The Invisible Illness

I am not going to take my own life.

I say this to myself every day. Like an alcoholic choosing not to drink.

But I want to talk about it. If it’s going to be upsetting to you then, please, re-read the first sentence, and then perhaps give this post a miss.

Mental illness is talked about now. Suicide isn’t always seen as the coward’s way out. There is recognition that it’s an illness. But it still isn’t, and perhaps never will be, understood.

Because it is invisible.

Cancer. That’s another big killer. You can see cancer. You can see shadows on an x-ray. You can tell someone is doing battle by their scars: the hair loss, the weight loss. The look in their eye that says, ‘I’m going to beat this bastard, you see.’

And I’ve known people that did beat it. And some that didn’t.

But here’s the thing. It’s an ‘it’. It’s an intruder. It’s visible.

With depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, despair, ennui, whatever you want to call it, it’s ‘you’. It’s not ‘other’. It’s there inside your head. It sounds like you, thinks like you, it can control your emotions. It can make you cry uncontrollably. It can make you feel sick and shaky at the thought of dinner with friends. It can make you look at the river, every single time you walk past it with the dogs, and say, ‘Well, why not?’ So that the other you – and we all have several voices that chat in our heads, right? – the other you has to say, ‘SHUT UP. Don’t be so fucking melodramatic. I’ve got this. I don’t need to lie down and not get up.’

But imagine having to have chemo every day, with no one having a clue, not even nurses. Imagine that, on the occasions you wanted to say to someone, ‘Chemo makes me vomit, makes my hair fall out and my skin smell of chemicals and it’s horrid,’ but actually what you want to say is, ‘I see no point in living, I get up every day because I have to. I love my family, but that doesn’t fill the darkness inside. I stay because I know they would blame me if I went, but I just want to sleep and never wake up.’ Yeah, I can see how that would go. Selfish, much? Or, my favourite, ‘we all have days like that.’

Did you ever say to someone having chemo, ‘yeah, I had it yesterday, it’s a bitch right?’

My dad had chemo. He fought cancer and beat it. But he died anyway, of septicaemia. But do you know what I think actually finished him? He lost the will to live. Literally. It’s complicated, and it hurts to think of it, but certain events in the weeks before he died made me think that he had just had enough.

I know three people (or three people that have told me) that have lost loved ones to suicide. And I’ve heard that confusion, betrayal, despair. The, ‘Why didn’t they just ask for help?’ The heartrending, ‘What could I have done? Why did they leave when people loved them?’

I’ve felt some of that with Dad. I should have been there that weekend, when he got pneumonia. I mean, I actually should have been there, but we changed our plans. I’d meant to buy him a heater for his room, but for some reason (too expensive?) I didn’t. I didn’t find out he had died for two days. It took me years to get over that guilt. But I never once thought, ‘Why did he give up, he had family that loved him.’

Because the thing is, when it comes down to it, it’s just you and the illness. You’re not thinking in big pictures. Love can feel like a burden, because it’s anchoring you to a place you don’t want to be. When you drag yourself out of bed every day, to give yourself to others, in search of meaning, or out of duty, the love gets twisted, lost.

I’m better if I’m busy. If I don’t give the thoughts room to talk and grow and suffocate me, I can reach contentment. But, here’s the kicker: my illness makes work very difficult. I am easily overwhelmed. Noise can flip me over the edge. If I get tired, I get emotional and say things I shouldn’t to people that don’t forgive (or don’t know). I’ve had two ‘proper’ jobs in my life and I left them both because of my mental health. And so I’m frightened to go back.

Job adverts are all about ‘resilience’. I looked up resilience yesterday. It literally means, ‘to bounce back’. Well, I do that every time I have a panic attack. It takes a day or so, but I bounce back and get on with life. But it doesn’t just mean that, not in a workplace.

I read this interesting article – from 2002 but still relevant – How Resilience Works, from the Harvard Business Review.

resilience

The article cites three things required for resilience. 1. Facing down reality (basically not being overly optimistic). 2. The search for meaning (seeing life as part of a bigger picture). 3. Ritualised ingenuity (the ability to make-do with what’s around you to solve problems).

I’m pretty good at one and three, but two is a problem. I highlighted this quote:

“[M]eaning making is, most researchers agree, the way resilient people build bridges from present-day hardships to a fuller, better constructed future. Those bridges make the present manageable, for lack of a better word, removing the sense that the present is overwhelming.

The present is overwhelming. Yes, that’s it. I see no future without depression, no future where I’m not battling every day to find a reason to keep fighting, and so every day is overwhelming.

I then found a more recent article by the Harvard Business Review on Resilience, from 2016, (I told you it was the key term for business) called, Resilience is About how you recharge, not how you endure. It starts by explaining that resilience shouldn’t be about how long we fight, but how quickly we recover.

We often take a militaristic, “tough” approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be.

The reason I left both my ‘proper’ jobs, the reason they broke me, was because they were relentless. Long days, high stress, lack of support, and an expectation that you were never ill. Leaving at 5pm was called a ‘half-day’. That was a decade ago, and I know (apparently) things are better now. But it’s still frightening. I once had a boss tell me to take a couple of days ‘to get a better attitude’ after I’d lost it at him. Turns out, he was on the money. I went hiking in the Lakes and came back rejuvenated. But the ‘get a better attitude’ part has stuck with me ever since. It was my lack, my failing, that was the problem, my inability to stand the pace.

The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again.

We are beginning to understand this. It used to be called a duvet day, which sounds terribly indulgent. Now it’s called self-care. It amounts to the same thing. Switching off. Literally. Turning off the phone, crawling into whatever space makes you feel safe, and disconnecting.

The danger for a depressive, however, is that’s the space where the voices hide. Lying in bed because you can’t function as a normal human being isn’t always restorative. So another kicker for resilience.

There are two memes on Facebook that I love at the moment:

jomo

I did this last night. Although joy is the wrong word. But I stayed in as a form of self-care. I had FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) too, because I’d been looking forward to dinner with my friends. But I turned off my phone, so I wouldn’t see all the WhatsApp messages, and I looked after myself.

The other one is key, though:

fien

My son asks me every five minutes if I’m ‘okay’ especially when I’m clearly not. I say, ‘I’m fine’ to reassure him. Yesterday I had to say, ‘I’m not fine, but I’ll be okay, please can you stop asking.’ Thankfully he’s the most emotionally mature eight-year-old and he understood.

Sometimes ‘Fine’ is the best answer I have. Because people don’t want to hear the truth or they’ve heard the truth so many times it gets tedious, or they feel helpless because they know they can’t make it better. People like to fix things. People like to fix people. It isn’t always possible.

When I explained to my friends last night, they were the perfect friends. “Tough” one response said, “You’ll be missed”. As in, we know it’s tough but we understand, and we won’t stop asking you to come but we won’t pressure you either. Perfect. It’s taken a long time to find friends like those, because anxiety doesn’t leave much room for friends.

Anyway, today is a new day. I am resilient. I bounce back. Thanks to those friends I have a plan, a future I can prepare for, that will help with the overwhelming now. I battle on.

But the next time you hear someone say a suicide is ‘the easy way out’ or ‘selfish’ or ‘cowardly’, send them my way, and I’ll give them some context.

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Definitely Drowning

It turns out teaching is a bit like parenting, once you make your announcement, people can’t wait to tell you how dreadful it will be.

Only whereas, as a not-yet-parent, I could dismiss all the scaremongering and doomsaying, now I know better. Parenting has taken me to edges I didn’t know were there and left me drained, frightened and unsure of everything.

Not a great position from which to make a great leap forward.

Yesterday I had my compulsory ‘Safeguarding Children’ training that I need as an invigilator. Only this time I listened with increasing horror as teachers swapped stories about neglect and abuse. One or two ‘examples’ of neglect – such as letting a child watch videos late at night – made me question my own parenting.

And then the lovely teacher delivering the training explained that, as adults working with children, we can be held personally liable for a failure to report or disclose a concern. Suddenly I felt like I was standing on a sea wall facing a tsunami.

But I know my anxious brain magnifies worries and turns everything into the monster under the bed. So I went to talk to the charismatic teacher, who clearly loved his job, despite everything he’d been sharing. Tell me about teaching, I pleaded, everything I’ve read and heard makes it sound terrifying. And he said it was rewarding, and gruelling and disheartening and very hard work.

And then he said, ‘As long as you can engage with the students, you’re fine.’

I’m screwed.

I’m the least-engaging person I know. People confuse me, and I spend most of my time trying to second-guess what they’re thinking and feeling. Which I don’t even get right with my family most of the time, so goodness knows how I’ll manage with hormonal teenagers.

My husband’s very pragmatic – take it one day at a time, it’ll be fine. But so far I dipped my toe in the idea of teaching and got swept out to sea. And you have to ask, if they’re so desperate to drag you in with mentors and bursaries and personal plans, what are they not telling you?

Working as a train driver is starting to sound appealing.

Waving Not Drowning

Hellooo! I can’t believe another month has blustered by in a swirl of dead leaves, and still I haven’t blogged. Rubbish. I feel like I’m strapped to a dinghy and I’m travelling down a grade five river, out of control with too much sensory input and not enough breath to scream.

Well, actually that’s all a bit melodramatic, but I’ve been gorging on Sky Arts painting programmes as better for my mental health than murder-mysteries, and the language is quite hyperbolic and addictive. They’re always looking for the bold and innovative and brave (the opposite of little guinea pig me, darting at shadows).

That said, I’m making decisions that will shape mine and my family’s future, so hyperbole is perhaps not misplaced. And actually it started with the art programmes. Having decided that my 42-year-old brain couldn’t handle learning C and Python, I was back to square one. I decided to brush up my Microsoft skills, since I find excel fun to use, and needed a backdrop to drown out noisy neighbours. So Sky Arts.

I watched Portrait Artist of the Year, Landscape Artist of the Year, and The Big Painting Challenge. And remembered how much I love art and how I should have done that instead of History. To cut a long story short I investigated all possibilities of doing A Level or Foundation Art, with a view to teaching, and realised it was too expensive.

But teaching has floated as an idea since forever. Dismissed because I don’t do people, and fifty-hour weeks trigger my anxiety. But so did the idea of going back into an office environment. What to do?

Suddenly I’d applied to observe lessons in a school (next week!), with a view to teaching English (obvious really), and now I’m on a crazy train of potentially starting Teacher Training next September. How did that happen? No idea.

Which is all good, except I’m still typing, invigilating, have an author event this Saturday, and a karate exam the following weekend. And Christmas, which any mum with school kids knows, is a full-time job for the next four weeks of carols, fetes and fun stuff (for them!)

Cue panic city.

So I had this crazy idea of increasing the dose of my marvellous anti-anxiety meds. Except I forgot the first week of change is hell. I feel sick, woozy, jittery and basically a little surreal. Idiot. I’m working on Friday and right now it’s a challenge to get out of bed at 5am to let the pup out. But I recently read this quote from the artist O’Keeffe (one of the class names at my kids’ school which are all named after artists) and I try to keep it in mind.

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

Bravery is my watchword right now. I entered the karate championships two weeks ago and not only did I win two trophies, I discovered I rather enjoy sparring, even if it means getting bopped in the face. For someone who can’t stand physical contact much of the time that’s a little bizarre, or maybe that’s what gives me the edge to defend myself. Who knew!

And the author event gives me the heebees but what is there to lose? And I might sell a few books. So teacher training could just be the next big adventure. As long as I get through the psychedelic weirdness of upping the meds. I’ll let you know!

Dependence before Independence?

It’s 4am and the puppy just woke up. She’s crying and I know that a) she needs a wee and b) if I don’t go soon not only will I have extra laundry, but she will have woken up the kids.

That’s fine. Parenting is about getting up in the night. The problem is I also know I won’t make it back to bed. Because once she’s done her business, she won’t go back in her crate without protest. And by protest I mean yelping, crying and rattling at the gate until it sounds like armageddon.

We’re on dog two. We know the rules. Ignore them when they cry and they stop. And we did. A bit. She goes in her crate at bedtime without crying now. But the mornings are different.

Firstly, I’m not so great at 4am. I go from calm to banshee really quickly. When I threatened (in hyperbole I hasten to add) to drown or sell her, I knew it wasn’t working. That whine, man, it’s like a chainsaw to the nerves pre-dawn.

Secondly, I’m not the only one who becomes vile on too little sleep. A couple of weeks ago I left the puppy crying and took off to the outside room, where I couldn’t hear her. I slept beautifully for a couple more hours, but awoke to carnage. The whole house was up, poo everywhere, tempers frayed. It took days for husband and kids to recover.

It was the same when my youngest child was born. My eldest was a light sleeper then, and only 19 months old, so whenever the baby cried he was instantly hushed. I spent the next five years dealing with the consequences. Even now I wonder if I caused his separation anxiety by trying to protect the family’s sleep/sanity.

And there’s the rub. At 4am, when I’m taking one for the team, I’m also telling myself what a terrible parent/dog owner I am. Creating a needy, spoilt puppy whilst also creating a grumpy exhausted me.

My only salvation is something a therapist said to me once. I wasn’t there for parenting advice, but it was the only good thing about the whole experience, since they did more harm than good for the thing I was there for. Anyway, the advice was ‘Dependence before Independence’. A child has to learn to trust you before they can leave you. A child has to know you’ll be there no matter what.

That phrase has been our parenting mantra. For every 3am cuddle, for every event left early or extra five minutes spent saying goodbye. It helped me too, because nothing triggers my anxiety like having a screaming child dragged from my arms, no matter how well-intentioned. I’ve had stern words with teachers and left childcare institutions that insisted my child was crying ‘crocodile tears’. I believed in my mantra.

And it’s worked, with the kids. My timid frightened children are now pulling away, finding their wings, choosing to forge their own path, without being shoved. They go on camp and sleepovers and run happily into school without a backward glance. And my sanity has remained intact.

Time will tell if it holds true for puppies.

The Problem of Potential

As I was sitting in the coffee shop yesterday, knitting (which is the new writing, don’t you know), I couldn’t help but overhear two concerned mums talking about their children’s schooling. It was a long conversation, and a private one, but the gist was very much balancing the achievement of potential with happiness.

By the time I got home, I had a splitting headache that left me zoned out for the rest of the day. It was only this morning that I realised why – the conversation triggered my anxiety. Because it is the crux of everything, isn’t it?

We spend our lives balancing survival with living. Making a wage with enjoying our money. Trading wishes for shoulds and back again. Behind it all is this constant message that we have to be the best person we can be. The richest, thinnest, most successful, happiest, living in the most tasteful house, watching the right movies, reading the edifying books, eating healthy nutritional sugar-free meals.

No one can live with the pressure of that.

It certainly drives me loopy. I know I’m a talented artist, a creative knitter, a reasonable writer. I know I was a good Marketing Manager, clever with numbers, a quick grasp of strategy, calm in a crisis. But I excel at none of those things: none of them are a driving passion that make me want to be the best at them. I flit from one to the other like a distracted five-year-old. And the guilt of not fulfilling my potential in any of those areas, never mind all of them, leaves me exhausted and incapable of achieving anything.

If I paint a nice picture, the advice is that it should become my future: selling cards on Etsy, perhaps, or painting commissions. Except if I paint when it isn’t for someone I care about, it’s no fun. And there’s no money in it. Ditto knitting. Ditto anything that isn’t to make someone happy, or to receive praise (we won’t go into how wrong that is as a motivation).

I achieved at school. I had straight As pretty much across the board. A first class degree. A Masters. I aced exams. I worked hard. It was all I knew, and I enjoyed it. I wasn’t trying to reach a certain goal – the doing was enough. The grade in itself was the reward. I wasn’t aiming for a good university or a specific career. But my success set an expectation of fulfilling my potential (to the point where I nearly got suspended for a week the first and only time I got caught smoking on site, because I was ‘setting a bad example’.)

No one could tell me what that ‘potential’ was, though, or what it was for. Only that I had to fulfil it.

And now I clean poop for a living. I muck out the guinea pigs and the hamster, pick up after the dog, wipe the kids’ bums. I cook and clean. Iron. Moan and whinge about it. Not exactly fulfilling the potential of all those qualifications. But it’s the guilt and frustration of that, rather than the chores themselves, that makes me unhappy. I love my guinea pigs, hamster, dog, kids, husband. I love my messy house and free life. And I’m not sure I know what ‘more’ looks like.

I follow Matt Haig on Twitter and Facebook. If you haven’t come across him, he is a best-selling author who is honest about his struggle with anxiety. At New Year he tweeted a succession of messages that have stuck with me (see the image above). I love this one particularly (and the Russian Doll one).

His message is powerful, and came at a perfect time for me, when the New Year Resolutions were insisting on improvement. But we are not iPhones. We don’t need an upgrade every few months. We are not Russian dolls with better versions of ourselves hidden inside. We are ourselves. We don’t need to fulfil our potential, we need to live the lives we choose to live, without worrying what other people think of us. There is no test at the end of life. Assuming there are pearly gates, or whatever version of nirvana you believe in, no one is going to say, ‘You never achieved a size ten / perfect grades / ….’ If there is a test, it is going to be, ‘Were you nice to people? Were you happy? Do you have regrets?’

Of course, this post is the exact opposite of my last one, which ended with a desire for motivation, for ‘smashing every expectation’. Life is a dichotomy. It’s precisely that contradiction, both for me and the choices I make for my children, that gave me a twenty-four hour stress headache. To ensure we don’t coast through life without a sense of achievement, but are not pushed to achieve beyond the point of happiness. To make sure the children don’t struggle at school, but to know that exam results aren’t all that important in the grand opera of life. To know that I can run to feel better inside but I don’t have to have the discipline of Jessica Ennis-Hill. To know that I want to be a best-selling author, but I perhaps don’t have the drive or emotional fortitude to get rejected thirty times.

Sanity lies in finding the balance between motivation and the endless drive for perfection. Between fulfilling your potential for you, and doing what the world expects of you.

If you figure out where that path is, I would love to know! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some final Matt  Haig advice:

“Be happy with your own self, minus upgrades. Stop dreaming of imaginary goals and finishing lines. Accept what marketing doesn’t want you to: you are fine. You lack nothing.”  Matt Haig

 

 

Medicate Me: Day 22

Outdoor painting

Outdoor painting

I don’t really want to write this, after my positivity a week ago, but arrgghh. That’s all I can say. As I approach my monthly cycle the drugs are no longer controlling my mood swings. I’m irritable and sad and low. The kids are grating on me as if my skin has been scraped off by a potato peeler.

The side effects of the medication are starting to drive me potty. The yawning fits that go on for twenty minutes until my lungs and jaw ache. The fidgeting and nervous energy in my limbs that makes me unable to sit or lie still. The dry mouth, blurred vision and now floaters which dart across my sight and haunt me like flies round cattle. (The optician says they’re not because of the meds but old age which, at 37, increases my depression. I do wonder if the meds have made me more aware of them, though.)

And, without wanting to give too much information, the sweating. Yuk. It’s still spring and it’s awful, what will it be like in summer? I have mini anxiety attacks and palpitations. And did I mention the floaters? Imagine having several black flies constantly moving across your line of sight. I want to claw my eyes out. All in all I feel trapped in myself and trapped by the meds, knowing I’m on them for six months. Jittery, lethargic and snappish is not an improvement on exhaustion and rage. I’m as unhappy in my body now as I was in my mind before, and the attraction of ending the misery is almost as compelling.

I’m booked in to see the doctor next week. This no longer feels like I’ve been thrown a lifeline. More that I’ve been dragged into a different but equally cold and choppy ocean. I’m just as close to drowning, I just seem to care less. Sigh. I suppose nothing worthwhile is ever easy and life is just hard. I must not give in to those thoughts though as they fuel my belief that there’s not much to live for. Time to just keep swimming.

Breaking Point: 2013 365 Challenge #262

Daddy saves the day

Daddy saves the day

Attempting to plait my daughter’s hair this morning was the proverbial last straw. Her hair was shiny from washing and she has a double crown. It’s had me swearing most days since she started school as she’s never worn her hair tied back before and I’m rubbish at plaiting someone else’s hair (especially a wriggly child).

Today I lost it. Full on panic attack, sobbing, hysterics the works. Bless my amazing family: hubbie did the plait, son gave pats and leg cuddles and daughter said repeatedly, “It’s okay Mummy.” However much I worry about the impact my hormonal instability has on my children, there’s no doubt it’s taught them empathy.

It’s also taught them blindness to difference, in a way. Mummy’s behaviour is normal to them, so if they encounter anyone having an episode, be it panic attack, asthma attack or emotional breakdown, they’re likely to remain calm. That counts for something, right?

Given that they’re likely to inherit an element of serotonin imbalance from their parents, hopefully they’ve also learned to give themselves a break: to let it pass and get on with their day as I had to do, with hubbie off to an interview, two kids to drop off and pick up from different places and a birthday party to prepare for.

Self awareness is a blessing and a curse and I’m not entirely sure my kids will thank me for introducing them to it early. But there’s no doubt it’s easier dealing with a toddler tantrum when it comes with “Mummy, I’m sad because…” rather than just screaming rage.

Only time will tell whether that helps in the teenage years. I try not to think about the future too much. So far parenting has got harder rather than easier and nothing I’ve read lets me believe for a minute that that pattern is going to change. Although, maybe at least one day I’ll learn to plait hair. ________________________________________________________________________________

Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:  ________________________________________________________________________________

“Are you okay, Claire?”

Claire opened her eyes and looked at Bethan, before closing them tight again.

“No.”

Around them, the aircraft vibrated as it climbed into the clouds. The man behind Claire kept checking an altimeter in his hand and providing a running commentary.

“Ten thousand feet … eleven thousand feet …twelve thousand feet …”

Claire wished he would stop.

“Remind me why I let you talk me into this?” She yelled above the noise of the engines.

“So you could impress your new boss.” Bethan yelled back.

“Maybe I could just buy him a beer?” Claire thought about it some more. “I’ve already done grade five water rafting, hiked across a glacier and kayaked with seals. This probably wasn’t necessary.”

“But just think how cool you’ll look. It was this or the bungee jump.”

Claire’s stomach lurched at the idea. For some reason jumping out of a plane at fifteen thousand feet seemed an easier option than throwing herself off a bridge with a piece of elastic tied to her ankles. This way, at least it wouldn’t actually be her doing the jumping. She was pretty certain the burly blonde man designated her tandem partner would make sure she didn’t chicken out.

“Fifteen thousand feet,” the man announced on cue. “Time to get ready, ladies.”

Claire looked around the cabin at the other passengers. She seemed to be the only one not grinning. Even the seventy-year-old grannie was peering through the open doorway with interest. Maybe you worried less about dying when you’d lived more of your life.

It was the grannie that had swung it, in the end. Bethan’s entreaties had fallen on deaf ears. She’d let herself be talked into the heli-hike and, although it had been beautiful, she wasn’t sure it had been worth the money. This was equally expensive, especially with the extra for the photographic evidence, and Claire was pretty certain she was going to enjoy it a lot less. Then the old lady had turned up, and shame had taken over.

Claire felt numb as she followed the burly man’s instructions, listening intently as he ran though again how she had to hold her arms and what she needed to do on landing.

Then, before she knew what was happening, a body plummeted from the plane. Claire’s heart skipped and her instinct was to reach out and grab at the disappearing figure. Then another person fell, and she realised they had started to jump. Her stomach knotted tight and she thought she might be sick.

One by one the passengers disappeared from view at incredible speed until she was the last one left.

“Let me go back down in the aircraft, I’ve changed my mind.” She could feel the blood draining from her face and wondered if the man would still jump if she passed out.

“Sorry, chick, there’s only one way down. You’ll be fine, no worries.”

He shoved her towards the gaping hole, and Claire just had time to register the blue of the lake and the blend of green and white of mountains before air was rushing past her and she was falling.

Shock pushed all the air from her lungs and she gasped, unable to breathe. The wind pulled at her cheeks and the cold burned her skin. Claire barely registered the ground leaping up to meet her or the other skydivers around them, until her host tapped her on the arm and she looked over to where he pointed.

Falling alongside them was the camera girl. She waved and gave a thumbs up. Claire tried to smile but her face was frozen in a mask of fear.

The camera girl circled them, taking pictures, before changing her body position so she could dive to the next person and photograph them. Part of Claire’s brain marvelled at her casual ease, as if she were walking across a garden rather than plummeting at 200km an hour through the sky.

A sudden jolt told Claire the parachute had opened. She watched as other chutes opened beneath her. She could see some of the people swinging from side to side, spinning in spirals down to the lake. It looked like fun. She waited for her host to do the same, but he didn’t.

Still breathless and panting, she was unable to ask him why they were falling so sedately. Disappointment clouded her vision and she looked at the view below through jaded eyes. Her host clearly thought she was having a panic attack and wanted to get her to the ground quickly and gently.

She wanted to explain she was fine, that it was only the shock of the jump that had stopped her breathing, but there wasn’t time. The land once more rushed up to meet them, and before she knew what was happening, it was time to lift her feet up and let the man land.

Sadness fought with exhilaration and, eventually, elation won.

“That was amazing! I want to go again, now!” Claire looked around for someone to hug, and saw Bethan running towards her.

“Aren’t you glad you did it? How awesome was that? Especially the spinning at the end.”

Claire’s face fell. “I didn’t get to do that, I think Muscles over there thought I was too scared.” She saw Bethan frown, and realised she was being a killjoy. “But, oh my goodness, it was brilliant. Thank you so much for convincing me to do it.”

They walked arm in arm to return their kit and watch the video. Claire wondered how she would drop it into conversation with Conor that she had jumped from an aircraft at fifteen thousand feet. She wondered if he would be impressed.

 ***