Christmas anxiety. A wash of feelings, pulling and pushing in opposite directions. I’m a sociable person, I love my friends. Now it’s December and I’m all ‘hopefully we can catch up before Christmas?’
I invite, or accept invitations, with joy, and then approach the days themselves with dread. Will I spend hours on my return, mulling over a throwaway comment I made, seeking malevolence in words that were not meant to hurt? Deliberately sabotaging my own friendships, and my own fragile resilience?
So last year, I stopped saying ‘let’s meet up before Christmas’ and started saying ‘have a lovely Christmas! See you next year.’
To anyone reading this who feels anxious around Christmas, I just want to say: you don’t have to see anyone, if you don’t feel like it. Look after yourself, OK? And I’ll see you next year.
‘Do you think maybe you need to go to the Doctor?’
I have asked this more times than I can count. To friends that have seemed more than a little bit down, to family that don’t seem to be able to stop. I’m not sending them for a sore throat or a muscle strain, I’m asking whether they need some medical assistance with their mental health.
Awareness is so much better than it was, but stigma is, in my opinion, as bad as it ever was. Of course no one wants to feel that they can’t get through the day without taking a tablet, doing a meditation, knowing that another counselling session is on its way. But if that is what you need.
If that is what you need.
Last week, someone asked me. And I went.
More next week.
‘You manage your mental health so well!’
I suppose, if I did, I wouldn’t dwell on what was meant as a compliment,
and twist it into an accusation –
a positive equals a negative
a negative of the photograph
that other people see,
my perfect, tinylife.
My calm exterior, my social media cut and pastings: insta-wonderful.
She can’t possibly have mental health problems,
look at her – she’s onstage! Smiling!
Perhaps I tell people I’m a special snowflake
as a way to get attention or
Or I hold onto a former diagnosis
as something that makes me interesting,
marks me out,
gives me an intersectional identity.
I don’t ask to feel this way –
performing one day, then tears all the next –
I don’t ask for meditation and counselling and prescription after prescription.
I manage it well.
On the radio, the man says
‘You’ve just had a baby,
so you’ll be in loads of coffee shops
‘I’m back at work like you!’ she says.
She’s owning him, on the radio.
motherhood is easy,
and coffee shops are full of easy woman and their babies.
the man says
‘You told me
you’d had an NCT coffee
The audience laugh.
You could’ve let her be right.
How hard it is:
having a baby, being freelance.
Women wanting to work,
men ripped from their babies,
two weeks later.
None of it is any good.
You know –
it’s no fun in a coffee shop
with a tiny baby.
Getting half a conversation. At best.
But we’re sitting about,
having lovely coffees all day.
You could’ve left it.
We get enough of all that.
The tuna steaks were a bit over done.
I don’t eat tuna anyway, but I was on a fast day, so hadn’t even been responsible. It’s not like Mr HB. Slap dash is how we refer to my cooking, not his.
But as I scrubbed out the tuna pan, I remembered. He’d come to help me bring in the laundry. The smell of tuna had filled the house once we returned. It was why I put the clean clothes into the hall, not the kitchen.
I’m keeping this memory as proof. It’s not that I am not good at cooking, or couldn’t be, if I wasn’t doing 100 other things at the same time. If the actual labour doesn’t distract me, the emotional labour does.
This isn’t a ‘women’s’ thing. If you are distracted, then the tuna will be over done.
‘Can you do the hoovering?’
I’ve been ill for a week, (I know, I’ll stop going on about it soon, I promise). Once I could look around me again, I saw the familiar piles of earth from school shoe grips, little pieces of paper from the last craft project, and the wispy dust that seems to come up from the floor itself.
‘Can you do the hoovering?’
On the second day, I was well enough to hoover myself. But it was the principle of the thing. Why should I hoover now? Why hadn’t he hoovered while I was in bed? Why is the hoovering ‘my’ job?
‘Can you do the hoovering?’
The third day, I asked this of myself. He can’t do the hoovering. But he’s always working – against the box he was put in as a boy. It’s enough.
Sometimes I’ll be watching a film or listening to a song or singing to myself. I’ll see something on the news or the newsfeed. Or I’ll be at a kitchen table talking with some friends about something difficult, really being honest for once.
Maybe the preceding day has been painful.
It doesn’t open just because the children have been constant all day, or if I’ve had another writing rejection. If I’ve been the source of a social faux pas – and I’ve had many! it stays resolutely shut.
Sometimes I’ll know it’s going to be a day when it opens up, but sometimes I don’t.
The last time I could almost feel the crack, the hinges swinging. Like an internal door, the echoing space, empty but so, so full.
I’m talking about the place inside me where all the tears live.
I know, I know.
I wrote about ambulances just the other week there.
We were coming out of the cinema,
and the traffic was what I thought was Sunday-night busy.
It turned out everyone was sticky-beaking
at the accident,
and when it was our turn to nose out into the flow of traffic
– our lane was perfectly clear by the way –
I slowed down too.
One car had shunted another.
Everyone looked OK.
The ambulance was there, not rushing off, which I always take as a good sign.
Four … fire-fighters?
were pushing the car
out of the road
so that we could all get home.
One had the car door open and was pushing both in and outside the car.
They were running.
Running the car off the road.
So we could get home.
Today I have been thinking about … fear.
These are not tinylife fears, they are fears of the bigger picture. Our whole world. Fears of biglife.
When people who divide, rather than unite, are given power, I fear. When men are accused of violence against women, and appear to get away with it, I fear. (What are we saying to those considering similar violences?)
When I hear about stickers promoting a Far Right group on the railings my children pass on their way to school, in this tiny village –
When it looks like we have forgotten, or don’t seem to care,
about how far we’ve come, about where we’ve been,
Today I hold my children,
and I try to be brave.
Because this fear is likely to deepen, to harden
and may split right open and apart.
I’m rarely on the bypass at that time of night, stopping and starting, bumper to headlight. I always remember my sister’s advice. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’ she said, circa 1997, ‘just listen to the music, and chill.’
Suddenly, there was a blue light, flashing behind. How on earth would they get through all this? Thankful that I was passing a place to pull in, it managed past me.
As the car behind me pulled in too, I noticed that the car behind that had already done so.
These selfless acts reminded me. People are kind and thoughtful. Society does work. Most people – even people in a traffic jam – care.
Then the cars in front peeled off to each side, like a pulled thread, we were joined in a communal goal. And together, we let the ambulance through.