Lady Bird

I’m still not absolutely certain whether I want children or not. I’ll be 30 in May so many people would tell me that I need to get a move on and decide (although plenty of others these days would tell me not to worry about it for another ten years). Like most people, probably, I’m very worried about having a child and bringing her/him up badly. What if I pass on my anxiety, insecurity and general tendency towards melodrama? What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t like them?

I went to see the film Lady Bird at the cinema yesterday, which is about a teenage girl trying to negotiate all the usual difficulties of being at that age. School, friendships, relationships, and family: it’s all there and the plot is absolutely packed with twists and turns, events going right and going wrong. I loved it all, but her relationship with her mother is especially good. I expect every girl and mother who goes to see it will be smiling, grimacing, or weeping with recognition.

They are alternately best friends and worst enemies. They fight and shout and say horrendous things to each other, and both say the wrong thing at almost every opportunity: and yet, share moments of understanding and love more easily than they will with anybody else. You can see perfectly how much they are hurting each other, but you can also understand their motivations and empathise completely with each point of view. I was never half as confrontational with my mum as Lady Bird is with hers, but I can still recognise the pattern of their relationship. And I can see how easy it is to have such a relationship with your child, or with your parent, despite best intentions on both sides.

I am lucky to have a close relationship with both my parents. I went to a concert with them this past week, to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra play a tribute to Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. My Dad and I have long bonded over swing music. I have bought him many CDs for Christmas and his birthday over the years, sometimes chosen entirely at random by walking into the old huge HMV on Oxford Street (before it closed down) and picking based on the cover or reviews. I can’t remember exactly why I chose it, but I bought him a recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert many years ago. We would often put it on when it was the two of us making dinner on a Saturday night, when Mum traditionally had a respite from cooking. The routine in my parents’ house is to walk the dog to the pub and back before dinner, so we would be tipsy and very hungry, trying to cook while bobbing our heads along to Benny Goodman playing swing and blues. Our favourite track, unsurprisingly, is Sing, Sing, Sing. About ten minutes of glorious big band sound, interspersed with brilliant solos. Apparently, when the concert was played in 1938, the audience were bewildered not just by the mix of white and black musicians on the stage, but also by these extended solos that stretched on and on. If you listen to the recording, there are a few solos followed by swells of music, abrupt stops, and then a lot of applause – which slowly, confusedly, fades away as the audience realises yet another soloist has begun.

The concert at the Barbican we went to see this week wasn’t quite up to that standard, in my very humble opinion, perhaps because the atmosphere is rather different in a very chic and rather expensive concert hall, with little gaps in between each song while we had the next choice explained to us – not to mention applauding the musicians who’d just played and welcoming on the next guest. But it was still a wonderful evening. My Dad and I nudged each other and shared conspiratorial grins at our favourite pieces – which for me, for the most part, made up for the fact I’d rather offended my Mum on the way in by asking if I could swap seats so I was sat next to Dad.

Our relationships with our parents are so very complicated. I felt it during that evening of music and I felt it very strongly while watching Lady Bird – so strongly, in fact, that I kept bursting into tears for an hour or so afterwards, remembering  the many desperately poignant moments: the parents making sacrifices for the children, and the children breaking free and breaking their parents’ hearts as they went. And yet it wasn’t a sad film, overall. There was a lot of joy in it too, a lot of laughs and so much love. So very, very much love.

At the same time as I’m entering the age when I have to start thinking about whether I want to start a family, I’m also entering an age when a few more of my friends have lost their parents. These are still very young deaths – early 60s or so. But they are already more common, no longer the extra rare and dreadful bad luck that robs people of their parents when the children are in their teens or earlier. I am conscious of wanting to spend more time with my parents, not just because I enjoy their company and my Mum makes me feel guilty when I don’t, but also because even if I see them every month or two, that’s still only 6-12 times a year. Is it enough that I won’t regret being around more, if something were to happen? I suppose we will always regret not being around more in those circumstances, and I know many people who see their parents much less – it’s all a case of what you’re used to. But since my car accident last year, I’ve been even worse at worrying about terrible things happening to people, and fretting over whether I could have done something to help (…to avoid an entirely fictitious accident – honestly, being inside my head is completely exhausting). I worry particularly about my parents. They aren’t in the best of health, but a long way from the worst of health as well. My Mum always says she doesn’t want to get to an age where she’s a burden – in fact in many ways she seems to have been looking forward to death since I was little (which is great for the child, as you can imagine! Oh hello, several years of therapy). My Dad, meanwhile, is very much of the attitude that he’s going to do what he enjoys, for as long as he can, and doesn’t bother with any of these ridiculous government guidelines on food and drink which could potentially give him a few more years. To him, it isn’t worth it the extra years as they would all be much less pleasurable without the wine and the cheese (a much healthier attitude for the child, although does lead to some nervousness about how quickly the wine and cheese could catch up with him).

I’m sure one of the most difficult things to learn as a parent, once children are past a certain age, is that you can no longer control their decisions or actions – and nor should you try. In fact, at this rate, I’ll have just about got the hang of not trying to influence my parents’ decisions or blame myself for them not being completely happy, and then I’ll have a child to not try to influence and not blame myself for as well. But then, I’m lucky, because there will always be those moments to remember of love, and feeling at home with my parents which nothing else will ever beat. Unless I do have children, I suppose, and manage to have as good a relationship with them as my parents do with me. Which may be enough to make me think it would be worth the heartache. Maybe.


New Year, New… Not a lot

The concept of the ‘new year’ is a strange one. It’s entirely man-made, and feels fairly arbitrary, particularly when you remember that the Chinese celebrate New Year at a different time to the rest of the world. Until the intrusion of the west, many countries in East Asia measured time by a solar calendar instead of a lunar one. Japan started using the Gregorian calendar in 1873, after a modernisation push begun in 1868. I remember learning that at university and thinking how odd it is that something we rule our lives by so strictly isn’t exactly real – it’s something we invented to make it easier to organise things and keep track of how long people worked for.

I’m thinking about time more and more these days, and 2018 is an interesting year for me as I turn 30 in May. This is neither a big deal nor not a big deal to me; it just is, and in the same way as we evaluate things differently when we arrive in a “new year”, so turning 30 can make you consider things in a different light.

This can be dangerous if it means you suddenly start beating yourself up for not being where you thought you’d be by a certain age. For better or worse, I’ve never been one for life plans or had specific ambitions, so I’m not overwhelmed by negative thoughts about hitting a fourth decade. But I am aware of the expectations that come with putting labels on the passage of time. I think many of us are tricked into thinking everything will be different in the new year; it’s a blank slate and the irritations of the past year will be have faded away, or at least be easier to manage. Certainly we are helped in this assumption by endless marketing campaigns shouting NEW YEAR, NEW YOU! I filed away a lot of odds and ends at work and at home before Christmas and really thought that the time off would make a meaningful difference of some kind, so this week has been a bump back to earth and a struggle, as I’ve found that things are in exactly the same mess as they were beforehand. Our expectations create an artificial high which is never going to be met, because nothing has changed except the date in the corner of the computer screen.

Of course, if we look at time the right way, we can help ourselves to create something out of nothing, and try to build new habits or kick old ones into touch with the help of a new diary and calendar. I’m doing Dry January this year, not because I drink an enormous amount, but because I’d like to see how it affects my mood, sleeping patterns, and general wellbeing to be sober. (If you’d like to sponsor me/donate some money to Crisis, my page is here Other people start new classes, or try new diets (Veganuary seems to be all over the place this year) and it can be a really helpful time to make a new beginning – as long as you realise that you are the same person you were on the 31st of December, and won’t automatically have a brand new Willpower Pack and Courage Belt to help you.

While turning 30 doesn’t make me think ‘Oh Christ! Why don’t I have a husband/children/a house/a proper career plan’, it does make me think of myself in a slightly different light. I’ll think about doing something I’m afraid of, and think, ‘well I’m nearly 30 – I should be able to do that’. The way you see yourself can be extremely powerful, and I’m quite enjoying the sense of grown-up-ness which is coming with my impending birthday. (An example of a less useful self-image is when I was diagnosed with depression some years ago, I kept thinking ‘I’d better be careful – after all, I am depressed’ which was a rather self-limiting way of looking at things.)

I’m glad to have this internal feeling of security and strength, as this week has been a tough one for me, not just because I was disappointed that my work to-do list was still as long, but also thanks to the news. For whatever reason I’ve seen more headlines than I normally do, and they haven’t filled me with joy: my annual rail pass has gone up by £248 to a staggering £7,188, the average deposit in London is now £80,000 (up £30k in a decade) and our NHS is being held together with string and the sheer determination of the people still working inside it. I look around and think, what is my future? It takes people ten years to save for a house deposit, and that’s presumably not if they’re spending their savings each year on the train that gets them to work. Thanks to low salaries, an MA degree, rail passes, a waster ex-boyfriend, and car expenses, my savings have been massively depleted in the last ten years. Every piece of news I see about the UK makes me wonder how the country is going to stay on its feet. My partner is all for moving back to his home country of Canada, provided we can find jobs, and I’m open to the idea but terrified absolutely stupid at the same time. I’m not wondering why I haven’t got to a certain place in life before 30, but I am wondering what seismic changes there will need to be politically or personally for me to get to that place at all.

All this has led to a week of stress, anxiety, and lying awake at 4am – before being awoken at 6am for my commute, and wanting to cry. I haven’t found it difficult not to drink, but I have realised it’s my default position to have a drink when I’m stressed or anxious. I’m having to find replacements now and it isn’t easy. Nothing is as fast or as simple as having a glass of wine! I might get the same results from a bath or an hour reading or half an hour of yoga, but they all require more effort and none of them are anywhere near as sociable.

One plus point is that the feelings stay in my head for longer, so I’m more inclined to write them down and do more of these blogs (hopefully you think of that as a good thing too, dear reader!). I don’t have any magic answers today, only lots of little things I can do to make me feel like I’m moving forward and moving in the right direction. And continuing to write and straighten my head out is one of those things, as even if it doesn’t get me a house or a cheaper commute, it gets me a better night’s sleep – and maybe that’s the best thing I could get anyway.

Highlights of 2017

I’ve done this for the last couple of years – it’s a great way of looking back over the year and picking out the best bits, not just for now, but for when I look back in future years.

Swing Train

This is an exercise class based half on swing dancing, and half on cardiovascular exercise. The music is enormous fun and the moves range from Charleston kicks to squats and even, in one of my least favourite tracks, press-ups. I’m lucky enough to have a class only a few minutes’ walk away with a wonderful teacher, who is enthusiastic without being irritatingly peppy, and extremely good at judging the energy levels in the room and how to push us just enough, but not too much. Highly recommended.

New chair

Recently we bought a new Ikea armchair and footstool, which sits in the corner of our living room with bookcases on either side. It’s deliciously comfortable and my favourite place to sit and properly unwind.

Overcoming fear – twice

This time last year I’d just driven my little Renault Clio home to my parents’ house for Christmas, the first drive on motorways I’d done for years. That drive improved my driving anxiety enormously, and I kept doing more driving and feeling more and more comfortable doing so – until July, when I crashed the car on the M40. After that, I had to go back to the start. I had to deal with all the admin of the insurance for the old car, and of buying a new one; and then I had to learn to feel confident at driving again. With most things I get anxious about, there’s no real danger, but driving was always different. And once you know what it feels like to lose control on a motorway and smash into something at 70mph (like a high-powered game of dodgems) it’s very difficult to tell yourself your anxiety is unwarranted. With patience, practise, the help of Winnie the Pooh audio tapes, and some driving lessons, I am now feeling much more confident in my driving. It’s still difficult, and tiring, but I know what I need to do to feel safe now and that makes a big difference.

My birthday

It’s a cliché to say that you birthday should be one of the best days of the year, but for me, in 2017, it was. The day before I drove my partner and me down to Tarr Steps, a beautiful spot in Somerset where I’d spent many birthdays as a child. It was the longest drive I’d ever done, and when we got there the weather was hot and still and perfect. I had a cold shower to get rid of the sweat of six hours in a car with no air conditioning, on a very hot day, and then got drunk ludicrously easily on white wine sitting outside. The next day, my birthday morning, I woke up very early. When I was small my brothers and I used to get up super early, sneak out of the hotel, and walk along the river to a meadow and back before breakfast. I decided to relive the tradition. When I set out, the sun was only halfway down the trees covering the sides of the valley either side of the river, and the river itself still had patches of mist. By the time I got back to the hotel, the sun was fully up and everything was hushed and quiet but bathed in warm golden light. It was a perfect start to the morning.

Gratitude jar

Every weekend, or sometimes more often, I wrote on little pieces of paper things that had happened that had made me happy or that I was grateful for, and I kept them in a glass jar. It’s been a great way of remembering the good bits, and emptying out the jar to relive the good times on the 1st of January was hilarious and heartwarming. Many of them seemed to involve weekend trips to the pub for a drink and a heart-to-heart with my partner, although there were also many to do with books I’d read, or relief at various drives being over without any incident.


I went to several excellent concerts (gigs? I don’t know what to call these anymore) this year, most of them with one of my brothers. We saw Radiohead in Manchester, which was phenomenal, and the band James twice (some of you may remember James from the 1990’s hits Sit Down and Laid). We saw them at Newmarket racecourse, which was a brilliant and hilarious afternoon and evening. I got quietly drunk on Pimm’s, we watched some races and then the band came on around dusk. One of my happiest and brightest memories of the year.


Last year my employers encouraged me to get some more training in bookkeeping, as much of my job involves bookkeeping tasks. I am now the proud holder of a Foundation Certificate in Bookkeeping, and I’m planning the next course to embark on now. Studying alongside work is far from easy, especially when you have a long commute, but it’s great to feel like I’m still learning something.

The laziest evening ever

I am someone who often has issues relaxing, as I always make to do lists so long that nobody could ever achieve all the stupid things I put on them. So the odd evening when I really chill out is precious. One evening in 2017, my partner was out at a conference, so I knew the evening’s choice of food and television viewing was just down to me. I got off the train, bought a bottle of wine, then went to the local chippie and bought battered sausage and chips. Battered sausage, wine, and a few episodes of Sex and the City: it was a truly glorious evening.


I hope you all had many wonderful memories in 2017, and here’s to making many more in 2018!



I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relaxation. I’ve realised that I’ve slipped into a place where I find it very difficult to fully relax in my own flat. I always feel like I should be doing something, should be cleaning or should be putting things away. I can’t quite remember what I used to do all the time when I lived in a flatshare and had a space only for me. In this flat, the spare bedroom is my partner’s office, and my space is in the living room. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be swallowed up by the half of the sofa I always sit on, I spend so much time there!

In the last couple of months I’ve started taking myself out to the café in Waterstone’s at the weekend, sitting with a book and a cup of tea (sometimes cake too if they have a good one) and relaxing there. My mum wouldn’t understand going out and spending a fiver on tea and a biscuit when I could have them at home, but at least when I’m out, I don’t feel like there’s something I need to be doing. It doesn’t last long, though – I start feeling like I’ve stayed too long, even if I don’t have to get back for anything in particular. I read an article a while ago about women often being the manager of household chores. My partner and I do about equal amounts of stuff round the house, but it’s usually me who’s the organiser, the decision maker, and the instigator of getting things done. Maybe that’s my natural role, or maybe I jump in too often, or maybe I’m too critical when he tries, so me organising everything becomes the status quo. But it is exhausting.

Yesterday I woke up with a horrendous sore throat. I’ve had sniffles and a neverending almost-cold for months and months, but this was the first proper cold I’ve had for a long time. Finally, I had to stop and do nothing. I barely even checked in with work. Many of us who have the means to work from home find it truly difficult to switch off when we’re ill or on holiday – for me it’s the trade off I’m happy to live with for the flexibility of working from home one day a week, and occasionally other times if I need to. The only issue is it can mean your brain never quite knows how to switch off. It’s turning into a cliché now to say we’re always working or always on call, thanks to smartphones, but I’m starting to realise how true it really is. If we don’t set up our own boundaries, we can’t complain when work seeps into home life. And it’s easy to feel like you’re missing something or messing something up if you don’t keep checking in.

For me this inability to fully relax is combined with a shyness around my favourite things to do to unwind – mostly watching Friends, Sex and the City, or The Good Life. I’ve seen them all many times, and there are no surprises anywhere anymore. With Friends, I could recite the dialogue from beginning to end of most of the episodes in my head if I wanted to. Sex and the City I know less well but it’s equally brainless. Sometimes I’ll watch while doing something else, fixing something or browsing for things on the internet, but the best times are when I just watch it and relax completely. However, I feel silly watching the same thing over and over again, and worry that my boyfriend thinks it’s stupid. He has tried a few times to get me into his hobby of choice, playing computer games. It doesn’t work for me, however: not having grown up with them I feel lost and like I’m making a mess of it, and no matter how many times someone tells me that doesn’t matter, I don’t find it that enjoyable and don’t have the urge to keep going until I get better. My brain doesn’t get involved or particularly care about the outcome, which makes it difficult.

One of the other things I used to do to relax was write blogs. I would get a topic in my head and turn it over for a few days or a few weeks and eventually sit down to write and it would all pour out. Lately the pouring out hasn’t happened, for reasons I’m not quite clear on. I’ve been struggling to find that relaxed state of mind where I can turn off the cynical, judgemental switch until I’ve got to the end or at least got something written down. There hasn’t been any particular reason for this that I know of, although some people have suggested that being on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication can cause blockages in the creative flow. Maybe I’ve got too tired of staring at a screen all day. Maybe I’ve got too used to jumping up to tidy my flat. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to get my brain to really relax.

I’ve thought a few times of writing more about the car crash I was in in the summer, but I was worried people would be bored of that and not want to hear any more about it. But I write this blog for me, so it doesn’t really make sense not to write about that if I want to. My anxiety around driving has got worse again the last few months, and I’m now trying to decide which form of help would be most useful for me. I’m considering ordinary counselling, hypnotherapy, and standard driving lessons. The hypnotherapy is pretty expensive – £370 for six sessions, and the lady assured me I would need that many. Her whole tone was somewhat mercenary and not particularly encouraging. A counsellor I got in touch with had no space and was hardly any cheaper. A driving instructor replied to my email saying ‘Yes I can help you’ which is what I needed to hear, but I haven’t had the guts to call and arrange a lesson yet. I’m hiding behind excuses. This cold this weekend is very convenient.

The only positive and concrete step I have taken is to have a biodynamic massage – a friend has recently qualified as a masseuse and I was eager to give it a try. Biodynamic massage is psychotherapeutic massage, investigating the energy in the body and releasing it from places it has got stuck (apologies Anita if this is a shocking description!). I had my first session this week. Since the crash the issues I’ve had for a long time with muscle tension in my right jaw and shoulder have spread down into my hip and into my foot – I’ll find my right foot is tensed upwards, as if it’s resting on an invisible accelerator. One thing Anita suggested at the start was that my body might be trying to relive the accident to get a different result. I realised that that’s what I’ve been doing psychologically too: I haven’t let it go because I keep thinking I should have done something different, but without being able to go back in time and change anything, that sense of guilt and unease has stayed with me.

During the session the tension in my right arm started to improve, although it’s always difficult for me to relax it after years of computer and mouse work. After massaging my legs, Anita held both my feet calmly in both hands. I can’t explain it, but I started to feel a twitching and a shuddering in my right foot. Odd as it sounds, I felt the guilt and self-blame I’ve had since the accident rise up and find a measure of release. I started to cry. After the session was over I felt calm and light-headed but immensely tired, and a couple of days later I got this cold. Perhaps this is my body’s way of taking control and forcing me to get some real, proper rest, without the shoulds and shouldn’ts that so frequently consume my thoughts.

Today I’m trying very hard to relax, which is a contradiction in itself. Perhaps it’s better to say I’m not trying to tick off a to do list, or find something to do that other people would think was a good use of time. (It helps that the flat is already clean and tidy so looking around, there aren’t many tasks that jump out for me to do!) It’s still difficult, but I don’t want to have to get ill to start feeling like I’m allowed to sit down and do what I want – even if other people would think watching fictional people make the same stupid decisions over and over again is a pointless thing to do. It’s only for me.

You should’ve asked


Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.


Coming out of a car crash

If your car goes into a skid, the advice is to steer into it. I always thought in that situation I would panic and try to steer the other way, as continuing a skid seems counter-intuitive. Last weekend I found out that this advice has actually found its way into my subconscious – but also that if you go into a skid in a car, you really don’t feel like you have any hope of steering your way out.

Last Saturday I was driving up to the Midlands for a wedding with my partner. It was the first time I was doing a long drive to somewhere I’d never been, and that made me anxious. I also find weddings in general anxiety-inducing, as I find the endless small talk with strangers awkward. We negotiated the M25 without too much difficulty, although traffic was heavy and difficult with a lot of stop-starting going on. People were driving badly, not moving out of lanes when they should and driving too slowly in the faster lanes. Earlier in the week I’d had the pleasure of a longish drive with my brother, who is an excellent driver and changes lanes with ease and endless practicality. I’m sure all of this informed the way I drove, both the anxiety and the experience of driving with someone far more experienced – although maybe I’m just over-thinking what informed my reactions on that particular day.

Once we were on the M40 I was hoping the driving would become easier, but there were still a lot of people and I still felt unsafe with the way we were driving as a group – people were quite close to each other, and I felt edgy and wanted to get out of the way of people if I could. I think that was what made me decide to switch to the next lane over to the left – I had been in the fast lane for a bit but I wasn’t going as fast as I knew some would want to go, and there was nobody to my left. I indicated, checked, pulled over. Then when I was halfway through getting into the lane, or maybe more, I’m not sure, my partner shouted something to warn me. A coach was moving over from the slow lane, hadn’t seen us, and was terrifyingly close to the car.

I think I panicked. Which isn’t unreasonable as a coach was bearing down on me. I steered sharply to the right, but at that speed sharp changes of direction do not go well. My partner was shouting ‘FUCK’ which each breath, which was totally understandable but made me panic more. I tried to correct the steer by going to the left but it was just as sharp and just as scary. It was an out of control zigzag at 70mph in the middle of a motorway. I think I had some thought that I wasn’t going to be able to correct it, or that I needed to try and get away from the other cars, or both, or maybe I felt like I was skidding as I went back to the right and my brain told me in a skid, you steer into it. One way or another, I steered hard to the right. My partner was still shouting FUCK as we hit the central reservation. This felt a lot like playing dodgems at a fairground, and has made me think since that that must be why I have always detested dodgems. Where is the fun in simulating a car crash? He was still shouting FUCK as we spun round. He says we spun more than once. I don’t remember.

We came to a stop facing the wrong way, still in the fast lane. I remember everyone else moving past us in slow motion. Thank god for the speed of their reactions – if someone had hit us during that spin it could have gone very badly. As it was we were sitting in the car, totally shocked but entirely physically unharmed.

I sat and stared at the dashboard, which was completely blank. I realised vaguely that the engine had switched itself off. I wondered dazedly if I could turn it back on and turn round to keep going. I said ‘I don’t know what to do now.’ I think my partner was asking me if I was all right. That’s when I looked at him and felt the guilt of the decisions I’d taken to steer as I had. I said, ‘oh my god – I could have killed you.’ And that was the main thought I had for the next six or seven hours.

Why had I steered that sharply? Why hadn’t I just moved back into the lane I’d come out of? If I’d panicked less, if I’d been less anxious, if I hadn’t wanted to keep moving lanes to show I was a good driver, if, if, if, if… we would be safe and still driving, shaken but okay. I should have done it differently, I shouldn’t have over-steered, I shouldn’t have done that, I should have done this… should, shouldn’t, should, shouldn’t.

Luckily, a wonderful man – a brilliant, real-life good Samaritan, angel of a man – stopped a way behind us (or in front from where we were looking) in the same lane, and put his hazard lights on so people had some warning and wouldn’t come bowling up to our stationary vehicle. He came over, shouting to us to check we were okay. My partner answered, I couldn’t. When the man – Kevin his name was – got close to us he said that the car was leaking fluid and we should step out. We were under a bridge so I huddled against that. I realised that various parts of the front of my poor car must have got strewn across the road, as people were driving over them with a terrifying CRACK which made me flinch every time. Our Good Samaritan called the police while my partner tried to comfort me. I was shaking and crying and retching but could hardly bear to have him touch me. I had almost killed him, so how could I accept his comfort?

Eventually the police came, I was reminded I needed to call my insurers but having found the number and dialled I couldn’t say anything anyone could understand so my partner and the Good Samaritan handled the call. The police stopped the traffic a way down and pushed my car onto the hard shoulder. They swept – and kicked – the bits of my car over to the sides of the road. I was still shaking but explained what had happened to the police who took it all very casually. I expect they see it all the time and in fact another accident had happened further down the road behind us – possibly caused by people not slowing down fast enough to account for four lanes becoming three for a while because of our cars. I felt even more guilty when I heard that.

At some point when my partner was on the phone and I was talking to Kevin, a.k.a. the Good Samaritan, I told him that I felt so guilty. I could have killed someone. He was brilliantly down-to-earth and reassuring. He said: ‘No. What you did was an Evasive Manoeuvre. You had to do it, and if you hadn’t, there could have been a massive pile-up. All these people driving past could have been involved. You did the Right Thing.’ I have no idea if he knew how much those words were going to stick with me.

The Good Samaritan and the police carried on, and the traffic restarted with a roar and a rush. An ambulance stopped by us but we said we were fine. After a while a Green Flag bloke provided by Direct Line picked us up. He provided meaningless chat interspersed with tactless comments, like telling us that someone from the other crash had been loaded onto a stretcher. I had barely stopped crying since the accident but that brought a fresh wave.

Direct Line are an amazing company who provide you with a taxi to reach your destination if you aren’t able to keep driving – which of course we weren’t. The bonnet and side panels of my car were unharmed but everything from the bonnet down had disappeared. The bulbs for the headlights were dangling from wires, the plastic had completely gone. The bumper and the radiator had vanished too. After a chat my partner and I decided to carry on to the wedding. I pictured going home, shocked and defeated, and having nothing to do but stare at an empty parking space. Even if the wedding would be difficult, it would be a distraction. An incredibly sweet taxi driver took us to Evesham. My partner’s friends – it was his friends who were getting married – were absolutely brilliant. One took me away somewhere quiet as soon as we arrived, as she saw from her first look that I was about to break down in front of everyone.

A few hours into the wedding, and a few glasses of champagne in, I finally told my partner that I could barely look at him because I felt so guilty. The entire taxi journey of nearly two hours I’d barely said a word. He took me for a walk and told me that from his perspective, whatever I’d done had got us out and saved his life – he felt he owed me one. He’d told me at the side of the road that he felt his panicked yell hadn’t improved things. He might be right but what else are you going to do when a coach is a few feet from squashing you?

Together we enjoyed the rest of the night. Copious amounts of alcohol aren’t the recommended treatment for shock as far as I know, but I think it meant a lot of the emotion that could have been buried for hours, days, or even weeks, was brought out as quickly as it could. I paid for the emotional lack of control a bit when it was time to go to bed – I was exhausted but somehow terrified of going to sleep. I couldn’t stop crying as my partner lay down and fell asleep almost instantly. Luckily for me, a good friend was still awake at half-past one and she talked me down. I found a mindfulness body scan recording on my phone, and managed to focus on that long enough to get my brain out of its spiral.

In the days since, I’ve experienced fatigue like I’ve never had in my whole life. Going back to work in London was tougher than I expected – King’s Cross made me very jittery and I found myself walking along as close to left-hand walls as I could get wherever possible. Concentration has been extraordinarily difficult, and body and mind have felt perpetually exhausted. This began to lift a little for the first time yesterday, five days since the accident. Today I am nervous again as I’m going to pick up a hire car provided by my insurers. Hopefully I’ll be able to use said car to get to the garage which is examining my poor, broken Clio, so I can collect all the things out of it that I had to leave behind – including the remote control which lets me take a car through a gate into the close where I live. Getting a replacement would cost me £40 I can ill-afford as I need to get a new car and my insurance premium has just doubled. Unfortunately the people who provide the remote control fobs aren’t willing to give me a refund if I get mine back. I am resisting the urge to tell them they’re being heartless fucks.

I am nervous about driving again and nervous about seeing my Clio. I thought I had seen it for the last time at the centre we were taken to after the crash. I’m not sure I want to see that smashed-up front again. Some other strange part of me thinks I should take a picture of it as some gruesome reminder of what happened, or to shock people in years to come at dinner parties when I feel safe to bring it out when the conversation reaches a low or tedious ebb. Probably this is all a bad idea and a reminder of how bizarre our society has become, that we feel the need to record anything shocking or sensational or faintly interesting, even if it points to a dark or maudlin aspect of our brains.

I hoped that writing this out would be cathartic, and I believe it has been. I have no doubt that the anxiety I had just been overcoming about driving will now rear its ugly head again, but I hope I will be able to cope with it. I will now be a sturdy middle-lane-hogging driver on the motorway, and never switch lanes until absolutely necessary. Although perhaps that wouldn’t have helped us anyway, as the coach – which drove cheerfully on after the crash – simply hadn’t checked its blind spot sufficiently before beginning to move over. Accidents happen. As time passes I’m blaming myself less for the way I reacted, which after all I could hardly control in the heat of the moment. All I can really do is thank my lucky stars that nobody else hit us, that we hit the central reservation at an angle which meant the bumper took the brunt not either side of the car, and that that brilliant person stopped to help us in our moment of need. Thank you to him, wherever he is, and to everyone who has been so brilliant ever since – to my friends and my partner’s friends, particularly those who gave us a lift home after the wedding, and to our families. We love you all.


A Year of A Long Commute

This time last year I moved to Canterbury from London, and started commuting on the train into London every day. A couple of months after I started commuting I wrote a deeply smug blog post about how much I was enjoying it, that I was getting into using a Nintendo 3DS and that after a year I wanted to be able to see what I had achieved with this easily measurable slab of time. Well, inevitably, it has not been as straightforward as that. All I know for certain about the commute is that it’s given me a hell of a lot of time to read, and it’s shown me that I get bored almost as easily as a toddler. I take a backpack with me to work that makes me look like I’m about to go for a trek in a rainforest. It usually has at least two books, a kindle, and an iPod (yes, I am old school – I got tired of paying Spotify £10 a month when I listen to the same thirty songs day in, day out) as well as a small pharmacy, tea and water, and various snacks in case I get hungry. It’s a wonder I can fit onto the train.

Commuting is a strange business. You see the same people every day because people tend to always get on at the same door – perhaps just so they have one less decision to make at 7.15 in the morning. Most of the time nobody speaks but I have regular conversations now with two of my fellow travellers. One is an ecologist and the other is something to do with army recruitment. The latter has a very short phone call with someone every morning as the train is about to pull in, and I don’t know why. The ecologist has a son who’s studying music at university, and plays the clarinet – I was played a piece of his music which was a bit surreal but lovely. The army man has a son who is dyslexic, which he (the army man, not his son) and I had a conversation about after he saw I was reading Neurotribes, a book that’s about autism but has a tagline on the front – ‘how to think smarter about people who think differently.’ It was an interesting conversation although he was irritatingly patronising about how long he thought it would take me to finish the book – it took me about a week.

I have made “enemies” as well as “friends” during this commute. My nemesis is a woman who stands out at the side instead of congregating in the little huddle of people who are staking a bet on where they think the door will stop. We all stand dutifully back from the edge, behind the yellow line. As the train pulls in, this brazen female will walk right in front of everyone neatly queuing, and stand right in front of the doors when the train stops. The urge to push her under the train is strong. It is as bad as the people in London tube stations who decide that they ALONE will ignore the ‘keep left’ sign, and march down the right-hand side- often making progress if there’s no trainload of people coming the other way. They think they’re so smart, refusing to follow everyone else like sheep. I guess they don’t realise, or don’t care, that they are only gaining something because everyone else is playing by the rules. If everyone did it, if everyone marched alongside the edge of the track to stop in front of the doors, or ignored the keep left signs, it would be total chaos and people would regularly fall under the trains.

In many ways commuting is just an opportunity to catalogue selfish acts. Like the people who set themselves up in the outside seat and stick their suitcase in next to them, or plug themselves into a screen attached to the back of the seat in front so nobody will bother to ask them to move. This strikes me as so astoundingly selfish I want to shake these people and ask them how they can so wilfully inconsiderate.

People who sit at tables and put their bags on the table instead of the overhead racks. People listening to music so loud half the carriage could sing along (shout out to the guy who got on at Ashford one morning listening to Atomic Kitten loud enough to bust his eardrums). Men on the tube – and I’m afraid it is mostly men – who seem to have made it their goal that day to take up as much S P A C E as possible. Once two men having a conversation on the tube in the rush hour were taking up enough room for six. I had to physically duck under one of their arms to get into a space. It makes me wonder if we need more than one definition of the word consciousness, because these people are so completely unconscious of anybody or anything other than themselves.

Commuting also gives up many funny or scary or interesting day-to-day occurrences. A guy who ate four chocolate éclairs on his way home one evening – he also called a woman a tramp the week before and got a very public dressing down from another man on the train. A drunk man who followed a girl when she moved to get away from him, and was roundly shouted down by many members of the carriage, once people realised he was harassing her. He had no choice but to withdraw to his seat. The girl ran away but reported him, as later members of the British Transport Police got on to hear what he had to say for himself.

Other tiny irritations. Endless people who are unable to breathe quietly who always seem to sit next to me. A man who was sniffing in such an irritating manner that I offered him a tissue – which he declined to take. People watching slightly disturbing or pornographic television shows on their tablets, which you can’t help seeing even if you’d rather not.

After the bombings at London Bridge my commute became something other than a long, mildly tedious but also peaceful few hours of the day. As I don’t live in London anymore I don’t have the daily immersion in city life, which immunises you to some extent to the fear of an attack. When you do it every day, you can’t keep up feeling anxious about it – unless you suffer from severe anxiety. It’s part of the day-to-day and you stop noticing it. But I was coming in and going out and wasvery aware of the change from calm rural setting to the frenetic stressful city. I was afraid of going through King’s Cross and of getting on the tube. I watched my fellow passengers suspiciously and felt exhausted by the effort. I tried to make excuses to stay at home and work there, because I felt imminently in danger.

It didn’t last too long, thankfully. About a week or two. Now my commute is back to deciding which book to read and staring down my nemesis at Canterbury West.

People ask me how the commute is going, as if it’s an entirely separate part of my life – I suppose it is in a way, but I try not to think about that. Especially since I realised I wasn’t going to have anything neat to tell anybody I’d achieved in all that time, other than reading an incredible number of Agatha Christie novels. Hopefully nobody can say that’s a waste of time. While I do get tired of it, particularly when I haven’t had a holiday in a long time, it could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe one day I’ll remember the long hours in air conditioned carriages, doing wordsearches and failing to work out who poisoned the local gossip, and wish I had such a pleasant commute again. One thing’s for sure, though – when it ends, I won’t miss spending more than a fifth of my salary on it.