Sometimes it’s impossible not to witness the dawn

Dragging the Atheist Out of Bed

A word of warning: what I had planned to be a brief rundown of changes in my life, has turned into something of a ramble. I wrote this a month ago, but procrastination over editing and kicking it into some kind of coherent shape held me back from posting. There’s that pesky self—doubt again. So prepare yourselves. I’ve given up trying to make it perfect. What you’ll find here is pretty much the raw first draft. As my partner reminded me: perfection is the enemy of the perfectly adequate.

At the end of 2019, the time of my last post, I thought I was beginning a new era of creative productivity. I thought I’d be writing and posting every week, perhaps more often. I was full of enthusiasm and full of words. Then it all fell away: I shifted back into the comfort of self-doubt and laziness.

Last year was very difficult (‘No shit!’, I hear you say), one in which physical and psychological problems made it difficult for me to focus. This was nothing new – I’ve ‘suffered’ from mental health issues for as long as I remember, and life truly has been one long battle against self-doubt. But last year, partly related to physical and mental withdrawal symptoms from a nasty little antidepressant which I don’t think I should ever have been prescribed, and partly because the time was perhaps right for some kind of major change to occur in my psyche, my perception of the world and my way of being, was a bitch of a struggle. I suffered from a total lack of clarity. I couldn’t get from the beginning of a thought to its end without time-wasting, frustrating, and confusing detours. It prevented me from doing pretty much anything, rendering me even more useless than I was accustomed to being. It forced me to give up, to give in.

And noise! Oh my god, I couldn’t bare it. I still prefer silence, but it’s not as bad as last year. The sound of a door closing, a footstep in the hallway, a radio playing in a distant room all drove me into a state of extreme agitation. And anger. On more than one occasion I found myself screaming and running, literally running, to find peace and quiet. As for the TV – most days I couldn’t handle it at all, especially programmes that involved any kind of violence or even moderately high-octane excitement. Both had my heart racing, my breathing difficult – panic attacks of sorts. 

But during that time, and despite my efforts to prevent it, I was undergoing a series of profound psychological and, what I perceive to be, spiritual changes. My entire view of myself and the world was transformed. At the beginning of 2020 I was an atheist: now I am a believer. No wonder I was confused!

Going into the entire process of my transformation, my ‘spiritual awakening,’ if you will, would take a much longer post than I currently have time, or will, to write. Dedicating the time to writing it all down would, I feel, halt my progress and prevent me sharing insights as they reveal themselves to me. My plan is to include such details as may be relevant in future posts. Relevance and suitable metaphor are, for me, the key. 

The changes began in earnest somewhere around the end of March 2020, although had, I now see, been ongoing for many years; possibly all of my life. It may not escape your notice the coincidental timing with the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK. Incidentally, I’d just been thinking I needed to shake myself out of six years of self-imprisonment, during which I rarely left the house or engaged with the frightening and judgemental world, when we entered the first national lockdown in the UK. I remember pondering at the time how interesting it was that people were worrying so much about the loneliness they would endure being isolated from family, friends, work colleagues. It made me stop and think that my cosy little cocoon of self-isolation had perhaps done me more harm than good.

The real seed of change was planted in the summer of 2018. Actually, I now see that this yearning for there to be something more than the purely physical and mundane, goes back to childhood when, for reasons now unknown, I would spend what seemed like hours alone, staring into a hedge or the branches of a tree, staring myself almost into a trance. I had a traumatic home life, was bullied a little at school, always on the outside, never feeling accepted, and so must have found some peace in these little interactions with nature. Perhaps I knew that there was something more than what I could see before me. However, back to 2018.

I was in the middle of yet another of my mental health crises. In June of that year, I’d visited my mother, who lived a six-hour train journey away. My sister, who also lived a distance from her, met me on the train. We had decided a nice surprise visit to our mother was in order; big mistake. When our mum opened her front door, painfully thin, small, and still in her nightdress and dressing gown at four in the afternoon, she did not recognise us. I had only seen her a few months before. It’s another long story, but it became apparent to me she was suffering from some of dementia. I don’t if it had been diagnosed by a doctor. If it was, then she hid it from us during our phone calls, phone calls she became less and less inclined to receive or to make. 

I was already struggling mentally, and realising how ill my mother was, and how my illness and fears prevented me from travelling more often to help her, led me to deeper despair. I won’t deny that thoughts of suicide, a frequent visitor to my fractured psyche, were closer to becoming reality than for some time before. 

But then things began to change. By the end of July, little things happened, simple and trivial things, that helped to yank me out of my malaise. On the train home from seeing my mum, I’d chatted with a man waiting to get off at my stop. We talked about the heat and dryness of the weather, and he told me his wife had made a paddling pool for the crows from an old washing-up basin. When I got home, my partner and I did the same for our family of young magpies. They quickly made good use of it, with much splashing and squabbling and flapping of wings. 

It was a turning point, that chance conversation on the train. Like the pivoting of a see-saw, the change was disorientating and sudden. Every day I sat and looked at the garden, watching the birds, noting behaviour I’d never seen before, species I’d never spotted. I’ve since counted we have upward of 25 different species of birds, residents and migratory part-timers, visiting the garden through the course of the year. I saw hares and foxes and badgers at dusk. It calmed me, my heart beating more slowing as I watched all the life around me.

One morning I was watching a chaffinch in the holly tree outside the window, noticing for the first time green feathers on his back. The bird looked different, the branches and leaves of the tree looked different, more real, perhaps, closer to me, than they had ever appeared before. With the intensity of an unexpected storm, I was filled with emotion; a kind of happiness that gave me the unfamiliar feeling of being part of something. It was almost enough to make me wonder about a god.

A few days later, as I passed through the twilight of the house, the hallway lit only by a small table lamp, something seemed to shift. Instead of the untidiness, the proof of my failures, I saw, without seeing, warmth and comfort; I saw or, rather, I felt, my home. And just for a second I was part of it, suddenly transported from a dream-world to ‘now’. It was so different, that feeling of being present and inside my own life, that I realised how disconnected I must previously have been. I felt the full, solid weight of myself, through my feet and into the floor, into the earth. Like the business with the tree, it was a strange new awareness of myself and my surroundings.

At the time I thought both these events represented the beginning of my psychological healing progress, and undoubtedly that is so. Until that point I had always felt dissociated from the world, as though floating above or beside everyone and everything else in it. I never felt a part of the world. It didn’t understand me, and I had given up trying to understand and fit into it. 

However, a long time afterwards, I began to understand the relevance of those events in a totally different way; glimpses of true reality, precious, indescribable interactions with a world beyond that which we can understand with the physical senses alone. Over the last nine months, time spent reading works on philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and the mystical has helped me see that others had been where I then found myself.

All kinds of other strange events happened to me, particularly in the last nine months. Weird and seemingly magical things that defied explanation by my science-trained mind; strange ‘visions’ (I am not one of those blessed with the ability to visualise and so these beautiful images, springing clearly into my mind’s eye, were most unexpected and important to me), apparent premonitions, lucid flying dreams, an out-of-body experience. Some of these may play a part in future posts. Many of them sprung from meditation. Who knew that meditation could lead to spooky shit?

So, what do I believe? I cannot say with certainty. It is not a belief in an anthropomorphised God-human as presented by Christianity. That much I know. It is something less defined than that, something more pantheistic, essential to nature and the formation of the universe. Something that has something to do with the First Law of Thermodynamics… I know, it sounds crazy,

Coming out of the other side of this long process of change, when I finally feel I can begin to interact with the world, step out of my closeted little comfort zone and actually ‘get something done,’ I can now reflect on what happened over the last year or so, on the things that I have learned and those I’ve managed to unlearn. I can see the things that served me, those that didn’t, and those that I might yet still discard. 

It has not been an easy journey, and I suspect there will be more difficulties to come: seeing the light makes one more aware of the darkness. It is akin to giving up drugs or alcohol and having to face one’s demons in the sober light of day. Addiction to one’s misplaced and deeply ingrained sense of self and the world is hard to beat. It is still a daily struggle against self-destructive circular thoughts, but it’s one that’s faced more easily in the presence of hope.

I think I know what I believe – kind of. But, life being the process of continual change that it is, and us humans being as malleable by our own thoughts, ideas and outside influences as we are, I’m happy to admit that I’m open to new ideas. Going with the flow is part of the key to self-acceptance, growth and a more contented life. My outer existence may have changed little – I still rarely leave the house, COVID restrictions notwithstanding. But there is now peace inside; peace, contentment, and hope. I’m even being kinder to insects. It’s all come as quite a shock. 

Whether one calls this a ‘spiritual awakening,’ or merely a shift in my own psychology, really matters not. Not to me, not at the moment. The truth is the truth, and it reveals itself to each of us, if we are open to it, in accordance with our needs, our own personal experience, our symbology. It may be that I change my ideas of the nature of my transformation. It may be that in the future I apply a different label, or none at all. Who knows, perhaps, one day, like C.S. Lewis, I may even find my way back to Jesus.

Let The Sunshine In

There is something about the sun’s effects on my soul
that goes beyond its brightness and warmth.

I took a bit of time out on Saturday. It’s okay though, I did feel guilty about it. It’s not been long since I established a semblance of routine, one that’s not especially taxing. It didn’t seem right that I should be slacking and pretending I’d earned the weekend off. But hey, I saw a big fiery ball in the sky, recognised it as the sun, and talked myself into it.

I read for a while, sitting in the window and feeling the morning sun warm my face. Up until then I hadn’t been able to read for weeks. I couldn’t concentrate. Even in the bath, a favourite place to read, I couldn’t settle. But on Saturday morning I was calm, my thoughts quiet enough for me to enjoy it again. 

I did something else I rarely do lately, too. The cornflower coloured sky, the first real sighting of the sun for days, and the covering of frost lured me outside for longer than just the time it takes to fill the bird feeders. I live in a beautiful location. Our house is on a hill, characteristically windy and with big-sky views over farmland down to the valley. We have a nice garden with plenty of shrubs and trees for the birds and other wildlife. And we have woodland beside us. It is a fabulous place, and yet, when I’m outside, I usually cannot wait to get back to the psychological security of being indoors. I know, it sounds ridiculous.

We aren’t like a lot of other people; we don’t really care about the condition of our lawns. Aside from keeping the grass cut, we don’t do anything else. There is no weeding out of dandelions or daisies. We don’t worry if one patch of grass is a slightly different shade of perfect-lawn-green than another, or waste water and money on summertime sprinkler systems. And we certainly don’t go around murdering any poor moles that might happen to have left the odd little mountain here and there. And I like moss. Correction: I love moss.

Every since I first read Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series, I have genuinely liked moss. I don’t know the first thing about it. It hasn’t occurred to me to look it up. I just like the look of moss, the variations in colour and texture. Some mosses are dark emerald, bulging like velvet cushions, others have a rougher texture, extending tiny, shaggy, stem-like fronds. And the feel of it underfoot when left to its own devices for a time? Divine.

Life continues to thrive. We just need to remember to look for it.

Walking in the sunshine across the front lawn on Saturday morning was nothing less than blissful. A thick layer of hoar frost still covered everything, and though the sun was low, the sky was clear enough for the frost to sparkle. My feet first scrunched through the layer of frost, then seemed to sink, ever so gently, through the deep mossy rug beneath. I was an almost surreal feeling that made me smile and, for some reason, reminded me of the doors sliding open and closed on Star Trek – the original series.

But it was the sun that really got me. I sat on the (moss-covered) garden wall, closed my eyes, and looked up towards the sun. I must have looked like quite the mad-cat-woman, what with a black, faux fur, Paddington-shaped hat I’d never dare wear in public, pulled tightly over the top of a scarf that I’d wound around the top of my head to keep my ears warm. To complete the look, I’d fastened the scarf under my chin, the two, short ends sticking out at awkward angles. Fortunately, we live in sticks-ville, and not many cars pass along the lane. 

I don’t know how long I managed to sit still. Much longer than usual, in any case. I turned my face towards the sun, felt its warmth striking a contrast with my icy skin, and breathed. With my eyes closed, the light dancing flashes of red, yellow and gold behind my eye lids, I just sat and breathed. I breathed and was. I thought, now I’m present, now I’m being mindful. It seemed that all that there was, all that existed, existed only in that moment. There was only me and the sun and the incredible feeling of ‘now.’ There was no connection with the darkness of the past and no concerns about the unknowable future. It was uplifting. I felt alive and free.

I carried that feeling with me all weekend. When I went back inside on Saturday  my mind felt clean and clear. I was able to work out a new outline for the book I want to write, one that makes sense of various aspects of the plot that I’d had in mind for over a year. I spent more time outside on Sunday morning, enjoying the frost and that sunshine again. I started to write my book that afternoon, writing half of the first chapter. I can’t tell you what a stumbling-block that had previously been for me.

Most of us feel better, happier, on a sunny day. Especially after long periods of dark skies and rain as we have been experiencing in Britain lately. But there is no doubt in my mind that there is something about the sun’s effects upon us that goes beyond the facts of its brightness and warmth. Perhaps it is some ancient knowledge we hold of the life-giving properties of the sun, that without it we could not exist. There is something, for me at least, that reaches deep into that part of me which we might call the soul. It touches me and makes me feel, not human, but better than human. It reminds me that I am only a part of this wonderful and complicated ecosystem of ours. We are all creatures of the light.

One Giant Leap for the Crazy Kind

It turns out that my little experiment of moving around slowly, writing slowly, breathing slowly, trying to slow down my racing thoughts, worked well as a way to calm myself over the last week. A little too well perhaps; a lot of time was spent napping. To be fair, after the mad mental exhaustion of the previous week, I should have known to expect a bit of a dip. Hell, I must be one of the few people capable of burnout just by having more than one thought in my head. Mind you, I did have to sit up.

To be honest, it’s taken me a few weeks to become comfortable with a regular routine involving more than one activity – filling up the bird feeders and a wander around the garden, a bit of morning meditation and then a couple of hours writing . Even then, the routine only occupies me until lunchtime. After that, if I need to, either because I’m feeling anxious or I just can’t keep my eyes open, I officially allow myself to go with the flow of whatever I can handle; reading, playing a game, watching a film, curling up and taking that nap…But at least in the mornings, imagining that I’m a human going to work, I’ve made sure that I stick to my plan. I might even dare to say I’ve tricked myself into believing it’s boosted my self-esteem. 

I don’t think many people would be impressed by my progress. To all intents and purposes I still appear to be just sitting in the same chair, doing not very much of anything. I’m sure Jonny Apron, recently home from working away, would prefer it if I cleaned the kitchen floor. But others might recognise the difficulty I’ve been having adjusting to the change. 

For a long time I had no routine in my life at all. Having things to do now, even though they are my own goals and have not been imposed upon me by others, still makes me feel anxious. I know it makes no sense but from the moment I get up my old heart starts banging away in my chest, I find I’m holding my breath and my mind goes blank. I feel like giving up and going back to bed. But I haven’t given up, not yet anyway. 

No matter what anyone might say, I am giving myself a gentle little pat on the back for finally putting a bit of order back into my life. For a couple of months or so I’ve been writing something everyday, but it’s only over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to do so without leaving my other morning activities by the wayside. That is definitely an achievement for me.  I am learning to do what I’ve said I’ll do, even if only to myself. If I can’t do that, no one will ever be able to rely on me, and I will never be of any use. Not in the way I want to be. It takes me a step closer to becoming the person I want to be.

When it comes to my problem leaving the house though, no progress has been made. This is partly because I feel such a sense of urgency (that pesky anxiety causing problems again) to write that I feel guilty if I’m not doing it when I’ve said I would. I’m still not comfortable enough with the routine, or trusting enough of myself to be able to handle too much at once. Going out involves a lot of preparation, takes up too much time, and is fraught with dangers; noises bother me, crowds disorientate me, being looked at worries me, I’m afraid I’ll say or do something stupid.  

My list of excuses for not going out reaches to the sky, and it is only going to get more difficult if I don’t get a grip. I know how important human contact is, particularly when people find safety and shared experience amongst others. And even though I’m not exactly breaking down the door to get out there and actually join in with the world, that is the aim. But come on, the weather has been completely miserable, hasn’t it? Here we’ve woken up daily to pouring rain and gusty winds, or else a dreary, dripping suspicious-looking mist. You have to admit, it hasn’t exactly  been conducive to getting out there and embracing a tree.

Dear people, if you, or someone you know, is suffering from anxiety, depression or another mental health issue, if you recognise the feelings that I’ve described here, then take heart; things can change, be it ever so slowly. Each gain, no matter how minor it may seem to the outside world, should be a reason for celebration. It take an enormous amount of energy. No one has the right to denigrate your progress, and there is no reason why you should compare yourself to others. Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself if progress takes longer than you’d like. I’m beginning to realise that my ‘illness’ is an integral part of me, something that I need to learn to work with, not against.  One small step…let’s go take it.

Operation Seagull: Okay, So Where’s The Bleedin’ Map?

What do you do when you have a plan, you know exactly what needs to be done, but your mind and body won’t let you? Do tasks that seem easy to others become for you a thing of dread, sending your thoughts whirling, Dervish-style, and your body begging for breath? Perhaps other people don’t understand, think that you’re lazy. Maybe you have a constant battle on your hands to justify yourself and be accepted as you are. A lot has been said about improving mental health services in the NHS and shifting public perceptions of sufferers. Let me know if you have seen any evidence of change, because I certainly haven’t. 

It has taken me a week to write this. A week! It wouldn’t be so bad, but I had planned to work on a short story and force myself to take a trip out of the house. I warn you now: all I have managed to produce is a post about not writing a post. 

I haven’t done much over the last five years. I haven’t been able to work, I’ve isolated myself from any friends that might have still put with me, and I rarely leave the house. There is barely a hint of routine in my life. But that’s going to change, right? I’ve confronted a lot of issues over the last couple of years, gaining more insight into why I have become the quivering and lazy little person that I am. It is time to move on. The plan is great; the execution has me in a right state.

Tuesday morning, with a new story to work on, the old brain became overly enthusiastic. I was bombarded with ideas: ideas to add to my story, ideas for new stories, things to add to my (unstarted) book. There were ideas about decluttering the house, about painting old furniture, and all kinds of other nonsense that I usually have absolutely no interest in. And there are so many books that I want to read, subjects I want to learn more about, and what about learning to play that piano that’s downstairs? 

Each time I began to make progress, another idea would come bombing in. My mind felt like a sample in a scanning electron microscope. It was one big stream of consciousness mash-up in there. And I had to write them all down, the ideas, every last one. My short-term memory is atrocious. Even during the time it takes to fire up a document, thoughts evaporate, like the bird that disappears just as you reach for the binoculars. So I scribbled them all down. But I needed to categorise them, and ended up using three notebooks, often having all three open in front of me at the same time. No work on the story could be done at all, so quickly were new thoughts occurring. I wrote hundreds, possibly thousands of words, achieving nothing. I was thundering through the time, hours disappearing without me noticing. The irony, eh? In my efforts to make the most of the years left to me, I have succeeded only in speeding up the clock.

It went on for days; mind racing, increased heart-rate, no sleep, skin and flesh physically agitated. I became confused over which notebook to use for a particular idea, my handwriting got bigger and bigger and more and more illegible. I even had difficulty deciding which colour pen to use. I was misplacing things, walking into things, forgetting to eat. I was turning back into that clumsy 8-year old whose favourite auntie called her ‘Wobbly’ instead of Robbie. 

By 19:30 hrs last night I was exhausted. I couldn’t think at all. And then I remembered: I had planned to meditate (mindfulness) that morning. Funnily enough, I was going to start a of block of guided meditations entitled ‘Focus.’ What was that I said about irony? That was when the sun rose and I realised that all week I had been following my thoughts, no matter how irrelevant to the moment, unable to concentrate on anything and creating mental and physical anxiety. Had I learnt nothing from meditating over the last four years? Had I not realised I could be using mindfulness techniques every moment of the day? Idiot. Mind you, that realisation didn’t stop me wondering, as I bumbled off to bed, if HTML has changed much since that course I attended back in ‘97, when I still thought the Internet wouldn’t catch on. And it didn’t stop me wondering, as I yanked the duvet up to my chin, how hard it would be to transform the duvet cover in to a pair of curtains.

I was going to scrap all this. It seems unlikely anyone would interested in how I managed to achieve a neurotic nothing over the last week. But one of the reasons for being here in Blogsville in the first place is to connect with others who suffer from anxiety disorders, PTSD and depression. It is a place for me to document progress in dealing with anxiety and learning to get out into the world again, something to give me the impetus to push on. The last weeks have been difficult and erratic, but I haven’t given up as I usually do. I still have the plan.

I’ve knocked a hole through the wall. I no longer feel that I have no right to write, that I’m a time-wasting imposter. But this new zeal, this sense of urgency, has me wanting to sort out other areas of my life. I’m desperate to get going but I am completely overwhelmed and suffering from a severe case of concentrated lack of concentration. Trying to look at it from the outside, the way I have been is a reminder that I need to take my time, learn to walk not run, and not to be too hard on myself if I’m not yet ready to save the world. What I need are practical ways to manage the anxiety that accompanies this fresh enthusiasm. Firstly, I need to stop bloody well thinking that I need to write down every damned thought that flies around my head. 

Today, the aim is to move slowly; walk slowly, write slowly, try to think slowly. Perhaps I can trick my mind into believing all is well, as being forced to smile can cheer me up, in spite of myself. I will not allow myself to go chasing after thoughts, or adding more and more ideas to my lengthening lists. And I am absolutely going to limit myself to one notebook. Well, maybe two. And  perhaps just the odd scrap of paper…

Preparing for take off…

Hello and welcome!

My name is Robbie. I’m a middle-aged woman (there – I’ve admitted it) who, after a lifetime of believing that the only way to survive in this perplexing world was to become comfortably numb (thank you Pink Floyd), has finally decided to place a boot in the appropriate place and make a stab at really living.

Writing this blog is part of my attempt to re-engage, part of my recovery from a position of isolated, star-gazing slothery (and I don’t care if that isn’t a word – it jolly well ought to be) to one of, well…who knows? It could take a while; at the moment I struggle to leave the house.

I know that there are others out there just like me, people with similar experiences, hopes and fears. I hope that we can connect. I hope that I will learn from you. Being here is a twofold thing – to help myself of course, but also to move in the direction of being able to help others.

I may talk about dealing with my anxiety disorder, perhaps sharing some of my background. The wildlife and nature around my home (Aberdeenshire) are likely to feature. I plan to write about books, TV, news, encounters with strangers…anything that moves me or spawns an idea about the human condition. I’ve recently been able to focus on creative writing again, so I may even share some of that. One thing is certain: there could well be a great deal of complaining or a few mad ramblings. I won’t apologise – we all spend too much time hiding and I have realised that the only way I will find peace of mind is to give myself permission to be me. 

I hope that you will join me as I document my progress. Please feel free to comment, or offer advice, particularly when I’m in a seriously flapping mood and need the calming influence of being told: ‘Get a grip!’