The Long or Short Straw ?

There’s something about your fiftieth Birthday that makes you confront your own mortality. It’s a major turning point and there’s no dressing it up. You remember your own parents turning fifty – and you thought they were old. Now you are them.

You have become the target audience for over-50s life insurance, funeral plans and Saga holidays and when you reach fifty-five you can then add retirement housing to your list. Advertisements aimed at you have greying, benevolent-faced men and women, sporting chinos and Cotton Traders shirts. They, of course, are beginning their fun-packed, travel-filled retirement – I, on the other hand, am desperately making up my pension years, with little chance of retiring before I have to re-apply for my driving licence.

On the health front, I liken myself, this side of fifty, to a ten year old car. Things have started to go wrong and I probably need my cam belt changing. I am not as reliable as I once was and use a lot of oil. Sometimes I have the enthusiasm and drive of my youth, but mostly I prefer a calm life and taking it easy. Just a couple of prescription meds keep my show on the road, for now. And gels. Lots of gel.

I have both longevity and premature death in my genes. My Mum died at the age of 57 from a massive brain haemorrhage. She was otherwise healthy and in good shape. According to the neurosurgeon, she had probably had the aneurysm that caused the bleed since childhood. All sorts of factors could have contributed to its rupturing, but the main one was Bad Luck. And so I wonder about my luck. Do I have some ticking time bomb inside me like she did ? Has Fate marked my card denying me my old age, or will I follow most of my relatives and reach my 80s. It would be good to know because I could adjust my behaviour accordingly.

The other week, Spring poked its head around the corner and Costa decided to refresh its frozen drink range. I had walked into town during my lunch hour and had settled down in a corner with my frozen Fruit Cooler and a piece of tiffin to watch the street outside. On taking a sip of my drink, a searing pain shot up my neck to my head, just above my eye. ‘So, this is it,’ I thought. ‘It’s the short straw I’ve picked and it all ends here in Costa Coffee !’

Of course, it didn’t. It was simply a reaction to the icy drink and after a few grounding exercises I was back planning what I was going to cook for dinner and my pain was gone.

Joking aside, though, I regularly take my blood pressure at home and I keep a couple of aspirin by our bed in case of a heart attack. Other than that life goes on as normal and I allow myself to dream about the next phase of my life, where our girls are both independent adults and my husband and I can start running around sand dunes in our chinos and walking sandals.


Feel the Panic and Carry On

The first time I experienced a panic attack I was standing in a hotel foyer, as a teenager, in Lisbon. It was completely overwhelming. I felt distressed, my heart was racing and I felt lost, afraid and tearful. I frightened the person I was with and it took some hours to feel normal again. The exuberance of youth, however, allowed me to push it to one side and move on.

The first day on a new temping assignment when I was just married, was my second one. It crept up on me during the day. I felt a tingling around my mouth and a feeling as if someone was stroking my leg. Eventually, I had to ask to leave and on my way home I was convinced I was dying. I felt weird for the rest of the day and frightened that it would happen again.

After having seen my GP, I realised I had suffered a panic attack. We were planning a move to Portugal at the time and subconsciously I think I was worried. But this panic attack completely rocked my confidence. I became anxious about being outside in public places. My heart would race and I would feel light-headed.

As I went through my twenties I learnt how to deal with them. They always crept up on me unawares. And often when I was alone. Pins and needles, tingles, lightheadedness . Once back in a familiar place with people I knew, I would gradually feel better. By my thirties they had become so infrequent I no longer thought about them.

Recently, having gone through menopause, I suddenly feel vulnerable again. I worry about losing those I love. I am feeling my age. And with that those familiar feelings of panic have reappeared. . When this happens I feel I want to pull a blanket over me and hide. I cope with work – if anything it is a distraction. But days off bring over-thinking, which is exhausting. I lack motivation and a sense of purpose and forget how to be my own best friend. Instead, I accuse myself of not doing enough, not stretching myself and I have to make do with achieving the bare minimum. Sleep is my friend. It puts my scrambled thoughts into order and quietens and soothes any distress.

But on the good days I remind myself that the bare minimum is ok. It is keeping the show on the road. It is being Claire. That’s who I am. An over-thinker, a worrier, a frequently disappointed , yet continuing optimist. I will find my sense of belonging again in this new chapter of my life. And until then I will just be.

An Olive Grove in Tuscany

Photo by Julia Sakelli on

Do you ever think back to what you dreamed your adult life would be like? Does your life now look anything like what you had hoped for ?

I dreamed of living in Italy – looking out over a Tuscan olive grove. I had vague ideas about what I would do, but nothing concrete – nothing to work on really. My dream was a precarious one as I was always a home bird and relied a lot on my Mum for emotional support. Therefore things started to unravel the moment I waved goodbye to my parents on my first day at Uni and I sat on my bed, in a shared room with another girl, who I didn’t know. I felt sick with longing to return home.

Eventually after trying to fit in and struggling with the workload, I gave up. The dream of my Dad had ended. I was supposed to get a degree, any degree. But that was not meant to be. What followed was a series of jobs for a temping agency, none of which was very interesting. Checking crystal glasses for imperfections, calling out phone calls on an intercom while reading Mills and Boon novels and phoning directory enquiries all day asking for three phone numbers at a time to make up a contacts list, to name a few.

Having fallen for a Portuguese guy whilst on a summer course while I was still at Uni, I aimed to find a job in Portugal, so I could be near him. This resulted in a foray into the cut-throat world of timeshare. It was a disaster – in two weeks I only managed to convince two people to go and look around the hotel we were promoting. I spoke to the well-spoken lady who had recruited me in London – she was ‘in a relationship’ with the aggressive American in charge of the selling. ‘You’re too nice for this job” she said. Her American pit-bull just called me a drop out.

I never made it to my house in Tuscany. But I did make it to a house in Lisbon, where I lived with my husband – the Portuguese guy – for the first years of our marriage. We looked out on an area where gypsies had made their ramshackle homes, with their evening bonfires and frequent brawls. (These homes no longer exist and the people who lived in them are now rehoused in tower-blocks – a sort of cleansing before the European Cup in 2004). So I ended up with a city-scape on the Atlantic instead of my countryside retreat on the Mediterranean – but Portugal is my second home now. I can speak Portuguese and I love their food, wine and beautiful weather.

Bringing up children brought me back to England. But to this day I somehow feel I don’t quite belong. I have a job in a Drs surgery -a job that interests me and which I enjoy going to. but it will never pay for an interesting retirement or be anything more than a means to feed and clothe myself.

I still yearn to be somewhere else – yet I have no means of knowing how to do that. I am waiting for youngest daughter to finish college or Uni and then I will have to think. Fear makes me want to be safe – to be where I know how things work, where I have the NHS, where I have family and friends. But I also have another fear – a fear that somehow this is it – this is my lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful and happy for all that I do have. I know that many people are not as fortunate as we have been. But I want to surprise people – I want to be able to go “Look ! look what I have done!” And I just want my life to be more than general housework interspersed with shopping trips, being a taxi service and dealing with prescriptions.

I don’t want an olive grove in Tuscany any more. But I do want something different – something I can show my teenage self with pride – something to surprise those that love me.