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.

Working Out the Gym

Over the last few months, I’ve taken up going to the gym. I can hear the eyes roll and the bored sighs from here. People hate people going to the gym – until recently I was one of those people, and honestly I would also sigh and roll my eyes at a blog post about going to the gym. Stick with it, my friends. Hopefully it will be faintly informative, or at least faintly funny.

I started going because I have an ongoing issue with the nerve in my right elbow, due to the amount of time I spend sitting at a computer. Three physiotherapists have asked me if there’s anything I can do at my job that doesn’t involve a computer – the answer is no. Perhaps I need to retrain as a shepherd or a taxi driver to avoid the problem. But in the meantime, my solution is to go to the gym to try and release the tension that runs from neck to shoulder to wrist and back again.

The gym is a fascinating place to observe human behaviour. It is at the same time an intensely private and completely public place to be. People are frequently half-dressed, or in clothes so tight-fitting they may as well be half-dressed. Men with shoulders the size of their heads stride around calling to each other, obviously at home and at ease. Women run on the treadmills with their headphones in, making no eye contact. I am one of these – I avoid looking any other people in the eye, mainly for fear of judgement. I am blessed with a slight physique, so don’t have to worry about people thinking I’m too heavy to be in a gym (which is, by the way, a completely bizarre piece of logic) but I worry anyway about being judged on my appearance or abilities – and on being compared to other women.

There is one woman who goes to my local gym who is pretty, petite and blonde. She wears a crop top and leggings, showing off a lovely figure. She does do some exercise in the gym but she also spends a lot of time chatting to the guys with shoulders the size of their heads. It’s a proper flirt party in the middle of a gym. Once, she was doing some kind of squats while kneeling on the floor – fair enough – but was pausing for minutes at a time in between sets to chat to the guys while rocking back and forth on all fours. For heaven’s sake – just grab your favourite and take him home for a romp in the sack.

I feel bad for judging her. I shouldn’t really, and honestly she only really annoys me when she’s hogging some equipment I want while doing her flirting workout. Obviously, the main reason she makes me feel bad is because she makes me feel unattractive, with my unwashed hair (I’ll never understand people who shower BEFORE going to the gym) and my already modest chest squashed a little flatter thanks to sports crop tops. I act aloof among the men at the gym, rejecting them before they can reject me. I’m quite sure they don’t notice and don’t care even if they do notice, however. While I’m feeling insecure and worrying about people watching me, most of the people at the gym are entirely focussed on themselves.

I mostly do weights stuff at the gym, trying to strengthen my arms and back to take the pressure off my arm. The weights area is lined with mirrors, which are sometimes useful to make sure you’re straight and centred, but which personally I hate because it brings my attention back to my appearance instead of my performance. If I’m not in front of a mirror, I’m in front of screens playing music videos (without the sound, the music is something else) which infuriate and depress me in equal measure as the women bounce around and stretch and make sexy faces at the camera. Why on earth would anybody find me attractive, I think, after staring at them for five minutes, getting up to do something else, and trying to surreptitiously wipe sweat marks from my hands or back or arse off the equipment.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I. Of course the point of going to the gym isn’t to judge yourself and come out feeling like a bag of manure. It’s to take control of your body and push yourself and feel the difference, in fitness or strength. In the media, for women it’s always about losing weight or getting toned, which I hope is slowly beginning to change as the world and her mother push the benefits of exercise, quite apart from any weight loss. Even though I’m not really going to the gym to lose weight, I am still (clearly) thinking too much about how I look while I’m there. I read this article this week about taking exercise in a body positive way, which has some great tips. I went to the gym after reading it but tried to ignore everyone else, view myself with detachment instead of negativity, and focus on how my body felt and on whether I could push myself to do a little more. It worked, and I set some new personal bests.

For my partner, going to the gym is very useful for his mental health. It’s a pure, uncomplicated feeling for him. He enjoys going through motions, going through routines, and appreciating the complexity of simple exercises. Doing things properly requires focus, and practise. He says although our stereotypes are of meatheads in the gym, they are good at what they do and often I see them helping each other with exercises, making me think they are just nice normal guys even if seeing them in the gym I’m tempted to stereotype them as dull and narcissistic. In a way, the gym is an entirely judgement free zone, because whatever anyone thinks of you you’re unlikely ever to hear about it. You are all strangers. I see the same people, I’m sure, but I’ve realised how little attention I pay to them, because I can never remember whether I’ve seen them before or not. As much as you may think people are watching you and laughing behind their hands, it’s in your head. It’s a natural thing to think, because that’s how we’re wired – to think people are hyperaware of our mistakes and completely oblivious to our successes. For me, that’s how I think of myself, not how other people think of me, and I need to get out of the habit of projecting those negative thoughts into other people’s minds.

So gyms may be a bit strange and a bit intimidating and some might say a little dull, but they are also fascinating and interesting and fun places to find out what your body can do. There are people doing every type of workout, and it’s entirely up to you what you work on and why. I like that freedom, and at its best it feels like you’re a child again at one of those play centres – although without the ball pit, thank goodness, because as an adult they’re impossible to get out of. People might go there for different reasons, but remember that you don’t actually have to give any of them a moment’s thought. They are all there for themselves, and you’re there for yourself too.

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.

Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

Playing peekaboo with a squirrel

What a first month to 2017. Particularly the last ten or eleven days. The news has brought one shock of disappointment after another, quickly evaporating any hope that Trump’s presidency might not be as bad as it looked. As a UK citizen, seeing the way May has handled herself has made me sick to my stomach. We appear spineless, naïve, collaborating – Chamberlain and Hitler all over again, if you want to take a very pessimistic view. The sneaking tendrils of the policies of both leaders are weaving themselves into my life and the life of those around me, in ways that make me frightened for my future. I am lucky that I am 28 before my government has made a noticeable negative impact on my life – unless you count the university tuition fees which tripled in time for me turning 18. But seeing what these fees have done since, I don’t feel I have much room to complain about the £25,000 odd debt I still have round my neck. These policies making people feel unwelcome outside their own country, pushing the poor deeper into poverty, and spreading hate and stupidity are affecting everybody now, even if we can’t see it straight away.

The news this month has been overwhelming in new ways, a bit like having your head held in a toilet by the school bully while they flush it over and over again. I started the year feeling good on some new anti-anxiety drugs – indeed I’m now wondering how anyone is getting through at the moment without them (joke). But the last ten days or so, I’ve started getting dragged down if I spend more than a few minutes a day on facebook, where I am bombarded with people’s statuses detailing the latest horror, or NYT article after article explaining why we’re going to hell in a handcart. Every now and then, we all need a break. But the worst thing is that when the news is this bad, it has some kind of centrifugal force that keeps us spinning round and round it, trying to pull away but kept in place by this weird effect of negative gravity. This week, I am trying to take a stand, and return to a few habits I had in the first weeks of the year which were keeping me feel centred and grounded. For me, it’s a combination of looking at the very big – and the very small.

The very small first. I spend a lot of my working week sitting down, so at lunchtime, I try to go for a half hour walk. Next to the office complex where I work, there’s a mosque. Sometimes in the summer, presumably when there are too many people to fit inside, men pray on the pavement outside. Other times I’ll come out for my walk at the end of a service, and there will be so many people filling the road that the occasional car struggles to get through. I watch the people at the mosque, with innocent human curiosity about a religion I don’t know enough about. I hope they take my glances as curiosity, and nothing more sinister. When I see them I wonder how much attention they get, how much courage it takes to walk outside wearing what they wear, marking themselves as “different”. On one of the lampposts by the mosque, there is a battered, rain-drenched flyer about inclusion, and welcoming refugees. I wonder if it was put there by someone at the mosque, or whether it was someone else trying to offer them some support and solidarity, to let them know that not everyone in England feels like they should “go home”.

After five minutes of entirely uninteresting pavements, my walk takes me to the canal, which is lined with houseboats. Next to the canal is a strip of greenery and trees, a wildlife garden set up around 15 years ago that’s gone slightly to seed. The small ponds are stagnant and covered in algae, some of the fences are in need of repair and there’s a general unkempt feel to many parts of it. A wooden walkway squishes slightly underfoot, as if (and I think it’s probably the case) the wood has rotted underneath. In one area, I often find three grey squirrels. Grey squirrels get a bad rap in this country: introduced by somebody sometime, they turned out to be rather more aggressive than the native red squirrels, which lost more and more territory to the grey squirrels, and now red squirrels are only rarely to be seen- mostly in Scotland, in pine forests. The grey squirrels also get a lot of grief for their habits of digging up plant bulbs, or stealing food in bird feeders. My dad will run out into the garden at odd intervals shrieking a battle cry or brandishing a cane, trying to get “the little bastards” away from the feed, and prompting my mum to say: “your father’s taken leave of his senses”.

Poor grey squirrels. It’s not their fault they’re greedy and extremely good at procreating. I have made friends with one of the squirrels in the wildlife garden, whom I have christened Chubs, for no real reason other than it’s a comforting sort of word, and he’s a comforting sort of squirrel. He stops and stares at me often when I walk past, interrupting his game of chasing the other squirrels round and round trees, either in an attempt at flirtation or to get them away from some buried treasure, I’m not sure which. One day, he was staring at me and I was staring at him as he held onto a tree trunk upside down. After a moment, he disappeared around the other side of the trunk. I waited, and a second later, he peeked his head round one side. I made a sudden, ha! I see you! action to that side, as you would with a small child. He disappeared. Then appeared on the other side of the trunk. I did the same thing. He disappeared… and reappeared again on the other side! I had to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of what I was doing: playing peekaboo with a squirrel. He peeked round each side five or six times before he remembered the buried treasure, or the mating, whichever it was, and wandered off.

It’s the little things, the moments and pictures that make you feel grateful, even for only a little time. The benefits of interacting with nature are well-documented, and it’s nice to know it’s possible even in the middle of a large city. I’ve also watched coots diving in the canal, fascinated by their disappearing, reappearing act, and the smoothness of each of their dives. I’ve watched robins singing in trees – something that strikes me as actually quite rare, to be watching a bird sing. I watch birds, and I hear them sing, but not often do I see the bird that’s singing.

So if these small acts of nature watching on a lunchtime walk help make me feel centred in a whirlwind world, I’ve started turning to non-fiction to ground myself. Oddly, because I wasn’t keen on the subject at school, I am taking refuge in science. Specifically, physics. I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics at the start of the year, then followed it up with his examination of similar themes in Reality is Not What it Seems, which has a greater emphasis on quantum gravity. How much do I understand? 40-70%, depending on what he’s talking about, I think. I also lose the specifics very quickly, which is frustrating. But I enjoy reading about people discovering things we take for granted, or things that are too weird for us to have comprehended yet. The stories of failure and trying again are quite inspirational, especially in today’s culture of failure being something so monstrous nobody is allowed to fail – everyone gets a medal for participation – or nobody tries because they failure is too difficult to entertain. Science is a beautiful subject in that it is, in some ways, so ready to take criticism. If someone disproves something, then okay, we move on. Einstein proved Newton wrong on some things. Einstein was wrong about some aspects of quantum theory. We are all wrong, and it doesn’t make us bad or useless people. I am finding comfort in that.

I am also enjoying using my brain in different ways, and I’m intrigued to learn how relaxing it can be. Until now I thought to really RELAX I needed to be watching Friends, or reading a Mhairi MacFarlane novel (excellent intelligent “chick lit” which is actually genuinely funny, even if the plot is more or less identical in each book). But I’m finding I can relax with my brain engaged. I am rediscovering the joy of learning, which I think I lost a little after my Masters degree. Reading about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity and the history of autism (Neurotribes, EXCELLENT book – a pamphlet summarising it should be required reading for everyone) has shown me that I can learn about things I thought I would never understand, and feel better for it. I’ve also read a couple of Jon Ronson books, on public shaming and psychopaths, which are certainly lighter and easier to read, but which I wouldn’t have considered standard ‘relaxation’ fare either. As I found during my degree, placing myself in a wider history or broader story is comforting. Even though looking back on mistakes and seeing them reflected in today’s world is sometimes discouraging, you can take heart from the changes that did eventually come. Paying attention to new facts and history makes it obvious how ignorant many people still are about things they really shouldn’t be ignorant about, but seeing how change eventually arrived in many areas is also heartening. I’m talking here about advances in science in many arenas, physics, but also psychology, as documented in Neurotribes and Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Neurotribes really deserves its own post as its messages are so important, its approach to people who are “different” and how we respond to and interact with those people. I’d like to send a copy of that and The Psychopath Test to Trump (I’m fairly certain he’d come out as a psychopath) but I don’t suppose he’d be interested in learning anything new outside his own self-centred, self-interested, stupid view of life. I am grateful that I do not think like him. What a prison it must be.

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.