Courage, mon ami

I am one of the most fearful and anxious people you will ever meet. There is no scenario, however peaceful, however benign, that my brain won’t catastrophize within seconds, leaving me with a pounding heart, a splitting headache and the need to lie down with a cup of tea to recover.

Let me give you an example: The other day, I was at the bottom of the garden playing ball with The Hound. It was the usual routine – me throwing the ball; The Hound careering after it; The Hound hiding it under a bush and then waiting for me to get down on my hands and knees to fish it out with the ball launcher, over and over again. Anyway, I was doing the ball thing, but also (because I have been reading lots of self-help books recently) taking a moment to stop and look at my surroundings, to take in the beauty of the world around me. Once I’d managed to filter out the roar of the nearby A505, the drone of the Easyjet planes overhead and the sound of the London to Cambridge trains at the bottom of the garden, I noticed the birds zipping about with twigs and worms in their beaks, flippy-tailed squirrels running along the fence and the odd butterfly (or possibly moth, it was getting late and being an urban girl, I’m not hot on Lepidoptera identification) flitting amongst the dying daffodils and emerging tulips. The whole garden felt alive. I looked back at the house with a sense of peace and calm and gratitude and then I thought, what if I was looking at the house and it suddenly exploded? Now, dear reader, there is absolutely no reason why I should suddenly have thought of the house exploding. None at all. But I did, and because my autonomic nervous system can’t tell the difference between real and imaginary situations (get me with the science), within seconds my heart and my thoughts were going haywire: Would the wrecked house be covered by our house insurance? What if it wasn’t? Where would we live? I’d read an article about how impossible it is to find rented accommodation with a dog. Where would The Hound live? In a caravan in the garden with me? And so it went on. I was so busy worrying about what I would do if the house exploded, I failed to spot an actual fire hazard: a pair of crows had forced the cowl off one of the chimney stacks to make a nest, something that only became apparent when a confused bird and a ton of twigs fell down the chimney and arrived in Gorgeous Grey Haired Widower’s study. 

There are so many things that I am afraid of, quite frankly, it would be quicker to make a list of things that don’t scare me, although I can’t actually think of anything that couldn’t end in disaster. I’m currently hauling the dressing table mirror out of the wardrobe every time I want to use it, as I read that the combo of spring sunshine and mirrors can cause house fires. When GGHW failed to tell me that he was doing a detour and going to see his parents, rather than just nipping to Tesco to get some milk as per the original plan so didn’t turn up when I thought he would, I was sobbing and shaky at the thought that he’d had a heart-attack in the crisp and savoury snacks aisle, and with not being married and therefore officially not his next of kin, no-one had told me he was dead on a trolley in Addenbrookes. Tube trains, pot-holes, crowds? Add them to the list. I have a thing about getting trapped in my clothes, that moment when too tired or too lazy to take off a t-shirt, a shirt, a jumper and a hoodie (I’m too mean to turn the heating up) you try to take them off all at once and they get stuck somewhere between your neck and your ears, or getting to a restaurant and trying to unzip your coat you realise that the zip is stuck and so freak out that you are going to have to sit through three courses wearing a North Face mega-tog quilted coat and hood. I became almost hysterical in Costa Coffee recently when my fold-up noise-cancelling headphones folded up around my neck and started to choke me. The more I tried to disentangle myself, the more they tightened around my neck. As I was choking, I could see my friend, Glossy Christine, manning the counter at the hospice shop over the road, and it was all I could do not to rush in to the shop and croak, “My Sennheiser’s are strangling me!” As it was, I was so panicked, I eventually ripped them off and then went to the local park, sat on a bench and sobbed.

My mother, trying to be kind, puts this behaviour (which I have had all my life) down to ‘being creative’ and having ‘a vivid imagination’. A less genetically biased diagnosis would include the word ‘neurotic’. I constantly beat myself up about it because surely what has happened to me has taught me to be more relaxed, that I can’t predict whether the house will blow up or GGHW will choke on a fish bone, so I might as well enjoy life whilst I can. The problem is, I can look back at several points in my life where I have felt really happy and peaceful and thought, “It’s all going to be OK,” only for the sky to fall in the next day.

People are always surprised when I reveal the true extent of my fears. After JS died, I remember writing to a woman I had worked with for years and telling her that I was terrified of the future. She wrote back and said that she couldn’t imagine me being terrified of anything, that I was so confident, so together. Before JS died, I was a very private person who would do anything to appear in control, whatever trauma was going on beneath the surface. I have been chronically, clinically depressed; I have suffered from a lengthy and debilitating bout of agoraphobia; I have been so anxious I have crawled from room-to-room on my hands and knees and gone down the stairs on my bum for fear of falling, and yet practically no-one knew the full extent of my illness, not even my husband. JS’s death completely ripped me apart leaving my emotions and vulnerabilities there for all to see, and that tough outer-shell concealing a neurotic, frightened human has never grown back.

So, when a dear friend, another widow, wrote to me yesterday to ask how I was able to take the plunge and write a book, put my head above the parapet and put myself out there when self-doubt and fear was holding her career plans back, I told her that every day I am frightened. Every ruddy day. If I had waited until I was ready to write the book, I would be waiting for ever. I am having a really hard time of it at the moment. Re-reading old blog posts is painful; writing new material is uncovering past hurts and emotions I had buried. I am feeling exposed and vulnerable in a way I haven’t for some time. But here’s the thing: I think we all forget just how much courage we have shown just by still being here.

After I was widowed, the first time I went out alone, at night, in to Central London, was to a book reading and signing by the author Justine Picardie. Long before JS died, I’d read Justine’s books including If The Spirit Moves You, her account of trying to ‘find’ her sister, Ruth Picardie, who died of breast cancer aged thirty-three. I’d been an occasional contributor to Justine’s blog, on which I’d referred to JS’s death. I’d heard Justine was giving a talk at Daunt Books in Marylebone to promote her book Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life, so I booked a ticket and went. Right up to leaving the front door I didn’t want to go, but I’m glad I did: Justine’s talk was wonderful. I met her afterwards when she signed my book and she recognised my name from her blog. She remembered what had happened to JS. I told her this was my first time out, alone. She put her hand on my arm and said she knew how hard it must be for me. She was lovely; warm, kind, gentle. I wanted to go home with her and sit at her kitchen table in north London and sob over tea and biscuits. I felt if Justine could just take me under her wing for a few hours, I’d be OK. She signed my book. Without looking, I put it in my bag and left the shop.

Sitting at the bus stop on the Marylebone Road, I felt desolate. I was going home, alone, and when I got home I’d be home, alone. I had never minded going out on my own, because with a husband at home, I never felt alone. But tonight, JS wouldn’t be at home. There would be no one to flick the kettle on or pour the wine and ask how my evening had been, to share stories of the day.  It was one of those early bleak times when I wanted to just walk out in to the traffic and take my chance with fate. I started crying, and in an attempt to look busy rather than tragic, I got Justine’s book out of my bag and opened it. I hadn’t seen her sign it; I’d been too busy wittering on about how hard life was. So sitting sobbing on a little plastic seat at a bus stop was the first time I’d seen her inscription. It read:P1000839


Her words could not have come at a better time and I have referred to them, clung on to them, sobbed over them, many times over the last four years. I now share them with you. We may feel that we don’t have the courage to write a book or take that job or go on a date. Trust me, you do. Because let’s not forget that the greatest courage of all is the courage of the newly bereaved, who day after desperate day, drag those shaky legs out of bed, get up and get on with it. That, my friends, is real courage.


Reply April 18, 2015

Your words struck a chord. I can identify with many of your feelings. I sometimes think: the worst than can happen, has happened and that allays my worries at times.

Reply April 18, 2015

.. I also think: if you can march on, well so can I. Your words give me courage. Thank you for your honesty in revealing your personal feelings.

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 27, 2015

    Thank you Elizabeth. I have to say I did hesitate to press 'Publish' after I had finished the post, but the longer I live and the more people I talk to 'honestly' the more I am convinced that even the most pulled-together person can wake up in the night (or in my case, early in the morning) and feel their insides contract with anxiety. Keep going. I'm with you. xx

Reply April 24, 2015

So many emotional similarities, the outward appearance of confidence, the inward panic of impending disaster or that everybody hates me (my forced confidence can make me appear bossy and domineering.... I try not to but if I don't force the show of confidence I am alone and silent in the corner.)

I'd have never have imagine you to be so Helen, you always appear so naturally confident, calm and serene and at peace with both yourself and the world....... Just proves how looks can be so deceptive.

For me you have courage, courage to do and be! xx Special thoughts as always xx

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 27, 2015

    Hi Gill. It's strange this, isn't it? I am ill with worry about driving somewhere I don't know, but have no problems walking in to a room with strangers. One of my dearest friends will happily pick up a left-hand drive hire car thousands of miles from home and motor, alone, across the outback (without a Sat Nav) yet gets in to a state at the thought of going to a social event on her own.

    Probably by the time you met me Gill I was calm and serene because once I am doing something, I am fine, a sort of 'the moment the curtain goes up, I'm out there." But before I get to where I am going I am worrying about whether I will be ill on the day or if the train is going to be late or what happens if I suddenly get dizzy whilst waiting for the train. Anticipatory anxiety has always - even as a child - been my thing. I honestly think it has now become a habit and has become 1000% worse since JS died.

    All we can do is push ourselves forward. Big hugs lovely. xx

Reply April 27, 2015

PG, before and during my Married life I was a Truck Driver, driving all over Europe with JCBs on a Roadtrain, Petrol Tankers, and others too many to mention! Just me, no sat nav, just my trusty maps, stopping anywhere trucks were allowed, day or night, sleeping in the cab and eating with all sorts of people from all Countries. After D day I was terrified to leave the house, couldn't go shopping on my own, couldn't remember how to get to places, wouldn't open the front door unless whoever knocked could prove who they were, couldn't go anywhere with crowds ... anymore than 3 people was a BIG crowd! .... I became scared of everything.... it was truly a horrible time, now over 4 years on I still have problems with crowds and sometimes still have to take a deep breath to get out of the car for shopping, going somewhere new is still a challenge but little by little things are getting better ....
You made me giggle with looking at the birds, butterflies, squirrels etc and then looking at the house and thinking .... what would ....!! I do the same now, one minute having happy thoughts but then in creeps ... I hope this doesn't happen, or oh no what if etc.
I am just left now with a strange and inexplicable paranoia .... Hoping that it too will bugger off!
Great writing, indeed, Courage to all x

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 29, 2015

    Thanks for your comment Al. Very much appreciated.

    I totally understand that paranoia. I remember once going to a doctor and her saying to me that people who worried a great deal about their health were rarely ill. When I went to see the psychotherapist, Doktor R, after JS died, her theory was that I worried about things as a safety net believing that if I worried about things, they weren't likely to happen. I had to point out to her that I had worried about JS going swimming and he had drowned, so where did that leave her theory? These shrinks have an answer for everything (or think they have), and her response was along the lines that that was why I was in such a state, because the mechanism I had believed in for so long had failed. Er, no, Doktor R, I'm in a state because I watched my husband drown. Still, I get the illogical logic so to speak.

    Crowds? I hate them too, but always have done. I stopped going on the tube after a particularly bad incident involving a tube train on the Queen Mother's funeral. I don't mind them if I can escape - eg a big gathering at a party - but stick me in a line with thousands of others shuffling forward and I'm done.

    As our world was ripped apart, is it any wonder we feel shaky in unfamiliar surroundings? I think it takes us back, even momentarily, to those early days.

    Onwards girl with you.