Random Musings: Halloween and hibernation

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Have I mentioned that I love Halloween? Its traditions appeal so much more than the trappings of a modern Christmas. For one thing it falls in autumn, that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when the trees turn their leaves into flaming displays before consigning them to the ground to be crunched underfoot on crisp, early morning walks. Fires may be lit and blankets wrapped around shoulders as sofas are snuggled into. Curtains are drawn early giving rooms a cosiness forgotten over summer.

Halloween does not demand that gifts be exchanged with all the pressure this brings. Friends may choose to get together but it is acceptable to eschew the social whirl. There is no requirement for an expensive, time consuming meal.

Have you guessed that I am not a party animal? I choose carefully the events I will attend and who I will spend time with. Whatever the occasion I wear clothes that are comfortable on my socially derided bulk. Christmas exacerbates my anxieties with its demands and excesses. It is glitter and false promises of joy to the world.

Had I been born back in the day, I ponder if I may have been considered a witch.

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Witches were often women who would not follow the crowd. Perhaps they refused to marry, choosing to live alone rather than be dominated by a man. Perhaps they dressed differently and would not do as they were told. Some accused of being witches had simply drawn the anger of peers who believed in a hierarchy of sycophancy and aspiration. Witches lived apart and appeared content with that. Their autonomy angered many; in the time honoured tradition, conformists sowed fear of the ‘other’ – and witch hunts ensued. Maverick tendencies are anathema to those whose comfortable lives rely on social discipline.

The festive season, with its myriad of expectation, joviality and consumerism fills me with dread. Each year I dream of locking my doors and hibernating with just my family for company. At Halloween I am permitted to do this if I choose – me, my family and my books.

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Recommended reading for Halloween

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier)

A Love Like Blood by Marcus Sedgwick

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg

Pavement by Richard Butchins

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

I shall be curling up with ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver. The cover promises me a ghost story…

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Random Musings: Ho ho ho

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With Halloween done and dusted, including the all night American Horror Story: Murder House DVD marathon that my elder two children enjoyed with a dozen or so of their friends (whilst emptying our freezer of pizza and fries), I can now see Christmas on the horizon. Unlike last year I intend to try to make an occasion of this.

It is not that I plan to party. The preparation for and clearing up after my children’s social events is as much as I can handle these days. Even though I did not actually take part in their Halloween gathering it still left me exhausted. Disturbed nights do that to me now.

This need not preclude me from making more of an effort with the festive season. Last year I did my best to stick my head in the sand until it was all over which resulted in a very subdued time for us all. I learned that it is up to me to build momentum. Not being allowed to celebrate in the way that I would choose does not make it okay for me to refuse to set the scene for my family’s enjoyment.

I know how lucky I am. I have three healthy, intelligent children; a husband who loves me and who I adore as much as I did when I married him two decades ago. We have worked hard to create a fabulous home for our family. Yes, the kids take it all for granted, but why would they not when it is all they have ever known?

Too often I feel tired, so very tired. I dream of a little terraced house, two up two down, small and easy to look after. I imagine a rural location, no car, long walks and peaceful nights sitting with a book in front of an open fire; no expectations or demands for food to be prepared that someone will complain about. It will never happen. My husband does not see the point of open fires.

What I hanker after is for those around to stop expecting me to do everything they ask, to listen when I demure even if this causes inconvenience. My husband works; my children have school, exams, jobs, plans, pressures. I say I am tired and they reel off how much harder their lives are than mine. They are right but I am still tired.

I am however getting better at standing my ground, at being heard. Perhaps this is why I think that I can manage once again to cope with Christmas.

I am making lists: presents to buy, meals to plan, friends to reach out to. I will ask my family what they want and comply when I feel able. I will sometimes say no.

“There are exactly as many special occasions in life as we choose to celebrate.”

My daughter was talking about her work schedule over the festive season and expressed a hope that she would have Christmas Eve off. Each year we enjoy a family party then, just the five of us. I liked that she wanted to keep this free, to continue the tradition.

I used to look forward Christmas, perhaps I will again. For this year I will aim to let go of enough of my anxieties to reclaim just a little of that elusive goodwill.

Bootstrapping

I made a bad decision last night. For her birthday I had given my daughter two tickets to see Coriolanus – National Theatre Live at our local cinema. I told her that she could bring a friend or that I could go with her. I assumed that she would prefer the company of a friend and, on the night, a whole group of them went along and had a fabulous time. Apparently the show was stunning.

I feel old and foolish amongst my children’s friends. I worry about embarrassing them, cramping their style, ruining their enjoyment. Why did I make assumptions without talking to my daughter? She told me afterwards that it would have been fine for me to have been there, that another parent attended. I missed a show that I really wanted to see because I did not simply ask if it would be okay for me to go.

It is another dampener on an already down week. I still feel tired and achy despite attempts to rest up. I had nightmares about my husband last night which is a sure sign of negative thoughts, he has done nothing wrong.

Last term I completed a short psychology course which looked at how our brains process information in real time. Studies have shown that most decision making is comparative, that how we perceive things to be at the time of the decision drives the choices we make. As an example we looked at a study of how happy people judged themselves to be.

Imagine that there are two islands. In one island everyone has got an abundance of everything; material possessions, good schools, good hospitals; everything is great. On the other island things are very different, people are much poorer, their lives are much more materially different in every regard. According to Easterlin’s paradox, if these islands are separated from each other and don’t know of each other’s existence, then the average well-being of people will be about the same. However, if the islands communicate then those in the rich island think, ‘thank goodness I’m in the rich island’ and those in the poor island think, ‘I wish I was in the rich island’.  So they all think that they are equally happy until you show them each other. Perhaps for happiness, the perception, the judgement, is all that there is. Is there really any more to being happy than thinking you’re happy?

Being aware of other’s lives helps us to put our troubles in perspective, but the fact that other’s are having a harder time than us does not negate our own feelings; they are still valid. Just because we live on a richer island than others does not mean that we will always be happy. It does mean that we can be made to feel guilty for not being happy.

When I first learned to program computers I was told about Bootstrap programs, small chunks of code that could be used to call other programs and restart a computer. When software problems occur it can be useful to clear working memory and start again, which is why the first thing to do when a computer misbehaves is to switch it off and then on again in the hope that the problem will simply go away.

I like to use the analogy of this with my own way of living. When there seem to be multiple events getting me down, causing a cascade effect whereby it becomes hard to deal with even minor disappointments that I would otherwise be able to shrug off easily, I try to strip away all that is not needed and start again from basics. I remind myself that I live my life surrounded by riches: family, good health, comfortable home.

My problem seems to be my unwillingness to call up the other programs, to ask for support. The energy that it takes for me to overcome my discomfort at leaving the security of my home can be hard to find when I am feeling down. I am reluctant to talk about how I am feeling as I fear I will be berated for not recognising how easy a time I have compared to others.

I need hugs, not advice. I am generally well aware of where I have gone wrong.

As for the show that I missed, oh how I wish that these NT Live shows could be released on DVD. Having been unable to acquire tickets for the theatre, and foolishly forgone the opportunity to see it at the cinema, I would happily part with my money for a chance to enjoy the performance in the comfort of my own home.

Yet I recognise that I need to make myself leave my house more frequently and seek out other’s company. If decision making relies on our perception at the time then I need to broaden my experience of other’s reality.

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Social anxiety

I like to think of myself as intelligent. I don’t mean super intelligent in an impressive way, just intelligent enough to be able to question, consider and understand what is going on around me. Be it politics, economics, marketing, health, parenting, relationships or literature I like to think that I can look at the wide variety of points of view, gain an understanding of where other’s are coming from, why they may think as they do, and form a rational opinion based on life experience and knowledge.

I do not just believe what I am told; I am interested in how the human mind works and how decisions are made. I try to examine from different perspectives and to reserve judgement until I gain a better understanding. I try to be rational, fair and practical.

All of the above has made it particularly difficult for me to deal with the changes that I have experienced in the past few years in my own, personal ability to cope with living my life.

I know that attitude has a huge impact on how we deal with issues in day to day life. I know the importance of a healthy diet and a sensible amount of beneficial exercise. I can rationalise, contextualise and put problems in perspective in my head. Knowing that most of the hurdles that I face are minor, short lived and that other people deal with these challenges just fine; that I dealt with them just fine up until a few years ago; this knowledge simply makes how I am now behaving appear more foolish or, even worse, selfish. My behaviour is irrational. I wish to make myself act in a more acceptable way.

But I can’t.

I think, perhaps, accepting that I can’t may be a big step forward in attempting to live with how I am now. My name is J and I have a social anxiety problem. I dread certain social situations so much that I am physically sick at the prospect of having to experience them. I am dropped into an emotional turmoil where I flounder, desperate to escape by whatever means. The thought of being coerced into certain social situations makes me feel that my life is no longer worth living.

I read that last sentence and think ‘overdone melodrama’. I look at myself and recognise what a fabulous life I lead with my healthy, loving family and beautiful home. What right have I to complain about anything? I am not being asked to face hardship or danger, just to spend a short amount of time in a room full of people.

Just thinking about that sets my heart racing, I break out in a cold sweat, I shake, feel light headed and experience waves of nausea. I want my world to stop and let me off, to run away and hide where nobody can find me and ask me to do this thing. I inwardly beg for mercy.

I cannot rationalise what is going on. I cannot explain why this situation has developed. I cannot find a way to cope that will allow me to meet the expectations of my loved ones and deal with social gatherings from time to time. I have tried so hard and I cannot do it.

What I can do is try to explain that I have a problem. Even this is strewn with difficulties. Mental health issues are difficult for those who do not suffer from them to understand. This situation is hard enough for me to understand and I am in the middle of it, experiencing the problems it causes.

Can I call this an illness when I have not sought medical advice? The health service in this country is creaking at the seams and my life is in no danger. No matter how panicked I may feel at times I am not going to take my own life; I love my children too much. I know that I need to find a way to live with the way I am reacting to certain catalysts. Would others be more accepting if this were defined as an illness even if self diagnosed and self treated?

Left to my own devices I can get by just fine most of the time. If those around me can accept, no matter how reasonable a request may seem to them, that it is beyond my ability to grant them what they wish, then the anticipatory fear would diminish and I may be able to find a way forward, perhaps even a way to improve.

My writing helps hugely as it helps me to clarify my thoughts. I wonder will any of this make sense to others.

English: human mind for performance psychology...