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Missing the smoke signals, again (Burnout, exhaustion and a flitting mind)

Burning out is associated with people who work ridiculously long hours. Sleep deprived workaholics are inevitably going to crash at some point. Demanding fast paced jobs make chronic stress an inevitable part of modern life. It might be a bit melodramatic to say that either you commit to this destructive style of life and have success, or you go nowhere. But few people seem to believe balance and contentment is achievable.

Combustion from over working in such a stereotypical fashion doesn’t apply to me. My lifestyle doesn’t allow for it. Eventually, I’m sure, I’ll need to attend to deadlines and commit to a desk (I spend relatively few hours here in my present set-up), but for now I’m content to travel and explore other options.

Despite this, I still crash.

I had a mug which said ‘You can take the lass out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the lass’. The same principle I think applies for the underlying drive is that eventually results in me ending up as fragile embers. I can take myself away from high intensity situations that could stereotypically be blamed for my combustion, but such environments truly only exacerbate inherent tendencies.

Left alone I still go up in flames.

It doesn’t really matter where I am or what I’m doing. My brain is going to latch onto more problems than I can reasonably hope to handle. It’s going to make those problems appear vital to my sense of identity, and then, when elegant solutions hide, it’s going to become overwhelmed.

Physics is attractive because it provides beautiful solutions to problems. However, I’m in the blind spot of physics, somewhere on the scale between the single atom and the entire galaxy. The understanding I crave is both scientific and emotional. I don’t have industry funding or a super computer; my total processing power is one loopy human brain. My laboratory is my life. I make assumptions that make a frictionless surface seem logical.

My small brain goes between helpful answers, like ‘42’, and answerable questions like, ‘why do I feel upside down?’. Since this is my thinking pattern, it’s incredible I’m not more flammable.

I shouldn’t underestimate my brain. Its resilience is remarkable. I’ve got to admire its ability to keep fighting, even if it’s failing to land a single punch. The bell rings, I wipe the sweat from my brow and then turn back to the ring for another round. Simultaneously it’s eyed up the fire-escapes for a swift exit. I flail between fight or flight in an exhausting state of paralysis.

Do I over analyse and therefore over complicate my life? Or does my analysis simply make me aware of problems that would have existed regardless? I’m the scientist asking for more funding, more research is needed but I’m not sure that someone wiser might not see that the truth is right in front of me. I feel the answer writhing within reaching distance, but I just can quite get a grip.


Yorkshire. Home sweet home.

Yorkshire cowsCows graze in the field opposite. The grass they chew is brighter than I remember, as if someone had added a little extra yellow from the paint box. Unlike the neatly mowed lawn of the house, the field is uneven, scattered with thick tufts of dark green and clumps of light brown that catch the sunlight and almost look pink.

I stare for a while.

For me, there’s nothing ‘normal’ about this setting. The clouds mask the bright blue sky, with a brilliant white that makes the ceiling of the study in which I work look dull. Bright fuchsia foxgloves grow on the bank of the winding stream, choked by something my mother calls ‘bindy weed’. She has a names for all the weeds which in no way represent their Latin counterparts.

The house smells of freshly baked bread: rich wholegrain spelt flour and the sweetness of honey. It’s deceiving, if you go into the kitchen you might be disappointed to see it’s been me at work rather than my father who actually knows what he’s doing.

There’s a comfort that comes with this place. The house is full of furniture from my childhood. Black and white faces with my nose or my chin look at me from the original black and white wedding photos. My sister and I dominate the coloured photos:  me as a grinning toddler, grinning child, grinning teenager and grinning adult, all with a scrunched up nose. These things make it feel homely, but it’s also the land itself. I can’t say why. I don’t know exactly. I didn’t grow up here. The land is just the right colour.

Our Yorkshire hills aren’t huge, but there are a lot of them. They look down on the valleys and the reservoirs. The roads, with their bends and dips are the sort that bring a smile to your faces as you’re driving along. I often wish that I had tough, strong legs to peddle up the hills like the Tour de Yorkshire riders.

Except, actually got some pretty strong legs now. I sometimes forget how much I’ve changed. I use to detest going on long countryside walks. Some years ago I recall the misery of clambering ungainly up a hill in the Lake District, feeling that it was entirely unfair that I was incapable of enjoying myself as others bounded up the hills in front of me, chatting and laughing without whining for another rest. I was unfit, carrying more weight than I do now, and my unused muscles were in shock.

Today, things are different. Yesterday, I took my bike out and within minutes was heading uphill past a sign that said 17%. I focused on my breathing – a trick I learnt from meditation – dropped down to the lowest gear and told myself that as long as I made a good effort to get as far up the hill as I could then it would count as a reasonable first ride out. I could always cycle a little further the next time.

I had the rubber clips to put on my cycling shoes in the back pockets of my jersey for when I needed to walk. Yet I never needed to walk.

I kept climbing, went around the corner and glanced up and saw the top of the road. At the top I kept on cycling, turning left and heading further up. Up and up I climbed until eventually the road flattened out. I paused for a drink, for my banana and to look out over the stunning view across the valley which is now my home.

If you’d told me a few years ago my life would look like what it does now, I’d not have believed it was possible.


A cup of tea.


We’re all searching for a place where we feel safe and comfortable, a home where we can truly be ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Fidelity

You are alone. Everyone is alone. It doesn’t matter if you spend every minute of every day with someone and can confide all your secrets in their loyal ear. Nobody is ever going to completely ‘get you’. The Mother, ever optimistic, told me so. Her astute response to my feelings of isolation didn’t make me feel better. I recognise the truth in what she says, but still I fight hard to be understood. We want to believe that those who love us see us wholly and completely, and so we believe.

I’ve spent much time in the company of children these last few months. Children physically cling to their mothers on a daily basis. When the world feels good they run out and play, but the moment they fall, graze their knee or exhaustion drops down on them, they turn back and look for their mother’s body. If a stranger knocks on the door, they hide behind their parent’s legs. If someone says something hurtful, they expect their parent to be god and set the situation right. And, because they are a child, we don’t mind their clinging.

As adults, we have the same need to fall back into comfort when things get tough. When we can’t access this comfort of being understood, we sit in a bath of shame and loneliness feeling disconnected. If we’re not careful our self-esteem spirals down the plug hole.

What I miss most about being in England is not the tea, but sharing it with someone who I feel ‘gets me’.


As if I would really write a blog post about American football?

Grief / American FootballThe Midget and I watched a film on the subject of grief yesterday evening. It was about American football which is a sport where they use their hands.

I shan’t pretend to understand the sport, or my sister’s interest in it. But like Quidditch and the MotoGP it’s infiltrated my life. My limited interpretation tells me it’s not a game of half measures. The culture of American football appears to be all-or-nothing. You’re in or you’re out. The key succeeding appears to be making sure everyone knows what their role is and making them perfect that role.

I’d make a terrible American football player. It’s not just that I don’t want to dress up in pads and a helmet that smell of sweat and blood. And it isn’t that my two X chromosomes make me comparatively physically weak. I’m hopeless at the cheering and the jumping up and down, I’d be uncomfortable with the level of prescription, and I’d be a bore on the bus as I get travel sick and hardly know any lyrics suitable for a sing-along.

There is part of me which dearly believes that if I would just pay more attention to the music and follow the rhythm to which others seem to wave their arms, legs and life, I’d fit in better and things would be easier. Maybe I wouldn’t find myself in a different country to the people I love struggling for a sense of belonging with my dreams of the future turned up-side down. I know though, this is a lie. Every time I try to control the situation and make people happy I have the opposite effect. I’m not the sort of person who can sit on the sidelines. I’m going to fight to play the game by my rules. I always do.

Control, and believing you have it, are apparently vital to well-being according to my current psychology reading: Me, Myself and Us by Brian Little. I figure the sort of control you have matters. For me, it matters that I have control over how I spend my time. I dislike a sense of urgency and the pressure that goes with it. I dislike doing things just because someone else, some-when, thought it was a good idea. For some it’s control of knowing things are moving in the right direction. The bank balance is creeping up and the job title shifts a little every now and again to accommodate the inevitable and necessary change in time. Grief happens when something suddenly snatches way our sense of control.

In the first few minutes of the film, almost the entire American Football team was killed in an aeroplane crash. The story was how do you rebuild a team and community. The grief is overwhelming and yet the remnants of the team that remain keep pushing forward. Not smoothly, not elegantly, but with fits of anger and bursts of uncontrollable rage. Grief hurts. It is individual and incomprehensible. Success had to be redefined because you can’t win matches when you’ve lost your team. You can’t be strong without a solid foundation and the foundation – the talent, the coaches, the faith – had gone.

The Midget is on a winning streak. I can see it in her grin, in the twinkle in her eye and the tone of her enthusiasm for life. It delights me to see her so happy. I’m less stable. I’m haunted by grief so my successes need to be smaller. They include recognising my pain and voicing it. Accepting I’m never going to know the lyrics of the songs being played on the bus and that’s okay. Knowing I’m a thousand miles away and most often alone but that’s where I want to be. Trusting the love in my heart isn’t a bad thing sent to cause me trouble but is my greatest strength.

Bad days are those where I can’t see how my actions can resolve my problems. When someone dies, gets diagnosed with a terrible illness, hurt or betrays you, you inevitably feel helpless. As much as you say ‘this isn’t my fault’ or ‘I couldn’t have done anything’, you can’t actually change the situation. The only thing you can do is choose to respond to the situation with faith.

The college football team lost a lot of matches in the years following the plane crash. When you suffer a significant knock back you can’t just jump back on your feet. The rebuild is a long slog. The team though was rebuilt, and as the credits of the film rolled round, the later eventual successes (the putting the ball beyond the right line and the winning of shiny things) were recognised as the result of the long stint of grunt work.

[The film was ‘We are Marshall‘ and is based on a true story. Yes, there was a delay between writing and publishing.]

Prove yourself wrong with a diary

snake skin

I keep a diary. Like everything else in my life right now, my habit of writing in it does not obey a regular pattern. It’s not an eloquent journal of events and intelligent observations. It’s a raw first draft bashed into being as I process my emotions. It consists of traditional diary entries, less traditional letters, quotes I’ve enjoyed, violent rants, considered plans, lists and maybe slightly intrusive observations of strangers made on trains, planes and from the corners of coffee shops. This makes it the closest I’ve got to an honest reflection of how I actually think.

Primarily, I keep this notebook because it allows me to experiment with words and and ideas on a page which magically enhances my clarity of thought. An unexpected benefit however has recently emerged: my diary entries are more accurate than my memory.

The memory that lies

Recently, a friend told me (and it was implied by another) that I had approached a particular situation with a less than ideal attitude. Because such an attitude matches with my known past behaviours I didn’t question it. I absorbed the criticism and let it sink in. I chastised myself for repeating the same mistakes as I have time and time before. I felt guilty and that I was making a bad situation worse by my childish and selfish ways. Was this weakness becoming more prominent with time or was I just becoming more aware of it. In either case, how did I overcome it. I constructed a reading list and an action plan.

When, later, I flicked back through my diary, I read my description of my emotions preceding and proceeding the event in question. It surprised me. No, stunned me. My fears, apprehensions, desires and other emotions contrasted with what had been assumed. Assumptions I’d unquestioningly believed. My attitude had been both much more complex and appropriate.

My memory was wrong. My friends assumptions were wrong. Decisions were being made on faulty data.

Now a wise friend questioned whether or not I perhaps lie to my diary. This is a good question asked by a good scientist. As far as I’m aware though, whilst I might omit details because I’m not yet ready to write about them, I don’t outright lie. If I write ‘I had a great day today’ I believed what I wrote at the time I wrote it.

The uncomfortable necessity of assumptions

No understanding can be made without assumptions but there’s a point when we stop recognising assumptions as assumptions and start thinking of them as facts. I’m probably guiltier of this than most people. Finding patterns is an obsession. I want to understand the story. However, making assumptions based on out-dated presumptions about someone else’s motivations is damaging. It stops us asking the question of what’s really going on here.

Assumptions are necessary if we’re going to imagine the stories that allow us to empathise with one another. I’m all for empathy, but the most important piece of the empathy puzzle, as I see it, is acknowledging that our feet don’t fit someone elses shoes. My sister’s feet are similar enough that we typically wear the same size shoes. Sometimes I use those squidgy insoles that stop your feet aching if you’re strutting around in heels for a long time, but other times my sister complains that I stretch them. My experience walking in her shoes is very much different to her experience walking in the same shoes.

On discussing how to approach a study of a subjective experience such as happiness, psychologist Daniel Todd Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness states, “In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavours, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album.” Therefore, we can expect to make some mistakes from time to time about others.

The future of the diary

Yet what I believed I’d felt like and the words I chosen to describe the experience as it was happening to me were so astoundingly different. This experience has shaken me. It threw me into a Socrates feeling of I know I know nothing. If I know so little about how I felt a mere two months ago, how can I make decisions based on what I thought I felt years ago?

Why does it happen? My hypothesis is that I’m most susceptible to remembering my emotions wrong when I am insecure about how I feel. In other words, when there’s a contrast between what I think I should feel and what I actually feel. This is particularly acute when the behaviours/motivation relate to my recognised weaknesses.

In hindsight, I’m likely to label my memories as selfish, manipulative, bossy, controlling or clinging because I’m overly fearful of such descriptions. In the moment, I’m going to feel independent, clever, determined, organised or attentive.

Unwinding these practices is an impossible task, but maybe using my diary is a start.

I must stop this silliness and start being curious about what’s actually going on in my mind. What do I actually believe? Repeating mistakes of the past isn’t inevitable. Maybe actually I’ve learnt more than I give myself credit for, I just can’t see it.

The difficult part is believing in the change.

Have you tried anything similar?


We need each other: asking for and receiving help

we need each other

“The bottom line is that we need each other. And not just the civilised, proper, convenient kind of need. Not one of us gets through this life without expressing desperate, messy, and uncivilised need. The kind we are reminded of when we come face-to-face with someone who is in deep struggle.

Dependence starts when we’re born and lasts until we die. We accept our dependence as babies, and ultimately, with varying levels of resistance, we accept help as we get to the end of our lives. But in the middle of our lives, we mistakenly fall prey to the myth that successful people are those who help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

The magic of conversation

I’m tearing a croissant apart, getting the buttery grease on my fingers. Opposite me sits my sister. She’s sipping her coffee and contemplating my expression as she battles for emotional control in that careful processed way that adults do.

She’s younger than me by only two years which makes her most definitely an adult. Yet, sometimes I struggle to see her as grown-up: I chastise her for leaving a light on, for being absent minded about sun-cream or for being oblivious to her surroundings. She gives me a reprimanding look as she silently switches the light off, a guilty grin when she gets burnt, and an expression that says ‘well what did you expect’ when I ask her which way to go. Other times I’m in awe of how fierce she is. It seems to me that she will fight for what she believes in, quietly and unassumingly, with the strength of a whole herd of rhino.

Sometimes she stuns me with her wisdom and insight. I can unravel in front of her and she picks up the sprawled threads of my emotionally distraught story and patches them back together. She lays it out in front of me and navigates as I turn it over and spin it around to see who I am. She watches me cry with an intensity that normally leaves her with tears rolling down her cheeks.  When I feel as intact as my half-eaten croissant, she shows me how strong I am inside. And I believe her.

Leaning on each other though is something we’ve had to learn for ourselves. The emotional dependence has taken longer to  develop than the logistical. It’s taken a lot of time. Death helped, multiple times. Me screwing up badly with communicating about heartbreak helped. Fear of what will happen if we don’t talk created an urgency that can’t be ignored. But joy helped too.

We talked about talking. Or, more precisely, we talked about not talking. Not talking kills. I told her about how I feel, and how I’ve felt. She flared between anger, hurt and glee. We marvelled at the faults in the fundamental beliefs we have about each other. Before, we didn’t have the courage or maturity to be candid with each other without causing hurt. However, in the past few weeks, we have learnt that we have both been excruciatingly wrong in our assumptions. We redrew a map of our relationship and recognised a vast unexplained, unexplored territory.

It felt, to me, like playing a strategy game for hours and wondering how you can possibly succeed with only one gold mine. Just as you’re beginning to think you are totally incompetent and a failure as a human being, or that the game is botched, one little foot-soldier stumbles across a whole mountain of gold hidden along that dark, unexplored map edge. You feel like a fool, but suddenly know you have the resources necessary for success.