Welcome to a new chapter of my lockdown one sort-of-memoir! (It’s raining! Lungs still shot!)
I wake up to the sound of objects being blown around the backyard. Oh no.
I leap out of bed immediately. I have lots and lots of seedlings hardening up out there. I had sown seeds in the cosy sunshiney-ness of my kitchen, crowding them onto a table by the window until they were big enough to have their first taste of the outdoors.
The weather was threatening to undo all that hopeful and magical work, but as I flicked on the light and stumbled out into the morning darkness I was relieved to see they were all safe and sound, packed tightly into old oven trays and enduring the weather like the little green champions they are.
I rescued an upturned deck chair and a rogue broom and headed back inside to make coffee. The wind was pretty ferocious and thoughts of accidents where people had lost their lives in these sort of conditions began playing in my mind.
And I was not really catastrophising. Well. Perhaps a little bit.
You probably know that rain had been unreliable at best and non-existent at worst in Australia over the last few years. This meant that big trees were not quite as securely rooted as they might like to be. Big winds were unsettling some of these trees. With their roots already compromised some could not bear the onslaught and toppled over in surrender.
I’d read about trees falling on cars as the drove along bushy roads. I’d seen a bunch of big trees still lying broken in the park at the end of my street. Last time there was a storm multiple trees in my suburb had fallen, one across the road next to the supermarket and the SES was kept busy trying to sort it all out. Heck, a huge gum tree had taken a tumble in my own back yard on a day like this a few years ago, knocking down the fence between my house and the one next door and taking an army of workers and a couple of days to remove – and another day to sort out the fence.
The idea of walking along my route with the wind bearing down and the trees hanging on for dear life did not appeal to me.
Perhaps it will die down and I can go later, I reasoned, but this rankled me from the get-go. I am a routine oriented person. I want to walk between 6 and 8am each day. I do not want to change this plan. Something terrible might happen. My day might fall in a heap. I might start to feel that looming sadness that’s a precursor to actual depression. And I might hate walking later on. The weather might be awful all day. I might be making excuses and undoing all the work I’d done over the previous days. The list went on and on.
This is not an unusual response from me in the face of a routine being altered. Routines have – I reasoned – held my life in place over the last few tricky years. Following a trusty framework, a pattern of activity each day has helped me to feel less anxious and made me feel more purposeful and in control.
But as you can see there is a downside to this reliance on routine. Because when a routine needs to shift, whether to avoid being crushed by a tree or simply due to other logical and understandable reasons, anxious feelings rear their heads reliably. Almost immediately.
As I write this, Stevie Wonder is singing Lean on Me on the telly, part of the global online concert to benefit health workers on the COVID-19 front and I am trying not to cry.
It’s partly because of relying so heavily on routine doesn’t feel like an optimal way to live. And it’s partly because the lyrics are so beautiful and I wish I could lean on Stevie Wonder just for a little while because I feel so caught between my desire to start my day with a positive, endorphin boosting act (walking!) and doing what is sensible (not heading out into bad weather.)
Lots of people exercise in bad weather, I reason. In the running books I’ve read they run in the rain, not giving a toss about getting wet and apparently not worrying about trees.
But they were in LONDON and BRIGHTON, I tell myself. There is no drought. As far as I know ancient trees are not making a habit of falling down due to climate change (I could be wrong).
But still. I could not shake the feelings of failure. The feeling that I was making excuses. The feeling that I was buggering this whole thing up already.
Yesterday I was so excited about today’s walk. I’d tallied up my efforts so far – 31.3km in 5 days! – and I could not wait to add to the count.
Now the wild winds were sticking their foot out in front of me, tripping me up and keeping me grounded. In the non-good way. It felt like a test and I was determined not to flunk it.
I would go later, I told myself firmly. The winds were forecast to ease in the afternoon. Until then I would mix up my day and see what happened. I would laugh in the face of shifted circumstances, dare myself to loosen up my routine, trust myself to manage my mood as best I could and hit the pavement when it felt safe.
I’d research those cushy socks, find out more about those Powerful Owls and where they’ve been spotted, do this week’s poetry study, make some dough for bagels.
Perhaps I was catastrophising, I thought. Perhaps it was the tunnel man anxiety all over again, but this time focusing on trees and wind? I honestly was not sure, but at that moment the sensible thing to do seemed to be staying put and watching the weather, hopefully heading out when things were less swirly and gusty.
As the house creaked and shuddered and the trees bowed and undulated, I wondered if I really was the only one that relied so heavily on routine to keep their mental health in check. I suspected not.
A little bit of research delivered ROUTINE as one of the number one strategies for fighting anxiety, depression or garden variety stress. In fact it’s right up there with … exercise!
Why does routine prove so helpful when someone is suffering from mental ill health?
Why do people like me rely so heavily on a trusty framework that helps predict their day?
A 2018 study published in The Lancet confirmed that a reliable routine of activity and sleep lead to improved mental health. The study looked at 91,000 people and found that a regular routine helps to keep our circadian rhythm working effectively.
Circadian rhythms refer to the mental, physical and behavioural shifts in living things. These rhythms follow a daily pattern and are partly governed by light and darkness in our environment.
In humans, neurons in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus control this circadian rhythm, helping to regulate physiological as well as behavioural functions such as sleep, body temperature, eating, drinking and … mental wellbeing.
Dr. Daniel Smith, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Glasgow was a lead author on this study.
He said that his study confirmed for the first time that “not only is a good night's sleep important, but having a regular rhythm of being active in daylight and inactive in darkness over time is important for mental wellbeing."4
Routine not only feeds into a healthy circadian rhythm, optimising sleep and mental health. It also frees us up from making countless – often stressful - decisions throughout our day. Routine encourages us to make time for the pass-times and tasks that help us to feel productive, creative and in control.
For anyone with mental ill health, routine can provide a bolstering backbone to days that can otherwise feel overwhelming and prescriptively fill time which might otherwise be spent ruminating or experiencing difficult feelings.
DAY SIX – 9154 steps
Did I head out to walk in the afternoon yesterday, as I had willed myself to do? No actually I did not. A cascade of difficult moods had swirled about the house and it didn’t feel possible to leave everyone unattended.
Sometimes, and especially in week four of a stay home order, you need to hang about and make sure your roomies know you are there for them. This is especially important when they’re seeming to struggle a bit.
Recently we’d spent so much time together (as many locked-down families/roomies had) that we’d been making unexpected inroads in our bonding.
For instance, one day as we drove to the shops and Ari spotted a box alongside the road with a sign that said ‘FREE JARS’ he immediately said “Mum. Jars.” Understanding I am dead keen on empty jars.
Or there was the time when were in the milk aisle at the supermarket and I said “Want to see how fast I can walk?” licking my lips with excitement and he turned away from the iced coffees and marvelled ‘you’re wearing lip gloss!’ and I said ‘no. no it’s spit’ and we both bent over laughing.
Perhaps the wind had cleverly conspired to ensure I stuck around, I wondered.
Instead of taking that hoped-for afternoon walk I spent 5 hours completing all my reading for my poetry course – about 6 chapters on metaphors and an equal number of poems and took copious amounts of notes. I started university study online last year, deciding to take one unit – Creative Writing – and see if I was able to manage it. Manage it I did and this semester I’m studying poetry, with short fiction and writing for magazines coming up in this year’s second semester, which starts in June.
I’m not-so-secretly hoping to complete a degree in Creative Writing, something I never thought possible. Maybe it won’t be possible?! I am sure going to try, regardless.
This week we are studying metaphors and I determined to take a metaphor gathering walk this week, once I was over the bump of worrying about the trees.
On this stay home day I also made a bolstering vat full of Butter Chicken, in case that proved a good medicine for my Iso-buddy. I’m not going to lie, it didn’t turn out that great, but you win some, you lose some and it’s the thought that counts. I was glad that the pantry was still stocked with plenty of noodles and baked beans and eggs and bread. (Even more glad when I spotted a half-eaten bowl of said non-great Butter Chicken on the sink the next day.)
As planned, I did read up on the Powerful Owl in my locality, but I didn’t find out a lot more. There seems to have been a sighting of at least one Powerful Owl some time in the last few years. And a survey done by the freeway-widening government had determined that they didn’t seem to be about and thus would not be disturbed by the bulldozing of 25 000 trees. Piffle I was sure.
I decided I would write to Bird Life and see if they knew anything about Powerful Owls in my neighbourhood. Granted I could go to the inner city parks to look for them, but venturing too far from home was unwise and also not allowed during this virus crisis.
The day was about as great as the Butter Chicken. A looming sense of sadness kept trying to get the better of me and I distracted myself by knitting a bunch of rows of the blanket I’ve been slowly making. It’s my Worry Blanket, really. When I feel a bit wobbly I get knitting and it dulls all the complicated emotional stuff for a while, compelling me to concentrate on poking needles in and flicking yarn around and looping stitches over and watching the knitted fabric grow.
Crocheting something or hand stitching something can spark this sort of worry dampening magic too.
When I looked at the health app on my phone last night, it showed a meagre 426 steps for the day. Bu that wasn’t the worst day by far. Scrolling back through the data I noticed just how inactive I’d been over the last few years. Some days registered less than 100 steps, a testament to how dark things had gotten in my world.
As I listened to Running Like A Girl that night, its writer Alexandra warned that you should never run through an injury.
Perhaps that is what I suffered today, I wondered. An injury of the mental health variety or at the very least a flare-up of an old injury. Yes, it was dangerous to walk when it was very windy. But I knew that my non-walking was also connected to anxiety. A tree couldfall down, but it’s not super likely. That didn’t stop me from thinking about the possibility on and off all day. I wouldn’t say I was obsessing over it, but I was reminding myself that the world could be a dangerous and unwelcoming place. That on some level I was right to avoid going out.
And yet I was feeling intensely disappointed that I’d missed a planned day of walking.
Quitter! Typical! Excuses, excuses. Weakling! I berated myself. I told myself that I would not stick at it, that this was just a fad, that I was destined to fail and I really should not bother.
Thankfully I also had enough self-awareness and resilience to recognise that neither disappointment nor scathing self-judgement was moving me forward in any way.
What if I did something radical? What if I simply accepted that I was not able to walk that day? What if I conceded that I had an injury (albeit of the mental health variety) and even though I knew I would have felt better venturing out, that I did not because my panicked brain was not keen on it, on this particular day.
What if, instead of berating myself with the sort of “no excuses!” clap-backs that hyped-up personal trainers espouse on Instagram, I just accepted that it wasn’t meant to happen on that windy day. What if I let go of the pessimism and shame and concentrated on taking care of myself and looking forward to the next walk instead? So that is what I endeavoured to do. I let myself off the hook, ate noodles (avoiding the Butter Chicken), knitted and watched New Amsterdam instead.
The next morning I practically leapt out of bed. It was dark and calm as I let the dogs out for a quick whiz around the back yard.
As they rollicked and barked at the stars, I put on my sweatshirt dress, leggings, cushy-er socks found at the supermarkets the day before and ugly orange runners.
I kissed the pups goodbye and headed out into the dark feeling fearless and excited. My body relaxed into the walk immediately and as I rolled my shoulders and wriggled me bits to get warmed up I felt lucky to be able to get out and about. Lots of people couldn’t due to various circumstances – work, small children, disability, illness - and I was not going to take the opportunity for granted.
It was earlier than the time I usually left home, and I was NOT scared or worried. Okay I was maybe a little bit worried when a white van came around the corner and drove very, very slowly past me.
The driver is probably juggling his phone and the wheel, I reasoned with myself, sucking it up and walking on.
Hint to drivers – do not slow and drive at a snail’s pace alongside a woman when you see them walking or running. Not for any reason.
I pushed all thoughts of the slow van aside for now and headed onward and to the park. I’d spoken to my psychologist about doing things that scared me before and she cheered on my amateur attempts at ‘exposure therapy’.
When I was suffering serious social anxiety and was finding it very hard to even go to the shops, I listed some items on a local selling site and forced myself to deal with strangers coming to the house to snap up my unwanted things.
I had to respond to their messages, chat to them on the doorstep, show them how things worked. Even though I hated doing this I loved how brave I felt each time a stranger headed off with something I had stowed under the house for years. Not only had I managed to not (totally) freak out, I’d got some extra pocket money for my bravery. Brilliant!
This exposure therapy theory is one reason that mental health professionals may recommend exercise as a helpful intervention for people who (like me) were living with mental health challenges.
Symptoms anxiety sufferers might usually associate with a panic attack – increased heart rate, sweating, breathlessness – are the much less threatening by products of a brisk walk or jog in the park. This exposure to these symptoms in a ‘safe’ environment can help to walk back an ingrained spiral of panic responses and help anxiety sufferers to feel more in control if panic does strike.
The day after my ‘rest day ‘ I was glad to be out and about, trying to make friends with familiar worried feelings and push on.
I wiggled my toes inside my runners, getting a feel for the new cushy socks (good!) and whether any aches and pains were lurking (no!)
I was, in fact feeling brilliant. Perhaps that day at home nursing my ‘injury’ had actually done me good? I completed that walk – nearly 7kms – with no sore bits, save for one toe which was really not hurting but more … numb.
Even though I’d walked briskly on after the slow van, I was still storing small imaginings about the driver possibly lurking, waiting to jump out of bushes or follow me along a quiet part of the track.
But tunnel man had shown me that these thoughts are not always reasonable. I decided to distract myself by looking for birds, and almost immediately encountered NINE Purple Swamp Hens pecking at the ground beside a picnic table as a reward. Nine purple swamp hens! (Sing that to the tune of On The First Day of Christmas and I promise it will pay dividends!)
A little further on, I spotted a man dressed in black jeans and a denim jacket wandering on the grass beside a bushy outcrop. He was making a sort of trotting movement with his legs, like an equestrian horse, and when I got closer I realised he was lifting his legs repeatedly and … stamping then down on mushrooms.
I know you must think I am making this up for your entertainment, but I promise I am not.
All that fungal stomping seemed a bit destructive and wasteful, to be honest, but you will remember these were very strange days. The health crisis was proving a challenge to everyone and perhaps obliterating unsuspecting mushrooms with shiny size 10s was preferable to yelling at innocent checkout staff or buying 356 bottles of hand sanitiser and trying to hock them on eBay at a shameful profit?
I pretended not to notice the man and walked on, soon reaching the halfway mark of my route – the grown-up and increasingly autumnal saplings - and doubling back. I did not see any newly-fallen trees along my route, nor did I see any of my usual walking friends on this particular jaunt. I was calling them my friends now because they’d stepped with me through the worries of my wandering, ready with a faraway wave, joyful pink hair or a cheery ‘Good Morning’, which cheered me on for an entire FIVE DAYS.
I was not nearly as out of breath as I thought I would be, I noted. My lungs felt clearer although still a little clunky. My hips were not hurting at all today, in fact, apart from the numb toe nothing was hurting, I thought joyfully.
I was finding this speedy progress from couch ammonite – a more hardened, stubborn and fossilised version of the couch potato – to thousands-of-steps walker hard to believe.
As I walked home I listened to Alexandra talk about 23-year-old Roberta aka Bobbi Gibb, who 54 years earlier in April 1966, jumped out of the bushes beside the start line at the then men’s only Boston Marathon, and began running in a blue hoody, a swimsuit, her brother’s shorts and boy’s shoes. To Bobbi’s surprise she was not ushered off the course and went on to complete the marathon ahead of two-thirds of the male participants although her time was not officially recorded because her gender prevented her from registering for the race.
I vowed to concentrate more on courageous stories like Bobbi Gibb’s and worry less about scary men jumping out of bushes.
Perhaps a little bit of that courage might rub off on me?