The Pros and Cons list

Saint George and an unfortunate dragon, Prague, 2014

My mother was making a decision the other day, whilst we were hula hooping, and I asked if she had made a pros and cons list.

One of the characteristics of the decision she threw out was that it is ‘scary’. Twirling around the living room I stated, “so that’s on the pro list.” To which my mother grinned in a silly fashion and concluded that, “perhaps it could be on either.”

In May I took a five-hour spontaneous drive in a hire car, across a desert into a quarantined zone to catch an aeroplane home. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it on time, but I knew I had to try.

Fear didn’t pay much of a part in all this. Or, it did, the adrenaline rushed around my head and while I was waiting for the chap at the desk in the hire car agency’s offices to learn how to use the computer, I paced up and down. Fear came along for the ride, sitting in the back seat, but fear comes along anywhere I go. Fear is an innate part of life.

If fear had had its way, I would have sat on my bedroom floor and cried.

However, although all my fear responses were screaming like sirens, I maintained a focused calm. I’m not trying to pretend that I wasn’t speaking at ten thousand miles an hour or that my body didn’t shake and twitch, but as soon as I decided to drive, my thoughts calmed.

The beauty of being human is that we can make a decision that isn’t solely dictated by our physical response.

I knew that I had to deal with the problem one step at a time. First, I had the get the car, then I had to drive north. At some later point in time I would worry about my lack of boarding card and the police cordons and how to actually get to the airport. Mostly, I had to keep myself together for the next 96 hours because this trip I was doing alone.

When I sat down in the car, I touched the gear stick and smiled to myself that at least it wasn’t an automatic. Never mind that the gear stick was on the wrong side which inevitably results in me bashing my wrist against the car door. I hadn’t driven a car at all in months but for some reason it didn’t seem to matter.

When the midget turned twenty-one, I took her to Europe. In a café in Vienna, after many protests, she ordered coffee with the shakiest of hands. It was a large central café and I was pretty sure that the waitresses would understand enough English to give her a coffee, but the Midget was terrified.

My dad did the same to me when I was a child. He gave me money for a burger in an airport lounge somewhere and told me I could have one if I bought it. The Midget was with me then too, but she was smaller than the counter. Stuck between my dad’s generosity and my sister’s pleading eyes I somehow managed to be brave enough to order the food. We both ate burgers that day, with fries.

By the end of our Europe trip, the Midget was asking at the desk for international rail tickets with more confidence than she’d managed for that first cup of coffee.

Sometimes you don’t however realise how many small steps you’ve taken until you look back at something you’ve just done – like a spontaneous 5-hour drive to catch a plane in a foggy desert – and realise that as a big picture it all looks rather brave.

But bravery is often not something big, but merely a small step against the current. A mere shuffle forward in fact. Shuffle after shuffle after shuffle.

I sat in that car and pulled out of the supermarket carpark and realised that I didn’t need to try and coerce myself into feeling better about the situation. Nor did I need to cry. My sole job was to pay attention to the road and get myself home. And all at once I knew that however ridiculous my situation was, I was going to be able to handle it.

I’ve dealt with worse.

So yes, when you make your list of pros and cons anything dangerous ought to be on the negative side of the page, but just scary… I’d leave that off the list entirely. Fear will always come along for the ride, just don’t let it drive.

How do you hold yourself to a beneficial routine?

Viscacha, Machu Picchu, Peru. January 2020.
[I get asked some challenging questions sometimes… here’s my attempt at answering this one.]

That’s an interesting word isn’t it… ‘hold’, because it can be quite severe as well as protective. It can be restrictive as well as supportive. And I guess that in some ways I’ve ‘held myself to a beneficial routine’ with both senses of the word.

The preferred method is the supportive one

I try to do those things, like sleeping regularly and eating healthily, because I’m trying to support myself. I’m on my own side. This isn’t a fight where part of me wants something that’s not good for it and the other part is angry about that. No. I’m a team within myself and I fight on my own side.

But that wasn’t always the case and in times when my mind was at risk of self-collapse and the idea of the different parts of me working together in some cohesive team quite an alien idea, holding myself to the necessary routine was severe and restrictive. Sometimes you have to stop negotiating with yourself and set a simple clear boundary – particularly I think when it comes to the things that have the easy power to send you spiralling into a pit of self-loathing.

I was given a gift during my greatest moment of lostness in my mother

After all she made sure that I was receiving three healthy meals a day and it was she who woke me up each morning from the never-ending swamp of nightmares. Waking up at a normal time resulted in me going to bed at a normal time, and so she did a lot of the holding, protectively so.

Meanwhile, I focused on remembering to clean my teeth and wash my face. My sister will attest to the fact that when she calls me feeling less than 100%, the first question I tend to ask is likely to be nothing more complex than “Have you cleaned your teeth?”. I hold myself to a beneficial routine by focusing on the small but necessary. The basics are non-negotiable.

I tend to then focus on accepting that I’m a mess and that I need to do something about it

Even though on a typical day now I’ve got a gentle grip on my routine, when the anniversary of being raped came around I woke in a fog with the echoes of nightmares inhabiting my limbs. The painful recognition of how close I will always be to feeling like I’ve been smothered by the impossibility of existing can be terrifying. I was alone.

I was alone and with my biggest ally and greatest friend: I had myself.

I got out of bed and focused on two very important things

One, this was temporary. Even if such feelings lasted months rather than days, I knew that it wasn’t a feeling that would last forever. Two, I focused on the fact that I could do something about this very real feeling. I got up and made my bed. I then went in the shower with a biro gripped horizontally between my teeth and under the hot water I lifted my arms and struck a fighting pose. You’re thinking that this sounds very simplistic – it took most of the morning.

I know I cannot flick a switch and make myself happier just like that, but I’ve already decided that apathy towards myself isn’t something I can indulge. Even though my parents are amazing, at the end of the day I’ve got to take responsibility for me. If I want a happy life, I’ve got to get on with putting happiness in the world.

How do I hold myself to a beneficial routine? With all the depths of my human heart.

How The Wise Woman Taught The Power Of Choice

I found this post unpublished in the archives. I don’t believe it’s ever been read so I thought I’d pop it out now for people’s entertainment. It was probably written some time in 2015…

This is me staring at Los Perros glacier. To my horror, our Torres Del Paine trip involved an excess of early mornings.
February 2020.

When the Mother met the wise woman

Once upon a time, the Mother went to America to meet a very wise woman.

It was during the summer. There was no school, no rules and no food in the fridge. The Father was quite incapable of functioning without the Mother, not because he couldn’t look after himself – he can. But he didn’t seem to be able to do anything. He walked around the house, went to work, came home and walked around the house some more.

It didn’t matter. We bought some food, filled the fridge and cooked dinner for the Father. The Mother was busy doing something else, something very important.

She was listening to the wise woman, and learning about choice.

The Mother returned. The Father stopped pacing around the house.

And like the kitchen had taken on a different look, so had the Mother.

Because the wise woman had taught the Mother a tremendous skill. A skill so simple that it’s often over looked.

She taught my Mother to choose.

The difference between goals and choices

When you make a choice, you’re acknowledging the alternative.

If I chose to travel, I am letting go of a lot of security.

If I chose not to travel, what is the price I’m paying?

This is what I see as the big problem with goals. When we write up goals we’re articulating our dreams, not what we’re willing to lose, and it’s loss not gain that we feel more strongly. Inevitably, the loss is what makes achieving our goals so hard. It’s the time that has to be committed, the strain in our legs after a long run, and the bitter cold on our skin before. The loss of options, the loss of comfort.

How choice changed the Mother

The Mother has embedded in her children a sense of awe. However hard we try, we are simply not the sort of girls who can have two loads of washing on the line and dinner cooked before 7am. If either of us open our eyes before 7am, we’re ahead of schedule.*

The Mother is like a whirlwind. As children we would have to run to keep up as she walked down the street.

She’s like a humming bird, whilst I’m more like a tree. Or at least in my eyes. The Midget accuses me of doing to much. The father accuses me of allowing myself to burnout, again.

When the Mother returned from visiting the wise-woman, she brought back with her the simple fact that her exhaustion and inability to sleep was her choice. Just like my ulcers, stressed skin and headaches are my choice. When we keep pushing ourselves the cracks are going to appear.

When we set goals we have to acknowledge the cracks. When we keep pushing despite the clawing tension in our backs, the aches in our shoulders the strain in our fingers from hitting this keyboard time and time again, the cracks widen.

So when the Mother returned from the wise-woman, she slowed a little and started thinking a little more about the consequences of doing everything.

Which is why the wise-woman, who I’ve never met, is my hero.

*Actually, my sister seems to be more than capable of such ludicrous behaviour.

The Hello Kitty notelet method for dealing with overwhelm

By Posted on Location: 3min read
Looking down towards the campsite on the second day of our Torres Del Paine trek.
Such a trek took some planning, but at the same time, we had to be flexible because the weather could change at any moment and the John Gardner pass would be closed.
February 2020

The other week, I was lazing out on the terrace of the house of the psychotherapists, with no other company than that of the cat, the occasional stray dogs who came to drink from the swimming pool, and the horses in the field beyond. I figured that it was good to rest and have a little solitude before recommencing my teaching responsibilities at the university.

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

– Winston Churchill

So many plans must have fallen through these last few weeks, worldwide, which has possibly left us all reeling in shock. My mother told me about the supermarket delivery man who is struggling because he’d just been about to head off to Greece for a month and re-plan his life. A dear friend had handed her notice in at work and to her landlord (land-person?) and was about to head off of a cycle ride around Europe. I know I am angry about my plans not going to plan. As are many other people. Dreams have been paused. We’re left with tremendous uncertainty.

I was about to learn how to do a headstand with my yoga teacher and then classes were cancelled. I shall have to wait for the opportunity to return. In the grand scheme of things, not yet learning to do a headstand seems a rather ridiculous thing to become annoyed at. There are people losing their livelihoods. And yet, for me, it is a big deal. It was something I had been diligently working towards. Small things matter to us as well as the big ones.

When my mind was having a hard time of things, I would easily get overwhelmed. I think this is true for any of us who had a fixed idea of what we do and what we should be doing and suddenly find ourselves not entirely sure what the hell we are doing. There are so many questions, so many options, so many decisions that we have to make that we simply do not know which way to turn. We believe we should make educated, rational choices about our lives, but we do not have sufficient information and our minds are easily emotionally clouded.

I reclaimed control with a set of hello kitty sticky notes. On each one I would write three tiny tasks at random so that my notes would read something like:

  • Wash hair
  • Draft CV
  • Ring Dentist
  • Clean window
  • Trim lemon tree
  • Outline article
  • Email agency
  • Change bedsheets
  • Paint nails

I would try to avoid any tasks that I was particularly anxious about from clustering together on a single note. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself, I would simply reach over to the pile of half-completed Hello Kitty faces and choose something. Then, when I had struck a line through all three tasks, I would crumple up the pink paper and toss it in a pint glass. Over time, the pint glasses began to fill and when a row of them sat on my windowsill, I started feeling like I was making progress. That I had some momentum.

I do feel quite like the whole of March has almost gone by and I have done nothing. This is perhaps the consequence of not being able to go anywhere. One day looks very much like the next. Exercise is keeping my mood reasonably balanced, but I am missing the highs I get from face-to-face social interaction. The truth is I feel much better after teaching a face-to-face class than I do after teaching an online class. Although thank the gods I can teach online as it means I have something useful to do with myself.

So I’ve decided to go back to my pint glasses of Hello Kitty faces approach. Just this time, I have a vase and each time I go for a run, I’m bringing home a single small rock to drop inside it. A visual record of the miles I’ve run.

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with a teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

A hazy summer: thoughts on solitude

By Posted on Location: 4min read
A road somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020.

I have a few days alone. I like having some time to myself. I sing songs from musicals, using parts of my vocal range which would otherwise never sound and keep myself entertained. And yet, whilst I value the quiet as a precious necessity should I want to be a sane contributor to society, I do not deceive myself and believe that being alone is a comfortable experience.

Sometimes it is; sometimes I stamp my foot and get angry. There’s nobody else’s voice around, just the thoughts that bob in my mind, clashing up against one another. I can make a choice, either to be miserable with the situation or to be more tolerant of being me and show myself some love.

Which is where the real value of having some time alone comes in. For me, its necessity comes from the inevitable discomfort it brings. The day stretches out in front of me, and there is nobody else but me to fill it. My actions will be judged by nobody but myself.

Often when the opportunity of solitude arises, I choose to take a deeper look in the mirror and I choose to follow or wrestle the thoughts which have tripped me up in previous months. So when I first headed to Valparaiso, alone, I focused on why Christmas proved so emotionally challenging. It’s easy to assume that the obvious answer is the only answer, but it is rarely so. I was ratty the entire week because of an accumulation of stresses.

However, what for me was worse was how irrational it made me feel. The irrationality itself is much more threatening to me than any homesickness. Overwhelming irrationality is something I associate with my memories of mental illness. A fog of emotion blinds you, making sensible thought impossible.

In such situations, the first step is to recognise I am thinking in a delusional manner. The second is to accept that it’s defensive and that in some way or another, I feel threatened. The third step is then to focus on doing kind, loving things for myself. This includes calling the right person to listen to my needs, someone who is going to have the guts to speak to me bluntly and honestly and whose love for me isn’t conditional on me saying the right thing. By this I most often mean my sister.

Later I can return to consider why my defences have been triggered.

It is incredible how difficult it is to do any of these steps, but I have come to the decision, with the help of my moments in solitude, where I have time to reflect upon my hiccups, that this is the only method that works for me. When my mind’s a mess, there’s no point pushing onwards, I have to stop and slow down. If I don’t, I will hurt people.

One of my missions this weekend is to write out again my self-care instructions. This is where I list exactly what I need to do to ensure that I am healthy, safe and cared for. This isn’t mad, it’s how to survive my madness. This process is how I grow resilience as part of my everyday life.

It might sound excessive, but it seems, to me, a small effort to go to if I am going to avoid having a relapse into any emotional prison. I live in a country undergoing a social uprising, a long way from any long-term friend or family. I can’t afford to not be resilient and this simple method works for me.

I was particularly inspired to rewrite these instructions and think my process through from scratch, because of a conversation I had with a prison psychologist recently. He said one of the shocking things about the female inmates was how ugly they let themselves become. He was referring to the lack of self-care they showed themselves. How they gained weight in prison and abused their flesh, not bothering to show themselves any love.

My choice is to be better prepared for when the inevitable bad days happen. To have a series of habits and routine activity which keep me from getting too lost. Have a guide as such, so that I automatically know to make the phone call to someone with the capability to listen. Having days or weeks of emotional fog is part of the human condition. It doesn’t make me, or anyone else a lesser person. we do the best we can. However, it does pay to be prepared.

With such preparation, my defences take on a different appearance. They are no longer merely impulses, amid the chaotic thoughts bombarding my mind, I have some rational, safe mechanisms for looking after myself.

This well worth a few days of not always comfortable solitude and a bit of hard thinking.

At the end of the world: thoughts on friendship

The Moon Valley, near San Pedro De Atacama, the opposite end of Chile to the blog post…
Chile, January 2020.

Despite being the sort of person who is called towards hours solitarily reading or writing, who’s happy spending hours or even days with little company, who finds a large group of people delighting and exhausting, I’ve been blessed with many friends. Maybe because if you want to be my friend, I am likely to accept with very few conditions. I have an expectation of mutual kindness and interest; however, I do not measure the depth of friendship by contact hours.

For me, what matters is a meaningful intent to have an authentic relationship

It doesn’t have to be complex, just real. Some people mistakenly imagine that to be my friend requires a certain level of education or worldliness, mistaking values I cherish within myself as what I need from other people. Similarly, my concept of friendship is not limited to people of my age. Some of my most treasured conversations within any friendship have been with people decades older than myself. And, at the same time, there is a teenage girl who I am looking forward to having to visit as soon as I am back home. We are going to bake a cake together, and she, I know, will have me in fits of giggles.

One dear friend once remarked how lucky I was to meet so many interesting people. Yes, it is true I do have such luck, but, still, there is something also about having the willingness to be interested.

However, meeting an interesting person is not the same as a long-term friendship

When I meet people who are also travelling, they often have strong opinions regarding the difficulty of staying in contact with friends back home. I have been known to be like that. Sometimes there develops a feeling of obligation, the idea that a ‘true’ friend would behave in a certain way. And, to my cost, I have worried about the necessity of knowing the detail of what was going on with my friends’ lives. Nowadays, thankfully, my cares are less rooted in my own ego. I have changed my mind. Such a style of friendship might well work for other people, but it doesn’t really work for me. This change of attitude doesn’t stop me being a good friend, if anything, it leaves me the room to be a better friend because I am less worried about my own inadequacies and less frequently overwhelmed.

People often talk about the need to stay in better contact; sometimes less is better

I recently went away to a national park here in Chile, a place where there is zero phone signal. I was away for nine days which is a long time to go without touching the internet. When did you last spend nine days internet free?

On the bus home, my companion exclaimed at the number of messages on her phone. I looked and saw lists of lit up notifications. At first, I felt bad about my own lack of popularity. When I’d switched it on, my phone had no notifications showing and only, I believe, three quiet messages waiting to be read.

But once the initial emotion of comparison subsided, I smiled

One of the things I had to do during therapy was to take control of when I was receiving information. There was little coherence in the pattern of my emotions and everything that could send a sharp prod of emotion through me generally did. Whilst I’d still say it’s better than feeling numb, it’s not fun. To deal with it, I became very strict with how I used the internet and particularly my phone, habits that, with time, have strengthened to the extent that now in a nine-day period it seems not one notification gets through.

And yet, I have to admit that I enjoy my friendships now much more than I used to. Both those friendships that are many years old and those which are much newer.

And technology obviously still plays an important role in maintaining these friendships

One of my three quiet messages, by which I mean only visible when I opened a particular app, was a long thoughtful email, another was a friend marvelling at the fact that I’d bumped into his brother-in-law at the top of a mountain the day before. I laughed. How miraculous it is that on top of a mountain at the far end of Chile, a place where the road is called ‘the route to the end of the world’ I bump into a guy who once kindly walked me home.

It has not been an easy journey to change my way of thinking about friendship and switch from insecurity (which inevitably, regardless of the volume of contact, leads to a sense of loneliness) and towards a sense of general trust, yet I have to accept that I have done so. Knowing that I care for a number of people scattered across many countries who in one way or another also care for me feels like a miracle. It is freedom.