Anger management

This is going to be a hard post for me to write, I suspect. But you know I’ve never shied away from looking myself in the eye and critically assessing my emotions and behaviour. And when there’s a Big Thing going on in the background, it’s kinda tricky to honestly and engagingly write about anything else. So I’m just gonna blog this one out. Be patient with me, gentle reader.

So. This is the thing. [Deep breath]. I lose my temper.

OK, I can hear a chorus of wry guffaws from other mums there. We all lose our rag, I know that. It ain’t pretty, but it happens. Sometimes our reaction is out of proportion to the crime committed. Often, we feel bad and guilty afterwards. But I’m not just talking about ‘normal’ exhausted mummy roaring when the smalls or their father have just tipped you over the edge. I’m talking about a truly disproportionate, terrifying fury that is extremely scary for everyone involved, including me. I’m talking about Losing It. ‘Seeing Red’, like Lucy, the little girl in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Magic Finger’, who finds sparks flying out of her fingers when she gets cross. Being out of control. Anger that bubbles up from deep inside, on a rush of adrenaline, and then explodes with little warning, leaving everyone traumatised, and weeks or months of relationship flotsam and jetsam to mop up. magic finger

Last May I wrote (Moodswings to the Max) about how hard I was finding it on the Tamoxifen I have to take for a total of five years to prevent my particularly aggressive, hormonally-linked form of breast cancer from coming back. I admitted that I was being a nightmare to live with, very up and down, and had on occasion gone off on one with people I love. I was still in that state, though, and not really ready or able to see things clearly.

What’s changed now is that after those horrendous first nine months or so on this powerful medication, I really did settle down, and the mood swings disappeared. And then something weird happened at the start of this year: I started to feel happy. Truly, peacefully, content. It started on a Thursday morning, on the way back from the school run. I was in the car, close to home, and suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as bliss. Like all the love in the world was available to me, and like I could only conceive of expressing myself in loving ways. I know this sounds extraordinary, but that’s how it was.

And it didn’t go away. I had nearly two months of feeling completely marvellous. Work was effortless, and fulfilling; my relationships with DH, my children, my family and friends were relaxed, and loving, and joyful. Nothing really wound me up; I didn’t sweat the small stuff. I stopped worrying about things I couldn’t change. My inner sea was calm, and I was cheerful. I also experienced what I can only describe as compassion for the first time. For someone who has spent much of her adult life in various states of anxiety, depression, resentment and martyrdom, it was a revelation. This was how good life could be, with not a single thing changing other than my outlook! And it was easy, and unconscious! I was happy. Seriously, how cool is that?

All of which loveliness made it even more shocking when a few Saturdays ago, out of the blue, I EXPLODED with anger at a family dinner. No-one saw it coming, least of all me. It was like I was watching myself. I went ballistic, about a small thing, that had always mildly irritated me in the past but which I had never mentioned. I stood up. I shouted. I gesticulated. Doors were slammed. The row escalated – fire was met with fire – and then very soon afterwards I started to feel a terrible sense of remorse, horror, and utter worthlessness. It felt like I had smashed something really precious. I felt utterly drained, wrung out, and like I didn’t want to exist. My thoughts were scrambled.

And then endless apologising, and the validity of the thing I had been trying to communicate negated entirely by the manner in which I delivered it. There were mutterings about me needing to see a doctor, and even mental illness. And then I felt very flat, and very low, for a few days. So sorry. So disappointed and frustrated that I had shattered my own state of calm and happiness. So conscious that the relationships involved would take a long time to get back to normal.

And then I realised that this was the third time since starting on the Tamox that I had done this. There have now been three separate occasions, all with close (safe?) family members, where I’ve been annoyed about some relatively minor bit of behaviour for a while, and then the next time it happens, BOOM. Pinchy, having never mentioned that she was irritated by this behaviour before, throws a grenade into the room. Friendly fire is always the most shocking. There have also been other occasions with acquaintances where I’ve suddenly gone from being Mrs Nice Guy (with a particularly rubbish cleaner, with a jobsworth postman, with a nosy neighbour) to being the Crazy Angry Lady.

And I can only see this now. It’s so obvious, in retrospect, but at the time, on every occasion I really did feel that the other person was to blame, that they had pushed me so far that I had snapped. This gives me hope, actually: I think my Rose Period at the start of the year meant that I was in a good enough place when this last episode happened that I could reflect on and evaluate it in a much more honest way.

Anyway, DH and I went to the doctor (which we both felt was a box-ticking exercise to appease worried family members, to be honest) who was sympathetic, and not at all surprised or concerned given my current chemical make-up. She also cautiously suggested that DH and I go for some joint post-cancer counselling. I have never had any feelings of anger about having had cancer, and feel I’ve dealt fully with my own experience, with outside support in the forms of my wonderful Health Creation Mentor, Kit, and my coach Amanda (not to mention my amazing family and friends). DH has also had his own course of counselling, but we’ve never spoken to anyone together about the hell of 2010-2011. We literally have no idea what the other has gone through. And his tendency to get angry himself when I go off the rails (thus not really helping the situation) may be rooted in his fear of losing me, which we’ve never explored together in a safe place.

I have also taken what feels to me like the most appropriate action: getting some tools under my belt to diffuse anger if and when I feel it brewing. I have just got back from my second cognitive hypnotherapy session with the quite brilliant Teresa Harvey who uses a mix of counselling, hypnotherapy, NLP and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – the ‘tapping’ that you sometimes see Paul McKenna using to help hardwire positive suggestions more effectively). We’ve looked at my memories and experience of anger, in the past and recently. We’ve done some visualisation stuff in a trance state. We’ve looked at how I might, in the future, be able to calm myself down and respond, rather than react, from a calm, assertive, loving place. It’s exhausting work, because I re-experience all the emotions I felt at the time, but it also feels very cleansing, and important, and positive.

So. I wish I could turn back time and not have put my loved ones – or myself – through these episodes. But sometimes things have to get really bad before they get better. Every experience teaches us something valuable. And if I come out of this more able to deal with conflict and my emotions, then that’s got to be a good thing for my children, my marriage, and my relationships with everyone from our parents to our siblings to my best friends to the bloody jobsworth postman. I’ve only got three and a half more years on the Tamoxifen. And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be able to say that I used to lose my temper. And get back to being calm and cheerful again.

Most of the time, anyway: I need to continue to teach my children that experiencing a full range of emotions, positive and negative, is normal and desirable, and it’s how you handle those feelings that counts. Also, I’m not the new Pope, or Buddha, and there’s always going to be some tosser who cuts you up on the roundabout.

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Where have all the cowboys gone?

I’m worried about the boys. Or rather, men. Really, I am. Over the past couple of years, a hefty percentage of the chaps I know, or who are married to people I know, appear to have dived, lemming-like, into what I can only describe as a mid-life crisis of some kind.

I spent a couple of days last week with some amazing women, on a goal-setting day run by our fabulous coach Amanda Alexander. We all run our own small – mostly one-woman-band – businesses. We all have professional backgrounds, some at a very senior corporate level. We all have young children. We’re all planning significant income for the year ahead, some of us into six figures. And as we talked – in the collaborative, open, non-competitive, supportive, sharing, and sometimes emotional way that a group of like-minded women talk – it became clear that most of us had something else in common. Problems with our men.

Between us, the grown-up boys in our lives had been through, or were still going through, a whole smorgasbord of bad stuff, including: anger management issues, depression, unemployment, family illness, and bereavement. Divorce and separation – past or impending – was mentioned by around 50% of our group. Counselling, medication, suspected infidelity, obsessive fitness, expensive new hobbies, and the purchase of powerful motorbikes had all been involved. Other themes included husbands and partner’s disengagement, absence, lack of support for their women and children (whether emotional, financial or in terms of childcare), really quite shit communication skills, emotional constipation, and general flakiness.

Seriously, where's this guy when you need him?

Seriously, where’s this guy when you need him?

And it’s not just this group of women. In conversation with friends, The Trouble With Our Men comes up again and again. But please don’t get the wrong idea, boys: we’re (mostly) not sitting around bitching about how crap you are. We’re properly worried about you. We love you, and we care about you, and we’re worried as wives, as mothers of sons, and as friends of women and men. We’re worried about what these mid-life crises – because this does seem to be happening to a ridiculous amount of men in their late thirties and early forties – mean for you, for us, for our marriages, for our children, and for society.

A couple of months ago I heard that men aged 35-49 are now the highest suicide risk in the UK, according to government figures for 2008-2010. I was saddened, but not at all surprised, by the stats. Men in this age group – our husbands, our children’s fathers – are under an awful lot of pressure. I’m no psychologist or sociologist (or any other ‘ist’, unless you count piss artist), but it seems pretty obvious that men’s place in the world is not as straightforward as it used to be. For a whole load of complex reasons, men are no longer necessarily respected as the head of the family, authority figures, breadwinners (hunter gatherers…). The old testosterone-fuelled ways of running businesses and indeed countries – power, aggression, competition – don’t seem to be working quite as well. They are also expected to step up and achieve their earning potential, be active and involved parents, share the running of the household, be great in bed, and be emotionally intelligent.

I’m being simplistic here, but it seems as if we want men to be softer and more sensitive, and yet we still expect them to be strong. Meanwhile, women are busy changing the world while changing nappies. No wonder men are confused. No wonder they feel rather emasculated. No wonder they need to be in control. No wonder they feel like they ‘can’t do anything right’,  and ‘can’t go on like this’, and ‘need some time out’ and ‘we don’t show them enough affection’. Chuck a recession, job and money worries into the mix, and you’ve got a timebomb on your hands.

In some cases it seems almost like post-traumatic stress disorder: something very bad has happened, and they just haven’t had the tools to deal with it. My own DH won’t mind me saying that he found my diagnosis of breast cancer and 18 months of treatment incredibly hard. He had to be strong, for me, for our babies, for his employer, when he felt shocked, scared, anxious, and really very upset much of the time. He had additional responsibilities with the children and the home as well as working full time, his wife (who would normally have been his confidante and coach through a crisis) was throwing up after chemo, losing her hair, recovering from surgery, and then working out how to be herself again. When it was finally all over, he just hadn’t dealt with any of it, and this manifested itself in getting increasingly shouty and exploding  about nothing at all. We’ve pretty much sorted it out now, and I think we’re better at talking, and loving each other, than we ever have been in our 23 years together. But, you know, there was definitely a point at which our marriage could have swung the other way.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to bear, when our men dissolve into tears, or are distant and numb, or avoid coming home from work, or drink too much, or yell at us, or even attempt to find solace in another, less frosty, bed. There is, it has to be said, an element of frustration, impatience and resentment in our feelings about all of this. It might even seem, when they are being particularly rubbish, like selfishness or self-indulgence, because mothers have to keep buggering on, basically. The kids’ tea isn’t going to make itself, no matter how shit we feel. Even when I’ve been in the depths of depression, we’ve all had clean pants. But resentment is not a fertile ground for love.

I am worried about the boys, because I love all of the men in my life, and I want them to be happy. I’m a feminist, but not to the extent that I want an alarming number of men to feel like killing themselves because they can’t live up to expectations. I don’t want men to feel useless, and fearful, and powerless, and pointless. Because we’re a team, right? We need each other. We’re on the same side. And I don’t want to be doing all of this on my own. At some point we need to stop resenting our men who aren’t manning up for whatever reason, and feel pity, and express compassion, and show them love. To treat them with humour, patience and praise, a bit like recalcitrant children. To make it easy for them to talk to us. To be their safe place. And gently encourage them to put on a smile and some metaphorical lipstick, face their adoring public, and keep the show on the road.

 

How to be good

Some years ago, I read a book by Nick Hornby called ‘How to Be Good’.  (Amazon tells me I purchased it on 11 June 2002, to be precise.) The blurb: ‘According to her own complex moral calculations, Katie Carr has earned her affair. She’s a doctor, after all, and doctors are decent people, and on top of that, her husband David is the self-styled Angriest Man in Holloway. But when David suddenly becomes good – properly, maddeningly, give-away-all-his-money good – Katie’s sums no longer add up, and she is forced to ask herself some very hard questions. Nick Hornby’s brilliant new novel offers a painfully funny account of modern marriage and parenthood, and asks that most difficult of questions: what does it mean to be good?’

I remembered the story this week when I was thinking about how deeply I am striving, post-caaancer, to be a good person. To lead a ‘good’ life. Which is not about giving my spare room to a homeless person, because it’s also my office and that just wouldn’t, y’know, work. For me, being good means: being kind, giving and receiving love, maintaining mental and emotional equilibrium, going with the flow, being true and genuine, being faithful, being in the moment, choosing to fill my life with joy, forgiving myself and others, responding rather than reacting, listening, paying attention to my inner wisdom, looking after my body, being there for my friends and family, achieving my potential, being cheerful.

And not: spending waaay much time in my head, being something of a fantasist, procrastinating, being angry, cold, and hard, withholding love, shouting, being impatient, wallowing in intermittent Black Dog days, being lazy, being resentful, trying to control everyone and everything, taking no exercise, drinking unhealthy levels of wine, worrying about what everyone thinks of me, spending too much time on social media instead of playing with the children, not supporting others, being too busy for the people I love and care about, not smiling, being absent, feeling guilty, being utterly selfish. Being horrible to DH, mean to my precious babies, critical about everyone.

I am all those things, and more. Trying to Be Good requires a monumental shift in the way I am in the world. Often, I don’t think I am a very nice person. People who don’t know me well may think I’m delightful, because I’ve only ever been polite and funny and sweet to them, or they may despise me, like the poor postman whose head I bit off recently. But I know I have the potential – and certainly the desire – to be a better, kinder, gentler, more authentic, more loving and lovable human being. Connecting with the pure love and light at the centre of my being: that sort of thing.

There’s a coaching exercise called ‘Eighty Today’ where you imagine you are 80 years old, and consider what you would like your friends, partner, children, colleagues to say about you as you near the end of your life. It’s basically the same as fantasising about what people are saying at your funeral, though less morbid. I have to say, with my literary proclivities, I quite like the Gothic aspect of imagining everyone in black crepe talking in muted tones at my woodland burial, over the strains of Mumford & Sons’ ‘After the Storm’ between the oak trees, about what a bloody marvellous chap I was. No-one wants, Scrooge-style, to be thought of as not a terribly nice person to have around. I don’t want the people I love deeply (but don’t always show it), to be shouting gleefully: ‘Thank goodness that miserable old bat has shuffled off her mortal coil, let’s have a partay!’

But there’s a motivation to Being Good that is far, far more important than what everything thinks of me when I’m old, or dead, or both. It’s my belief – I might even say my knowledge – that the physical body, the emotions, and one’s thoughts are interconnected so closely that you cannot separate out what’s going on in your head and your heart from what happens in your body. My body expresses or manifests everything that I think and feel. I’ve written before about my lack of surprise at being diagnosed with breast cancer, precisely for this reason. There’s no blame attached to this, by the way: I don’t think it’s my ‘fault’, I just understand that it was inevitable. According to Louise L Hay, cancer is always connected with deep anger and resentment, often directed at oneself. Every physical dis-ease or ailment is connected to a thought pattern. Identifying and releasing those old patterns of thinking and being, and replacing them (through tools such as affirmations) with something healthier, can help to heal. If holistic stuff isn’t your bag, this probably sounds bonkers, but even Western doctors accept that numerous physical conditions, ranging from digestive and skin disorders to stroke and heart attacks, are rooted in emotional disturbance or ‘stress’.

And so Being Good could mean the difference between life and death, for me. Post-cancer existence is like being in a post-apocalyptic territory. Every familiar feature of the landscape has shifted. Finding a new reality is hard, and painful, and fraught with wrong turns. I am acutely aware of the need to make the right choices about what I think and feel and how I behave, because I really, really don’t want to go to the Badlands of Cancerville again. And as I said in June, every ache and pain and twinge in my body and bones makes me scared shitless that I have secondaries lurking somewhere. Perhaps this is just about the illusion of control, but I know I feel so much better when I am calm, and sober, and have plenty of sleep, and eat well, and get fresh air, and laugh, and am kind and loving to everyone, especially me.

Perhaps it’s not about battling to change completely, though. I Am, as Birley Shassey belted out, What I Am. Perhaps it’s simply about being a Good Enough person, like childcare guru Donald Winnicott’s concept of the Good Enough Mother. Not trying to be perfect, because it’s impossible and you set yourself up to fail, creating a vicious circle. But being a little bit kinder, a little bit more cheerful, a little bit more chilled, a little bit healthier, a little bit more forgiving. As my health creation mentor Kit once wisely remarked to me, ‘Having cancer doesn’t turn you into a Saint’.

(Or Greavsie.)

My first charity fundraising thing

Gosh, my thighs are still aching. After months of sort of enforced inactivity, I decided it was about time I did some exercise. Not randomly: me, my mum, my sis, and three friends who I met five years ago through NCT when we had our gorgeous girls (aka Team Pinchy) are doing one of the Pink Ribbon Walks this summer to raise cash for Breast Cancer Care.

There’s less than three weeks to go now until our 10 mile walk across the Sussex Downs from Petworth House on 11 June. So on Sunday morning me and my friend S left our respective broods with their jaded daddies (her DH baggy-eyed thanks to an early start from their youngest, my DH from a boys’ boozy lunch in London that lasted 10 hours. When I raised an eyebrow to the wisdom of this plan, he actually quoted my last blog post on fun back at me. Sigh.)

Anyway, we walked four and a bit miles along the river Wey from Guildford to Godalming. It was bliss. Fresh air (at times a little too fresh), sunshine, peace, beautiful views, fabulous company, being close to nature (including the paddling horned cattle that I got all excited about because I thought they were water buffalo. Idiot. I don’t think I will live that one down for a while.) We did it in under an hour and a half, so we should easily do the 10 miles in four hours – the organisers reckon it should take somewhere between three and five hours.

And we are doing brilliantly on the fundraising so far, too. We are required to raise at least £175 each to take part in the run, so our team target was £1,050. I set up a Just Giving page to make it really easy to donate, and as of today we have already raised a fantastic £1,440 – 130% of our target. Whoop whoop, girls, well done!

I’d really like to get to £2,000 (because I like nice round numbers, and because it was the year I got married), so all donations are warmly welcomed! Just go to www.justgiving.com/teampinchy. Thank you!

I’ve never done anything like this before. I always donate to the usual big charity telethons but I’ve never had a personal connection with a cause. I chose to raise money for Breast Cancer Care because the organisation, particularly through its website, has been an invaluable source of information and support since I was diagnosed. And I’m already seriously thinking about doing the charity’s Machu Picchu climb in 2012 or 2013, for which I’ll need to raise £4,000. I’ve always wanted to visit Peru, so that will be a real life goal as well as an amazing shared experience with other women who have been on the same sort of journey as me.

But first things first: don’t try and climb hills at high altitude before you stroll along the Downs etc. Now I just have to keep up the training with plenty of brisk 20 minute strolls and maybe another long walk. This neatly dovetails with my Health Creation goals: fresh air/sunshine/exercise: what’s not to like? Far better than the stinky old gym, where I cancelled my membership last week and felt a large weight of ‘shoulds’ being lifted from my shoulders.

And even though I love food and wine waaaay too much to ‘diet’, I’ve also (whisper it)  joined Weightwatchers to try and shift that final post-baby stone (2lbs off in week one, yay)! I really don’t think it matters what eating plan you sign up to: I’m just finding that tracking everything I eat is making me much more aware of unconscious snacking and portion sizes, and the impact of alcohol on my daily calorie intake (about which: eek!).

Lots of walking will also hopefully mean I feel better in my cossie when we go on holiday at the end of June. My body confidence isn’t exactly high at the moment, what with the lopsided tits and everythin’, so every little helps (At the weekend, DD asked: ‘Mummy, which is your booby that hangs down?’ Out of the mouths of babes…).

One thing that has given me a real boost this week was being included on the Race for Life dedication of someone I haven’t even met. The very lovely Kate Husbands (aka @moomi_mama), a friend of a friend, ran it in 37 minutes (a personal best, I gather) and sent me this picture of her bib.

Now, I bet her thighs are aching more than mine…