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.

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!’