Episode 33: We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life

In which our protagonist realises the needle is stuck

If I had to pick a mantra for my life in recent years it would probably be: “Meh”. Or maybe the shrug emoji. The fact I can’t even commit to that tells you everything you need to know.

I’ve been stuck. You know this, because I’ve told you this. Many, many times. Cue the talks about quicksand and how I’m poor Artax without an Atreyu to pull me out of the Swamp of Sadness. I’m a broken record.

And it’s getting worse. You know that as well. That’s the thing they don’t tell you about recovering from burnout and breakdowns: it’s not a linear trajectory. Just as you start to think it might be OK, that you might be starting to emerge from your chrysalis as a beautiful butterfly, you realise your dainty little foot is still half-formed and you have some holes in your wings and you get pulled back into the goo. Not ready yet.

I really feel not ready yet. These last few weeks have been bleugh: another of my mantras in recent years. 

Friends encourage me to see the wins. I show up here every week and talk to you; that’s a win. But I can’t see the small wins for all the big losses. I can’t see the smiles for all the focusing on the sh*t that’s not moving, or that’s running away, or that is still a tiny speck on the horizon that doesn’t seem to get closer no matter how hard I run. 

The well is dry. I need to fill it, but I can’t make myself move. I’m too overwhelmed. With the exception of my birthday, I have barely left my house in weeks. 

Dearly beloved...

One of the things driving the overwhelm is my career shift - something I decided I had to do for my own sanity. I’ve still only dipped a toe in the new waters, but the old world has given me cement shoes. (Aside to any agents and editors that may be reading this: I promise I do know how to write without copious metaphors.)

As part of this new career shift, I’ve been reading about narrative coaching, a technique based around the stories we tell ourselves. It’s got me thinking about the greatest hits in my brain’s repertoire, the ones that keep being pulled off the shelf and examined and re-lived.

  • The one about how I could be a published author if I just focused and got on with it - and if I had any decent ideas.

  • The one about how I’m useless and shouldn’t bother trying because it will just end up badly.

  • The one about how people just spend time with me because they feel sorry for me and I will always end up alone.

  • The one about how I’m just living in fear, stranded by depression and anxiety, and the world outside holds nothing of interest for me that’s worth stepping through the door.

  • The one about how I’m always wasting time, whether it’s through inaction in the past or a lack of focus in the present.

I know these are just stories. I know they are untruths. But the neural pathways are so strong with these that it’s going to take more than a few detour signs to re-route this brain.

The fear is real, and it’s paralysing.

“We have a great, habitual fear inside ourselves,” writes Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Fear. “We’re afraid of many things - of our own death, or losing our loved ones, of change, of being alone… Sorrow, fear and depression are like a kind of garbage. But these bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature. We can practice so as to turn these bits of garbage into flowers. We should not throw anything out. All we have to do is learn the art of composting, of transforming our garbage into flowers. We don't need to be afraid of any of them, because transformation is always possible.”

...Let’s get crazy

The fear is just a story I tell myself. It’s fight, flight or freeze - and I’m so frozen it will take a long time to thaw. It’s just a story, McMenemy. You know how to handle stories. You write them for a living, remember?

I turned a page in this narrative coaching book yesterday and was confronted by a pull quote, so loud and clear that I swear the neighbours heard it. It was six simple words, that asked one question:

What story is worth your life?

Truth is, I don’t know. But I want it to be a long one, with multiple layers and complexities, a lot of beauty, and a few surprises. Amongst other things. 

So here’s my new narrative: I embrace it. I accept and love all of my flaws, all of my crazy. This is me, and I am here. Now. I am here now. As the cards told me this morning: I am in total control of my actions and thoughts. And as they told me yesterday: I am enough. 

The universe is steering me in the right direction; I just need to trust it. I need to take that toe that’s dipping in the water and put the whole darn foot and leg in after it. Then the rest of me. I know how to acclimatise to the cold; I’m an Australian in England. 

Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. And now I’m just talking in song lyrics, and I’m fine with that. I am the resident pop culture junkie, after all. (Though I cannot hold a candle to the knowledge of Ms Beth Collier, and you should totally sign up to her newsletter too.)

And now I’m rambling, so let me leave you with a recommendation: the friend who told me to see the wins is the lovely Jo Bell, and her Write to Thrive letter and workshops are back for a new season. Go follow her on the Instagrams and enjoy her work.

Until next time,

Be brave. Be bold. Be self(ish).

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The week ahead 🗓

  • Writing: I’ve convinced a lot of people to do the Three Day Novel this year, so I gave into the peer pressure and got myself a “ticket”. I’m hoping that the crazy caffeine-fuelled adventure will give me a creative kickstart.

  • Work: Did some work-work last week. My brain did not like it. 

  • Health: Best we don’t talk about this bit, ok? 

  • Routine: Self-care in the morning; work and study in the afternoon. Plus,join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ.

On the stereo 🎧

Woman on the Internet, by Orla Gartland

I was somewhat disappointed with the new Lorde album, and then I stumbled across this from Irish-born, London-based singer/songwriter Orla Gartland and no longer cared about Lorde’s new album. Though there’s hints of Phoebe Bridgers, Maggie Rogers and even HAIM here, Orla Gartland still manages to sound fresh and vital. Go straight to track 2, “You’re Not Special, Babe”, and I defy you to sing along by the end of the first listen. Then head to “Zombie!” and try not to dance around like a loon. 

Off the shelf 📚

Narrative Coaching, by David B Drake, PhD

It has been more than two decades since I activated study mode, and my brain is not handling academic texts very well. There’s a story I need to rewrite! 

If you’re interested in coaching, in psychology or in how the brain works - and you can handle the dry academic style of writing - dip a toe in here. I’m finding it fascinating as a writer who’s moving into coaching. I think I’m going to explore this approach more once I’m qualified...

“By bringing strengths and Shadow together, people are able to release old stories about who they think they are - and how they acted as a result - and develop new ones that are more fitting and enable them to flourish more fully. Through coaching, people free up the psychic energy they currently spend on vigilantly keeping watch - making sure nothing sneaks out and no one can see these hidden aspects of themselves. As a result, they regain energy they can then invest in intimacy, creativity, heartfelt compassion and growth.”

Visual confirmation 📷

This popped up on my Facebook memories this week, and it’s as relevant now as it was whenever it was I first came across it.

I have suffered from social anxiety - and often social phobia - since I was a teenager. It’s why I probably went into the wrong career (how are you meant to be a journalist if you can’t make a simple phone call?!), and why I assume I’m the butt of the joke/the subject of the staring/that I’ve done something wrong. It sucks. I’m better online, so #plaguelife actually suited me to an extent. Maybe that’s why I’m stuck in the quicksand again: life is returning to normal, and I don’t like it much at all.

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