Quagmires, Self-belief and Sunscreen

Humans are contrary creatures. We spend our whole lives seeking happiness, meaning and validation, but in the process somehow manage to repeatedly get dragged into the toxic quagmire of anxiety, comparison and ‘never enough’ thinking.

I’ve been languishing in the quagmire again myself this week, worrying about my son’s health – as usual – but this time also about money. We are hardly on the breadline, but we are managing on one income this year. It was a decision we took together that we were – and still are – confident in, but nonetheless there are moments when we waver. Like when the bills are more than we’d anticipated, or when we check the account and realise that we’ve been more frivolous than we should have been for the past few weeks. We knew that moving back to London on one salary would be painful and so it is proving to be.

But it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture. We made this choice because it’s best for our family that I become self-employed. And the career I have chosen – coaching – is one that is still largely unregulated and full of amateurs. To stand out amongst the crowd I need credibility, and to build credibility I need credentials. The path I have chosen begins with further study, which is why I am taking this year to return to my MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at the University of East London. It’s not been an easy road so far this year with my son’s ill health hampering my ability to study, but nonetheless I am managing to forge ahead. Some people have commented that perhaps it’s too much to have a one year old and study for a degree, but keeping up the momentum is critical for my confidence and self-belief.

On that note, I have a tattoo on my right arm which says ‘Believe’ (or ‘Belieber’ as my husband takes great pleasure in saying to wind me up, due to the curly script in which it’s written. But I digress..), in a nod to my writing ambitions. I got the tattoo some years ago when I took the decision to accept a four days per week role in order to devote one day a week to my writing. For a while it went well, I got some commissions for features, was shortlisted for a fiction competition and really felt I was on the right track. But for myriad reasons I got demotivated, lost my confidence, and before long my writing day had turned into an extra day of weekend. I have always regretted this, and, ironically thanks to my tattoo, now have a permanent reminder of what happens when you don’t believe in yourself. But you know what? It spurs me on to never make the same mistake again. This time around I’m older and wiser, and I know in my heart that coaching is what I want and need to do. It will take time and require sacrifice, but I am now in a place where I am able to accept and embrace those truths.

All that said, I still have moments of weakness and self-doubt. I’m only human, after all. But life has a funny way of showing you the way, if only you look for the signs. Take this morning, for example. After a bit of a rough night/morning with my son (bad conjunctivitis, yet another cough, pre-toddler mood swings) I got him to nursery later than planned and was running late for my Body Balance class at Studio Society (I know I sound like such a Hampstead Mum, but I cannot tell you how much this class sorts my head out, it’s literally balm for the soul). I was rushing along the road, battling with my brolly against the wind and the commuters, checking my watch every two seconds to see how late I was going to be and feeling general sense of stress and unease. Then I consciously took a moment to check myself, noting that checking my watch was pointless as it wouldn’t get me there any faster. I decided to let go of the anxiety and trust that my legs would carry me there as fast as they could. If I was a few minutes late to class, so what? The world would keep on turning. And in the end, not only was I only a couple of minutes late, but for the first time today the teacher was ten minutes late! There seemed a certain serendipity in that outcome, and certainly a life lesson.

I have one final point to make in this meandering but cathartic post. In 1999, the year I left school and started university (literally showing my age here), Baz Luhrmann’s song Sunscreen was released. In the years hence I have often found myself returning to the lyrics, and this morning was reminded of these ones specifically:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

When I’m in the quagmire of anxiety, comparison and ‘never enough,’ I try to remind myself that none of the things I am worrying about are actually significant. All that really matters in life, at least as far as I’m concerned, are love (loving and being loved by friends and family) and health. I’m at an age where it’s becoming harder to convincingly wear the cloak of invincibility. Several people close to me have experienced cancer in the past year, and right there are the real troubles that Baz Luhrmann talked about. So for as long as I’m fighting for my lifestyle rather than for my life, I will try to remember how very lucky I am.

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Eight Months In: All Change

The last three months have been, for want of a better word, insane. In November, after weeks of searching for – and finding – a new (two bed – more room for baby) flat in Brussels, it was all-change on my husband’s job front and we had to abandon signing the new tenancy agreement at the eleventh hour and re-focus our attention on finding a new flat in London to move into the first week of January. With a seven month old baby this was not the easiest task, but somehow I managed a two day trip to London with a ridiculous amount of luggage and my son for a series of back to back flat viewings, half of which I had to cancel due to a 1.5 hour delay on the train (thanks for that Eurostar). And the good news is that despite the cancellations and the tight timeline we were hugely fortunate to find a place that ticked almost every box.

Upping sticks and leaving Belgium so suddenly has been difficult to adjust to. One minute we thought we would be there for at least another year, the next we were moving back to London, the city where I lived on and off for 10 years but in all honesty didn’t see myself returning to live in, especially with a baby. But here we are. And now the dust is starting to settle I am seeing the many positives to this move. For one, we are closer to our friends and family. For another, I have been able to switch from a distance learner to an on campus student to complete the remainder of my Master’s course, which has just re-started after a year’s hiatus. The move also forced my hand where returning to work was concerned. I knew I didn’t want to to return to my job, but had been feeling nervous about quitting with nothing else lined up. Now I have the freedom not only to re-start my studies but also pursue my dream of becoming a freelance coach. And we have managed to find a lovely nursery for our son to attend three days a week whilst I pursue my goals.

In short, everything is positive. And as much as I don’t want to put a ‘but’ in here, I have to be honest and admit the last few weeks have been really tough. Our son is wonderful and he lights up my life, but the nights are still not great and besides being chronically tired I am constantly battling the inherent mum guilt about his well-being (Is he eating properly? Is he stimulated enough? Am I doing any of this right?) Since we returned to London my anxiety has returned ten fold, for reasons I can’t fathom other than a combination of tiredness, hormonal changes and a latent reaction to the stress of the past few weeks. C starting nursery the week before last was also anxiety-inducing, and since he started he’s had back-to-back coughs and colds which is inevitable but has nonetheless been tough to deal with. As his mother and the one who is not technically working in a nine to five role, the responsibility for his welfare lies with me. If he’s sick, I’m up all night with him, and I have to pick him up early from nursery. If the nursery is closed for bad weather (which is on the way, apparently – wonderful), he has to stay at home with me. Suddenly, the three days I have earmarked for work and study disappear, and my stress and anxiety levels increase. On the two week days I am scheduled to have him with me I worry that I should do more with him. The one downside to our new home is that the nearest park (Hampstead Heath) is a half an hour walk away, and in the immediate vicinity the pollution levels are very high (another thing I worry about, especially given our son is showing signs of having a weak chest). Whereas in Brussels I would take him out every day in the local area, here I wonder if it’s good for him to be constantly exposed to all of the pollution. But if we don’t go out my mental health plummets and he gets bored.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Not a day goes by when I don’t count my many blessings. But burying emotions isn’t healthy, and maternal mental health is an important issue that needs to be discussed. It’s been eight months since I had my son and at least three days a week I still feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I do think the sleep deprivation is a big part of that, especially after a recent meeting with friends whose babies sleep through the night. But it’s more than that. Having a baby is wonderful, but if you already had issues with self-esteem and anxiety before baby came along, the addition of tiredness, raging hormones and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with being a mother can really mess with your head. Nobody discusses it but they should, because I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Some days are good, others are really, really bad. Even now. Especially now. Because now is when I thought I’d feel completely normal again. And sometimes I feel anything but.

But. Today is a good day. It didn’t start well, admittedly (son crying non-stop from 5am), but now C is at nursery, I am at my computer with (hopefully) a good few hours of study ahead of me, I have (much-needed) coffee and the sun is shining through the window. It is in moments like this I remember to breathe in, breathe out, to cherish, to soak it all up; the good, the bad and the indifferent. This crazy life. My life. Is. Beautiful.

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The Resistance

Today things feel a little bleak. On a global level, in five days of office Trump the Tyrant has ridden roughshod over the environment, women’s rights, freedom of speech and now refugees, ushering in a new era of legitimised fascism along the way. On a personal level, my spirit is feeling dampened not only by the events in the US, but also by the plummeting temperatures across Europe which signal further devastation for homeless refugees, the crazy levels of air pollution in my old home town of London where many of my friends still live, and the fact I am under too much pressure at work and don’t know how I’m going to juggle it with the masters degree I’m starting next week (next week!!). In short, I feel helpless, and also a little hopeless.

But – as life sometimes has a way of doing to drag us out of our despair – a chance encounter with my local florist this afternoon when I stopped by for tulips for our cleaning lady (whose brother recently passed away) reminded me why it’s so important to have hope. We got chatting about how beautiful the flowers were, and she told me she had quit her office job some years ago for a simpler life. Despite earning less money now, she told me she is far happier. She then asked about me, and, when I told her I was soon to start an MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology and had aspirations to be a freelance wellbeing coach she said “the world needs people like that more than ever now.” I felt a surge of optimism at that, and a renewed sense of purpose. And to remind myself of that I bought this beautiful pink orchid.

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Hope springs eternal

When I got home I was delighted to see that Greenpeace had unfurled a ‘Resist’ banner right outside the White House, and to read that a group of scientists are coming together to march on Washington in protest against Trump’s gagging order against employees of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also heartening was the Badlands National Park Twitter account which sent out three messages on Tuesday promoting climate science despite the Trump administration crackdown on agencies communicating on social media. Since then they have been forced to delete the tweets, but an alternative Twitter account has sprung up which already has 575,000 followers.

This growing groundswell of angry defiance in response to people like Trump must spur us all into immediate action, because action is all there is now if we are to stand up to what is so patently wrong – to save ourselves and our planet.

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2017: The Year of Cautious Optimism

Despite the many terrible world events that happened in it (Brussels, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Syria, Turkey, Brexit, Trump, Berlin to name but a few), 2016 was a great year for me personally. I married the love of my life after five years together, had the most joy-and-love-filled celebration with friends and family followed by a two week trip around my favourite places in northern Italy. I also had not one, not two, but THREE fantastic hen celebrations in London and Las Vegas (!), a relaxing break with friends in the beautiful Belgian Ardennes and an amazing holiday to Vietnam (thanks to Tom and Lily for having their wedding there!), plus numerous other special moments shared with special people. And for all of this I feel incredibly thankful.

The instability in the world has proved our future is far from certain, and that every day is a blessing and not a guarantee. I am therefore approaching 2017 with an attitude of cautious optimism. From a personal perspective there is much to look forward to, and potentially big changes afoot, not least my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology starting in February.

From a wider world perspective, I do believe that we can, to some extent at least, be the change we want to see in the world. Even if it’s only on a micro rather than a macro level, when individuals come together to realise a common goal – whether it be helping other humans, animals and/or the environment – something magical happens. If we never look outside of ourselves and our own immediate concerns we not only lose perspective but we also fail to make a positive impact on the world around us. Whenever my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil I hope it can at least be said I made some progress on that front.

So here we stand on the threshold of a new year. The future may be uncertain, but it is also what we make it. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make 2017 the best year yet. Happy New Year.

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7/7

Ten years ago today, fifty two people lost their lives in London when terrorists targeted three packed commuter trains and a bus during rush hour traffic. I have a hangover to thank for not being on a train that went through Edgware Road that morning. Instead I drove to work, arriving late. When the news broke I tried frantically to contact my then boyfriend, whose journey to work took him perilously close to where the bus bomb had gone off, in Tavistock Square. But the phone lines were jammed by other frantic Londoners trying desperately to locate their loved ones, and it took over an hour to confirm that he was safe, more time still to do a head count of my friends. I remember it like it was yesterday; the panic, the sense of helplessness. It was like watching a disaster movie in real time, where the ‘stars’ could well be people you know – people you love. Just awful.

There’s something wonderfully resilient about Londoners. Even in a crisis they stand defiant. But that day tested the mettle of even the hardiest of the Capital’s inhabitants. It was a threat to everything they – we – stood for. And whilst there is, of course, the argument that our political leaders are responsible for the rise of the terrorism that now threatens our society – having provided arms and funding to the very people who now carry out these atrocities – those people who lost their lives in the 7/7 attacks, those who were injured, and the many more who will be killed and injured by terrorist attacks in the future, were, and are, innocent victims.

After work that day, at a loss for what to do and not wanting to be alone, we went to Notting Hill to try and process what had happened with friends. For as long as I live I will never forget the eerie silence as hundreds of Londoners walked past the window with their heads down; contemplating, as we were, the fact it could so easily have been them.

RIP.

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Why Fashion Just Isn’t My Forte

I’ve never been a dedicated follower of fashion. Sure, I know what colours and styles go together (just about), but I’m buggered if I have the time, energy or money to make sure my labels are in vogue and I’m adhering to the latest trends. In fact, embarrassing as it is to admit this, I’m still wearing some of the same work clothes now that I wore to work a decade ago. But if they still fit and are in good nick, why not? They’ll probably come back into fashion again soon anyway, just like my mum’s suede boots from the sixties that she wishes she’d held onto. Then who’ll be laughing?

But the thing is, as fashion-averse as I seem to be, I’m not entirely comfortable being this way. Why? Because I care too much what other people think, that’s why. Take wearing trainers to work as an example. In London it’s virtually de rigueur to throw a pair of Nikes on with your work suit as you pound the streets to the office. In Brussels, I have learned, it is far less acceptable. In fact, it seems, hardly anyone wears trainers to work here, let alone neon pink Adidas ones like me (I refer you to my previous points re: being unfashionable). Because of this, on the days when I do dare to leave the house in them, I can feel the heat of peoples’ collective disapproval burning a hole in my feet as I walk. I tell myself I don’t care what they think, and fundamentally I don’t, but what I do care about is feeling a bit of a tool, standing out and drawing attention to myself. That I don’t like one bit.

But here’s my dilemma: The morning walk to my office takes twenty minutes, and much of the route is lined with cobblestones, so even if I could be bothered to wear high heels (which I most definitely can’t) they would be a totally impractical choice. Now the weather is becoming warmer the knee high leather boots (flat, naturally) are also inappropriate. This leaves either my lone pair of flat pumps (a throwback to last summer’s meagre fashion injection – or was it the summer before..?) or my running trainers – the former being prettier, but the latter offering more support and cushioning for my feet. And much as I hate to admit it, now I’m in my thirties I’ll take comfort over fashion any day (within reason, I’m not quite ready to purchase my first pair of Clarks granny shoes yet).

Yesterday, on my walk home (wearing the fashionable pumps, I might add), I found the answer to my dilemma: two pairs of simple, unbranded (not particularly fashionable but who cares?), canvas lace-up shoes – one pair in wonderfully neutral blend-in beige, the other a slightly more upbeat pink – that might just see me through this summer of urban living without having to hang my head in shame and avoid the reproachful glares of my fellow city dwellers.

Fashion – 0

Comfort – 1

Fin.

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Being Present

I’ve just walked home from work. I did the same on Tuesday, but that time I was plugged into my music, walking in time to the beat in my ears but oblivious to the beat of the world around me. Tonight was different. It was a conscious decision to take in my surroundings, to be fully present in this balmy late September evening in the city I’ve called home for the past eleven years but am soon to leave behind for pastures new. I wanted to absorb its every detail, soak it up like a sponge, so that when I’m no longer here I can conjure it any time I like, simply by closing my eyes and remembering:

The Friday evening chatter as the bars by Borough Market began to fill with thirsty punters, relieved to see the end of the week; intricate brickwork in the arches leading down to the riverfront; tourists in droves slowly ambling with cameras and ice creams, no urgency or sense of purpose; runners dodging walkers like bullets; a man with unkempt hair, a typewriter and a sign saying ‘stories while you wait’ (what’s his story, I wonder); an Aussie in breeches calling ‘roll up, roll up to the cabaret freak show’ on the south bank by Waterloo; photographers waiting for the perfect shot as the sun slid down behind the Houses of Parliament, painting the sky in pinks and oranges like a famous work of art as the water lapped peacefully beneath, its surface soft as velvet; buskers with a range of instruments and abilities, one man in particular by the London Eye whose eye I caught as I walked past and whose voice was heaven wrapped in caramel with sprinkles on top; couples strolling hand in hand with smiles as wide as the mighty Thames along whose banks they walked; a discarded jumper that spoke of being forgotten, or perhaps cast off in a moment of passion or overheating; plants in pots outside offices, wilting and browning in the unseasonal heat; drunks gathered on steps with cans of lager, their pastime more acceptable somehow in the context of a Friday night when all around them office workers did the same; a bouncer underneath the bridge in Vauxhall, trying to entice me into his bar for happy hour; a leaf almost but not quite out of my reach as I jumped to touch it; a Portuguese café called The Three Lions where families spilled onto the street; children arriving home from school clutching violin cases and empty bags of fried chicken.

These are the myriad people and things that make up this special city, bringing her to life in all her kaleidoscopic glory. These are the things I will miss; the things I leave behind.

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