The great thing about a blog is that no one is obliged to read it. These past few weeks I seem to have spoken about nothing but my own personal journey and I risk boring everyone I know. And at the same time, it’s all I seem able to think about. This is happening, now, and the only way to deal with it is to push on through. So many of you wrote to me so movingly in solidarity that I hope some of the things I am uncovering will be of help, and for all the people to whom I owe an email or a call, this is at least some account of what I’ve been doing and why I’ve been quiet.
One thing I notice is how much I worry about not fulfilling my obligations towards other people – those emails and phone calls prey on my mind (not to mention replies to comments on this blog and a few posts that aren’t pure navel-gazing). I find that I don’t judge my situation to be more important than the comfort and satisfaction of others. And this is a place where I have had to stop and consider. Why do I find it so very hard to put myself first? I have a sense almost of criminality when I do so. Inevitably tied to this is, then, a heavy burden of responsibility and its concomitant guilt. I have always been the kind of person to meet all my deadlines and keep all my promises and produce whatever is required from me, whenever necessary. This sounds like a good thing, right? Except that there turns out to be no space for me in this arrangement, no flexibility, no kindness towards my own feelings and concerns. I meet my commitments, but almost on pain of death, as it were, rather than joyfully and freely as it ought to be.
As I look back, I can see how this attitude became ingrained when I had a small child and was working very hard at the university. Every moment of my day (and night) was accounted for, I took on far more work than was sensible and did it all, and for people with children, well, you know how overwhelming the responsibility of parenthood is. There are no days off for mothers. I was stressed out of my tiny mind for years, and given I felt there was no other option than to make good all my promises, implicit and explicit, I quashed and buried my own inconvenient feelings. Those of you who pointed out that they were coming back to bite me were spot on. When we choose the stoic route, we rarely do so happily. More often than not it is an act of self-brutality, and one based in fear. Who are we when we are sad, miserable, unlovable? It seems dangerous to try and find out. Better to stay cheerful and upbeat, to resolutely show only the coping, competent mechanisms we have learned, not the distress and terror over which they provide a thin veneer.
This isn’t purely an altruistic act, because I find that experiencing negative emotions is alarming in itself. What has happened to us that we have learned to demonise the darker side of our characters? Because at some point there has to come a time of reckoning; it is in our nature and in our bodies to let those painful emotions out. I can see that I have never been very good at tolerating my own distress, or at soothing myself. My whole being is geared up towards problem solving, rushing headlong into any dilemma and trying to fix it. Which is why I end up putting myself behind other people and their needs, I guess. It has always seemed easier to fix them than to sit quietly with my own distress. But in this area, I have not been a good parent. I always rushed to solve my son’s needs, thinking to save him pain, and now I notice how difficult he finds it to tolerate discontent. I see now there would have been better ways of doing it. But he is still growing and there is plenty of time ahead for him to learn.
What I think I see, after this unaccustomed period of listening to myself is that anxiety produces another whole world, one of darkness and shadows in which fate is malignant and catastrophe lurks. It’s a world in which we are cut off from our resources and those of other people, and we feel very alone and insecure. From behind a glass, we look out at the real world where the sun shines and nature produces its cyclical renewal, where help is available and people’s intentions and motivations are good as often as they are not. Anxiety produces a world of paranoia, separated off from the ordinary world where the benefit of the doubt rules. In the anxious world things are bad, unless we can conjure a miracle out of thin air; in the ordinary world things are good unless something happens, and for the most part we have faith that the difficulty will pass. We can afford to sit with our distress because the likelihood is that we won’t have to wait long for help or reassurance to come.
I think about these two worlds a lot at the moment, waiting for the moment to come when I am brave enough to embrace the ordinary world and its easy hope. There is no reason to suppose this will happen quickly, but I’m also thinking there is no reason to suppose I am incapable of it. I would like to put myself first, not in a dark, selfish way, but in a normal, sunshiny human way, and know that the sky won’t fall. I’d like to make mistakes and be messy and unreliable from time to time, and that it would be okay, just what people do. I can’t make other people change their attitudes or expectations, so all I can do is be me and see who is prepared to put up with that, right? Well, I can give it a go, and if the sky falls in over Cambridge, we’ll at least be able to explain one natural disaster.