As long as I can remember, I have been 'away with the fairies.' A chronic daydreamer, from a very early age I was constantly floating on a cloud of some kind of whimsy. Whether my fantasies be patched together from Alan Garner, JK Rowling, Eva Ibbotson or even Toy Story (at around 6, I had a thing for Woody the cowboy)…as a child I was always longing to be somewhere I wasn't. The everyday, mundane and minute details of everyday life bored me. Admittedly, they still do, sometimes. Whilst on the surface throughout my school days I'd be attentive and quiet, mentally I'd be an age way, in a liminal time, a faraway place. I'd be deep in an enchanted forest, running down the spiral staircase of a rich King's castle, hanging out in the Gryffindor common room with Harry (wishful thinking – I am so blatantly a Hufflepuff…), or living with Tolkien's elvish folk in Rivendell. My favourite film today, aged twenty one, is Labyrinth. I am in love with the fantasy art of Brian Froud, Jasmine Beckett Griffith. I own unicorn candles. I have a miniature, mischievous brass Cornish Piskie that I almost unconsciously rub surreptitiously everyday for 'good luck.' I wholeheartedly embrace the concept of the seven chakras, and fully believe in the life-enhancing and calming properties of crystals. I have been described as 'kooky' by friends. I'm not entirely sure it was meant as a compliment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not utterly spaced out 24/7, but I can get so lost in my own thoughts/daydreams that I am rendered oblivious to those around me. Whilst a vivid imagination can certainly be a blessing, it can also be a curse. I'm self-aware enough to realise that my chronic daydreaming can sometimes make me appear withdrawn, odd, or at worst, rude. I'm not. At least, I hope I'm not. I just don't always have the energy or the practicality reserves required to deal with some interactions, unfortunately. The left side of my brain has always remained firmly in control. Give me a cryptic poem to puzzle over rather than an equation any day. I might be able to think of something vaguely intelligent regarding the poem. The equation would be a lost cause -(Math is my Kyrptonite).
Although it's certainly got it's drawbacks, I think there are a few reasons that I should feel pretty okay about not being quite ready to hang up my fairy wings and plant my feet firmly on the ground quite yet. I think it's a sign of creativity. It shows hope – daydreaming is, to me, daring to believe that the world can be a different place; more magical, a place where anything can happen and dreams can be believed. I wrote earlier that the mundane details of the life bore me. In many ways, this is true. Most of us don't get a thrill out of online baking (unless your account looks like Richard Branson's), and to my knowledge I don't know anyone that particularly enjoys washing the dishes, dealing with energy bills, or hanging out the laundry. I am not a practical person. My head could definitely be screwed on a little more firmly. But crucially, it's the times that we are engaged with dull tasks that we can allow our mind's to wander, that give us the time for the spark of fantasy and wonder to be ignited. I once had a job, aged sixteen, where one of my main tasks was to lick envelopes. I'm not kidding, I was literally paid to sit and seal them up. Money for nothing, certainly, but soul destroyingly dull. I resolutely didn't care – it just gave me more time to daydream, uninterrupted. The rhythmic seal of the envelope, ceremoniously writing out the addresses in block capitals, acted as a kind of soothing backdrop for the riot of fantastical in my daydreams. I'm not suggesting that we all boycott necessary, everyday tasks or lose our grip on reality altogether. Daydreaming can rob us of just being present in the moment, and I'm a huge advocate of being mindful. I just think it's important that we sometimes allow ourselves occasionally to escape reality, to not be consumed by trivial annoyances of everyday life. I'm a firm proponent of the idea that there is magic all around us, inside us. We must make an effort to see it, to create it, to cultivate the creativity inside us and refuse to let that sprinkling of pixie dust in our souls to rub off during the (sometimes eroding) difficulties of everyday life.
I am the world’s worst decision maker. Or at least, I’m up there. In the top twenty, for sure. I basically need a flow chart to decide what socks to wear in the morning. I find having multiple options vaguely terrifying. If I were to psychoanalyse myself, I’d say it’s likely rooted in a deep fear of failure, of making the ‘wrong’ choice. The inability to make swift decisions can strike whether the choice is minor or major, life changing or inconsequential. Case and point: I once cried, age six, in The Disney Store, unable to choose between a Tigger watch with a green strap or one sporting Oddball from 102 Dalmatians with a blue strap. It just felt so incredibly vital that I made the right decision. Fifteen years later, this indecisiveness has, unfortunately, remained a resolutely unshifting facet of my character. Incidentally, I chose Oddball. Probably appropriate.
So yes, it’s fair to say that I find decisions difficult. But lately, I’ve been confronted with a hell of a lot of them. I’ve just finished my degree in English Literature, a broad degree that offers no firm direction. Everything is incredibly uncertain, career-wise. I’m unsure what to pursue, and having to decide what the hell I’m actually going to do with my life is, to say the least, pretty f*cking overwhelming.
A more pleasant decision and immediate decision to be made, as opposed to the foggy realm of my future career path, was going to choose a puppy this weekend. I nonetheless found it ridiculously difficult. I looked down at three beautiful puppies. They all had faces constructed by the angels. Big brown eyes blinked endearingly. Wet noses nuzzles, tiny sandy tongues licked affectionately. I loved them. I loved them all. I wanted them all. I needed them all. It took an age. I ummed and ahhhed, cradling each one, wanting whichever was pup I currently had in my arms. It seemed impossible. How could I possibly pick between them?! But pick I did. I chose a red pup – the one I’d held first. I cradled him like a tiny furry child and as he blinked up at me, I followed my gut instinct and said that this was the doggy for me. Signed, sealed, (and not quite yet) delivered, he’ll become part of the family officially in three weeks. I adore him already. I look at his picture and melt, reduced to a ridiculous, soppy mess – or rather, an even more ridiculous, soppier mess than usual.
In the end, I made a choice. I’m incredibly happy with the one I made. I’m happy with my judgement. Sure, in the case of the four adorable puppies, there’s wasn’t exactly a ‘wrong’ choice. There was no bad outcome, nothing major at stake. I was either going to get an incredibly cute puppy or an incredibly cute puppy. But what I feel I can take from puppygate is this: I was able to make, what felt at the time, like an incredibly hard decision. I was able to make a choice and not regret it. Often we just have to decide, and get on with it. More often than not, we’ll make the right one. Perhaps there aren’t even any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decisions. Just decisions. Life will constantly present us with choices that have to be made. The trick seems to be not to panic when they do. I’m going to try and view having multiple options in a more positive light, follow my gut and just get on with it. Another positive note: all future life choices will now be made whilst petting a dog. It might also make me more decisive: ‘Right Pup – One Bark for Yes, Two for No – what do you think?’ The new puppy will be lucky enough to hear me rambling on incessantly, and will in all likelihood become the silent, furry, adorable equivalent of a life coach. God help him. He’ll get lots of cuddles, though.
Last Sunday, I wasn’t having a particularly great afternoon. The morning had started off pretty well, in all fairness. The weather was beautiful, a blissful, balmy 28 degrees, more tropical than typical UK weather. I’d gone to yoga for a particularly sweaty session and very much enjoyed it. The afternoon took a turn for the worst, however, when I learnt I’d been rejected for a job I’d been pretty confident I’d at least be elegible to be interviewed for. As usual when I feel inadequate, my thoughts inexplicably and uselessly turned to regulating my food intake and exercise levels. I felt uncomfortable – it was Father’s Day and we’d had a buffet lunch. I suddenly felt weak, out of control and greedy. I felt that I’d over indulged and old, restrictive thoughts started to swim menacingly, shark-like around the peripheries of my mental space. Altough I’d been lounging in the garden with my family, basking in the (rare) sunshine, I’m ashamed to say that I gave in to compensatory behaviours and sneaked off to excericse. My mother followed me and rumbled me in my attempts. I was embarrassed and annoyed with myself – as much as I feel I really have managed to forge a much healthier relationship with food on the whole, some aspects of my mentality surrounding my consumption and my body remain strange. Her calling me out on the ridiculousness of surreptitiously isolating myself in order to ‘burn off’ lunch when I should be enjoying relaxing family time made me realise how selfish I was being. It also made me realise how far I still have to go to feel ‘normal’ again in regards to my thoughts and behaviours. I let my insecurities get the better of me, yet again.
So I was feeling pretty subdued, on the whole. Tired. Tired of battling with myself day in, day out. Tired of job hunting. Tired of being afraid.
Things certainly got a hell of a lot brighter when my cousin casually informed me via text that she’d given birth, three weeks early, to her second child. A baby boy. She invited us to go and visit them in the maternity ward of the local hospital. We jumped in the car, eager and excited to do just that.
I saw him and thought immediately: he’s perfect. He has a dent in his ear at the moment (forceps – ouch). Perfect. He has a slight scratch. Still perfect. He’s healthy. Beautiful. I watched his chest rise and fall, watched his hands curl into into little fists. I traced the oval shape of his tiny fingernails. Perfect. So alive.Babies are the opposite of tired. They are so awake, so raw. They are painfully, stunningly, beautifully fresh. New. I sometimes wonder if that’s why they wail so piercingly. Why wouldn’t they? Everything is a first – every sight, every sound, a sensory overload. Baby L was patient as he was passed around like a beloved, tiny, precious parcel from one adoring, cooing relative to another. I held him in my arms and as he blinked those blue eyes open, peering into mine, the afternoon’s feeling of being irreversibly tired just melted away. He was placid and strikingly peaceful while we held him. He was so content, and holding him, a bundle of purity pernsonified and encased in a teeny babygrow, I felt content too. I looked at my cousin, who’d been so brave in what was, by all accounts, a pretty horrendous birthing experience. I watched her smile down at her first son, and got a reality check on what’s actually important in life. Love. Family.
Sunday was a day of gains, on the whole. I may have lost a job prospect. Lost some peace of mind, some perceived ‘progress.’ So what? Life is not linear. It has ups and down, and the day’s gains outweighed the losses. I gained a new member of my family. I looked down at him and saw the world through raw, fresh eyes. I gained perspective. I looked at him and felt love: I gained extra room in my heart, as corny as that sounds. A new person to love.
Last weekend we welcomed 7lbs of joy into our family and into the world. I hope baby L soaks up life. I hope he looks around at the simpering faces cooing down at him (I imagine we look simultaneously idiotic and fairly menacing), and that he is able to sense how much he is loved. I’ve only met him once, in the three days he has so far experienced. He has already made my life better. He has already made me appreciate life more. He has already made me less tired.
Life is precious. New life is the even more so. Here’s to living like the oversized babies that we all are – curious, soaking up new senses, surroundings, and experiences. Here’s to loving without limits. Here’s to family. Here’s to realising what the important things really are, and taking comfort in the fact that every day is a second chance; an opportunity to be born again.
Yesterday, on a whim, I bought a book called ‘Reasons To Stay Alive.’ I only picked it up because it was in the reduced pile. I’d never heard of the author, Matt Haig, but I’d seen the book before. It had been well-publicised. I vaguely remembered seeing it smattered across every prominent surface in every other bookshop I entered a year or so ago. As I took it to the counter, the elderly, irresistibly chipper bookseller peered down at the book quizzically. “Do you need reasons to stay alive?” he asked unexpectedly, piercing blue eyes twinkling at me behind his glasses. “Well…” I replied, probably sounding a little cowed, “I mean, hopefully I’ve already got a few.” He laughed.
You do not have to suffer from depression to appreciate and learn from this book. There are times when we all need reminding that things are not as bleak as they can sometimes seem, need to be told that the sun always breaks through eventually, even in the cloudiest of skies. Something that Haig does beautifully within this narrative is gently remind us, all of us, that though there may be times that the world seems to be filled with darkness more than with light, and though we may experience situations that can feel more than a little bit hopeless, there are always reasons to pull through. There are infinite reasons to keep going. You’ve definitely got more than a few. This book will remind you of some you might’ve forgotten.
It’s an unflinchingly honest, warm, wry, witty book. I read it in one-sitting. It is, however, so wise that I feel that one reading isn’t enough to sponge up all of Haig’s special brand of non-preachy wisdom, and so I am sure I will read it again and take more from it still. It’s a candid and easily accessible exploration of what it’s like to live a life at war with your own mind. It’s more than that though. It’s also a guide that advises you, as the blurb puts it, to “make the most of your time on Earth.” Time, it is all too easy to forget, that is limited. One part of the books magic lies in its emphasis that feelings of depression and anxiety are not forever. “This book is impossible,” proclaims the opening page. “Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen. I was going to die you see. Or go mad…the fact that this book exists is proof that depression lies.” Echoes of those feelings of hopelessness and fears of what we might perceive as an inevitably bleak future, Haig reminds us, might come-and-go for a very, very long time. Life is not linear. It’s filled with ups-and-downs and laughs and smiles and crying and arguing. There’ll be bumps in the road but there’ll also be fair bit of plain sailing thrown in for good measure. The darkness doesn’t last forever, this book emphasizes. When feelings of inadequacy and anxiety start to dig their claws into our psyches, there are ways to loosen their seemingly iron grip. The central message is this: Things will get better. You will get better. Things will be brighter. But you have to fight, and you have to stick around to see it.
‘Reasons To Stay Alive’ defies reduction to any one genre. Part memoir, part self-help book, Haig’s narrative is inspiring, and not in that gooey, sickly-sweet, ‘that’s-nice-but-I-just-threw-up-a-little-bit-in-my-mouth’ kind of way. This is not a sentimental or self-congratulatory story of personal triumph. This is not 253 pages of vague rambling about the importance of reconnecting with our authentic selves or inner child, however one goes about doing that, precisely. It’s a book about survival, and more specifically, about surviving against what are frankly some pretty f**cking terrifying odds. “Suicide is now – in places including the UK and US,” reminds Haig, “a leading cause of death, accounting for over one in a hundred fatalities…as people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet.” It was an eerily appropriate read for Mental Health Month. Stigma haunts the topic of depression like a stubborn bad smell, particularly, I feel, for males, who often find it hardest to admit that they’re suffering. It’s only through time, and the continuance of dialogue generated by eloquent, honest, and downright brave voices like Haig’s that the taboos around mental health are going to eroded. For depression suffers, this book could prove a lifebuoy, something to cling to when the storm hits and the waves are crashing and it feels like you might not be able to keep your head above the water, this time. “Be brave,” Haig implores. “Be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later.”
By the end of this book, I really, really, cared about Matt Haig. I fully intend to read his other, fictional novels. If ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’ is any indicator, they’ll be filled to the brim with wit and warmth and encouragement, and packed with instances of the endurance and perseverance of the human spirit. I feel genuinely happy that Haig is capable of feeling good again, and that he’s scaled a mountain that must have seemed insurmountable. He’s a living lesson, his book proof of the vital need to just keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moment-to-moment, day-to-day. Even when it seems as though we aren’t making progress or achieving anything, we are. We’re alive, and that’s one hell of a miracle, when you stop and think about it. Stop and think about it.
P.S. There is no such thing as ‘not depressed enough’ to seek help. If you’re suffering, reach out. Even though it can feel like the hardest thing in the world to admit, even to yourself, that you need help, it’s worth it. Happiness is your birthright. Do anything that works for you, to keep you going. You are loved and loved in return. Stay.
Helplines for those suffering (UK)
Charity for sufferers of depression. Has a network of self-help groups.
Minds are messy. I sometimes find myself trapped in a tangled web of worries regarding how others perceive me. I’m often anxious that there’s a disconnect between who I am and who others believe I am. I rarely take an action without worrying what others will think of my decision. This results in me stalling and dithering, a ball of frustrated anxiety, trying and failing to find a solution that pleases everyone, and achieving only mass-dissatisfaction.
A technique that I’ve found mildly successful in silencing these worries is simply asking myself: does it actually matter? Does it matter what people think of me? Have I behaved in a way that I, personally, think is acceptable? If so, good. If not, I need to reconsider my actions and go from there. I must be my own judge and not let others’ perceptions of me haunt my every action and influence all of my decisions. Crucially, when we worry what others think of us, we project our own insecurities onto those surrounding us. We assume that everyone has noticed what we conceive as our ‘weak points’. We construct others’ perceptions of us. This is pointless and a waste of mental energy. It is all guesswork. Please yourself, do what you think is right. Make yourself proud and I believe the rest will follow.
We think that people think about us a lot more than they actually do. I actually find this thought incredibly comforting. I often feel incredibly conflicted – on a sensible, intellectual level, I know that no-one actually gives a damn if, say, I eat a muffin. But sometimes the mind is neither sensible nor logical. ‘They’ll think you’re greedy if you eat that,’ a nasty little voice occasionally whispers into my ear. ‘Disgusting, greedy pig. Lazy. You’ve barely done anything today. Of course they’re allowed to eat it. But not you, you don’t deserve it.’ And on it goes. This cruel, irrational, bullying self-punishment for a crime I haven’t committed. Unless, that is, I make a conscious and overt effort to battle against these thoughts, disregarding them as illogical. Would you ever think less of someone you love for eating a muffin? Um, no, me neither. I make an effort to pause, and halt this internal diatribe against myself. Eat the damn muffin, smile and be happy. None of this matters. Most of the time these days, I am able to do just that.
I worry. Who am I? Why don’t I have a clear perception of my own identity? How is everyone else so sure, soconfident of their place in the world and how they fit in to it? When I am able to think rationally, I wonder, is everyone quite as sure as I think they are? If they aren’t, we are alike and our struggles are similar. If they are, then their confidence has likely been gained through experience. If they are as unflappable and self-assured as I perceive them to be, then good. Life is not a competition. If we are not in competition with those around us, it makes sense that we cannot then ‘fall behind.’ The ‘but-they’re-doing-so-much-better-than-me-because-I-saw-that-one-post-on-facebook’ mentality is so draining and poisonous. I am trying to restrain myself from comparing my journey to the journey of those around me. Sometimes the answer to reducing our stress-levels is as simple as ‘don’t think too much.’ Many of us inflict unnecessary suffering upon ourselves by analyzing situations needlessly, hypothesizing on a future that we can never fully be sure of until it arrives. I am trying to stop sweating it about the small stuff.
This one is embarrassing to admit because it’s so shallow, but I think it’s something many of us worry about: on bad self-image days, I worry that others think I’m unattractive. I can see a bad photo of myself and still be thinking about it long after the camera has been put away. I’m ashamed to say that there have been times that I’ve been having fun, enjoying myself and not caring how I look and someone has taken a candid photo of me. I’ve afterwards looked at this picture, been horrified, and it’s spoiled the otherwise fantastic time I’d been having. This is obviously pretty sad, self-obsessed, and not to mention pointless. I could spend an eternity analyzing my own reflection for flaws. At times we suffer with negative self-image, I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we are our own worst critics. No-one else is critiquing our profile side on, obsessing over whether our bellies look noticeably bloated or not. If you spoke to a friend in the same way that you think/speak about yourself, would you have many friends left? Thought not. I know that these ideas are easy to say and much, much harder to put into practice. I know most of us would probably feel pretty ridiculous standing in front of the mirror telling ourselves non-ironically; ‘I love you. You’re gorgeous, you’re wonderful’ (not that you shouldn’t tell yourself these things – you are undoubtedly both!) Most of the general populous, however, aren’t going to be parading around Gilderoy Lockhart style, waxing lyrical about the wonder of ‘me, magical me’ anytime soon. I’m not suggesting that we all can or should take self-confidence and self-love to those dizzying heights. But just making an effort to silence the negative thoughts surrounding our appearance that subtly chip away at our self-esteem over time can make a significantly positive impact upon how we feel about ourselves.
Iworry. ‘Why am I such a coward?’ I think, desperately. ‘Why do I find it so hard to take risks? Will I always be so afraid?’ Yes, that’s right, I worry about worrying. Incredible. If they did a degree in worrying, I would graduate with First Class Honors. How do I quieten these thoughts? I’ll be honest – sometimes, I can’t. Writing helps. So does yoga, usually. A good book. Consciously releasing any tension I am holding in my body. Smiling. Fresh air. Looking up at the sky. Remembering that I am a spec in a vast and incomprehensibly wide universe. Reminding myself that I love and am loved in return. 9 out of 10 times (an unofficial stat, but still), the things we are worrying about are usually not that significant, even if they feel vital at the time. If I f**ck up occasionally, I am learning that that’s okay. The world around me will not collapse. It sounds counter-intuitive but, actually, sometimes thinking about why we’re worrying and getting to the root of the fear we feel can actually be useful. For example, when I stop and think about it, I am able to understand that two reasons I find it hard to take risks are that;
a) I have a perfectionist streak, am terrified of failure, and as such find it hard to take leaps into the unknown. I am afraid that things will go wrong and I will be unable to deal with it. I will not be able to be ‘perfect.’
b) I am afraid of making a mistake and looking silly.
After I’ve identified the root of this fear, I am able to deal with it head-on. Do I really want to miss out on opportunities and life experiences because I will be chasing the impossible construction that is ‘perfection’? As for point B), again – is it worth missing out on all the things that life has to offer due to a fear of looking ‘silly’? Every mistake is an experience.
I read an article recently about the importance of developing a personal manta. This can sound slightly hippy-dippy, but having a go-to phrase just to silence the incessant mental chatter of worries can actually be really calming. It doesn’t have to be fixed. Mine varies daily. One that often works quite well is just reminding myself ‘there are good things happening all around me.’ I also like; ‘this is not as scary as it seems.’ Sometimes I need to reconnect with the present, ground myself and touch back down to Earth after floating away on a grey storm-cloud of anxiety. When I hear my voice raised a couple of octaves (and believe me, my voice is already pretty high-pitched) and tightened with anxious energy, I exhale, pause, and remind myself ‘I am doing my best.‘ These five words continue to motivate me to try my hardest, to fight becoming sucked in to a vacuum of suffocating stress, and help me to give myself a much needed reality check.
The crux of this post is, I suppose, that if you’re someone that feels your mind is constantly whirring, writhing with what-if’s and worries at any given moment, you cannot simply indulge or give-in to this negative mental chatter. I hope that some of the techniques I’ve explored in this post prove in some way useful – I feel I can only really loosely call it ‘advice.’ These are just some methods that I use when I’m bogged down in a marsh-land of insecurity and worry. They work for me, usually, and I really hope that they work for you. I truly hope that you can find the serenity you’re searching for, and that, for the most part, you can regain control of your thoughts and tell your mind to STFU.