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:
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.