No! I will not calm the f*#! down and carry on
Growing up, I was infuriated by my Mum’s inability to sit down. She was always busy, always in the midst of one job or dashing off to the next. It wasn’t enough to wash and cook and clean and garden for her own family; she took in washing and ironing for various brothers and sisters, some actual family and others church members. I was incensed that grown adults would take advantage of her good will – happy to load her down with laundry, treating her like an amenable pack-horse. And it wasn’t so much that she returned from cleaning the homes of Uncles Tom, Dick and Harry with carrier bags full of their washing, it was the laborious process she went through to try and rid their grubby garments of dubious stains and smells: first she would boil their smalls and handkerchiefs in old buckets and giant ancient pans whose handles had long since departed. We had a conservatory built on to the back of the house for this purpose. It wasn’t the sort of conservatory you see on TV – bathed in sunshine, furnished with wicker chairs, nests of tables and houseplants. It was home to the overworked washing machine, plastic shelves bowing under the strain of part tins of paint, tool boxes, garden equipment, garden games and toys and miscellaneous items that the kitchen cupboards couldn’t contain. There were half a dozen hooks, upon which so many layers of carrier bags and coats hung, they formed a sort of spongy installation that needed careful negotiation to pass – if you brushed too closely, you would find yourself fighting off a pile of dusty old anoraks, macs and parkers; then came the impossible task of returning them all to the hook they had buried. The floor was littered with old shoes and boots and plastic bags full of glass jars and bottles and of course – those Y fronts and vests, braising in their vats of grey, slimy wash water. Despite this pre-soaking ritual, the vests and hankies still gave off a pungent aroma when ironed. Who irons vests and hankies? Why, my mother.
When I was in my early teens, I felt so bad for Mum that I started to take on domestic chores myself – to try and lighten her load. I would wait for her to leave the house on some mercy errand and leap into action, dusting and hoovering and bleaching until the place shone. When she returned, I would wait for her words of approval, but they never came. I would either be admonished with a “that’s my job” or she would simply find / make some other job to do instead. If I cleaned, she ironed; if I ironed; she mowed the lawn; if I mowed the lawn, she washed the windows. Some people you just can’t help! Back then, I don’t think I really understood why her “must work harder” mantra was such a constant source of exasperation to me; looking back, I think I just wanted a mum who sometimes had time to just sit with her children. Just be with us. Just watch TV with us or eat a meal with us (she would stand in the kitchen, stealing mouthfuls of her meager portions – guarding the washing up, ready to spring into action if one of us should require more gravy or a drink top up). I always swore I would never grow up to be like my mother; but from the day I started to try and please her by blitzing the house – I was in training. For as long as I can remember, if anyone did anything nice for me, instead of feeling relieved or grateful, I would feel guilt. ‘Now I owe you’, I would think, ‘now I have to find something I can do in return so we’re even again.’
So, I guess it’s Mum’s fault that I cannot relax. Not even when I’m doing the most relaxing stuff. I only completely relax when I sleep – and even then, I’m plagued by anxiety dreams. So, here are a list of activities that are synonymous with relaxation, that have become angst-inducing for me.
1. Dog walks in the park.
In romantic films couples walk dogs in picturesque settings, always on a balmy summer’s day or in perfect virgin snow. When you actually have a dog that has to be walked every day (and what dog doesn’t?) the reality is rain, dark mornings and knob owners. Yes, there’s responsible dog owners and then there’s knob owners – and they usually do own a knob (apologies for the gender stereotype, but they really are nearly all blokes). These are the easy going folk who walk around the corner to the nearest field and then unleash their hounds with complete disregard for anyone or anydog else. Because their dog is not a ferocious, rabid attack mutt, because it is ‘friendly’ they assume it is safe. It matters not to them that they have zero recall ability, if their dog sticks its over-friendly nose in your dog’s face or up your dog’s arse, well, he just wants to play! Can I brush this off? No. I cannot. Because I have a ‘problem dog’, a ‘nervous dog’. How did they put it at the Rescue Centre? Oh yes, “she’s not good with other dogs.” What an understatement that turned out to be. For the first year I had her, she only had to clock another dog in the distance– I’d find myself being dragged by a barking, snarling, white eyed beast. I enrolled her on 2 different obedience courses, spent half a day with a dog whisperer, begged friends to let me walk her with their dogs, paid a dog walker to let me walk her with his dog, changed her feed, rattled a bottle of stones in her face when a dog appeared on the horizon, offered her treats – you name it, I tried it. Eventually, she grew calmer. Her episodes were less frequent and less frenzied. It was just a case of time and patience. Now I can walk her past a dog on a loose lead and as long as I’ve seen it and let her know I’ve seen it (with a simple point of my finger and firm ‘don’t’) she makes no fuss; sometimes she will even put herself behind me or switch sides with me to distance herself. Does this mean I have full control? No. I would not dream of ever letting her off the lead. I sometimes watch other dogs, running flat out across an open field, chasing their ball (my imagination kicks in and applies slow motion and music), and I could cry. Because I deny Jess that freedom. That’s called responsibility. I’ve lost count of the times now that knobs have flipped my switch by acting all blasé while their sniffy, waggy-tailed loose canine runs rings around poor little Jess, who so clearly does not want them anywhere near her. She usually becomes submissive and will even sometimes lie down (this started when some kids decided to let 3 domestic wolves loose from their garden just as I happened to be walking by with Jess. The pack descended on her like Music executives on the latest girl band). Me, on the other hand – I flare right up. I’m indignant at this point. It always, without fail results in me being sworn at and told I should ‘control my dog’! Really, I’m not making this up. So, no a dog walk for me – whether the sun is shining or there’s a perfect blanket of the white stuff – is in no way relaxing. I’m constantly on the lookout for other dogs and their knob owners. Then there’s the wet stuff. Rain stresses me out when it’s looming, when I’m not sure if we can make it home before it starts to pour; when it won’t let up and I have to put Jess’s waterproof jacket on (because I worry it will cause a skin flare up); when it’s been at it non stop for days and everywhere is sodden and I have to hose my boots off and give Jess a bath before she’s allowed on the carpets; when it puts the dog off doing her business so I have to stress about her being constipated. But most of all it stresses me out when it isn’t in the forecast. If I’ve checked the weather app and I know it’s coming, I can mentally prepare myself. But if the app looks all clear and there’s a shower mid-walk– I can actually flip. I mean full on slapping myself around the head and screaming, “it’s not meant to rain until [whatever time it’s supposed to arrive]".
On a work day, the second the 5.00am alarm goes (and quite often 10 minutes or so before, when my body clock wakes me) I just spring out of bed. Like a robot. There’s no thought process, no opportunity to even consider pressing snooze. On weekends I don’t set the alarm, but I’m still usually awake by 6.00 at the latest. And it’s pretty much the same. If I didn’t get straight up, I would just lie there thinking of my to do list, starting with walking the dog and then either a bike ride or a run. Because of aforementioned dog issue, I’ve always walked Jess as early as possible to avoid other walkers as far as possible. I was isolating and social distancing long before it was a thing. Plus, cycling and running when the traffic gets heavy is way too stressful. So lie-ins just aren’t for me.
3. Bath time
If there’s ever a character on TV taking a bath, they will typically be sipping a glass of wine by candlelight. I don’t drink wine and no doubt if I ever took a candle into the bathroom it would end in some sort of disaster. I bathe once a week. My life is ruled by routines and Sunday morning I go for a run and then have a bath (6 days a week I shower because it’s just quicker – I can be in and out within 5 minutes). But I don’t do relaxing baths. First of all, it’s not relaxing because the entire time I’m in there (other than the actual ablutions) I’m stretching my legs and massaging my muscles after my run to make sure I don’t sustain an injury (if I get injured I can’t exercise and if I can’t exercise I get fat and depressed…) Then, because it’s Sunday, I have to clean the bath and shower, which stresses me out because however careful I am, this always results in a pool of water beside the bath, which gets me worrying about where the leak is coming from. I actually know now that I need to get some re grouting done – but that’s another story for another blog. The other week I did allow myself a brief lie-back moment; to my horror, I found myself staring up at 2 wet looking patches on the ceiling! Which could only mean 1 thing – a new roof.
So, a few years ago I spent the summer holiday in Thailand. If you can still be stressed out in Thailand – there is no hope for you. Stressed out just doesn’t figure in the Thai lexicon. I remember taking a bus from Chang Mai to Chang Rai; Google told me this journey should take 3 hours. And I’m sure that is possible, but Thai bus drivers, I learned the hard way, are a law unto themselves. Our driver made random stops every time he saw anyone standing around, he nipped home to fetch his packed lunch, he went to the bank on the way through one town and a chemist’s in another. When we made toilet stops, I was off and back on again within 5 minutes. Only to sit there another half hour while the rest of the passengers decided which snacks and drinks to bring back on board. It’s like school break times. There’s the kids who go to the toilet (whether they need it or not) and then make their way to their next lesson and line up, accepting that 15 minutes really isn’t a break at all; then there’s the kids for whom the bell tolls freedom. They run outside (whether it’s raining or not) they play football or table tennis, they live every last second of that 15 minutes as if it was their last. Then, only when the bell sounds the end of break, they start to think about what they have next lesson, they might pay a casual trip to the toilet on their way, before stopping for a chat with their freedom loving peers (like their parents when they see that couple from 2 doors down in Asda, having a natter in the crisps aisle, oblivious to the serious shoppers, who just want to grab their Quavers multi-pack and run). I envy these students. And I hate them in equal measure. Because I end up waiting for them at dinnertime and spending half my lunch on the phone to their parents because they haven’t shown up for their late detention (as if they ever would?) I get the sanction for their lateness. Anyway, back to Thailand – so while I was there I had my first encounter with Meditation. I spent some time with a Karen Hill Tribe and was invited to meditate in the village temple. When in Rome… this trip was all about me embracing opportunities and challenging myself; but honestly, I spent the whole time fidgeting because I just couldn’t get comfy sitting cross legged on that hard, stone floor. The more I tried not to think about how much discomfort I was in, the worse it got. Far from leaving the session feeling lighter, I just felt stiff and irritated. But I did give it another go. Returning home, I went through the obligatory ‘Zen’ phase and bought a book on Buddhist principles and some meditation CD’s (I did say it was some years ago). I think I skimmed through the book, and I did try one of the CD’s. But once I’d done it once, I kind of knew what was coming, so I’d be thinking what the next instruction was all the time, just wanting it to get to the end so I could go and fall asleep in front of the TV instead.
Staying in Thailand briefly, during my 4 weeks travelling, I swam pretty much every day – it was off season and so even the swankiest hotels with pools were easily affordable. And being off season – most of the time they were empty. I could take my time and really enjoy that pool all to myself. Yeah, right. I set myself a minimum of 100 lengths per session and spent my entire swim counting up in tens. And then stressing about whether the pool would suddenly be invaded by a large group of rowdy Westerners, or whether I’d got to thirty or forty; seventy or eighty. That was the least stressful swimming I’ve ever ‘enjoyed’. Before Covid I did used to swim every Saturday at the local baths and most days during the school holidays. And I honestly do not know why. Because I absolutely hate every minute of it. Lane swimming is like swimming in a straight jacket. I remember visiting Central Park Zoo and being heart broken by the polar bears – forced to swim in a tank; lane swimming is like humans willingly submitting to their own tank. We use the hamster wheel and fishbowl as analogies for restriction and conformity, but we choose to swim in submerged treadmills. Which is not so bad if it’s just you in your lane. I can just about handle it if there’s one other person sharing. But 3 or more to a lane? My stress levels go through the top diving board. I start scoping out the other lanes to see if there’s a less busy option, but switching lanes never works. You move and guaranteed, Mr Splash will find you. There’s always that one guy, isn’t there? Inspector Gadget arms and insists on slapping the surface of the water with every stroke. The whole entire pool becomes choppy – like swimming in a washing machine. Other poolside triggers: people doing backstroke – should be banned outright; being able to see people walking from the changing rooms and worrying if they will get in my lane (especially if it’s an entire family); people in goggles and cap with a float and water bottle – way too intimidating, should be made to join some sort of club or team; people who are blatantly in the wrong lane or swimming anti-clockwise in clockwise lane or vice versa – there should be a 3 strike system to deal with these individuals (2 strikes in rush hour); and worse of all, making eye contact with another swimmer while passing. Showers and communal changing facilities are also riddled with anxiety triggers and if you have never had to put on a sports bra in a tiny cubicle after rubbing yourself raw with your towel, but somehow still managing to not be dry, then you cannot possibly imagine the rage I am feeling right now just thinking about it.
So, Mum – I have a lot to thank her for – that time I got pelted with rocks for wearing a ‘Jesus Saves’ t-shirt? She was right there with a pithy bible quote: ‘blessed are the persecuted’; I’ve inherited her couldn’t care less attitude to personal grooming which has saved me so much time and cash over the years; and let’s face it – my lifelong boycott on ironing (I do not own an iron or ironing board; I only buy clothing that will de-crease as it hangs to dry). But mostly it seems, I can thank her for making me feel guilty if I even think about doing nothing of any great consequence. As for relaxation - must work harder!