Of bellies and dancing

I did it.

I went to the belly dancing taster.

Something I’ve been wanted to try for decades and never found the confidence. If ever there is a time for faking it till I make it, it’s now. I also figure what better way to regain core strength and confidence after my hysterectomy than with something so intrinsically and fundamentally feminine?

New town. New home. New life. But not a new me…. a more me. A deeply strongly confidently solely me.

This week was about being big and brave. Diving straight into that deep end. Finding a yoga class, starting the deep work with my counsellor, discussing a new project and this. Dancing. Belly dancing. New people. New place. Several things that alone make me anxious and here am I combining them.

Tonight was a demonstration raising money for some charity or other, then a chance to try it out.

The setting was incongruous – an old man’s fishermans club so I felt so incredibly self conscious with a fair amount of people sat round watching, but still I did it. I did make sure I was close to the stage furthest from any audience. 

I’d started talking to a woman outside while we waited to go in, someone who looked as nervous and as unsure as me. She was in a similar position – always wanted to try it and never before had the confidence. We agreed to look after each other. We sat together and chatted while waiting for things to get started, shared a bit of our life stories, found some similarities. 

What she failed to tell me was she knew several other people who were also turning up, so all of a sudden I’m introducing myself to several new people and being unexpectedly social! Everyone was friendly and included me in their social conversation without a second blink. 

The demonstration thrilled me with the rich vibrant colours and the flowing silky or chiffon fabrics, the glint and the ting of golden discs and the fuck your conventional body shapes sexiness.

Then it was our turn. 

I have fuck all core strength, not much balance (you need core strength for that it seems) and I swear I used to have some coordination and dexterity. Which arm goes with what leg again? Oh, we’re turning now. Oops, other way!

I felt awkward and exposed and vulnerable. 

But I also felt a glimmer of what it could be. 

The power. The strength. The confidence.

One of the women in the dance class (not the sea gypsies performance group who were also there and performed) approached me and started chatting. A mind blowing 62 years old (does not look nor act it, I want to be her), she was so friendly and made it easy for me to take down the details of the Tuesday night class (I’ll have to swap yoga to Thursdays…) and agree to go along. The lady I’d got chatting to outside is planning to go too. I made her promise.

I was checking what to wear, admitting I loved the outfits and the lovely dance lady gave me a coin belt. One I’ll wear to my first class.

At that point all the emotions came up to say hello and I don’t want to walk home alone too late in a city I’m still learning so I excused myself and left.

Laughter and tears mixing as I walk home.

I did it. And I can’t wait for Tuesday. 

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Donkey and Pride

Friends know about my “slight” obsession with task lists and getting things done. There’s a reason for this.

Living with anxiety goblins, I need weapons with which to fight them. I need an array of weapons. They are sneaky clever fuckers, and they learn to fight back. They have over 40 years of my life with which to attack me with and they wield my dark moments like pros.

It was while studying counselling and psychotherapy (and being the client, and being the therapist) that I learned I wasn’t a failure at life, I had an anxiety disorder. I’d spent most of my three decades up to that point comparing myself with the people around me and wondering why apparently inconsequential things knocked me sideways, why I just couldn’t seem to cope with life as well as most, and why fear seemed to rule me and be my initial response to pretty much anything.

I’d attempted to cure this by staying away from situations that caused fear. Seemed a reasonable response… but it made my world so very small. I self medicated for over two decades to numb the overwhelming physical symptoms of anxiety – until it became a habit and addiction that was deeply entwined with my sense of self. And the fear remained, attached itself to other things, attacked me with the coping mechanisms I was using and I eventually realised this just wasn’t working. I needed to change. I was dying from the inside out. Existing but not living, surviving but not thriving.

So slowly, so very slowly, I started facing things, pushing back the boundaries of my comfort zone, doing things just because they scared me (tandem skydive for one! Singing solo in public for another), but choosing them carefully, building up slowly.

Starting to study counselling was one of these things. I didn’t consider myself particularly academic after failing my A levels (forgetting the huge personal and mental health issues I had going on at the time). I gave myself a hard time. I struggled to give up the habits and addictions holding me in place.

Another thing about me, relevant to this post is that I work in images, in stories and characters. If I can frame something with a character and story then I can understand it better.

And thus we get to the point of this post.

While studying what ended up being half a Masters Degree in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy, I came across a part of my brain that seemed utterly set on sabotaging me. I had to deal with this, I’d invested a lot of money that I didn’t have in this course and wasn’t about to lose it just because part of me wasn’t playing the game.

I investigated this part of me and eventually found an image that just fitted. At the bottom of all this, hiding under the Sabotage and the Fear was Stubborness. There was some part of me simply, firmly, consistently saying, “NO”.

No, not going to do that, not going to look at that, no no no you can’t make me.

The more I tried to force the issue, the harder it stuck, like a psychological finger trap. I realised I needed to be clever. The image that I discovered was that of a donkey digging it’s back heels in.

stubborn-mule

Pulling and pushing at the donkey just made it worse. I realised, in an obvious epiphiny, that I needed to motivate it. I needed to find the right carrot…

And for me, that carrot was pride. The Golden Glittery Carrot of Pride (because making something slightly silly is fun!). I thrilled in getting praise from my tutors, from getting good remarks on my essays, for having work done by the deadlines and research ready to show the group. I suddenly realised that I’d rarely felt proud of myself before and it was a powerful intoxicating feeling. One I wasn’t willing to give up.

I thought long and hard and about what made me feel proud – and it’s an ongoing process. I am by no means a workaholic, but I do like achieving things. I have discovered a very competitive side; with myself.

The question isn’t “What makes me feel proud?”, rather it’s “What will make me feel proud TODAY?”

Because it changes. Sometimes it changes throughout the day. And that doesn’t matter. What matters is developing an honest and congruent conversation with yourself about what’s needed, what’s possible, and what, if this is something that will assist you as well, will make you proud. Doesn’t have to be work, or studying. It can manifest in any and every area of your life and activities.

Sometimes it’s going the extra mile. Sometimes it’s just getting out of bed. Sometimes it’s having that self-care day and staying in bed with movies. Sometimes it’s reaching out to people and sometimes it’s riding out that dip on the rollercoaster.

Getting that donkey onside is a powerful weapon against the brain goblins.

So that’s why I have a constant task list. That’s why I put things on there just to tick them off. That’s why I sometimes say that I can’t rest, I can’t get that treat until after that thing. Because I need and crave that feeling of Pride. Which luckily doesn’t manifest by overdoing it, that’s Stupidity, not Pride. There’s no pride in running yourself into the ground, there’s only exhaustion. Pride is working within your means, and discovering that your means stretch just that little bit further that you initially thought.

As the hashtag says, #thisgirlcan. (please adjust for gender identity preference of your choice)

And there’s only one way to find out…

Life analogies from sewing

I’m spending a lot of today on my sewing machine making and adapting kit for an upcoming event. To distract from my oh so achy back, I amused myself with sewing analogies that can apply to other areas of life too.

  1. Before you start, make sure you have enough thread. If you run out part way through you may not ever finish your project.
  2. Snapped threads happen. Try not to let them discourage you. Thread your needle again and carry on.
  3. Do your research. Time spent planning and figuring out isn’t time wasted. Yes you can jump straight in but you’re unlikely to end up with exactly what you want.
  4. Follow your dreams. Yeah doing your research is great and sometimes diving straight in is more fun!
  5. Invent, adapt and overcome! As nice as it is to end up with there the exact idea we had, adapting and changing as we go along can often lead to something better.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s oodles of help out there and generally people like to be helpful and useful.
  7. Sometimes your sewing machine will just hate you and you’ll never know what you did wrong.
  8. Going slow is better than unpicking. It can be gruelling but sometimes slow and careful is best.
  9. Sometimes your stitching gets away from you and you just have to cope.
  10. Tidy up your loose ends. It makes a real difference.
  11. Knowing when to stop is a very under appreciated skill….
  12. Measure twice, Cut once. Or your kilt ends up too short.

Easy to forget

It’s easy to forget how powerful the grip of anxiety is.

How despite all the measured deep breathing and rational calm talking, it refuses to lessen it’s grip on both mind and body.

How it feels like a spear through my chest. A physical weight and pressure in the centre of my chest both external and internal, through to my spine. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it feels like a balloon slowly expanding and taking up the space where my heart and lungs should be, making it hard to breathe.

It’s easy to forget how laboured my heartbeat can get at times, feeling like a knackered horse struggling to get up a hill, it’s erratic beats doing nothing to soothe and reassure.

It’s easy to forget that the words in my mind at this time aren’t real. Aren’t based in fact, but are my own fears and insecurities reflected back to me. They swell in my throat making casual socialising almost impossible to navigate.

It’s easy to forget that we can find evidence to anything if we look hard enough. Easier to accept the words spoken so passionately and evocatively. Best protect yourself against what is to come… it’s hard to keep fighting against the words when the physicality accompanying them doesn’t fade…. surely if your rationality and logic was correct you’d feel better by now….? And so it goes on.

Times like this, the dark and scary part of the ride we are all on, just hold on, remember to breathe and wait. Just breathe, that’s all that’s required today. It doesn’t last forever.

But it’s easy to forget.

Ship to Shore

A recent chat with a friend got me thinking in metaphorical terms about where I am in my life at the moment. There’s a limited amount I can say about my current situation as it doesn’t just involve me so forgive me if I seem particularly vague in details.

I’ve always used images and metaphors to describe emotional and pyschological states, it’s just easier. The image that came to mind currently (probably partly due to the set of Robin Hobb books I’m currently storming my way through) was that of being on board a ship.

So here I am on board this metaphorical ship. Between lands. I’ve put myself aboard this ship, I’ve set it’s course, and I’m partially in charge.

There have been other times of limbo and change where I haven’t felt in charge at all, where the metaphor that came to mind was an extended periods of falling, occasional pauses on juts of rock before having to fall again and just waiting to land and preparing myself to deal with wherever I found myself.

This isn’t like that. It’s more controlled and I can see land ahead of me. New land that I am both excited and terrified to explore.

Yet I’m not completely in control. I may set the destination but there are currents that can sweep me off course or delay me. There are events on the land behind me that affect the course of the planks I sail upon. No one controls the winds or the tides.

So I stand on my metaphorical ship, looking at the metaphorical shore that lies ahead of me, thinking I know what awaits me, what I can build there, while deep down admitting I haven’t a clue, not really.

The metaphor has some roots in reality. I’m moving to another city as I can’t afford to keep living in the one I’m in. Not without living in a shoebox or sharing with strangers, neither of which I’m prepared to do; I’m too old and too antisocial for that. The nearest city that starts to come close to my solo budget is a good hour away from where I currently am. It’s a big change, and all the preparation and organisation in the world can’t really ready me to start a new life alone in a place I barely know. As a perfectly happy introvert, the work of creating a new community and social circle is one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. Yet that lies before me also.

There are things I can do. I guess a metaphorical equivalent of preparing fishing lines best I can and hoping the fish are curious! Then it comes down to standing on deck, hoping for a kind wind and friendly people where I dock.

But for now I stand on board, hand on tiller, waiting and at the mercy of some currents that could yet see me drifting off course.

My weekend with the NHS

I’ve hesitated in writing this because it felt indulgent.

But then I wondered if a positive NHS post was worth me and maybe others considering me being indulgent. So here are a few moments from my story of a weekend being looked after by the NHS.

I went to Worthing Hospital on Friday 21st April 2017 at Midday for a routine but pretty major surgery – a subtotal abdominal hysterectomy for one large multiple fibroids that couldn’t be treated any other way.

When my anxiety kicked in waiting for to be collected for surgery, I was able to stay in a small consulting room rather than the main waiting area, my friend was brought to me, and this made it easier for me to both allow and control my feelings.

When lying on the hospital bed clad only in surgical gown and a blanket I felt incredibly exposed as the reality of the surgery came closer with every tick of the clock. The tears came and the anaesthetic room receptionist was immediately there with tissues, she held my hand and chatted to me for as long as she was able to. Throughout my little wait in that room on that bed, she kept checking on me, including me in conversations with the medical staff who came and went. My details were checked a further few times. Each time they apologised about having to go through things so many times, but better certain than not! One of the ladies told me she was assisting on the surgery and I asked a favour. I had no idea of the reality, the size and shape, of what was being taken from me. I asked if it was possible to get any details. She said she’d try. After surgery that lady came to find me on the ward to let me know she’d weighed the thing in question and gave me it’s mass. She didn’t have to do that.

The ladies administering my anaethetic were delightfully batshit, without being unprofessional. They made me laugh. Not an easy thing considering how much I hate needles. She told me how I would feel when the anaethetic was administered and the cold tingling feeling in my right arm is the last thing I remember until I woke up two and a half hours later.

When I woke some surgery, someone sat by my bed for an hour and a half as I drifted in and out of coherence. They answered the questions I was able to form, gave me water and didn’t leave my side. She told me what the time was, and that my friends were waiting for me in the ward that I would be taken to.

During that night I was constantly checked on, medication taken, stats recorded and comfort given when the lack of sleep and the sounds of distress from a very elderly lady who wasn’t in distress (they checked many many times) got too much for me.

I was encouraged and helped by a very cheerful and friendly healthare assistance to get up, wash and dress and sit in a chair.

A nurse held bags of bodily fluids in order to take me for a walk around the ward.

I was quietly allowed to have one more visitor than was usually permitted.

They moved me to a quieter ward the second night as they knew I’d struggled the night before.

They ensured I had everything I needed and knew everything I needed to know in order to go home on the Sunday afternoon as I was desperate to start recovering in my own home. When I say “I” in this paragraph, I mean my friend…. I was incapable of organising my own two feet at this point, but they knew I was in good hands and utterly eager to go home. However, the choice to stay a further night was there and was mine.

All of this care. All of the medication – pain meds, anti clotting injections, wound dressings – that went home with me. Everything used during my stay. This was all free. I only had to focus on my healing and my recovery. There was nothing else demanding my attention, nothing else to organise, no future bills, payments or insurance to organise. I was able to have this operation despite it not being life threatening (although it was life affecting). Yes, there was a wait, but a few months for free surgery and excellent care. I think I had a lucky experience.

When I was called a couple of weeks later in a follow up call, after all the questions had been dealt with I told the nurse how happy I was with my care, how everyone I’d come into contact with had contributed to my feeling supported and looked after.

The only negative thing about my encounter was the surprise and gratitude in her voice when she thanked me for this and I wondered how often she and her colleagues heard it.

NHS, you are amazing. We need you. I hope you are given the attention and value you need to survive then thrive.

 

Gratitude

Gratitude can be difficult when we’re struggling with anxiety issues, the world can be a scary place, our brain chemicals are going haywire, often our bodies are achingly tired and being aware of anything other than perceived threats can take an effort we don’t feel we have the energy for.

Gratitude can also be a spiritual tool to beat ourselves up with as passive aggressive meme’s suggest that we wouldn’t be in the state we are if only we were more grateful for what we have, reminding us that many in the world are worse off than we, so how selfish are you to be struggling? Not useful, not kind, not actually spiritual in my little corner of the world.

Your experience is your experience and someone else being better or worse off has absolutely zero impact on how you perceive and interact with the world. Also, being grateful that someone is worse off than you isn’t actually gratitude – it’s comparison –  and that won’t have a positive effect on the brain…

Yet, despite it being misused sometimes, gratitude is a good habit to get into, and this is backed up by neuroscience (SCIENCE BABY, YEAH!). It doesn’t matter what we are grateful for, it doesn’t even matter if we can’t come up with anything, the act of looking for something to be grateful for can be the trigger to a happier brain over time. Google the neuroscience of gratitude and see what you find, there have been various studies done on the matter.

Over the years I’ve kept several gratitude journals for various periods of time, and I’ve learnt a few things.

1 – Don’t wait for the perfect notebook/pen etc. Don’t think, I’ll start this when I’ve bought a nice book to write in. That’s just procrastination, you’ll rarely if ever get around to buying the “perfect” book for your journal, it’s just a way of not starting the exercise. You doubtless have some form of paper and pen/pencil lying around. Use that. It doesn’t matter what you write on or even whether you keep it. The act of doing it is all that matters. You don’t even need a pen and paper, if you’re reading this, you likely have an electronic device you can write on. Use that! By all means get a nice notebook if such things make you happy, but don’t use that as a reason not to start. Start, then get the notebook as and when you can.

1(A) – On that note – don’t worry or give yourself a hard time about finding a certain number of things to be grateful for or even doing it each day – all that means is it’s easier to give up if you can’t achieve your certain number or you miss a day. Try and make it a habit (keeping it by your bedside for example) but if you miss a day, so what? Just pick it up again the day/week/month/year after. It doesn’t matter when you don’t do it, just when you do. Of course all these things are better when done regularly, but doing them at all is more important.

2 – Writing or thinking about WHY you’re grateful for that thing works wonders if you have the energy to do this. Once, many years ago, I was grateful for a random phone call from a fellow student. I wrote that down. Then I thought about why, and realised how isolated and lonely I’d been feeling in class and how that phone call had helped me feel a little more connected and part of the group. Suddenly I was even more grateful for the call and happier when I got back to class. Writing all that down takes effort, I know. You don’t have to, just thinking about it works too.

3 – It doesn’t matter what you’re grateful for. We all have days where all we have to be grateful for is our bed/sofa, blanket/duvet. Be grateful for those things, they matter.

4 – There’s always something to be grateful for, even if it takes some searching. If you’re reading this, you likely have the first layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sorted.

Maslow’s Updated Hierarchy of Needs

You likely have access to the internet and a device to access it on. You likely have a roof over your head and something to eat and drink that day. Hopefully a toilet that works. Someone you could interact with if you chose to. Clothes to wear if you wanted to get dressed. Sometimes paring back to the bare essentials is necessary, but these are still things to be grateful for. You can climb up the pyramid another day.

5 – It doesn’t matter how begrudgingly grateful you are! There are days you just don’t want to be damn well grateful! The world flipping sucks and why should you be grateful for anything damn it?! And that’s fine! Do the exercise anyway, allow the frustration and anger to be there as well. Looking for things to be grateful about doesn’t mean you have to not feel upset, sad, angry, frustrated and whatever else you’re feeling. You can feel those as well. Feelings are just feelings. We prefer some to others, but they all have their place and a right to exist. We can be angry and still grateful the bus arrived on time. We can be sad and still grateful we have a cup of tea. We can be utterly fed up with every single thing, and still grateful there’s an episode of something distracting to watch. We are manifold and we can contain many and conflicting emotions at once and that’s fine.

6 – Gratitude doesn’t have to be kept to a journal. This ties in with saying thank you to compliments. Say thank you to your loved ones, let them know as much as you’re able to how much you appreciate them. Say thank you to the bus driver or the shop assistant – why shouldn’t we be thanked for doing our jobs? Express little bits of gratitude whenever and wherever you can and gradually they work to make us feel better and the world less scary.

Thank you for reading this 🙂 Whether you’re a stranger or a friend, I’m grateful you took the time and if I do know you, thank you for being in my life, you give me lots to be grateful for.