Tuesday, 28 April 2015

On knowing when not to push

As I type this I have four small pieces of unfinished work waiting to be completed in order for them to be hung as part of an exhibition at the end of this week. The reasons they are unfinished are myriad and typical. Due to some major deadlines looming at work work (as opposed to home work) I won't be able to take any time away from the day job to complete them. Just one of the many joys of trying to run two careers simultaneously.

So the situation asks the following of me: do I pull a few all-nighters and get the work complete or do I bow down to circumstance and concede defeat in this case?

A complicated enough question to be sure but have I mentioned that I am a high functioning, controlling perfectionist?

I feel like I have been here many times before. It's the queasy feeling of being at the bottom of a steep hill and knowing that, before you can relax, there is a hike in front of you. I have this feeling when I wake up on a Monday and realise that alongside the day job, there are three classes to teach, two social engagements and an extra evening to work at the gallery for a preview. It's the feeling of being in a sorry mess entirely of my own making because I have said yes to too many things. And I say yes from the best possible hopeful excited place. A place that wants to cherish my friends, exhibit my work, support other artists and generally just have a lovely time. The thing is, these days there is always a hill and there is always a hike. I don't think it should be like that.

So, how am I supposed to intuitively know when to push and when to let go?

Because to me letting go feels like failing. It feels like flaking out. It feels like sorry and I'm not good enough. It feels like letting someone down. It feels like letting me down.

I think the answer to this might be in how I've phrased the first question- maybe it's not about bowing down to circumstances and conceding defeat. Maybe it's about committing to taking care of your self in spite of everything life throws at you and the stuff you throw at yourself.

What if instead letting go felt like the most glorious white space of nothing? What if it felt like honouring the body and its shouty protests and resting? What if I don't need to complete four new pieces of work because, hang on! I have plenty of work I can hang instead?! It doesn't have to be shiny, new and brilliant all the time.

What if instead it feels like Rach, it's okay because this isn't your only chance.

Because here is the thing: in the past, every time I pushed to achieve something it's because I believed that the opportunity to do so wouldn't come around again. And that maybe it had been a mistake for me to get even this opportunity in the first place so I had better grab it and make it count before they find out.

I believed that I was on some kind of trajectory and that if I paused, even for a second, I would simply drop out of orbit and find myself back to where I was five years ago. On my sofa, two stone heavier, pizza in one hand, wine in the other.

Todays' exercise in rewriting my (skewed, neurotic, scarcity complex addled) belief system is one of the first steps in learning to trust myself. To trust that I have my back and I can rely on my own internal HR department to let me know when I need to ease up and book some holiday. And getting to the weekend with a gigantic caffeine hangover because I pushed myself to finish some paintings is the quickest way to undermine that and prove otherwise.

So I am going to throw a little white space in to my week. Eat something delicious for dinner. Hang out at my desk and see if I can maybe complete one painting whilst watching Harry Potter. Wrap some old work ready to dispatch and have an early night, simply because I'm tired and I feel like it. And I trust myself.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Blackbird singing

Out of the office window I can see the canal boats drift past and the cafĂ© tables begin to fill with people. Not people enjoying post work drinks as it's a bit too early, but coffee drinkers, the retired with their papers and their halves of bitter. The young men who come out of the woodwork when the English weather turns sunny. It's barely 17° but the smell of sweat is lingering and there are pints of lager and any minute now someone will remove an item of clothing.

Because I've had an extended weekend, I have returned to hundreds of emails. I quickly feel anxious and overwhelmed and then I remember my mantra for when the day job fills me with feelings of less than and not enough. I am just a woman doing things on her job description. I have many variations of this mantra, for use in times of stress, when a panic attack begins to prickle at the back of my neck I am just a woman walking across a car park, I am just a woman buying milk, I am just a woman sending an email. I find reducing my circumstances to the most basic of descriptions infinitely soothing.

Upstairs in one of the conference rooms a local singing quartet rehearse. The songs filter through to my office and though I can't quite make out the words I know them anyway:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

I am thinking about the half bottle of yellow, resiny wine left in my fridge. Tonight I will chop vegetables and make stew. After that I might write for a while. I will finish a painting. I will use my voice even though to do so feels fraught with a hundred unseen evils as well as those I feel familiar with; disappointment, failure, judgement. I will do it anyway. I am just a woman writing a blog. I am just a blackbird singing.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Writing it out loud

The last month of 2014 and the first two of 2015 have bought me to my knees.
I am a heart on my sleeve kind of person, melancholy and introspective and, like a lot of people, I always find Januarys and Februarys tough. They are tough.

I don't talk about my experience of anxiety and depression here because I am a control freak. I like to keep things in their little boxes. This blog is for art and joy and looking forwards. But I want to be whole and in order to be whole the bad must be embraced along with the good. And the bad very often moves us forwards and allows us to grow in ways we never would have anticipated and I'm afraid that if I don't talk about this my voice will continue to fade.

So this is a post dedicated to the blip, the bit-of-a-wobble, the feeling-a-bit-down, the black dog and the blues. And here are some things about me and my experiences of late...

I am incredibly sensitive but recently I feel like everyone else got handed armour to see them through life and that, not only did I not get that armour, I am missing a layer of skin as well. I am a bundle of exposed nerve endings. I cry, like, a lot. Over anything. Something on the news, a line in a book, it doesn't take much to set me off. I cry when I am angry, I cry when I am tired. I cry when I am stressed. I cry when I feel vulnerable and unsafe and also when I am joyful and moved. Sometimes it feels like a superpower, to be so in tune with everything around me. Sometimes I would just like to be able to get through an episode of Paul O'Grady's For The Love Of Dogs.

I suffer from anxiety. I think I always have. Over the last few years it has got quite bad. This is because of big, good life shifts. And some other not so nice stuff too. My brain has wired itself a certain way. Actually- I have wired it a certain way, and now I am trying to unwire it. CBT, mindfulness, meditation. I'm chucking everything at it. Some of it is actually sticking.

Sometimes I can convince myself that not only will everyone I love die horribly but that it's happening right this second. I can get to the weekend and have grieved my loved ones several times over. I will have written countless mental eulogies. It's exhausting. I call them panic attacks but really they are more like grief attacks. Terminology aside, it's pretty much the same thing that's happening- cortisol and adrenaline flood my system and then my body struggles to right itself.

The results of this are long weeks when all I want to do is sleep. I can't seem to finish the page of a book. That's usually when I begin to realise that something is very wrong. Not when I am sat in bath crying and hyperventilating but when I lose the ability to read. When I get in from work I put on my pyjamas and get in to bed. I get around 10 hours sleep a night.

My body has lots of strange reactions to the hormones flooding my system. I get a horrible rash on my legs. I have psoriasis behind my left ear. Despite teenage levels of bed rest, put quite simply, I look like hell. I self isolate. Friends email or text me are you okay? I haven't heard from you in a while...

So yeah. January was a lot of fun this year. But some things have helped and continue to help...

I rewrite the internal monologue that berates me for being in this place again simply because it's not the same place. Or rather, it is but the view is slightly different. I feel that each twist into darkness brings with it the possibility of finding out something new and valuable, then my moods begin to drift upwards and the sun shines again only this time I know something deeply important about myself. Some new layer has been revealed. I worry that I romanticise these journeys into the shadow self because I make it sound indulgent because it's not all golden and we don't all have a flowery vocabulary to hang on this experience and God, some people are really struggling out there and don't have access to my Neals' Yard sponsored therapy centre with its aromatherapy diffusers and Buddha cards. Who the fuck am I to talk about anxiety, I don't even know what it's like to have real problems. Sometimes my internal monologue adopts the tone of a right wing Daily Mail reader. All this aside, these days there is a lot less self judgement and more self noticing. A little more kindness and a lot more humour because, frankly, the shit my brain comes up with? It's so absurd it has to be funny.

I take a long look at my eating habits. Sugar, caffeine and alcohol all exacerbate my symptoms and I am quick to abuse them when I'm feeling delicate. I try to be gentle with myself. I notice that the times I reach for the sugar correspond with the times happily coupled up folks would usually be getting a hug. Coming home from work, in bed on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I am replacing physical affection with food. My instinct is to berate myself for this but instead I try talking to myself as I would a friend, Rach, you have been single for years. Of course you want some affection. If chocolate helps, have the fucking chocolate. But maybe get the really good quality dark stuff so you're not sending your blood sugar levels loopy.

I reach out if I can. And if I can't reach I shuffle closer to the people I need to be around until I can eventually tap their arm. My mum. My doctor. Sometimes reaching isn't a grand gesture but a series of tiny movements. Last year I tried anti depressants for the first time having been offered them six times before. I don't know what to say other than that they worked. Very quickly in fact. I remember lying in bed one morning and thinking I might plant a herb garden and then I actually got up and planted a herb garden. I didn't agonise over where to by soil from, how I was going to get it home, whether I would accidentally kill everything, what I would wear to the garden centre etc etc. I had parsley and thyme and rosemary all summer. Taking anti depressants is a very personal choice for people and, for many many reasons, I didn't stay on them too long. I am very high functioning and I say this without any pride at all because I struggle on even when it injures me further to do so. But I do feel that as long as I am getting out of bed and still finding joy I will be okay. And I know that if I need them there is a doctor on hand to walk me through it.

I want to end this long ramble by saying that I am really okay. During the last month I have felt my heart swell a bit with each new day and this weekend I feel good, actually really good. I am reading proper books again. Big ones with weighty themes. I bake cakes, last weekend I even made hot cross buns. I feel lighter than I have in months. Also, I've just seen the trailer for Pitch Perfect 2. So really, things are looking up.