you to be Done being sad now, because the funeral happened and that’s the end of that, right? That it’s three years later, so it should all be finished now. Circle of Life, etc etc. They aren’t totally sure what to do when you mention that person. Flinching occurs. You learn that’s a thing that happens outside books. They talk quickly to change the subject.

Newsflash: you do not stop being sad. It just becomes a little less unwieldy with time. I have school friends who grew up with one parent and I have only recently DECADES LATER talked to them about it. They’re still sad. I appreciate a little more how hard their being a child was. How hard their becoming an adult is.

I am not rebuking anyone here. This isn’t a massive subtweet to someone who wronged me and for whom I hold a grudge.* Humans are complex and messy. Emotions are hard. Maybe let’s not make it harder on those who are having a rough time.

*so few people read this it would be a particularly useless way of making that known!

Nosce Te Ipsum*

I haven’t written for a while because I’ve been busy. But then again, hasn’t everyone? That’s #oldnews

I had a birthday and a conversation with a doctor that began with “for a woman your age…” and ended with my shocked face declaring I had “only just” turned 34 “actually!”

My last post was how I am an adult now. There’s no escaping that. The age-box I tick on any official document is squarely in the middle of the options. That’s okay. What’s not really okay is that there is still so much I do not know.

This list includes, but is not limited to:

– how to sew a hem
– how to format tables in a Word document when they skitter off the page
– where to put illuminator on a face
– if I’ll ever be able to get away with bronzer
– what kind of shoe to wear in the summer, with a dress, when it’s raining so my feet won’t get wet and are not trainers or brogues
– why everyone is so damn keen on brogues
– what exactly the Israel-Palestine conflict is, really in detail
– how to read the Financial Times markets pages
– why I can never quite get meat cooked spot on
– how to buy soft fruit (raspberries, I’m looking at you) without one of them being a bit weird
– how to properly remember the genders of the most commonly used German words
– how to set boundaries with someone you don’t really enjoy
– how to ask for a pay-rise
– why I’m always so nervous of everything
– how to fix the alarm clock that just stopped working, but still ticks
– how to stop biting my nails (that’s actually a lie, I bite my cuticles, which is even worse)
– how, actually, to archive my emails instead of asking my boss to use my account as an example for everyone else
– how to do a plank
– how to keep trainer socks on my feet
– how to back up my personal computer other than copy&pasting the entire hard drive into another hard-drive
– how to do nice calligraphy
– how to go to Wilkinson without spending money
– where counties in England are
– world geography, generally
– how to access the blue dot on my google maps and follow it in real life
– why there are some people I just Have a Problem With and I think it could be jealousy but I’m not sure what I’m actually jealous OF
– where to buy trousers for work that are neither a weird shape or made from flammable fabric
– how to prevent a freezer freeing up (supposedly keeping it full, but that hasn’t worked for me)
– if there is a decent dry shampoo or whether it’s a conspiracy by everyone who spent money on it
– how to make it through an episode of News Night without wanting to watch a fluffy 26 minute American comedy
– what third wave feminism is
– whether the priority is on protein or vitamins or energy or fibre or fun in food.

These days I am happier to admit when I don’t know something. I’d rather ask and know than chance it and look silly later. But it is so against my grain. As the bright kid in the class and the eldest child of two bright parents, it was not encouraged to ask questions. Don’t hold people up. Don’t let down the side. Don’t show ignorance. Often I find myself nodding along when someone says “obviously you know, xyz…” and I think “OH NO, I HAVE NO IDEA, LET’S SEE IF I CAN COAST THIS” because I don’t want that person to think less of me. How arrogant is that? I don’t know about opera. I don’t know about 17th century Christianity. I don’t know how octopus breed. I don’t know who the Mayor of Chicago is. But I do know that I won’t google it later. I do know that if I ask, you might explain enough for me to want to google it later. I do know that I’d like to follow this conversation rather than waiting for someone to change the subject and hoping it’s not related. I do know that I don’t spend my time with people who laugh at those who don’t know everything they do.

I’ve tried, gently and in my own awkward way, to ask more questions. “I see you have a knife sharpener, could you show me how that works?” “That’s fascinating that you are going to Surat next month. Where is that exactly?” “Actually, I don’t know if Croatia has the Euro, let’s look that up.”

So now, I know the theory behind the knife sharpening wand (but chickened out and bought a table top sharpener), I know Surat is in India and the Croatia has the Kuna. Soon I’ll be a lot more useful on the Guardian Saturday quiz.

Okay, maybe not soon.

* I googled this, OBVIOUSLY