Highlights of 2016

THERE WERE NONE, I hear you cry. Well, the other day I found a piece I wrote this time last year on highlights of 2015. Apparently I thought 2015 pretty much sucked in terms of news items as well, although I don’t remember it being particularly bad – apart from the Conservatives winning the UK election. Reading back through the post I remembered lots of little things I enjoyed about that year, and although 2016 was rubbish in terms of democratic votes, gun shootings, and celebrity deaths, it’s important to also think about the good things. This isn’t going to be one of those list of good news for the environment etc which have been doing the rounds lately, but rather a list of my own personal highlights. Some are tiny, and some are life-changing. What were your highlights of 2016?

The Guilty Feminist Podcast

This year I finally started listening to podcasts, and this was the first one I tuned in to after it was recommended by a friend (thank you Gillian!). Female comedians discuss a range of topics, from shoes to periods to nudity, and examine their complicated and at times contradictory relationships with femininity, feminism, their own bodies, and the people around them. It is hilarious and thought-provoking, wonderfully forgiving and a real tonic if you think feminists are shouty and irritating. Some are like that, but some of us don’t have a clue! The show starts with a list of brilliant ‘I am a feminist but…’ quotes, such as: ‘I am a feminist… but I often find myself promoting this podcast by saying, it’s about feminism, but don’t worry, it’s funny.’

Dancing at weddings

I’ve been to a few weddings this year with my partner. I struggle with weddings. I find the logistics of getting there, finding somewhere to stay, talking to people you don’t know, and figuring out when it’s okay to leave very stressful. But I’ve discovered that dancing at weddings with my partner is the best. This summer we went to a stunning wedding of a friend of mine (the same Gillian who recommended the Guilty Feminist podcast – congrats on the awesome wedding too!) in rural Kent, in a big marquee and the groom’s family’s back garden. I was panicking about what to wear up until the last minute, and got changed 30 seconds before we had to leave into navy trousers and blazer and a red shirt (then got self-conscious when my partner said we looked like we were heading to a business meeting). Anxiety + free champagne meant we were both wonderfully silly by the time we sat down to eat, and still pretty tipsy when the music started. We both love dancing and we barely stopped for the next couple of hours. Several people complimented us on our dancing, which felt wonderful and all in all it was a fabulous evening. I like weddings now.

Lazy corgi fight video

I love the beginning of this video, with a corgi lying on its back with its feet in the air. What is it doing?! And then the “fight” – I’m going to snap at you… and then just go and lie over here… and bark at…nothing… These dogs are just ridiculous. Corgis themselves make no sense. How are their legs so short?! So comical.

14th May, Canterbury

I moved to Canterbury this year after ten years of living in London. This was one of the life-changing highlights to the year: I moved in with my partner and started a much longer commute to work. For the most part living together has been lovely, and although the commute isn’t my favourite thing in the world, I love living in Canterbury. When I got back after Christmas it felt like home. And although there are pros and cons to being out of London, I certainly don’t miss the tube or the weekend crowds. Or the exorbitant rent. Although the rail pass does its best to make up for that!

Started anti-anxiety medication

This might be a strange thing to put as a highlight of the year. Having to take medication is bad, right? I certainly thought so for a long time. Even though I’ve been blogging about mental health for a while now and I am very supportive of friends who are on medication, I really fought going on anxiety medication myself. I realised that I still saw it as a sign of weakness. I thought I should be able to get past it on my own. And I put a lot of work into that and when I was feeling generally okay, the self-care worked. But when you’re tired or something knocks you so you take that lift back down to the beginning again, sometimes it’s too tough to haul yourself back up all the stairs on your own. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication for six weeks. I’m on a very low dosage and it still sometimes gives me nausea, but I also have some more space in my head to combat anxious thoughts. I’ve achieved things that I’m not sure I could have done if I hadn’t been on medication. I don’t know what will happen, whether they’ll keep working, whether I’ll need to switch, or whether I’ll need to up the dosage, but right now I think they’re working. It’s easier for me to take a step back from anxious thoughts. There’s no point saying to myself “you don’t need to worry about this” because that doesn’t work. But I am finding some relief from going a step further and thinking “you don’t need to think about this. There is nothing saying you need to spend time and energy going over this. Let it go.” Just gaining that step and finding a bit more stability is feeling great. Keep your fingers crossed for me that it stays good.

Dyeing my hair

While in most areas of life I’m quite frightened of change, as we all are (I heard someone on the radio recently say everybody is scared of change, and if someone says they’re not, they’re lying) when it comes to going to the hairdressers I LOVE change. The bigger the change, the better. If I have a haircut and come out looking more or less the same, I’m a bit disappointed and have generally forgotten I had the haircut by the time I get home, so someone saying they like it confuses me. You like what? It’s the same! This year I dyed my hair red for the first time. I’ve wanted to do it for about a decade so it was pretty exciting for me. It didn’t go quite as bright as I wanted so I’m planning to get it done again soon. I look so quiet and demure that most hairdressers are worried I’m going to get upset, so they tend to – consciously or not – tone down what I ask for. But my current hairdresser in Canterbury seems to trust I want what I say, so I’ll ask him to dye it next. Hopefully it won’t come out some dreadful shade of pink.

Driving home for Christmas

I passed my driving test four years ago, then only drove on the odd weekend at my parents’ house for the next four years. Now I’m living in Canterbury, I have my car with me here. Unfortunately the years off and the fact I was driving somewhere I barely knew meant I started getting extremely anxious about getting in the car. Panic attacks and heated arguments with my partner while driving ensued, and although I kept at it, I was still struggling with nerves. I would be so anxious about driving fifteen minutes to the nearest stables for a riding lesson that I could barely stand due to extreme nausea. Then I started anti-anxiety medication, and although I was still anxious before I left the house, once I was in the car I was fine. So I took a somewhat bold and impulsive decision – I do this sometimes – to drive myself from Canterbury to Suffolk to stay with my parents at Christmas. I hadn’t been on a dual carriageway for four years and had never driven on a motorway. But for some reason I decided that having a parent come down and sit in the car with me, or drive in front of me so I at least knew where I was going, was not as good as going solo with the Google Maps app and ‘winging it’. Well, I was right. I had a couple of fun moments at roundabouts and risked speeding tickets here and there (with added adrenaline rush because when you take my little car over 80 miles per hour, the steering wheel shudders) but the sense of achievement was second to none. Definitely a highlight of the year.

Other people’s achievements

I am very lucky to have an amazing circle of friends, family, and partner. They share in my achievements and my worries as I share in theirs. Although there have been difficulties and sadnesses this year, several of my immediate circle have also had wonderful news that I have loved sharing with them. My best friend is pregnant and expecting her baby very soon. I love that I was one of the first to know about the pregnancy, and I’ve loved keeping up our dinner routine while we can and checking in on how she’s doing. Apparently my general cynical nature has been a great tonic to her when all she wants to do is complain about feeling fat and having rib pain and most of the people around her are saying OMG YOU MUST FEEL SO BLESSED!!! My ‘yeesh, poor you, that sucks’ has been very useful, she says, which I’m very happy (and relieved) about. In other news, my partner had his first academic book published this year. It’s a huge moment and I felt so very proud going to the launch and hearing him talk about it. Getting to read a published book by someone you know and love is really wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

There are more great moments but I feel like this post is already quite long and gushing. I encourage you all to note down a few things that went well this year, even if it was just a great book you read or a brilliant movie you saw. Looking back on them in the future is really encouraging, and god knows we all need some good things to remember about 2016.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Introvert, Depressive, Anxious, Female – Normal?

As is probably true of us all, I’ve been pretty down this week. I’ve been struggling with concentration, sleep, and general irritability. Although I would no longer classify myself as depressed, I am aware that my moods fluctuate quite a lot, and I do what I can to keep them in check and generally don’t feel like I do too badly. So I was a little surprised yesterday when one of my best friends said she thought I should see a psychiatrist.

I’ve been thinking it over ever since and it has made me aware of several things. Even people who have experienced mental illness, talk about it a lot, seek treatment for it, and understand what it’s about, do not always like being told that they need help. I don’t want to be one of those people who refuse treatment when people around them think it is needed. But it is a horrible feeling, perhaps even more so if you have had treatment before and improved, because it makes you feel you have failed by being ill again.

In my case, there is also apprehension and scepticism over what a psychiatrist can do for me, and how that would work in practical terms. In the past four years I have had two years of counselling, six months of antidepressants, six sessions of CBT and a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs (I only took one, which made me feel so ill I could hardly sleep, work or eat for 24 hours. Apparently this is common and can last up to six weeks, and as I have very little excess body fat, I thought it was better to be mildly anxious than starve). I do not really want any more talking therapy. I know the background of why I am anxious, and sometimes low, and I don’t really feel that talking about it any more will make it any better. I don’t really want to try pills again – my main issue is low self-esteem and sadly there isn’t a pill for that. The side effects when I have taken them before were also rather troubling and off-putting.

The conversation with my friend focussed my mind on what I’ve been wondering on and off for the last couple of years, or even longer than that. Am I ill, or am I just me? There are so many ways of interpreting our behaviour and thought patterns these days, with so much more knowledge of mental illness freely available, that it all too easy to label someone as one thing or another. Here’s a good example of what I mean: when I was at school, I used to hate being asked to answer a question unless I was 100% sure of the answer, and that was rare. I was terrified of getting it wrong. Various books I have read over the last few years have included examples of this and attributed it to a different ‘label’. Quiet by Susan Cain says this is introversion. Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says this is common among females, because we are socialised not to consider our answers important and to be quiet and shy and let the boys speak. Or you could say this is the beginnings of anxiety, a deep-based fear of being found not good enough that requires therapy or pills to solve. Or is it just me? Just the way I am, that I don’t like talking about things I don’t know much about? I don’t know. It could be any of those things, or none, or all. So how do we know when we are mentally ill?

When I was at school or doing my BA, the label ‘anxiety’ was not that common amongst teachers so you just had to get on with it and do the best you could. I know that universities are far more aware now and some make special provisions for students who experience anxiety, particularly for presentations (I don’t know about schools; I’d be interested to learn). This is good in some ways, because people can get help and support, but it can also reinforce negative behaviours. Using the example of presentations, if my teachers at university had known that I was so nervous I thought I was going to be sick before each public speaking effort, and so anxious during those five minutes that I couldn’t breathe properly, maybe they would have let me off. I would have been so relieved, and I am a little envious of the students who are let off now. But: avoiding what makes you anxious in this way does not do you any favours. If you never try, you never learn that it doesn’t kill you, and you never improve. By the end of my BA degree I could do a presentation with far less nerves, and my audience would be more or less unaware that I was anxious at all. It is still a problem for me, but I learnt that I could do it. Not facing these anxieties is called negative reinforcement: the immediate relief of being let off is so marvellous that you keep doing it again and again, and you never get any better.

So is it useful to give yourself a label and use it as an excuse? For things that make everyone anxious (public speaking is one of the most common phobias) maybe it isn’t. And I can’t say I’m generally anxious because a lot of things that some people loathe I have no issues with. I adore flying, for example. I get anxious before some big social occasions where I’m not going to know many people, but who doesn’t? I now get anxious when I drive because I haven’t done it much lately, but again, isn’t that normal?

Another example I read about was a girl who lost both her parents very early in life. After the death of her mother when she was only about 20, leaving her an orphan, she went to see a counsellor. The counsellor told her she was ‘ordinarily unhappy’ and for a long time the girl was livid. But the counsellor meant: of COURSE you are unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? And in some cases this is a useful way of looking at things. You’re nervous of talking in front of 30 other people you hardly know? Fair enough. It’s not unusual. It doesn’t need a label.

My friend is worried that I may still be suffering from a form of depression, which may have been misdiagnosed by a GP without the time or expertise to look into the problem fully. By the standard definition of feeling down and hopeless and plagued by negative thoughts for two weeks or more, I am not depressed. I have been low this last week, and anxious, but again with all the news this past week or two, WHO HASN’T been feeling down and anxious?!

I do know that there are some things that are not perhaps ‘normal’ for me to worry about as much as I do. And I could call that anxiety, as they can get into self-reinforcing and self-inflicted spirals. But most of them are to do with self-esteem: am I good enough at this? Do people like me? Am I important? Am I pretty enough? Am I clever enough? It’s exhausting. But it’s not constant. So is it an illness, or is it just something people suffer from – particularly women?

I have been listening to the Guilty Feminist podcast a lot lately – highly recommended – and listened to one yesterday on Worth. They discussed how much they felt they were worth, both in monetary terms for their jobs but also in terms of standing up for what was important to them, and measuring their own worth by different standards. Sarah Millican was the guest, and she said it had taken her a long time to work out that she needed to judge her own worth herself, without taking on anyone else’s assessment. She read out a review she had had after appearing on a television show where the reviewer essentially pronounced her worthless because she was not young and sexy, but neither was she a wife and a mother. Too often women have their worth judged in these ways, rather than on anything else. It’s a huge problem, because when women judge their own worth in this way, even if they wouldn’t judge their friends like that, it’s easy to feel worthless. Oh, my boyfriend didn’t want to sleep with me this evening therefore I’m not sexy therefore I am worthless. I am single and in my thirties and don’t think I want children therefore I’m worthless. I’m in my fifties and have been at home raising my children for thirty years, but now my children have all left home and don’t need me every day anymore therefore I’m worthless.

I am well aware that I have issues assessing my own worth, and believing that I am not worth much leads to problems all over the place. If I don’t think I’m worth much, I don’t understand why my partner would think so, so I think he’s going to leave. I get irritable and needy, and then he gets upset, and then I feel even more worthless because I’m being a pain in the arse, and the cycle keeps going. This, I think, is what my friend thinks I need a psychiatrist for, and probably because she’s heard stories of these kind of issues with my partner too often for too long, and there’s nothing much she can say, or anyone can say – except perhaps a professional. Maybe she’s right. I know what the psychiatrist will say, but is that a reason not to go? Do I need a label? Or can I cope with this on my own? Is it an illness that requires treatment, or is it because I’ve grown up as a slightly introverted woman and these are common tropes in many women’s lives? I really don’t know.

I am considering going purely for the guidance of a professional opinion. At the same time I am aware that my best friend in all this is probably myself. If the worst problem I have is negative thought spirals, the best thing I can do is practise mindfulness. When I did it actively for a few weeks, I procrastinated less at work, I got into less idiotic thought patterns about my partner’s ex-girlfriends (of ALL the pointless things to think about, that’s got to be one of the worst) and I felt much better and more confident in myself. We have been told time and time again that exercise is effective as medication for some mental illnesses. So even if a professional would give me an anxiety or depression label, does that also mean I need psychiatric treatment? If I don’t think I need it, odds on it won’t work. So ultimately, my opinion is the one that’s worth the most.

My argument against cryonics and wanting to live forever

My partner and I were talking about Captain America the other day. A discussion on how Captain America was frozen for however many years to wake up in a whole other age progressed to a conversation on cryogenics, or cryonics, which I read a long Wait but Why blog post on about a month ago. My partner said he and a friend had agreed the other day that having your body “frozen” (actually technically not, but I’m going to use the term anyway because it’s easiest) to wake up in the future when scientists have worked out how to bring you back would be an excellent plan. He could see a new age, see what happened, how the world had progressed, and put off dying for a while longer. With so many people and songs and films always saying how wonderful it would be to be immortal, I started feeling like a sad odd one out for thinking differently.

I am not good at thinking on my feet. It’s an introvert quality; that we need time to go away and process our thoughts before bringing out a solid argument. My partner does not have this quality. As an academic, he’s very good at presenting an excellent argument at the drop of a hat. This can leave me feeling confused and frustrated at my own inarticulateness, especially with phone conversations like this one. So here, a few days later, is why I have no desire to sign up for cryonics.

I have often found it strange when people say they would like to live forever. I feel like they need to add a few caveats onto that: if I have unlimited money and don’t have to work. If the person I love is also immortal. If if if. I love life (one thing I doubted in my existential crisis after this phone call the other day) but that doesn’t stop a lot of it being hard work and tiresome. It seems to me this is mainly due to money. What a pain in the arse. The older I get the more it seems to me that you never feel like you have a comfortable amount of it, which may have a lot to do with living in London and being part of Generation Y – studies have shown we are one of the worst-off generations in history. It’s all very well reading articles about how the greatest things in life are the scent of jasmine when you’re walking home in the dark, or watching a sunset, or other things money can’t buy.  I totally agree. But that doesn’t stop money being sadly necessary to do stuff like eat and have a roof over your head. I’m fairly sure nobody would want to live forever if that forever meant being starving and homeless. But then I’ve never been starving and homeless, so maybe I shouldn’t say that.

This train of thought brought me to the story of Tithonus, a figure in Greek mythology and the subject of a famous Tennyson poem I studied for A level. Tithonus is desperately in love with the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and begs her to make him immortal so they can be together for eternity. She adores him so she acquiesces, but they both forgot something. He is immortal, but not forever young. While she is reborn anew each morning, ever beautiful and lovely, he ages every day and becomes more and more miserable. He looks down on earth and is deeply envious of all the mortals who get to live their lives, then die and rest. It is a very sad story but one that makes me think that that’s something else people want but don’t say when they claim to want to live forever, or wake up in another age: if I’m young enough and compos mentis enough to enjoy it and keep learning and loving.

My first question when my partner said he would want to be cryogenically frozen was: okay, so you wake up x years into the future – and then what? You won’t know anyone. And he said ‘I don’t know, go out and meet someone…?’ which made me think wtf on several levels. 1) ‘Go out and meet someone,’ whether it’s intended to or not, sounds like you’re wandering into bars in search of a boyfriend/girlfriend. I was not happy that his initial thought about this seemed to be that he would wake up, and think, ‘Oh! My partner is dead! Oh well, whatevs. I’ll go find someone else’ like I was an umbrella that had been left behind in a restaurant. 2) It highlighted to me the differences in our personalities. Just ‘going out and meeting someone’ completely cold is something I often can’t do now, in my own time and space, without feeling extremely anxious. 3) Imagine someone from a hundred years ago waking up today and popping out to try and meet someone. Many of the rules of society and how we interact and communicate have totally changed, and I wouldn’t expect a hundred years from now to be any different.

4) My question to him is my biggest question on cryogenics, and his nonchalant answer completely threw me for six. Think about it. You wake up tomorrow and everyone you ever knew or loved or cared about is gone. There is only you left. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in the wake of the Paris attacks, when we were talking about the possibility of a similar attack in London. She said she wasn’t afraid of being killed, she was afraid of being the one left behind. This is exactly my feelings. Waking up like that, and being completely and utterly alone in the world, is my greatest fear. I love all the free treasured moments in life and the stuff money can buy me and all that jazz, but ultimately I want to spend time with the people I love and care about. And if I woke up one day after being frozen for however many years, they would all be lost. Assuming that the human race still existed and I hadn’t been brought round by robots, there would be new people I could go out and meet and care about, of course. But would you ever get over the grief of all those people you would never see again? In my life I’ve only lost one person who I really, really loved. It was eight years ago and thinking about him still makes me feel such pain that I’ll never get to see or talk to him again. Imagine that magnified dozens of times over for all the people you left behind. Another friend pointed out that it was interesting that this conversation arose out of a discussion of Captain America, as apparently one of the messages of the second film is that being alive in a time not your own sucks. He misses all the people he used to know.

The Wait but Why blog ended with some fairly sweeping and, to my mind, stupid observations about life and death. Their argument was that one day cryogenics would be the norm as resuscitation is the norm now, and that it would be considered unethical not to freeze a dying child or similar to prolong their life. I don’t really understand this argument. Why would you want to freeze a dying child unless you had a way of bringing them back and making them well? And if you could make them well by freezing them, why freeze them for ages to have them brought back in the future when their parents and friends and siblings are long dead? Just freeze them for ten minutes and bring them back. And I’m not entirely clear on how we will be kept alive in the future if our bodies are broken in the present enough for us to die. This is also banking on science in the future finding cures for everything so they can wake you up, prod you with a laser and cure your cancer or stick your brain back together or similar. But I still have the question, then what? What do you do then? I feel like people confuse this with time travel sometimes: if you could fall asleep today and wake up in the future exactly as you are, would that be great? Maybe. If you didn’t really give a damn about the people you knew enough to want to stay for them, then sure. But that would be waking up in the future healthy. It would be totally different to wake up aged and struggling. I don’t see how death is going to be cured completely, and what a sad day for the planet if it was.

The Wait but Why blog said that death is currently our tyrannical overlord, that rules our lives and that everyone is terrified of and spending time and effort avoiding but ultimately doing nothing about escaping from, because it’s inevitable. I’m calling bullshit on this idea. I don’t want to die but I am not afraid of death. I was worried for a while after this conversation that I was actually suicidal without noticing, as all the talk of living for longer periods or waking up again in the future just made me feel totally exhausted. Oh God, more hassle with bills and admin and train delays? Ugh. I was frightened for a while that that meant I wasn’t enjoying my life at all. As someone who suffers from depressive moods, I do sometimes have times when, as Matt Haig put it in the melodramatically titled yet excellent ‘Reasons to Stay Alive,’ you don’t want to die, but you just don’t want to be. It’s as if you want a switch and for someone to say, if you flick this, you will cease to be or have been. Nobody will be hurt or sad, but you will be gone, and you won’t have to worry about anything anymore or feel lonely or lost or like everything is an inconceivable amount of effort. That’s the switch depressives want sometimes. But it’s not quite the same to my mind as being suicidal, because you don’t exactly want to die, and leave everyone around you to be sad, and give up on everything and everyone you love. Except on the darkest days, there is hope for happiness in the future. It is only when those darkest days become the everyday norm that depressives start seeing suicide like it’s an escape from a burning building. I decided that thinking immortality would be exhausting is not the same as not enjoying life as it is – I really do enjoy most of it and I don’t want to be dead.

As I said before, my greatest fear is of being left behind totally alone.  I am more frightened of this than of dying. I’ve never quite understood films like I am Legend (which, disclaimer, I don’t think I’ve actually seen). If it was me and I had ascertained beyond reasonable doubt that I was the only human left, I’d go to the top of a very tall building, and jump. What would be the point in carrying on alone? And what is so awful about death that living in a barren wilderness full of nothing is preferable? Of course, if you are being brought round in the future it’s unlikely it will be a totally empty planet, but I can guarantee it will be bizarre and confusing and frightening. And although death is certain and final, and while you are alive there is an outside chance things will improve, there is also a comfort in death being so final, inescapable, an inevitable release. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic but the ways the news is going at the moment I can’t see the future being a funfair. Imagine if you “died” around the end of the Second World War, and woke up today to find that a lot of those horrible attitudes and beliefs are coming back? We are not on a guaranteed march towards progress, we are taking steps back and, if you are taking the least optimistic view, potentially allowing the worst of history to repeat itself.

To go back to the idea of death being so frightening: I disagree. I can even quote Harry Potter to support my argument here, when Dumbledore explains to Harry that the Philosopher’s Stone will be destroyed, so that Voldemort (the ultimate character terrified of death above all things) cannot try to get hold of the Elixir of Life. Harry says, but then, won’t Nicolas Flamel die? Yes, Dumbledore says, he will die: “it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day.” I want to live and enjoy myself for as long as I have, but I am not afraid of having my ‘little life rounded with a sleep.’ Even if I was told tomorrow I only have six weeks to live, I would not want to be put in a box to be woken up some time in the future. I will accept what I have, and try to make the most of it. The things that make life worth it are here, and now. I find dying preferable to the idea of going to sleep but then finding that I’m not done after all, I have more time, but what I loved and who I loved and everything I know are gone, and I’ll never get them back.

Some people might argue, okay, well what if you’re loved ones were also frozen and could be there with you when you woke up? This seems to me to be highly unlikely. Aside from the fact that many scientists say cryonics is never going to work anyway, the circumstances of someone’s death that could lead to a successful “unfreezing” are very specific. You would need to die naturally, preferably in a cryogenics centre or a hospital that is happy to put you directly on ice so your brain doesn’t start to decompose. If you die and aren’t found for a while, even a few hours, or you are killed in an accident, particularly causing damage to the brain, the chances of you being brought round are slim. Frankly, I am still more frightened of the possibility of waking up alone than I am of just dying, and being at peace. This is just my opinion, and I know a lot of people won’t share it. It’s certainly an interesting debate, and I haven’t even touched on the potential moralistic side of it: should we be able to do this? If we can all come back to life, where is everyone going to live? The planet is pretty full already. If you are brought round and are still of working age, do you then have to go out and get a job? How would you even do that in an age where everything is unfamiliar? I know I have to some extent conflated the idea of immortality with cryogenics in this post, and obviously they aren’t the same thing. But I think people who are asking to be frozen are thinking of it in terms of immortality, as I’m sure they won’t be thinking about a potential second death in that far distant future. For me, I will rely on my imagination to see what the world will be like in a hundred years. I don’t want to be there.

Love // Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything

I read a letter to an agony aunt recently from a woman with two children who’d been single for a long time. She’d built up her career, moved house and raised her children to an age where they were fairly self-sufficient. And now she said she wanted love. She wanted a new partner in life. The response from the agony aunt, after congratulating her on how successful she already was, encouraged her to think of love not just in terms of finding a new romantic partner – in her words, if this woman ‘lowered her standards enough, she could find someone in a week’ – but to seek fulfilment in other kinds of love too, through meeting new people and getting involved in new projects, giving something back to the community, and so on. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of response. Most of us want to find a romantic partner in life, and there is a lot of pressure in society to do so. But there are many different kinds of love, and a couple of films I’ve seen recently have made me think about how love changes over time, and about the different bonds people carry through their lives. One is The Theory of Everything, which I found touching and uplifting because although the love between Stephen and Jane changes, it doesn’t disappear. The other is Blue Valentine, another film about a couple whose love changes, but sadly it twists into something unrecognisable, making the whole thing remarkably bleak.

Both films show these young couples on their wedding days, the moment when Disney films would stop rolling the camera. We all expect this one great love will last forever, partly because of all these cultural examples we’re given from such a young age. Blue Valentine is so painful because you can almost see where the cracks in their relationship come from – the pressures of money, and of very different careers, creating a path of broken dreams which chips away at what was so beautiful and genuine. It is summed up best for me in the lyrics of Coming Up Easy by Paolo Nutini: ‘It’s a shame -the way it seems to go / Because now my best friend, my partner in crime / I’m afraid it looks like we’re gonna have to go our separate ways / You see the thing is I love you, I love you, but you see I resent you all the same / And all my other friends they’re just saying you’re slowing me down.’ Sometimes life changes people too much, and changes the dynamic in a relationship more than people can cope with, without it being anybody’s fault.

Both films are difficult to watch because these couples get together in difficult circumstances, surmounting the odds, and then you watch how life gets in the way of what was so hopeful. But it doesn’t have to end with such bitterness and anger as in Blue Valentine. I really liked how The Theory of Everything was marketed as a love story, even though they aren’t still together. It is still a love story – at the end of the film they do still love each other, just in a different way. Even though a relationship which looked so picture perfect at the start, despite all the problems they faced, didn’t end up lasting until the end, their relationship didn’t die. It’s the saddest thing when you see couples who have been together for years begin to hate the person that they shared so much with.

The most painful bit for me of ending relationships has been not just losing a partner, but losing a best friend. Someone you’ve spoken to every day for years is suddenly cut off from you, for months at least, or forever if you can’t manage to change into a friendship. If you can achieve that change, it must produce some wonderful love. Often the love between friends is the strongest, I think – it doesn’t have any of the extra pressures of family love or romantic love, which is probably why it lasts so long in many people’s lives. I have a friend today I’ve had my entire life, and although our lives have gone in wildly different directions, seeing each other is the same as it’s always been. I have other friends from university who, true to the cliché that you make best friends at university, I am very close to – again, sometimes without seeing them for months at a time. In the last year or so, I’ve had the enormous joy of making a lot of brand new friends, either from being back at university, or from dancing, or from the sheer luck of moving in with strangers who turn out to feel like new brothers and sisters (without the constant piss-taking I actually get from my brothers whenever I see them). Making friends as you get older is like getting unexpected presents. Unlike with trying to find a partner in life, you don’t go out seeking new friends. Text and email conversations are tears-of-relief-inducing in their uncomplicatedness, and getting to know people is just sheer enjoyment. And suddenly you find that you have a whole extra batch of people sending you messages of support when they know you’re having a tough time, and to plan trips and fun and games with. I love it.

To borrow from a third film I’ve seen recently, Birdman: What do we talk about, when we talk about love? I think in some ways it’s silly that we only have one word covering such a range of emotions and connections, particularly as it is so often hijacked to only mean romance and Valentines’ Day (FYI, email distribution lists, I am going to start unsubscribing from all of you who keep trying to peddle expensive Valentines’ Day crap at me three times a day. LEAVE ME ALONE). Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to find a partner, and it is something I want too, being a bit of a romantic – albeit one becoming steadily more cynical at the bizarreness of dating. But what those two films, Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything, made me realise is that love isn’t static, it changes and adapts and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to keep it the way it was at the beginning – and that doesn’t have to be as depressing as it sounds. And through it all, keep those friends who know you well enough to give you the things you want and need without you having to ask, and the people who you’re still as close to after months apart as you are when you see each other every week. I will leave you with some excellent advice I read recently (yes, on Pinterest. It’s a gold mine of inspirational life quotes): “If you gotta force it, just leave it alone. Relationships, friendships, ponytails… Just leave it.” Thank you, Reyna Biddy, whoever you are.