Just sit in the grim

I can’t believe I haven’t written a blog post since last July. Maybe it’s because I’ve had very little in the way of new thoughts or experiences to inspire me to write. Life continues to bring the same daily juxtaposition of joyfest and hellhole, and its demands leave me little room for reflection anyhow.

My little girl is now an amazing toddler, and has a big personality. Raising an extrovert gets more and more fun every day. She develops interests and we follow them – at the moment it’s shapes, people’s names, and climbing. It’s truly fascinating watching her learn the English language. She is still a mummy’s girl and I relish that while it lasts.

Life feels full-on and I crave introvert downtime, but I can’t bear to take time away from her very often. I’m anxious, too – and I often feel I am not coping with that.

I hit a particularly low point over Christmas. My daughter suddenly seemed unable to get to sleep or stay asleep. It just felt too much to deal with on top of 19 months of problematic sleep, for it to go backwards so badly. On top of 7 months of constant low-level anxiety about nursery and bugs, 7 months of illness after illness. Never really having time to be with myself and do the things that tend to restore me. Now I was no longer getting any kind of evening, and rage would bubble up as I found myself taking a turn sitting with her in the boxroom at 9pm, her still wide awake, me with wet hair and nothing on besides a dressing gown.

I did a fair bit of sober soul-searching to understand the rage. I had to admit that I’m generally a grumpy person, and I think in a nutshell what makes me grumpy is when things – or in this case, babies – don’t behave as I expect them to. I crave predictability, order, maybe control. It’s embarrassing. My career recently seems to be all about beating back the chaos in various ways: clarifying, simplifying, taking messy analytical processes and getting them under control, and I do lots of organising in life outside work too. There’s an undercurrent of fear to it all that is uncomfortable to acknowledge.

Having a baby has, of course, injected a huge dose of chaos into my life, and this is why I have found it so very hard.

My obsessive rigidity when she was newborn, with everything kept in its place around me and eating the same things and watching the same film over and over, comes to mind here. I coped with a massive upheaval to my life and the panic of it all by clamping down on the things I could clamp down on.

I suppose you could chalk up my vomiting phobia and general illness anxiety to this underlying craving for order and control. Or aversion to chaos.

I suspect it all reflects a deep-rooted pessimism about life’s ability to turn out OK, or my ability to manage, if wild, uncontrolled, and unpleasant things are allowed to happen. The thing is, I have dealt with difficult things, feared things, a lot over the recent past. I have had fevers, vomiting and diarrhoea. Little one has been ill quite a bit, including fevers, bad earache and vomiting. I’ve held down a job while dealing with all this and bad sleep; I’ve been able to provide the loving care my little one needed from her mum. But I haven’t learned that these things are OK. I’m even more anxious now than I was a year ago. Why?

I guess my feeling is that I only barely coped, and that still leaves room to believe that I could easily be broken apart by something similar. Perhaps it’s like impostor syndrome that never goes away because you can always write any achievements off as flukes.

I read Sarah Wilson’s book, “First, we make the beast beautiful: a new story about anxiety” in January. She analyses this exact problem as follows:

“The problem is that if you’re anxious, you tend to flee (or fight or freeze) before you give the distress tolerance mechanism time to play out. I find this an enthralling idea. I mean, what if our inability to deal with our triggers came down to the simple fact we’re unable to sit long enough?”

She suggests anxious folk should “sit” (in the mindfulness sense) in “grim” – in those situations or places that make us anxious – and just see what happens. Treat it as an experiment.

“For me, the fact it’s a little experiment makes the grimness and the frustration of resisting my need to grasp and fix things a little more bearable. My meta-mission is simply to stay. And see what happens.”

“Sitting in grim is also a defiant two-fingered up yours to your anxiety. I think this is great. For an added bonus, the practice simultaneously forces you to stop the grasping and come in close and to connect with where life is. The simplicity, the inevitability, the flow, the truth of life. … When you’ve been running scared for a long time this idea may come as a relief. You mean that’s all I have to do? Yep, just sit in the grim.”

Perhaps what she’s describing is how to do exposure therapy and actually have it work, rather than re-traumatise you. It can’t really be said that I have “sat” in the grim thus far; I’ve really just gritted my teeth, shut my eyes and waited for it to go away. It would be great if I could get a sense of adventure about it, or (more realistically) even just a little bit of curiosity. How awesome would it be to squeeze some meaning out of this onslaught of fear. I feel like there’s potential for me to come out the other side having actually gained something, if I can figure out how to open myself to it.

In the absence of a therapist to work with, I think it has to start with a regular mindfulness practice. I guess I’ve known this for years. Perhaps it’s time to get serious about it.

If you have any other advice, I’ll take it. Meanwhile I’ll just be over here trying to sit still, in the grim.

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1 Response to Just sit in the grim

  1. Helen Watt says:

    Well said Sarah. Life with a toddler is never going to be a ‘ticking off things on a to-do list’
    is it? And, whether you believe it or not, you are coping brilliantly with whatever life throws at you. So in that sense, you are sticking up 2 fingers to anxiety and not allowing it to defeat you.
    Right now, you are being forced to live very much ‘in the moment’ (as your daughter does) which, I’m sure, leaves virtually no time for reflecting or mindfulness. But that state will change, probably faster than you would like!
    You are stronger than you might think.
    The wind may bend you but it will not blow you away, neither will you crumble away to nothing.
    Everything (good or bad) that you encounter in life, and tackle, sweat over, talk through and either resolve, accept or learn to live with, makes you stronger.
    Life can be messy at times but the human spirit is fairly indomitable.
    And don’t forget that their are people who love you and wish you nothing but the best in life, and are only too pleased to help you out when things get tough.
    We’re all in this together.

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