Peace, calm and embracing single-tasking
I’ve been suffering for a year and a half with numbness down the left side and almost constant dizziness. The severity would change, but it would be there most of the time. I had lots of blood tests done and a bunch of things ruled out. Then I was referred to a consultant neurologist, who ordered more blood tests, an MRI scan and a variety of other tests. He then referred me to a colleague for a second opinion: a couple more tests and a repeat MRI scan, to see if anything had changed. In amongst all that, I also came up with plenty of my own theories, none of which seemed to pan out. I’m now at the point where my next neurology appointment will almost certainly sign me off from them and send me back to the GP to try out other things, but I’m hopeful that I may have worked it out myself, finally.
One of the first questions that one of the first GPs asked (after the one who said ‘It’s a virus. It’ll pass.’) was ‘Do you have a particularly stressful life?’ My answer was ‘No, I don’t think I’m especially stressed.’ And I didn’t think I was. I associated stress with being worried about work and I had got to a really good point with work, where I had a pretty perfect amount that allowed me to make what I needed and do so predominantly in school hours, with the occasional few hours over a weekend or one or two week evenings every few weeks. (After years and years of working 15+ hours a day, this was a pretty good achievement and came mostly through better time management, improved efficiency and also getting the right kind of work.) I had also come to terms with the fact that I am actually good at what I do and had learnt not to worry that I was going to make a big mistake and no-one would ever give me work again. I also associated stress with money worries and, while we certainly aren’t rolling in money, we were comfortable and had built of buffers to deal with any slow work periods, or emergency spending needs.
So, of course I wasn’t stressed. When any of the doctors asked me what I did, I told them I was a publishing project manager. I didn’t mention that I spent four or five hours most days on a separate art career (Because it still felt like a hobby, perhaps? Because it was too much fun to count as work? Because I was still learning?). And I didn’t mention that I was a school governor and a playgroup committee member and a frequent volunteer to do this or that to help with school and playgroup. After the election, when I added to these voluntary commitments by becoming Branch Secretary of my local Labour Party, Women’s Officer for the Constituency Labour Party and also attempting to steer a new Communications Group within the CLP, I didn’t mention that to the new consultant when I met him. Because none of this seemed at all relevant. I love volunteering. I especially love (something that continually surprises me) attending meetings and joining in with discussions and even more love chairing meetings. I love that people listen to me and are interested in what I have to say and feel that it might have some worth. I love the challenge of making sure a meeting runs on time. I love trying to mediate when people get heated in their different opinions (not always successfully) and trying to make sure everyone gets their say and people listen to those who find it harder to speak up. I even quite enjoy writing up and reading reports.
But… one of the reasons I love all of this is that I had become addicted to the tension of anxiety (Would I be on time? Would I be able to keep the meeting running properly? Would I have the time to prepare the report? Would anyone listen to me? Would I say something stupid? Would I make a big mistake? Would be laugh at me? Would people hear me?) followed by the rush of success, or just getting through it. It was like a drug, really, and I think quite possibly there were chemicals and hormones swimming around, contributing to it.
We went on holiday this summer – a full ten days in a beautiful part of the world (Kingsand and Cawsand in Cornwall) staying in my Great Uncle’s lovely cottage there (thank you, Uncle Leslie). While there I did have to do a bit of work, but not much, and I was able to postpone it until we got home, in the end, thanks to some delays somewhere else. I didn’t do anything to do with any of my voluntary roles. I also made a promise to myself and to my family to try really hard to stay away from politics. (The leadership election had been causing me huge amounts of anxiety and sleepless nights, trying to decide who I should vote for and convinced that it was essential to get it right.) I didn’t succeed completely with that, but I did quite well. In addition, we did lots of walking, a fair bit of swimming, and even some ice skating. We had lovely food, lovely company – and even managed to converse about plenty of things without touching on politics! And I had loads and loads of sleep. I was in bed most nights by 10pm and sometimes even earlier, and asleep soon after. And, because there were grandparents there to play with the girls, a good few mornings I got an incredibly long lie-in. I think I probably had a few nights where I slept more than 12 hours (my norm is 5 to 6 hours a night). I sat and read a lot. I sat (or walked) and just looked around me a lot, taking in the beauty of the sea and the cliffs and the rocks and the flowers and foliage. I drew and painted a bit, though nowhere near as much as I thought I would.
And after the first couple of days there was no dizziness and no numbness. None. Normally long walks like we did would have lead to an increase in dizziness and numbness, but they didn’t there. It was totally and utterly wonderful. I also didn’t have a runny nose for the most of the time there, which is an almost permanent thing for me.
Of course, there were a tonne of parameters that could have lead to me feeling well for the first time in a long time, and I think there’s a good chance it was a combination of lots of them. My immediate thought on returning (started sneezing the second I stepped off the train) was that we needed to up sticks and move to the seaside. Still wouldn’t mind doing that, to be honest, but it’s not exactly a quick fix! But I think that getting more sleep was definitely a big part of it and a significant reduction in anxiety and also lot of exercise and fresh air.
Given how much I generally try to fit into my day/week, even leaving the anxiety issues aside, I wouldn’t be able to manage more sleep and exercise without stopping something. But I was also starting to recognise what the anxiety was doing to me, and had been for years. I think it started being a big thing (though I think it was probably something that had always been there to an extent) when I went back to work in-house for a bit. I spent the entire time convinced I would exposed as a fraud (not because I was a fraud, I hasten to add, but because I didn’t have a deep-down belief in my own abilities and strengths). I spent my morning commute worrying about whether I would get everything done, about whether I’d miss an important typo, about whether a typesetter would call to say they’d be late with the proofs and how that would impact on the schedule, about whether anyone would talk to me, about whether something awful would happen to the girls and I’d be 40 minutes away and also reliant on hourly buses. During the summer holidays, when various family members rallied round and took the girls on holidays while I continued going into work, I was constantly worrying about something awful happening to them and being really, really far away. This worry manifested (I now realise) in a stomach constantly ‘tied in knots’. And I had that, almost permanently from then until now, replacing those worries with different ones, adding more and more voluntary commitments, or art courses with deadlines or personal goals that I needed to meet.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have stood down from all my voluntary commitments. It was a hard decision to make, especially as I feel it is really important to give back in whatever way you can – but the important thing to note is that, at the moment, I can’t do it that way. I’ll help out sporadically instead of having a regular responsibility – I’ll probably distribute some leaflets for the local elections and maybe help out with a poster or some baking for school and playgroup, but I won’t be responsible for running meetings, typing minutes, writing reports or making anything happen. For a while.
Each responsibility I shed, I felt my stomach un-tightening. It was quite amazing, really. But that’s not the end of it. I’m still feeling pretty well, but I’ve found the anxiety and tension creeping back in for other reasons now. I’ve been getting tense about getting the girls sorted for going back to school (because I decided, for the first time ever, that we would clear out all the old uniform and go in with brand new uniform to start the term – some of it is worn out and some of it is too small and some, but really plenty of it is still absolutely fine and this was just an extra and unnecessary burden). I started writing down big plans for my art and design, with new goals of learning this, this and that by the end of the year and submitting X numbers of designs to this studio, that studio and the other… Until I recognised that I was actually creating future anxiety right there. I’m instead going to go with the flow, with some very loose areas I would like to improve on and no weekly or monthly schedule. I think I will try to do a daily something, though, as long as it’s a relaxing one and not one that challenges me too much and causes frustration. I’ve even been feeling anxious about not finding enough time to relax and do nothing!
School goes back next week, I need to get back into my work routine properly, which includes a scheduled day for art & design work (any other time can be art & design fun, instead). We’ll also get back into our family routines, with after-school clubs and activities and an earlier dinner and earlier bedtimes for the girls. I’ve already got back to my regular dog walking, which is wonderful. I’m also going to sign up for a yoga class and a mindfulness class. I’m hoping that both of those will help with the learning to relax and let go and that maybe I’ll be able to retrain myself to manage the anxiety and other emotions so that they don’t take over.
The other thing that I’m working myself up to doing, and may well be the hardest of them all, is to try to cut back on social media. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is tied to her phone so much, getting notifications when anyone comments on a post, or posts to a particular group, checking my newsfeed and Twitter stream to see if anything important or interesting has happened, scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest for pretty pictures (yeah, I’m not going to give that one up), sharing political news articles, silly quizzes, funny quotes. I’m going to try to do the thing where you clear out your news feed by choosing ‘don’t show me this’, I’m going to leave some groups and turn off notifications from the rest, I’m going to take Facebook and Twitter off my phone (see, that has my stomach in knots just typing it!) and I’m going to switch my phone off at a certain point in the evening (need to work out when – maybe at dinner time) and leave it until the morning. I’m going to set aside a time in the week to read the FB groups I’m particularly engaged with. I’m still going to be posting to my FB art page and would like to work out how to maybe keep it on there, so I avoid my personal feeds. I’ll also still share pretty pictures and patterns via Instagram (which cross-posts to FB and Twitter). #
I’m also considering taking email off my phone, but I need to work out if that’s a good idea for work or not.
Maybe one day I’ll take on another voluntary commitment. If I can. In the meantime, though, I’m going to do my utmost not to feel guilty and like I’ve given up. I’m taking a necessary break.