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.

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Being a Square Peg in a Square Hole.

Conformity. From an early age it is something we are taught – to fit in, to be like others, to want to be like others. Society operates that way. It works on our deep-seated desire to belong, to act in a certain way, to meet approval , to want what we see is desirable that others have, or to own the things society expects us to have. A home, perhaps a car, a job – children maybe. It is a form of control, without which, I suppose, life as we know it wouldn’t function.

The majority of teens, today, will follow a pattern – hair styles that are deemed on trend, clothing from popular chain stores – nothing too ‘out there’, make-up inspired by YouTubers and of course the ubiquitous Sports logos. If you follow these rules you fit in. Those who don’t, risk the ridicule and suspicion of their peers. A sad but true fact. And many of us, as parents, buy into that need because we remember times when we, ourselves, didn’t fit in at one point and how that made us feel.

In my teenage years there was a trend to be ‘alternative’, which of course by becoming a trend, wasn’t at all. Depending on who you hung out with, you conformed. A punk rocker sitting in a pub on the King’s Road, London would barely have raised an eyebrow – but walking down a suburban high street may have rustled many a feather. Maybe you belonged to a group of Goths in your local town – but still you conformed to the group. To truly rebel you would have to have gone out with your black-eyed, spikey-haired friends, as a Nick Haywood/ Simon Le Bon look-alike to the local Goth drinking hole !

I am aware that I have always modified my behaviour, desires or appearance to fit in with others. Having to wear spectacles from the age of 6 to 13 was a huge dent in my confidence. I hated being ‘Four-Eyes’. When I hit my 13th Birthday I was told I could have contact lenses. Not the soft, comfortable sorts we wear today but lumps of glass that took forever to get used to. But it didn’t matter. I felt normal again.

School crazes are also part of this need to belong. When I was 8 we had a bizarre class craze of using Vicks inhalers. We would sit there unscrewing the things, sticking them up our nostrils then putting them back in our pockets or pencil cases – all day long !

Throughout my school life, there was always the girl that wore the best version of the school uniform, that I wanted to emulate. The hue and thread of the pullover would be slightly different, the skirt would be perfectly fashionable, the shirt collar just that little bit trendier than most school shirts. The rest of us would be playing catch-up.

Nowadays, I try to pretend not to bother about trends or brands, but I can’t help but get a feeling of gleeful satisfaction if I am bought something that modern society has declared desirable – a pair of Ugg boots or a Jo Malone perfume, or I treat myself to a lipstick from a high-end cosmetic company. It feels special. I feel I have bought a little piece of belonging to a different lifestyle. I remember my first pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. They felt so good. I wore them with pride, happy to show off the logo. That sense of belonging to something better. Weird and somewhat embarrassing to admit !

In many ways, though, my life has not conformed. I dropped out of university. I married a foreigner. I have never had to worry about rent or a mortgage and I think that, in turn, has made me less ambitious. I turn my nose up at spending money on bettering our home and prefer, instead, to spend money on a holiday every year, much to my Dad’s bemusement as he observes the state of our kitchen floor and misted double-glazing.

Sometimes, I wish my home life and marriage was more like others. But of course we all think that. We all have the version we present to the outside world and the truthful reality, with all its nuances, known only to the people involved. And life has shown me that there is no right or wrong way to conduct a relationship, as long as both parties are happy.

It takes bravery and supreme self-confidence to truly buck the trend of ‘normal’ living – to not care what people think of you and your choices – to know that all that matters is that you believe in you – to not seek the approval of others. I still find myself wanting to be a people-pleaser and to fit in, but age and experience now allow me to feel more comfortable in my choices and not to make it my goal in life.

It’s OK to be different.

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.

Russian Dolls and Parties.

Russian Dolls. I have a small collection of them. I love their colourful designs and themes. The fact they contain smaller, sometimes different versions of their outside shell, that can’t be seen, unless we take the time to open them. Some have as few as 3 pieces and others have as many as ten or more – each one beautiful but slightly different. Some are simpler in their design as each doll reveals itself and they become smaller. Others have an unvarnished, unpainted wooden exterior, embellished with a little gold -yet when they are opened the ones inside are painted in vibrant colours. All rather like people, I think.

People are complicated and rarely do we get to see the smallest, simplest versions of them. It requires time and effort on both sides. We need to listen and observe more in order to see beyond the exterior. For our own part, there is also a freedom in allowing our inner versions to be exposed. But it requires honesty and bravery.

Age gives us the confidence to be more honest. On the one hand I can easily stand up in front of a hall full of people and speak or read and even enjoy doing so, but as my friends now well know, I find parties very difficult. At this point in my life, I find it stressful having to socialise with lots of people. The woman who happily exchanges smalltalk with the public at work or at the checkout in the supermarket, really dislikes social occasions doing the same thing. I love just being at home. I talk a lot at work and I like peace, quiet, comfy clothes and my own company in my free time.

The whole getting ready to go to a party has become stressful. I can guarantee that any outfit I have planned to wear will look dreadful on the night and I end up with a bedroom littered with clothes and a longing to stay at home. I feel bad-tempered and hijacked. Even the anticipation of this feeling increases my anxiety. When and if I finally get to the party I wonder when it would be polite to leave. It sounds ungrateful and unfriendly, I know.

I feel the same about committing to going out as a group in the evening too – in fact any social arrangement involving a group of people. However much I love those I am supposed to be meeting, when a ‘night out’ is arranged, I can’t get enthusiastic about it. Dread would be too strong a word, but In the past I have been thankful for reasons not to attend. Putting that into words seems shocking but I have become protective of my ‘Me’ time.

One day, as an evening out was being arranged, I finally decided to be honest with my work colleagues. I admitted how I felt and asked if it would be ok if I decided on the day whether to go or not. Their complete understanding warmed my heart. Now when booking a table they always call me a “maybe” -but say that it will be lovely if I do come – and with that freedom I mostly do – and I have a great time.

Knowing that friends understand if I don’t attend has made life much easier. By peeling back a layer I may have made myself appear more vulnerable – weird even – but I have removed a source of stress from my life and I feel closer to the people I have shared that with.