An update on my “journey”

I previously wrote about trying to conceive, and the setback of being diagnosed with endometriosis. When I last wrote several months ago I wasn’t sure of the extent of the problem, or what (if any) help might be needed.

I eventually got a copy of the surgeon’s report and learned exactly where all my endometriosis is. My bowels, bladder, appendix and other other digestive organs seem to be fine – it’s mainly just the reproductive bits that are riddled with scar tissue and stuck together.

At the follow-up appointment in July, the doctor advised that IVF was an appropriate way forward, without treatment of the endo, and that we qualified for a couple of cycles on the NHS. The waiting time is a year, so we could go on the waiting list, keep trying, and have time to mull over the IVF option properly. So we went with that.

I thought about what I could do that might help my body beat back the disease. I went on a gluten-free diet in August, and started gearing up for a fitness drive. I don’t know whether it was just a coincidence but I felt better in August than I had for months: full of energy, like I could walk all day long.

But I never got to continue my experimentation with diet, nor did I buy that FitBit and start properly working out, because on a holiday in Spain in early September, this happened:

Positive pregnancy test

Needless to say, we were shocked! I’ve taken a lot of tests but I’d never seen that second line before. My first feeling on seeing it appear was actually confusion: what is this?! Quickly followed by hyperventilation… delight and terror in equal measure.

I’m now 15 weeks along, and I guess I should feel reasonably hopeful that I will actually have a healthy baby in my arms around next May. The miscarriage risk is higher with endometriosis, but should have dropped to very small by now. The risks of various other complications are also higher. I will need to educate myself more, but also remember my Stoic practices. It’s all too easy to become overwhelmed with concern over uncertainties that cannot be controlled.

As fortunate as I feel to be in this position, I must admit I have not enjoyed pregnancy so far. The first trimester has been grim. Really grim! Around 6 weeks I was struck down by what I thought was a virus, but turned out to be pregnancy rhinitis (who knew that was a thing? Still sneezing 9 weeks later!) coupled with the yucky, shivery cloud of exhaustion that would hang over me for months. I have hardly been able to do anything besides work, spending so many evenings holed up under a blanket, sleeping almost all weekend sometimes. A 10-minute walk can wipe me out. Even now I am desperately awaiting my second trimester renewed energy… it’s not here yet! At least the powerful nausea has gone. There are other weird and wonderful symptoms that probably will not go: a desperate aching thirst and horrible taste in my mouth; strong, off-rhythm palpitations that occur when I lie down as my heart struggles to deal with the extra volume of blood in my body.

All in all it has put me to the test like nothing else has. Is it my age, am I too old for this? Fasting the month of Ramadan was a walk in the park by comparison; doing a full day’s work after insomnia robbed me of any more than a couple of hours’ sleep, no problem. I thought I was strong and capable. But the relentlessness of the struggle to carry on daily life these last few months has really worn me down at times.

It doesn’t help that the outcome of the pregnancy has to be regarded as pretty uncertain for the whole first trimester. To think that it could all be for nothing! And because of this fact, we have developed this compelling cultural taboo around making the pregnancy known until after the 12-week scan – which leaves you somewhat isolated in your suffering and having to try and hide the effects. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cruel, complicated effects of our collective phobia of bad news – and Brene Brown’s thinking around this.

(Actually, I told quite a few people: people it felt natural to tell; people whose support I would need, anyway, if something went wrong. I even gave in and told my work team around 10 weeks – although that did feel strange – but I felt I needed to offer some explanation for why I was so off-colour; oh and, of course, the early morning crisps-and-diet-coke binges and the ridiculous stash of comfort food on my desk!😆

Crisps, nuts, cookies, chocolate, fizzy sweets

)

As for how I feel about becoming a mum now, I can’t say my ambivalence has totally settled. It’s hard to feel excited when you’re feeling so rough, and there have definitely been some spells of “Oh my God what have we done?!”. But I’m glad it is happening. I am ready for this journey – or as ready as I’ll ever be🙂 I surprised myself with a flood of adoration at the sight of our baby’s face in profile on the ultrasound. Those scan pictures never really meant much to me before, but it turns out when it’s a baby we have made together, it’s just so, so precious. Being given newborn clothes and other items by my mum has also triggered a peculiar rush of blissful disbelief – accompanied by a ramped-up dread of the worst happening, as if it is simply too much good fortune to really be happening to me. It’s never been easy to picture myself having a child, for many reasons; but it wasn’t easy to believe that buying a home or finding a job I could thrive in would happen either: at least a part of it is just my habitual belief that things I might want are out of my reach. I guess the silver lining of such a pessimism is how amazing it feels when it starts to look like you were wrong.

Posted in endometriosis, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Muslim Reformation?

I recently read ‘Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now‘ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book is an attempt to persuade Western liberals to stop regarding Islamist violence as a politically-motivated aberration that has nothing to do with true Islam; to recognise that movements such as IS do in fact draw from the core texts and tenets of the religion, and that therefore, the only way to stop them proliferating is for Islam to undergo a Reformation in which the faith is reinterpreted and revised for the present day. In her view this would have to mean letting go of some core doctrines, such as belief in the Qur’an as the absolute and infallible word of God.

Well, I found the book frustratingly shallow. There was no recognition at all of the complex interplay between global politics and religion: she notes that Hassan al-Banna – who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – wanted a return to a precolonial era, but she does not discuss the effect of colonialism at all. She cites that “Pew found that 91 percent of Iraqi Muslims and 99 percent of Afghan Muslims supported making sharia their country’s official law”, noting that these countries “are considered to be transitioning to democracy” but failing to note the glaringly obvious thing these countries have in common: recent invasion by Western coalitions.

She is in thrall to the West, and seems to take a very rose-tinted view of its actions: she contrasts the cult of martyrdom in IS with “in the Judeo-Christian world … the concept of self-sacrifice as a noble act when it aims to preserve the lives of others. In the United States, we expect the men and women of our armed forces to be willing to die to protect their fellow citizens.” In other words, self-sacrifice in Islam is aggressive in nature while in the West it is benevolent and only concerned with saving others. This is laughable.

Her arguments about the nature of early Islam as a conquering, expanding empire, and the way that that has fused a political model into the religion, did ring true for me. It’s clear that IS is an attempt to recreate the Islamic empire of old, although I’m sure it is a mistaken one in many ways.

I think the legacy of the rise and decline of an Islamic imperial power also makes Western infractions – colonialism, greed-motivated invasions of oil-rich Muslim nations, support for the occupation of Palestine – sting all the worse for Muslims. It has left a sense of solidarity across the Muslim world that amplifies their grievances and deepens the fault line between East and West.

But Western nations are trying to hang on to a threatened hegemony too. In many ways I feel that the Muslim world holds a mirror up to the West and we don’t like what we see, but we refuse to recognise ourselves in it. There is a somewhat analogous pattern of solidarity across Western nations that shows itself in our huge, demonstrative sympathetic responses to terrorist attacks in Western countries (the flags overlaid on Facebook profile pictures and so on), and comparative silence over the continual attacks suffered in the rest of the world. We seem barely aware of this selective solidarity, let alone able to see it as a threatening thing. And yes, there are violent, extremist fringes in our crumbling empires too. The Brexit referendum has unleashed an ugliness that has shocked a lot of people.

There is a nastiness that comes with the memory of lost power. Moral superiority is easy when you’re still on top. We pride ourselves on our liberal tolerance, our practical shows of solidarity with the most marginalised, disadvantaged or oppressed groups; but to some extent, this is made possible by idealising those people in their powerlessness. As soon as they make a move to empower themselves in a way that makes us feel unsafe, we have a problem. For British liberals this can just as easily apply to disenfranchised, marginalised Brexit voters as to radical Islamists.

Having said that, though, I would certainly rather live in a country that clings to a liberal identity (however flawed and arrogant it may be) than one that clings to a religious identity.

And I suppose this gets at the heart of why I was drawn to read the book: I may be one of those “misguided” Western liberals that insists global power dynamics are relevant to discussions about terrorism and freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also agree with Ayaan in finding aspects of sharia law deeply problematic, and strongly value the rights afforded to women, gay people and religious minorities in the West. What should we do with these feelings? Is white guilt making Western liberals come up with too many excuses; is it even perhaps condescending to maintain that an equal exchange of ideas is not possible?

During the EU referendum campaign, technical arguments were rejected out of hand by many because they came from “elites” – that is, they came from power, and the desire to resist and take back power was stronger than anything else. If Muslim countries are increasingly adopting sharia as a reaction against Western imperialism, trying to restore a unifying identity and come out of the West’s shadow post-colonialism, what influence can non-Muslim Westerners possibly have? Does a Muslim Reformation only stand a chance if non-Muslims stay out of the conversation?

 

Posted in Humanism, politics, social justice | 3 Comments

On parenthood: longings and fears

Part of the magic of having a child for many people surely is underlining a union with a beloved partner – preserving it forever in the double helix, to borrow from a poetic Jewel lyric. The entwining goes beyond the partners to the wider family members. It is marvellous to think that a decision to have a child will mean the creation of many new loving familial bonds; that it means the creation of a grandchild, a niece or nephew, a cousin. Births are to be celebrated: they keep the family tree growing and dynamic; they counter-balance the onward march of ageing and death. Children bring joy because they feed the primary human meaning-making machine that is family, offering new promise of love, connection and growth.

It’s also a scary prospect. Differences and disagreements can come into sharp relief in the raising of a child. Moreover, having a child means a one-way ticket into an important lifelong relationship with a person you haven’t met yet! What if they turn out to be someone quite different from who you imagined? We all know profound relationships are a risky enterprise, that they have the potential to make us very happy or very unhappy – but we keep on taking the risk, I suppose because on a deeper level, they are simply what human life is all about.

Raising children is very resource-intensive. That’s what I find hardest to swallow about it. I have a tendency to feel my resources are scarce (which in many ways they are), and to be terrified of insufficiency. Money, time, energy and sleep are all things I never quite feel I have enough of. I crave security: I want to feel my resources are more than adequate for what is required of me. Going hand-in-hand with this is a craving for calm, order, clean, tidiness; a craving to have everything under control, a futile desire for completion in a life-process of constant flux.

I don’t feel good about these cravings – in fact I feel shame about them. They feel like weakness. But there’s no point denying that having a baby represents a major challenge for me. I catch myself in ridiculous thoughts like “the coat hooks are full of our coats, where on earth would we hang a child’s coats?” I’m continually testing my fitness for parenthood, cross-examining myself and finding myself lacking. For a year I’ve been pre-emptively dealing with all of the stress without getting any of the joy. I’m exhausted already!

These fears fan the flames of my passionate belief in equal parenting. I see the intensification of the mother role and heightened expectations of mothers over recent decades as unhealthy, imbalanced. (Actually, having just read Of Woman Born, maybe it’s not such a recent thing.) It’s hard knowing that I would face an uphill struggle against prevailing culture trying to stave off the worst of its prescriptions – although, part of me also relishes the chance to be at the forefront of change.😉 But I’m aware that as a woman entering the institution of motherhood, I would all too easily find myself expending more of myself than my partner. I can only be realistic about that.

There is a difference between a mum and a dad. Anyone who has been raised by a mum and a dad knows this. It may not be biologically inevitable, but it is biologically kick-started by pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding, and culturally perpetuated by the reality that mum will take a long period of leave from work and dad won’t (the new shared parental leave arrangements don’t go far enough to change that), and mum will probably be the one (if any) to work part-time, cementing her status as the principal parent who manages all practicalities and knows how to meet every need of her child. So close is the resulting emotional bond between a mum and child that the child’s happiness becomes a major focus of her life.

Many women want to be mothers precisely because this picture appeals to them; and many mothers wouldn’t have it any other way, saying the rewards along the way are worth every sacrifice. In many ways I’m sure I would love being ‘mum’ – and sometimes I get a glimpse of how amazing that might feel. I don’t feel that love is a scarce resource. I’m just afraid of being overwhelmed by the practical demands of life, and of losing ‘myself’, whoever that is. But then, I suppose I am as well-equipped to find the right balance as I could hope to be.

And I might be fighting a losing battle with an inner uptight control freak, but it doesn’t seem right to discount parenthood based on feeling temperamentally unsuited to the chaos a small child brings. It’s easy to forget that it’s a journey of diverse phases. You think your decision is to have a child but years later that child is gone and a teenager is in its place. You think your decision is to embrace “family life” but in the end that family grows up and leaves, and depending where they go and what they do, your day-to-day life might not look all that different from that of the couple next door who didn’t have a family. But you will have very different memories; you will have an adult child in your life; and you will have learned – and continue to learn – so many different things about the world through witnessing the unfolding of their life, through their presence in yours. A decision on parenthood is a decision on all of this.

There are people for whom decisions about parenthood, religious belief, or career choice are plain sailing. I have never been one of them. I take longer, more torturous routes through life’s questions. But that’s who I am… and it’s OK.

Posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

A trying process

I once wrestled with religion, as my longest readers may remember; I spent a period of my life figuring out what I believed, or could believe. Nowadays, I’m wrestling with motherhood – with whether I can, and whether I should. In many ways it’s a similar process. For one thing, it’s plagued by anxiety: I’ve somehow managed to maintain a near-paralysing level of fear about being a parent at the same time as becoming desperately fixated on seeing a positive pregnancy test. (My partner, meanwhile, suffers from neither affliction. Maddening!)

Early on, I scared myself by stumbling across ‘trying-to-conceive’ forums. These have a culture of ruminating obsession, where posters think nothing of writing about various intimate bodily signposts, in a cryptic, acronym-filled language that I couldn’t even understand. The single-minded desperation that was being expressed there was not something I could relate to, nor did I want to.

But perhaps part of my horror reaction was that I knew I had it in me to be like that. The uncertainty of when and if, coupled with the succeed-or-fail nature of the monthly cycle of trying, waiting, and checking – these are the ingredients for neurosis. I was already concerned about a baby changing my life, and here was evidence that it could take over my life in an unhealthy way long before it was even conceived!

Trying to conceive is essentially a monthly gamble, and a fixation on “winning” can grow into a monstrous, disproportionate thing. To make matters worse, you are rolling a dice whose weightings are completely unknown. Every month is a rollercoaster ride of heady hope followed by crushing disappointment and the horrible suspicion that the odds may be much worse than you first assumed.

Because after all, when you don’t want to get pregnant, you operate under the assumption that even one little lapse in protection will be bad news. When you throw the protection in the bin and nothing happens, it naturally leads to a sense that something must be wrong.

The early days were quite intense. I lay awake at night grappling with the enormity of the knowledge that I might become pregnant soon. I daydreamed about having good news to share. I awoke early with random butterflies of excitement, as if it was Christmas. I found myself upset and worried, after just two or three months of trying. This disturbed me a lot. It seemed so pathetic, and considering that even being in a position to be trying is a privilege I’d waited a long time for, it seemed wrong to be feeling anything negative at all. (Not that it’s ever been possible to shame myself into feeling more positive, but I always try…!)

But I got used to the routine, and no longer think much about it, except at key points in each cycle. I check for the surge in my luteinising hormone right before ovulation; always fun at work peeing into a cup and dipping the little stick in. I can usually forget about it all for the following two weeks, but the beginning of a new cycle is always a blow, no matter how much I know it’s coming by then. I don’t put myself through the torment of pregnancy tests any more, except when I am looking forward to a big glass of wine.🙂

Unfortunately, prolonged uncertainty feels like instability. Every month is a fresh chance to change my mind and let the ever-present fears and doubts about parenthood get the better of me. They never actually do. But they go unchallenged, untested, and grow arms and legs and teeth. If I’d got pregnant when we first started trying, we’d have a baby by now, and I can’t help but think I’d be better off.

Instead, the clock ticks on, and I drift through life like a traveller stuck at an airport. I wake up on the weekend feeling empty and bleak, looking for anything I can occupy myself with that might feel a little bit worthwhile for a moment. I have become desperate for pregnancy, to relieve me from this suspended animation; to set me off on a journey again that, however frightening, will at least give me direction and purpose.

I couldn’t wait for the laparoscopy, which seemed like it would end this uncomfortable limbo. Clearly that hasn’t quite been the reality. It has made me aware, though, that it may not be enough to grit my teeth and wait like this. I may need to be prepared to undergo invasive medical procedures to have a chance of getting pregnant – and still live with considerable uncertainty and waiting.

Since it seems my drive to have a child only just trumped my doubts and fears to begin with, would a need for risky endometriosis excision be the final straw that breaks its back? Or is its tenacity in the face of so much fear just a sign that it cannot be snuffed out; that ultimately I will do almost anything I have to do to make it happen? I don’t know.

It just seems so unfair. The last thing this anxious over-thinker really needs is lots more time to anxiously over-think.

But I suppose this process can be thought of as a journey in itself, that, no matter the outcome, will teach me something about myself. Maybe I will come out the other side a little wiser, even a little happier. Here’s hoping.

Posted in endometriosis, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

On finding nirvana in the middle of the night in a hospital bed

Warning: this is a personal post reflecting on my experience of a laparoscopy to diagnose endometriosis and a night in hospital.

I had been worried the laparoscopy would be postponed due to the infuriating appearance of cold symptoms right before it. My temperature was slightly raised, but the nurse said that wouldn’t hold me back. The anaesthetist wasn’t concerned either by the mild cough or sore throat. I still wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t choke to death under the general anaesthetic, so I casually asked whether it would “be a problem” if there was catarrh in the back of my nose/throat. He replied that it wouldn’t be able to go anywhere it shouldn’t, as he would be putting a tube down my wind pipe anyway…! Apparently they don’t usually tell patients this…

I had been feeling fine about having the op, looking forward to getting clarity on whether I had endometriosis – and if so, getting it treated and moving on. But nerves did get the better of me when it came to walking into the anaesthetic room, getting on my trolley surrounded by scary-looking machines, hearing them prepping up the surgery room through the double doors at the other end… then hearing my heart beeping rapidly through a machine. The anaesthetist gave me a couple of shots of sedative to begin with, which immediately made me woozy and I remember commenting on that. And mercifully I think that’s about the last thing I remember.

Until some time later, opening my eyes at the sound of my name, my consciousness rebooting with no sense of temporal continuity; knowing I was in hospital but not immediately realising that I had had my surgery. I can’t be sure how much time passed between opening my eyes to nurses’ faces, and the appearance of my surgeon’s face and voice – it seemed immediate. I tried hard to record in memory what he was telling me. I had endometriosis; I should keep trying to get pregnant. Something about a problem with one of my tubes? I later thought I remembered being shown a photo, but couldn’t be sure.

DSC_0177The first hours of recovery passed quickly, punctuated by little surprises: sipping water through a straw and finding my swallowing mechanism hard to control. A bit of nausea whenever I tried to sit up. The discovery of dressed incisions, pads, iodine painted on my skin. At some point I seem to have taken a selfie.🙂 After a while I felt more back to normal and was able to eat a sandwich – slowly, as my mouth and throat were like a desert. My other half came to see me for a bit but I couldn’t go home with him. I had yet to get enough water through me, and would have to collect any pee I was able to produce through the night and write my bed number on the cardboard vessels, much to my amusement, for the nurses to measure it later.

My first ever night in a hospital ward was mostly a sleepless one, but a surprisingly happy and tranquil one. I got short bursts of sleep; I would wake with the noise of a machine beeping somewhere nearby or a person coughing and then find myself wide-eyed for long stretches, comfortable in this warm, dark, safe environment of recuperation and care, on a mind-blowingly comfy bed, my whole body in a state of calm and with an enormous feeling of well-being – feelings I hadn’t had for a very long time. I reflected on having got through the operation and got myself cleaned up and comfy, and recognition of this filled me with a sense of self-confidence. I felt practically invincible!

It was only when the cocktail of drugs finally wore off the next day that I realised the true source of these feelings! I had wondered why I wasn’t in more pain, though. And niggling away somewhere in my head that night was the unanswered question of what had actually been done during the laparoscopy. Seeing cuts on either side of my lower abdomen, I assumed that my endometriosis had been treated, but I didn’t remember the surgeon actually saying that.

In the morning, the staff nurse attempted to decipher the surgeon’s notes with me, but it mostly seemed to be a catalogue of adhesions found, a list of organs stuck to other organs… “Where does it say about my treatment?” She suggested I phone the surgeon’s secretary later on to ask for fuller information. As it happened, though, both the anaesthetist and the surgeon came around before I left. I got to see the photo again – and it was a horrible stringy mess. I finally learned that the endo was too extensive to do anything about on this occasion – all they could do was take stock of the situation. They put dye through my fallopian tubes and saw it come out quickly from one tube, but with a delay from the other. This may have helped clear them out a bit. But the best he could say about my current prospects for pregnancy was that I “could be fertile” and should certainly keep trying, but that the follow-up appointment would go through next steps with me.

Recovering at home for the last few days, the nirvana has definitely passed. I feel more emotionally bruised than anything else. I’m now a bit fed up of the constant awareness of my wounds and vigilance to notice the slightest sign of a complication or infection. But I also seem to be in a kind of intermittent grief. I have bad endometriosis: I can’t quite take it in. I keep looking back at our efforts to conceive so far – the excited and fearful anticipation, the stress – and just feeling so sad that it was seemingly all destined to be in vain; that for who knows how long, unseen, rampant endometrial cells have been busy weaving their cruel cobwebs between my organs, stitching me – and now my emotions – up in a nasty tangle.

It makes sense of a few things: the horrifically painful periods I sometimes experienced when I was very young; the episode of intense abdominal pain a couple of summers ago that I’d thought was a kidney stone; the recent and more constant aching hum in my pelvis… and the persistent cyst that had been seen on ultrasound scans. In truth, though, I am very lucky not to have had far worse symptoms.

I will just have to see what the consultant suggests next. The only thing that’s clear is that more uncertainty lies ahead.

Posted in endometriosis, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Responsibility and Stoicism

A constant theme running through many of my recent posts has been around the overburdening of individuals with responsibility for their own plight. Shame resilience, for example, is partially about letting ourselves off the hook, and empathising with each other’s struggles, failings, and misfortunes – recognising unrealistic expectations for what they are. “Lean Out” feminism is in much the same vein, acknowledging structural barriers to women’s security and equality and relieving individual women of the responsibility to “lean in”.

Have I gone too far in that direction? Where does personal responsibility kick in?

In this post, I even went as far as questioning whether the dependence of material well-being on ability and effort was fundamentally unfair, since it doesn’t recognise the barriers some people face to developing skills and making effort. And I suppose any inequalities could be argued to be unfair in the sense that there is no such thing as “free will”: in that we (and our abilities and decisions) are all ultimately a product of our genes and environments. But of course we have a collective influence on some of that ‘environment’ part: we can punish criminals to deter criminal behaviour, and we can reward talent and training to encourage development of essential skills.

Most people would say that we need these external motivations and rewards – no-one expects someone to undertake the years of training to do a stressful, challenging job like surgery out of pure altruism or intrinsic motivations alone. But there are other barriers to productivity and accomplishment besides external motivation, that we seem to find harder to recognise.

We don’t make individuals responsible for self-motivation, but we do make individuals responsible to a large degree for their ultimate success – and this is completely unbalanced. Responsibility should be balanced to take into account the ease or difficulty of following through on it; and in the inter-connected web of causality, those with the most power in a situation have the most responsibility. I think that’s as close to an answer as I’m going to get.🙂

As I’ve been reading up on Stoicism, I’ve been trying to figure out where it fits in with all of this. Because of its emphasis on accepting external circumstances while working solely on improving oneself, initially it seemed cold and unsympathetic, like something that might go hand in hand with “Lean In”. But eventually I realised that the division between what is and isn’t under a person’s control is potentially quite a radical and sympathetic concept.

Stoicism relieves us of inappropriate responsibility for things outside of our control, replacing it with the serenity and peace of acceptance. As discussed the other day, I don’t think that means doing nothing to fight injustice or improve your own circumstances; it just means being clear with yourself about what actions you can actually take, versus the outcomes that are not in your power to control.

Stoicism encourages you to look carefully at what you can do, and weigh up what would be the most rational, wise, beneficial thing to do. For a Stoic, after all, that is the ultimate good, and is what brings contentment – knowing that she has done her best. I think I would still need to watch that I didn’t turn this into an unrealistic expectation of perfection; but sometimes, being very upset or angry at external, uncontrollable things doesn’t help wisdom to come forth.

So, Stoicism might be a good companion to an awareness of injustice. Not that I would emphasise it as a way forward – I mean, I would sooner speak up in support of people who are rightfully angry, than start telling them how to be less angry – but it is definitely a philosophy I would like to explore for myself.

Posted in philosophy, politics, social justice, Stoicism | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Learning to relax

I have written before about being driven to be highly organised, and not feeling sure whether this is an entirely healthy thing. I’ve been thinking about this again in light of my recent forays into Brene Brown’s shame resilience work, and Stoicism.

I think the habit started in my mid-twenties. I have been sort of a late bloomer in terms of finding my way into a career, and did not progress through the expected milestones of adulthood through my twenties. It turns out I was at the head of an entire wave of young people that would experience such things; at the time, though, I think I internalised it as a large chunk of personal failure. I could see that I had it harder than the previous generation in terms of things like house prices, but I still felt I should have been “wise” to this and pre-empted the issue with better life planning.

It seems I embraced being organised, goal-driven and intentional about how I spend my time, to try to protect myself from further insecurity. Which is sensible up to a point; but I think my excessively teeth-gritting, self-policing, whipping-myself-into-shape approach to everything in life has been an overreaction to the “failure”, and reflects an overly negative view of my own fitness for adult life. There is something in me that tends to always see the worst, to be pessimistic; I crave safety and control, to be on top of everything, to close down every possibility of things going wrong. Put simply, I am a worrier.

There is also a shame aspect to it: I was running away from the unwanted identity that I ascribed to my younger self of a naive drifter, coasting through my education not thinking about the world of work and the bigger picture of life. I felt foolish and stupid and determined to change who I was.

Under this oppressive mindset, it is hard to ever feel completely happy about how I spend my time. The same fear of failure driving me to be proactive about important things also makes the important things daunting; there is a resistance in me to the vulnerability of trying new things. Attempting to live life by a to-do list and operating constantly in analytical mode does not always help, either: such a safety-seeking, closing-down orientation is the opposite of the vulnerable opening-up approach needed to be creative.

Rebalancing my expectations of myself is helping. I have just spent a pleasant week off work with lots of unstructured time, allowing myself the flexibility to go for walks when the sun is shining and rest when I am tired, not burdening myself with over-ambitious lists of things I must get done in this time. I am OK with not having got around to any DIY jobs. And I am learning to like being the dreamy, thinky person I am.

I think Stoicism has some pretty good answers to the fear part of the equation. The “premeditation of adversity” was the practice that first piqued my interest, having read about it in Oliver Burkemann’s book. Facing my worst fears head-on and bringing reason and rationality to them – particularly, the notion that it would, somehow, still be possible to feel OK about my life even if the very worst things happened – is helpful for dispelling habitual fear and getting back that sense of adventure.

And I’m starting to think that recognising the limits of my control, and developing Stoic acceptance of what lies beyond them, could also be very helpful. Although it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge those limits, it is also kind of a relief.

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