Arriving at a smart establishment and greeted by an urbane young man, I was soon ensconced in a tiny space (including a couch) with a young lady, Leona, who looked like she was barely out of school. Mind you, she was of some Asian extraction and may have been 120 for all I know.
(While initially I was a bit bothered about her youthfulness - what would she know about suffering? - I later reconciled myself to the idea that perhaps, the younger counsellors would have less of a tendency to 'project' their own sorry stories, biases and prejudices onto their clients? I know there are a few man-haters who fancy themselves as marriage counsellors, for example - not exactly helpful!).
Anyhooooo, as it was my first session, Leona used the opportunity simply to get to know the extent of my story.
It is no secret that 2016 was a bit of a challenge for me - depression, disability, dying dogs, disturbed holiday plans, demanding work, and defamation actions being the unhappy combo they are.
But what I hadn't really taken into account was just how all of these events may have resulted in an unhealthy build-up of stress, which may (or may not) account for the rather precarious patterns of my moods.
Throughout this breast cancer memoir, as my regular readers will know, I have certainly not shied away from the issue of mood - and specifically Depression.
Until you experience it, you really don't realise just what a kind of suffocating feeling it is.
I am fortunate that, up to this point, I have managed not to succumb to any chronic condition, finding some simply strategies to help such as:
- Asking for support when I need it.
- Avoiding or minimising alcohol.
- Focussing on getting a good night's sleep.
- Cultivating my good friendships;
- Seeking professional help as required;
- Keeping a dog (or as of late, a bit of a dead dog interred in my pot plant)
- Everyday rituals such as playing music and burning a candle; and
- Fantasising about doing the horizontal hula with George Clooney. (Actually, I lie. I have lately been fantasising about Ryan Gosling - even if he can't sing for nuts.)
Indeed, I have long believed that most, if not all, emotional reactions are in fact stress reactions.
In the fast-paced, ever changing, increasingly unstable, demanding and volatile world we live in, we are all under more pressure than ever before.
Social media does not help. Daily we are regaled with predictions of pending Armageddon thanks to rogue Presidents, memes extolling the evils of child slavery, dog eating, cock fighting, world poverty, plastics, pollution, paedophilia, corrupt politicians, global warming, Syria.
We are bombarded with advertisements of how we should grow - grow richer, smarter, thinner, further, faster and more furious.
We argue with strangers about issues we know nothing about and care even less about, all the while batting away the kind of toxic, nasty, bigoted, ignorant, judgemental, negative engagement that is hardly good for the soul. No one, it seems, is entitled to their own opinion and everyone thinks they are right! Even the most civilised opinion is booed and hissed at until it all descends to name calling. For what?
Meanwhile the news media is purposely engineered to keep us in a perpetual state of unhappiness so that we are forced to consume - courses, products, services, URLs.
We are all liking, sharing, following, messaging, emailing, texting, stalking, tweeting, snapping, chatting.... until we are all just FUCKING STRESSED .... and we're not even aware of it.
That's why I reckon that every time you see someone yelling or crying or just shutting down, when you notice someone blowing a fuse, making a mistake or pouring another pitcher of wine to go with their Lean Cuisine or their ready-made-meal (because who's got time to cook?) it is usually a reaction to a stressor of some kind.
We are expected to have perfect children, six-pack abs, perfect skin, ageless skin, plumped lips, smooth foreheads, youthful figures, colour-co ordinated homes, balanced books, big jobs, successful lives. We are not just taught but encouraged to compete, for ideals we will never achieve and impossible dreams that are cast as dares that only set us up for lifetimes of unproductive effort.
We must keep up with the Kardashians, the Housewives of New Jersey, the obscure B-Grade stars on worn red carpets who come and go like Yesterday's Heroes.
We are inundated with trivia we do not care about, with no relevance to our lives and which cloud up our headspace, wasting our time. We are bombarded with other's concerns in worlds so remote the people may as well be from Mars.
All the while we're tracking our calories, measuring our steps, running marathons, climbing Everest. You can't even just fucking eat - you have to read the fucking label (with writing so small you need a fucking nuclear microscope to read it). Who the hell knows what difference 27 grams of sugar will make to my specific, individual longevity. Do you?
In the meantime we are told we must be mindful, meditate, levitate. But even this is complicated. Yoga involves sweating like a pig in a heated hell hole. Detox routines involve sensory deprivation, expensive supplements and exotic plant matter that can only be pureed in the latest contraption purchased (for a song) off the Shopping Channel. Retreats syphon dollars. Inner peace comes at a stress-inducing cost that few can afford. The very act of trying to destress is stressful! We can't de-stress because we are too stressed!
And so what do we do?
My friends, we get into 'coping' mode, and we aren't even aware of it.
We switch off. We run on automatic. We immerse ourselves in the blur. We bury ourselves in our smart phones, our iPads, our head in the iCloud - connected so we can disconnect.
How to re-connect? How to be more aware? How to de-stress?
Well, the thing is that what stresses me and how I need to de-stress may be quite different to you.
However, I still have a theory that most (if not all) of us are stressed by an absence of positive, life-enhancing routines that are purposefully tailored to what you and I might need or want in order to reduce stress.
In my life, for instance, not only do I not have a positive routine, I have a complete absence of routine given all the changes that have occurred so rapidly in my life: new working life, new living space, new marital arrangement. My whole world has been so swiftly (and might I say callously and thoughtlessly) rearranged I have been left gasping like a fish flung from its bowl.
That's why Leona has suggested that I begin a methodical process to establish a routine.
She has given me an exercise to do that I thought I would share with you.
She told me to write out a detailed schedule for every day of each upcoming week. Each day was to have one of five things:
Exercise; and attention to
(The mnemonic is mine. I pointed it out to Leona who was excited at the discovery... um... o-kay.)
Today I brought myself a weekly planner and have tried to set out my week so I have a better idea of what I will do on each and every day as a matter of routine.
By purposefully diarising activities that I know will contribute to my emotional wellness, I hope that in time, I will emerge from the other side with at least some self-esteem in tact, if nothing else!
So if you are currently going through a difficult time - and it doesn't necessarily have to be anything as absolute and unpleasant as the dissolution of a long-term partnership - why not take a minute to sit down and work out just how you will spend the upcoming week.
Perhaps together, you and I can work on creating a well-PACED week.
And hopefully, we will eventually begin to reap the rewards.
Let's do it!