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.

 ***

Random Thoughts: 2013 365 Challenge #249

Random image for random thoughts

Random image for random thoughts

I don’t really have a post topic for today, for the first time in a long time. Ideas have been floating around in my brain, but none have consolidated into a post. This is partly because we walked the dog as a family this evening, rather than just me and my mobile phone (which is when most blog posts are written). Despite little man’s frequent crying fits – a combination of little sleep last night and a long day – it was a lovely walk. We picked and ate blackberries; well worth the sacrifice of a blog post.

So, instead, I thought I’d list the random thoughts, some of which may become blog posts as and when time, sleep and muse are aligned.

1. My son went to Forest school for the first time today. Basically a preschool session held in a local woodland, surrounded by stinging nettles and with no facilities, it’s a great opportunity for kids to get outdoors. He didn’t cry and I was very proud. I wish all schools had a classroom in the forest (we actually wanted our kids to go to the school the classroom belongs to, but decided against it because all our daughter’s friends were going to a different one.) In my view children don’t spend enough time outdoors learning how to avoid stinging nettles and discovering which berries they can eat.

2. My daughter had her first proper play-date friend over this afternoon, as one of my baby group mums is suffering – as we are – from the slow start to the school year for our particular school. The children played together brilliantly; much better than they do when all the parents are present. Why do kids feel the need to act up when their parents are watching and behave like angels when they’re not?

3. Related to the above point, I do much of my parenting through the kitchen window these days. It means I can ensure the children’s safety without having to tell them off every five minutes for things that are technically against the rules but harming no one. My kids and the play date friend emptied the sandpit into the paddling pool today – most definitely against the rules. But it’s the end of summer, it was a hot day and they were in the shade, and – best of all – they were co-operating and having fun. Sometimes you have to turn a blind eye to the rule breaking. I think of it like plausible deniability.

4. I went to the doctors today in my on-going saga to understand if I have depression or am merely suffering from exhaustion. The GP I saw was the same one my hubbie saw last week about his anxiety. She was not helpful. The only thing she wanted to do anything about was my hubbie’s snoring: that was something real she could fix. I hate speaking to doctors who don’t understand or refuse to admit that mental illness is as real as diabetes or high blood pressure, even though just as invisible on the outside (although, I admit, harder to measure). She basically told me that I have to get several good nights of sleep “For the sake of my family.” I came away with the impression that I was willfully choosing to get up to the kids in the night and sleep in the same bed as my snoring husband even though it made me a bad wife and mother in the day time. Grrrr. Time to see a different GP.

Oh look, my random thoughts have reached the magical 500 words. Thank you for listening and good night! I’m doing as I am told and going to bed before 11pm 🙂

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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: 

________________________________________________________________________________

Claire read the text message and beamed at the empty dorm room, wanting to share the jest. Trust Conor to have something stupid to say to lighten the heaviness she’d been carrying since Wellington. She looked at the message again, marvelling that Conor’s humour was so like her own.

Thank the lovesick puppy for me; sounds like I’ve got more chance of getting you to work for me now. Nothing will send you home quicker than needing to leg it from a clingy bloke with baggage.

It seemed strange to think she would be back in the UK in a couple of weeks, or that it had only been three weeks since her interview for the Dorset job. Her time away felt crammed with a lifetime of experiences.

I suppose something good came of losing my best friend: I would never have run away to New Zealand if Kim hadn’t accused me of killing her baby.

The thought set her heart hammering, and she realised it wasn’t something she could joke about, even in her own mind. What if she had caused the miscarriage, by letting slip Kim’s news to Michael? Suddenly all the lightness slipped away and her mind returned to the dark.

And now I have needy Josh, my new shadow, as penance. I guess I deserve it. Thou shalt not covet another woman’s husband and all that. Just as I was horrified that Kim was throwing her career away for a baby. Why do my stupid thoughts have to come back to bite me.

“Claire?”

Looking up at the door, Claire exhaled at the sight of Bethan. She didn’t want Josh cornering her in an empty room.

“There you are. It’s time to go kayaking, if you’re still coming? Some of the guys are catching the taxi boat, but I want to have a go out on the water.”

Claire stuffed her phone in her bag and nodded. “I’m coming.” She shouldered the rucksack and followed Bethan from the room.

“What were you doing by yourself in there, anyway? Texting loverboy? He’s waiting for you downstairs.” Bethan grinned.

Claire merely rolled her eyes.

*

Claire twisted her fingers while the tour guide allocated them into pairs for the double kayaks they would paddle down the coast. She shuffled nearer to Bethan, conscious of Josh sidling up on her other side. Claire tried to exude her best ‘I’m invisible do not speak to me’ vibe, that she used to use on the Metro. It didn’t work.

The guide, a tanned woman in her twenties, looked directly at them. “You, Bethan? You can come with me. Claire, is it? You’re with Josh. Simon and Lee, you two are together, and, Sally was it? You’re with Matt.”

Claire swore under her breath, conscious of Josh grinning behind her. Bethan threw her an apologetic look and went to stand by the tour guide.

“Why are you avoiding me, Claire?” Josh spoke quietly into her ear, making her shiver. “I’m not about to force myself on you. If you’re not interested, that’s fine, although I must have got my wires crossed.”

The hurt in his voice made her heart clench and she turned to say something, but he was already striding towards their kayak. Her mind churned with conflicting emotions. This Josh confused her, but she couldn’t deny she was still attracted to him. Maybe Bethan was right, perhaps she should let down her guard and see what happened. Or at least try and talk to him, tell him to go back to Fiona. What did she really want? And what was right?

With a sigh, she crossed the sand towards the craft waiting by the water. Blind to the beauty of the sparkling sea, the endless white sand, she took a deep breath and pushed her shoulders back.

It feels like my job in life is to reunite this man with his family.

***