Episode 25: The road is long, with many a winding turn

In which our protagonist realises the route to recovery is a wiggly-waggly one

And so it was that 25 weeks ago, spurred on by a total breakdown induced by extreme and long-lasting burnout, I decided to pull myself together and put myself first. To make myself the priority instead of everyone else’s needs and demands. You’re reading this, so you know this. 

Twenty-five weeks is a long, long time - almost half a year, in fact. And if you’d asked me 25 weeks ago where I might be at the end of June, I’d have cautiously said: “Well on the road to recovery.” I was desperate for the pain to end. I just didn’t want to be in that space anymore but I couldn’t see a way through, around or beyond. Twenty-five weeks ago, I took my first tentative steps towards recovery, towards this journey to being self(ish), and I launched this letter as a way of keeping accountable. 

Fast forward to last week, and with the help of Jo Bell’s fabulous Write to Reflect session I dug deeper into the reality of where I am right now, mid-way through the year. Dear reader, it was not pleasant. A strong start to the year had quickly led to a plateau of malaise that’s lasted longer than I realised.

As Jo led us back through the months, thinking about what we had achieved, I saw a pattern emerge. In January I was burned and broken and bruised; I felt overwhelmed but fierce and ready. February was full of baby steps, and I felt hopeful but cautious. By March I felt I was getting better - I read Glennon Doyle and the two Taras, Mohr and Brach, and began to regenerate - and April was hopeful, optimistic. Then in May I learned that progress can also go backwards. I learned that the steps I’d made towards hope were suddenly being removed. I felt grumpy, and I felt pressure to make plans and have solid goals for my future. As for June? Well, June was a backwards slide that quickly gained speed, and I’ve spent the month angry at myself. 

Help, I need somebody

Matters were compounded when, the morning after this reflection, a very real and supposedly simple question was posed to me: “What is most important for you right now?” I said I had to think about it. And in the thinking, I hit an existential crisis: I have no idea what I’m meant to be doing anymore. I mean, yes, I know what I want to be doing and what I think I should be doing, but I can’t grasp onto the straw of a starting point. I don’t know what’s most important.

Like all good modern humans, I turned to social media.

“Help!” I cried. “How can I figure out what’s ‘most important’ to me right now? I’ve been maintaining that it’s the novel, but is it really that important if I’m so blocked on it? Is my health actually my No 1 driver right now? Is it figuring out what the hell I’m doing with my life? Is it all of the above at once so just shut up and get on with it, McMenemy? My brain is spinning with big questions…”

The answer, loud and clear, from the armchair therapists of Facebook was quick: without our health, what are we? What can we achieve? What else matters if we’re not healthy enough to enjoy it? And of course I know that makes sense intellectually, logically. Certainly, my health is still a huge mountain; I need to clip on the carabiners and climb carefully. There’s bound to be a few plateaus along the way; it’s natural to stop, take stock, and then keep climbing upwards. Maybe my health is my priority, but I’ve been too stubborn and ostrich-like to see that?

The health question is also the one thing that keeps coming up for me in reflections. The very first question at Write to Reflect asked us how we felt right there, right then. My response? “I’m tired. I have a sore back and am in desperate need of movement. My mind is intrigued and curious but it’s running away with itself, getting too far ahead of itself instead of focusing on what I need right now so I can take the next steps towards my new future.”

Don’t look back in anger

That first prompt at Write to Reflect also led to this revelation: “I am scared. I am nervous and scared and seeking strength and approval from outside myself too much. I need to pause. I need to let go of my anger at myself for my inability to focus on my goals, my motivations. I need to let go of my apathy.”

In doing this reflection, I found something like solace. Sure, I’d been inwardly angry and getting worse, but reflecting mindfully helped me to recognise the road to recovery is not a straight one; it is wiggly-waggly and likes to play with us. I thought I was getting better, and took a turn for the worse. I was, after all, merely having a very human experience. Another turn is just around the corner, and it’s up to me whether that turns inwards and down, or out and up.

Maybe what I need to do, what I’m meant to do, right now is to stop looking for a way forward, and stop dwelling on the past. To stop making big audacious goals and comparing myself to the output of others. To stop beating myself up for not making more progress, better progress, someone else’s progress. I just need to pause. To listen. To rest my mind. To move. To feed my body and soul. The rest will flow from there. There is no single, direct and authentic road to this thing called recovery, whether we’re recovering from breakdown, burnout, illness, bereavement, trauma, or anything else. Recovery is uniquely personal. It will be a bumpy road, and it will take twists and turns and bend in on itself and then speed upwards. The best thing we can do in these times is to go with it, listen to what we need - not what others need or want or demand - and get on with it. 

Slowly, slowly, I’m reaching the summit. I know it. Until then, I’ll keep my eye on the horizon and stop putting so much f***ing pressure on myself to be a certain way or at a certain stage. I’ll do me. You do you. We’ll all be human together. 

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And yet… a postscript, hastily scribbled

My existential crisis question remains. OK, my health is clearly the priority, however... what if you have this intense desire burning inside you to create things but are paralysed when you try to start? What if your identity is totally wrapped up in the one thing you cannot focus on nor get done right now? 

It appears I’m scared of the novel I’ve been claiming as my Most Important Thing - y’know, that thing I keep making up arbitrary but very public goals and milestones for? That thing that keeps tapping at my head, sucking at my soul, that won’t let me go: I’m scared of it. I’m scared of creating my fictional worlds. 

Here’s what I know: I am a writer. I cling to that title like it’s a life raft. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been sure of - though I have, at times, also been sure that I’m a ridiculous sad sack and an imposter and a burden and a social leper and all those other fun things the depressive mind ruminates on. But what is a writer if they are not writing? I asked this of friends who pointed out I am in fact writing these missives every week, and so I can’t be scared of writing. I disagree: this weekly letter is my processing (does that make sense?); usually I forget people are reading. This kind of writing is second nature to me; I don’t think, I just do.

But maybe I need to stop that distinction, and be kind to myself on the craft front, too. Writing is writing; it all leads somewhere.

The week ahead 🗓

  • Writing: Part of my existential crisis last week was around this aspect of myself. I have a lot to work through, but I’m planning to rediscover the playful creative within.

  • Work: I’ve booked in a few articles for an old client to test the waters of return-to-work, but methinks this might be the only one for a while given recent revelations.

  • Health: Got myself a new bit of tech to track my steps now I’ve signed up for the Diabetes UK One Million Steps challenge. You can keep an eye on me and my progress via my “page”, here; it all kicks off on 1 July. 

  • Routine: I’m finding my rhythm. Solstice goal: build rituals that benefit me and how I want to be. Plus, join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ.


On the stereo 🎧

Write to Thrive: Mid-Year Edition

The wonderful Jo Bell doesn’t just run guided journaling sessions with Write to Thrive - she also puts together a carefully curated playlist to act as a soundtrack. I find myself turning to them time and again when I need to journal solo and have a lot of big contemplating to do. These playlists are public and available to anyone, so you can find inspiration in her immaculate music taste, too. Here’s the latest.

Off the shelf 📚

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker

As I allude to in each of these missives, I’m a volunteer host at the London Writers’ Salon’s daily writers hours. These sessions are a wonderful coming-together of writers from all over the world, each aiming to get some focused work done in community, in silence. The fearless founders of the Salon recently sent each of their volunteer hosts a copy of this book to get us in the mindset for curating gatherings. It’s probably not something I would’ve picked up otherwise but, my word, it was fascinating to read.

Parker argues that when we gather, we focus too much on logistics - the hows and whens and whats, the table settings and venues and MCs and guest lists and menus - rather than why we organise events, conferences and meetings. She looks at how we can create gatherings with strong and bold purposes, how hosts should rule with “generous authority”, and how being exclusionary can actually be a good thing for the success of your gathering. A really interesting perspective from an author who’s hosted everything from conflict-resolution gatherings in the Middle East and for the WEF, to dinner parties and excursions in NYC.

“I want to convince you to assume your proper powers as a host. That doesn’t mean that there’s one way to host or one kind of power to exert over your gathering. But I do believe that hosting is inevitably an exercise of power. The hosts I guide often feel tempted to abdicate that power, and feel that by doing so they are letting their guests be free. But this abdication often fails their guests rather than services them. The chill approach to hosting is all too often about hosts attempting to wriggle out of the burden of hosting. In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed - gently, respectfully and well. When you fail to govern, you may be elevating how you want them to perceive you over how you want the gathering to go for them. Often, chill is you caring about you masquerading as you caring about them.”

Visual confirmation 📷

I may have made some purchases from Wear and Resist after the lovely Jenny from Silver Screen Suppers pointed me in their direction… but hey, it’s all for a good cause! A portion of proceeds from every piece go to charities that support women.

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