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Too much and not enough


I live in an area where the scream of an emergency vehicle’s siren is such a rare occurrence that I think about each and every one I hear.

I might hear one a day in the summer, when the population momentarily swells with holidaymakers, and wonder if a child has fallen on rocks, or someone has crashed driving too fast around a corner on our narrow lanes or if people are trapped in a burning building. I’ll take a few seconds to remember where each of my children currently is and if it might be one of them. I will think about the day our son came off his bike and landed on his head and my stomach will flip with remembered anxiety. I will think about the respective times my father was rushed into hospital with angina and a head injury and I will think about who I know that might have a heart attack or a fall. Has my mother fallen down the stairs in her cluttered house? Has my mother-in-law had breathing difficulties again? Is it a fire engine, a police car or an ambulance and where are they going?

When my father was receiving treatment at The Royal Marsden hospital in Chelsea I would speak to him every day on the phone and I could hear a siren in the background every minute. Each one of those sirens symbolised pain, death, heartache, violence, fire, and fear to me and I wondered how people cope living with those sounds constantly.

I wonder now how long it would take me to get used to it if I lived in a city. How long before I would have to put up a barrier, block out my empathy, sympathy, worry for others and just let those sounds of pain, death, heartache, violence, fire and fear be background noise in order to survive. You can’t be worried, anxious, distressed and empathetic all the time. It’s not possible and it’s not healthy.
Maybe we shouldn’t be living in situations where we have to though. Maybe being overexposed to an excess of human suffering means we switch off too much. Do we become desensitised?

In the nearest town to where I live the few homeless people there are remain relatively hidden. You’d have to actively go looking for them. I know they are there because I’ve read about them but I don’t know where they sleep. Occasionally there’ll be someone asking for change in a shop doorway and it’s so rare I do give them money. I couldn’t give money to every homeless person if I lived in a major city though. After a period of guilt and discomfort I suppose I would just learn to walk past them faster like everyone else.

The news from all over the world is available to us constantly. If we choose to we can read about violence, famine, drought, destruction of rainforests, bloody revolutions, religious hatred, murder, evil dictators, the regular reports of the complete cock-up the government are making of the NHS, schools and welfare all day and every day. Or if we choose we can completely block all of that because ‘there’s just too much sadness in the world’ and read about which celebrities have had a baby or lost weight, who’s broken a rule in a football match, who’s won one of the ridiculous number of talent shows on TV or whether Adele’s voice is all better now…

I wonder if we know too much now. If we share too much. Is it becoming necessary to distract ourselves more and more from the constant distress? Do we become fixated on pointless things – while refusing to believe they are pointless – in order to fill our hearts and minds with lighter emotions? Has life become a series of shallow, petty obsessions about appearances and fancy things, sport and light entertainment to jolly up our sad world?

Everything’s become too big for all of us. Is that it? It’s too overwhelming. It’s not manageable, so we switch off?

I live in a village popular for weddings and I think about the wedding bells each time I hear them. I think about love and commitment and new beginnings and how wonderful love and marriage can be when they work out. I think about nerves and excitement and promise. But I can never help myself thinking, I hope they haven’t put everything on this one day; I hope it’s not just thousands of pounds on showing off and a dress and flowers never to be seen again and food for hundreds of people who they hardly know. I hope they’ve thought about the rest of their lives and the serious commitment and the future.

I often wonder what people are really thinking about. Is everyone constantly trying not to think about anything really serious? And I wonder what I am actually achieving by thinking about serious things.

True Love


Will you still love me when I’m ugly?

You are ugly

And you love me?

Yes

Will you still love me when I’m old?

You are old

And you love me?

Yes

Will you love me when I’m wrinkly?

You are wrinkly

And you love me?

Yes

When I’m embarrassing?

You are

And you…?

Yes

Was I ever beautiful…? And not embarrassing?

No

And you’ve always loved me?

Yes

Well I wish you’d said something

What? And spoil your fun?

Safety in numbers

The person with the new and different idea is wrong!
The person with the new and different idea is wrong!

We are unfamiliar with this way of thinking. It is too new!

We must keep repeating old mantras
We must keep repeating old mantras

The person with the new and different idea must be made to fit!
And if they don’t fit they shall be outcast, dismissed, looked at curiously and slightly sideways.

The person with the new and different idea is questioning our ways!
The person with the new and different idea is questioning our convictions!

This person dares to ask us for evidence that our ways are best and the different idea might be wrong!
But we don’t need evidence for common knowledge.
What a fool…

There are more of us.
We all agree
The person with the new and different idea can not be right.

But the person with the new and different idea is putting that idea into practice!
The person with the new and different idea is not failing!

We will ignore the not failing part and concentrate on old mantras.

That way will not work
That way will not work

The old ways are the best

Alternative ways of thinking are too scary

We must keep repeating old mantras
We must keep repeating old mantras

I heard someone actually tried that in another country and it might have been okay, quite good even… Old mantras? Right… No it doesn’t fit those…
We’ll shout them loudly so the person with the new and different idea can’t be heard.

There is a time for everything?

To every thing there is a reason, and a time for daily tasks which must be done.

A time to get up, a time to wash; a time to cook, and a time to eat what has been cooked.
A time to do that which earns money, and a time to do that which helps the family; a time to talk, and a time to keep silent.
A time to wash clothes, a time to hang those clothes to dry; a time to grow vegetables, and a time to despair when they fail in bad weather.
A time to feed the dog, and a time to walk the dog; a time to take photographs, and a time to exercise.
A time to listen to the news, a time to listen to music; a time to cry at sad memories, and a time to smile at happy memories.
A time to log in to Facebook, a time to log in to Twitter; a time to deal with emails, and a time to deal with websites.
A time to make lists, and a time to live free of lists, a time to watch TV, and a time to read a book.
A time to sit, and a time to think; a time to look in the mirror and say,

‘Why have you stopped writing, Rachel?’

On The Button

I’m celebrating 2 years since my first attempt at flash fiction by sharing that first story from July 2010 (which is in fact more like a short story than a flash)
(Isn’t it funny – and rather worrying – how only 2 years ago I thought of sponsored academies as fictitious)

‘Zophar, listen.’ Luna crouched before him on the pavement. ‘You can get out whenever you want, okay?’
Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
‘Did you Anti-Germ your hands?’
Another nod.
‘Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?’
Zophar patted his backpack.
‘And mask? Remember which pocket?’
More nodding.

His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
‘Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.’ He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground. ‘One last button test, perhaps Luna?’ he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
‘Yes. Quick button run-though,’ said Luna. Tell me again.’
‘Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.’ Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list. ‘Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.’ He touched his cuffs next. ‘Panic buttons. Now can I go?’ The five-year-old jiggled impatiently.
‘Anytime at all, if you are worried,’ continued Luna, ‘if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?’
‘I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?’
‘Okay.’ Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. ‘Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!’ She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. ‘And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!’

Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. ‘Good luck. Come home safely,’ she whispered.

Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being.

This was better than birthdays. There were other children here.

The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
‘Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,’ came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of ‘I want to go home,’ ‘I don’t like this,’ while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. ‘They’ll soon get domesticated,’ she had said. ‘Everyone learns eventually.’

Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. ‘I can hold my breath loads longer than that.’
‘Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,’ said another boy.
‘He goes swimming?! Wow…’ Zophar stared.
‘Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.’ The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. ‘Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.’
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.

‘Why are your buttons so big?’
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
‘No! Don’t!’
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
‘Please wait until your car arrives,’ said a voice.

From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. ‘And remember:’ she said, ‘shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.’

Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.

Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.


This story is now published as an e-story from Ether Books:

(N.B. Thanks to Norman Geras – @normblog , who very kindly supplied me with the inspired prompt word: “prompt” when I asked on Twitter!)

Are we really nicer “off-line”?

Do social networks change us?
Do they cause more rows?
Do we feel safer “having a go” online?
Perhaps people seem less “real” and we think can forget our manners online… Perhaps we push things a little further than we would in a face-to-face situation? It’s okay to fight with someone we’ll probably never meet, right? Maybe the part of us that normally says, ‘Leave it now, don’t forget his mum does your mum’s hair,’ doesn’t come into play in online interaction.

Maybe people really are nicer to people that they physically spend time with than those they meet online because they don’t really care about those with whom they social-network. That’s why there is so much more animosity online than you would see, say, between people chatting together in a coffee shop, right?

Well, no, I don’t think so.

I think it’s something else: I think outside of social-networking – in the “real” world if you will – interactions are more about body language, powerful voices, confident speakers, even accents perhaps… I think presence often dominates over content and the Internet takes away unfair advantages, meaning we don’t have to let go of issues that we really care about.

I think the Internet provides a level playing field. Those fears, concerns about our appearances, a lack of confidence, a speech impediment, an accent, worries that we won’t be listened to or respected and tens of other physical/social reasons get in the way of us being convincing or feeling like we’re being convincing. These things don’t matter or exist online.

I suspect a lot of people arguing online are not just arguing with the person they are interacting with – they are releasing arguments they have had to internalise when they’ve been overwhelmed, or quietened by a louder character or felt swamped in the physical world. For all its problems the Internet is freeing, it’s fairer, it brings us into contact with people we may never have met because of age, culture, location, or people we may have avoided meeting because of pre-conceived ideas about appearances.

There always has to be a last word though. Face-to-face disagreements generally end before things get too heated. We can physically see if someone’s going to shout us down, try to make us look like a fool, out-wit us with speedier reactions. Or we can tell that we’re going too far and risk losing our audience. And a verbal disagreement often can be interrupted or diverted naturally. We can get distracted or cause our own distractions in face-to-face. In an online chat this stopping seems to be a problem.

Real life, face-to-face situations may seem more pleasant but they are probably only more pleasant on the surface. People are just not always saying what they think. To a point this is surely a good thing. Yes, some things are best left unsaid. And there has to be a point at which we let someone else have the last word – even if we feel they are wrong, or they have insulted our intelligence by misinterpreting what we have said. Otherwise it doesn’t stop. We can end up defending ourselves and not our position.

Online we probably don’t shut up soon enough.

In face-to-face we often shut up too soon because we are not confident enough to defend a point-of-view.

I know which I think is worse.


I didn’t want this post to be about me, but I am adding my personal experience from the comments (below) here so that you can see where I’m coming from:

In over 12 years of online communicating I have come across many situations where things have been said that I know I wouldn’t have been involved with offline. That was the whole point of this: to emphasise that online conversations – on the whole – are good and useful and freeing.

I had one friend at school with whom I felt I could be myself and argue safely with. We were very close friends despite being polls apart politically. When she left at 15 I had no one that I felt safe to argue with. I’ve spent my life feeling dominated and frustrated by other people’s physical presence – even most of my family and my in-laws – so have sat through SO many discussions quietly whilst screaming in my head that I disagree or have an alternative viewpoint. I can’t emphasise enough how big of a problem it’s been for me.

3 years working in a pub taught me a lot about human behaviour too and I noticed a lot of bullshitters dominating discussions whilst quiet clever people looked on. It’s absolutely astounding how many people are fooled by physical presence, or a well-spoken or loud voice.
It wasn’t until I began using online forums with the OU in 2000 that I began to find the security to argue again. But it took time and I made a lot of mistakes, and I still go back to scaredy Rachel in face-to-face situations.

I love the Internet for taking away the bullshitters’ unfair advantage – I call it cheating – of drowning out other people or talking down to them. I wouldn’t even be able to begin counting the number of times a tone of voice has stopped me dead and I’ve allowed someone to “win” (only in their tiny little minds though!) just because they are overbearing. It happens all the time.

I did a psychology course in 2010 and a chunk of the course was about computer-mediated-communication. One of the course tutors remarked (it may have been mine, but I never have anything to do with the tutors!) that an online social life is no substitution for a real social life. And THAT’S why I wrote this post – because I think it can be a VERY good substitution for a “real” social life so long as we remember that we are still dealing with real people and it is actually “real”.

Even online I still think some ignorant and stubborn people have an unfair advantage, perhaps, because you’ll never get them to understand your thinking and you simply have to give up. There will have to be times when I state my opinion and leave it because I’m getting nowhere or I have been misunderstood. It feels like you’re letting someone win and so I find that very hard (perhaps compounded by the fact that it’s been happening all my life and so I LOATHE having my intelligence insulted!) but it’s one of the most important skills of online communication: to know when to let go, and I’ve noticed recently that I’m getting much better at it. 🙂

Beating Dave With a Banana

Or: Being a ‘What if…?’
“Because it is egotistical, controlling, over-inflated, self-important & meddles & ruins all things good, I think I’ll call my anxiety Dave,” I tweeted this morning.
And then I remembered Jo had recommended that I eat bananas. (Thanks, Jo, if you read this!) So I fetched a banana and wondered why it would do me good. I looked it up on the Internet and found out about the benefits of bananas to our mental health.
I have a mental health problem: I suffer from anxiety.

Anxiety is a rotten thing.

For me it’s also a constant thing.

I live in a permanently anxious state. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am. It’s somehow linked to my furtive imagination, and sometimes that can work in my favour and be a benefit (and, I hope, perhaps to those around me too on occasion), but sometimes it works against me. I come from anxious, imaginative parents so it’s bound to have rubbed off or been passed down or both. Most of the time it’s bearable and I wouldn’t recognise myself if I woke up one morning and wasn’t repeatedly taking the real into an unreal place anymore. Being a ‘What if…?’ person is the best part of me. (Well, it’s the part I like best anyway!) Everyday things can be turned into adventures. News stories can be turned into fictional stories. There’s a feeling that nothing is impossible. When I see that positive side of us ‘What if…?’ people in others I realise that the world needs quiet imaginative people having sometimes crazy, sometimes useful creative ideas.

But I have times when it can be more extreme. And ‘What if…?’ isn’t very helpful. In fact it’s downright disruptive. I am on edge all the time and far too easily startled. I hate surprises and sudden noises. If I have more than a split second to think about doing something I take the possibilities further than they need to go so that I am imagining myself in a situation where I am unable to cope or incapable of being myself or presenting myself normally. Put simply: I imagine deaths, accidents, public embarrassment, failure; I imagine anything that could go wrong but also things that couldn’t possibly go wrong. I might find myself feeling increasingly overwhelmed by an impending social situation, for example – something that is, to others, normal and everyday. I can actually freeze for a whole day if I know I have something vaguely socially demanding to do in the evening. Or I can lie awake all night practising in my mind how I will get everything done if I have a lot to do the next day. I believe a lot of people do this but perhaps not to a point where they become unable to function properly. If I have guests I will be so busy worrying whether everyone has everything they need and if the towel needs changing in the loo that I become unable to make conversation – and I will have worried myself stupid that exactly that would happen! But I can’t stop it because I find myself physically as well as mentally overwhelmed. And that’s the other problem: anxiety comes with a whole host of physical complaints. Headaches, sleepiness, shakes, skin problems, stomach pains and digestive problems, hot flushes, caffeine intolerance, weak muscles… The urge to crawl away and sleep in a dark corner comes over me as an answer to all my problems regularly.

For most of my life I haven’t talked about this because I didn’t even admit it to myself. When I started to notice at some point in my childhood that I seemed to need more time out than other kids I didn’t want it discussed, I just wanted to be left alone. As a teenager, dominated by hormones, I fought against the anxiety and tried to block the imagined disasters for a while and tried to be more outgoing, more active, but I look back now and realise my trying-to-be-normal behaviour was just daft and out-of-character. My life seemed to be full of much nervous garbling and much exhaustion. So worried was I by my own silences I thought I had to fill them by speaking tosh.

Still in denial – and possibly rather afraid of the outcome of any self-analysis – I struggled to maintain what I perceived as normality by watching others. I copied patterns of behaviour that didn’t necessarily feel comfortable for me but that’s what we humans do, isn’t it: try to fit in with majority behaviour? The fact that I would often find myself pacing up and down the sitting room crying and biting my fingers until they bled didn’t suggest to me that I was becoming a little like a caged animal by denying myself my instinctive behaviour, no – strangely, I would just move on and pretend it hadn’t happened and carry on looking to others for clues.

But it was when I started to get the more frightening ‘What if…?’ disaster feelings every day about three years ago, that I started to worry about myself and wonder if it would ever stop. I compared myself with people who wrote about their food intolerances, depression, bipolarism, and saw similarities, but not enough to feel that any of those were what I was struggling through. Why was I so frightened all the time? Something told me this wasn’t about needing medication, major life-style changes or forcing myself out of this. I began to feel that this was more to do with understanding and accepting something rather than fighting. But understanding what?
Starting writing helped. It helped a lot and it has continued to help. Throw a lot of ‘What if…?’ situations into a short story and Hey Presto! my imagination’s had a little outing and it’s happy and bothers me with less with the madness, and I’m happy because I’ve created something and have given myself a present. Separating the real from the imagined like that is therapeutic, I’ve found. But what also helped was taking writing courses that included life-writing. Hesitant and embarrassed at first, I was convinced I had to nothing to say, nothing that anyone else would be interested in, but a wealth of strong emotions and memories came tumbling out. There was a lot of guilt in there: guilt for not appreciating my father while he was still alive, there was an enormous sense of loss that I hadn’t dealt with, but there was a surprising amount of childlike vulnerability that I didn’t recognise and wasn’t sure if I liked it.

And then recently I discovered the connection between grief and anxiety. My anxiety had become slowly worse just after my father had died. (It seems crazy now – that I hadn’t made this connection but I suppose when you are not only denying that you have a problem but that you are worthy of any analysis you are not looking for solutions.)
I had anxiety. Of course! It was okay to accept that, and in doing so to begin to manage my life a little bit better around it. So now I know that when I am being irrational by imagining the worst too often it is because I have suffered a great loss in my life.

But all this has opened up some very very old wounds indeed and made me understand something about myself that I had been blocking for nearly forty years…

Thirty-nine years ago, when I was three years old, my 13-month-old sister, Beatrice, died.

I rarely talk about the death of my baby sister. I don’t like to “use” her (for want of a better word) or my family. I don’t feel like I own the monopoly on the pain that her death left. My parents, of course, were totally devastated when she died and I always felt that the greatest portion of the pain belonged to them. I also felt that my sisters have suffered in their own very different and individual ways because of what happened to our family, and I couldn’t take my own loss and discuss it separately. It’s been a bit of a taboo, I suppose. But the life-writing, the feelings after my father’s death, reading about anxiety, and the sudden increase in fear and the childlike feelings that were emerging made me remember dreams I had when I was four: I kept dreaming that my new baby sister was going to get hurt. Bad, bad things had happened and could happen again, I must have thought. This must have given way to the extreme and terrifying dreams. Too young to realise or explain my fears I suppose I absorbed them and turned them into dreams and now they are part of who I am: anxious.

Today had Debilitating Anxiety written all over it from the start. I’m not sure what the trigger was (perhaps concern about my Open University degree) but I knew it wasn’t just regular anxiety – it was Dave. I began to blow everything out of proportion. So, I ate the banana. I organised my thoughts. I gave myself permission to write.

There’s a still a young, vulnerable part of me who needs to express those emotions she bottled up for so long, but I’m feeling less anxious already just because I’m accepting everything.

And because I ate a banana, I expect

🙂

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