I’m An Empath, So Why Can’t I Cut Myself Some Slack?

I’ve been really grumpy over the past few weeks. I can tell I’ve not been my usual happy-go-lucky self because I’ve seen that fear in the old man’s eyes each time we pass each other, and he has been uncommonly brave and accused me of being “unreasonable” several times.

Photo by Dale de Vera on Unsplash

We’ve both been under pressure, having just completed our fifteenth house move since we met. I won’t bore you with the details, but sadly the landlord of the lovely pad we moved into in March last year decided to sell it for silly money and we found ourselves homeless again.

Luckily for us, our agents had this cute little townhouse on their books, and apart from a whining dog next door, blinds that bang against the metal window frames, and ridiculous Sydney temperatures that turn the bedrooms into our own private saunas at night, we’ve settled in relatively quickly.

But the move has highlighted how much pressure I put on myself to do everything perfectly. If I hadn’t had to work on the day of our move, I suspect that the house would have come together like a styled property by the evening, whatever the cost to my health. But fortunately, because I had to leave the management of our move to the old man – who prioritized moving boxes of stuff we don’t use (in typical man-fashion) from one cage to another – there has been quite a lot of unpacking and sorting left to do.

I’m not sure why I am so hard on myself when, in general, I would describe myself as an empath. I do believe that my journey with Kurt has made me more compassionate towards the plight of those less fortunate, or perhaps a greater empathy comes with the territory when you lose a parent at a young age. Whatever. I like to think I’m a good person to have around in a crisis, like when someone gets ill, or is blindsided by something unexpected.

I don’t need to tell you that I’m no saint, but I rarely judge others unless I am judged. For example, when I pass overweight people on my walks, I don’t judge them. My default setting is to think the best and to commend them internally for trying to change their lifestyle. And when I hear stories about the acts of the mentally ill or even paedophiles, I’m always trying to find reasons why they behaved that way or excuses for what they do.

I felt nothing but sadness for the plight of Joachim’s character in Joker in spite of his reaction to it.

But strangely, I don’t have the same reserves of empathy when it comes to myself. Like so many of us – on this endless treadmill in search of perfection in life – I never sit back and say ‘well done’ to me.

Perhaps, that’s because the stuff I do seems insignificant, and certainly not the sort of achievements that deserve a bottle of bubbly or a work jolly. My achievements are more micro, more everyday, like helping others in some way, ticking off something on my bucket list, or being nice to the old man for a day.

I know it’s considered losers’ talk to say that it is ‘the taking part that counts’, but I have to disagree. Social media has made all of us aspire to be what (perhaps) only the top 5% of people manage to achieve i.e. public success in some domain. And yet for some reason, these are the people we measure ourselves by – whether they are models or actresses, perfect mothers, successful career women, or simply “good” people.

The way the media handled Kobe Bryant’s death was a great example. I hated the way the deaths of the other people in that helicopter were barely acknowledged. Surely, they had full, successful lives as well?

I’ll save the question of how we measure success for another day, but if you’d asked me ten years ago if I ever saw myself becoming a paid writer, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet here I am – achieving something I’m hugely proud of. If someone told me a year ago that I’d hold down my current day job for a year – for which I’m ill-qualified – I’d have been equally as doubtful.

You see, I had to reinvent myself AGAIN for it. It’s a problem many women face when they need a job to fit in with family and lifestyle – hence the reason my resume reads like it belongs to Jill Of All Trades – none of which I have any real qualifications for. Luckily for me, I am good at being in the right place at the right time, I’m a great bullshitter, and look trustworthy.

Anyway, over the past few months I’ll admit that the role has proven to be too big for me. It has more responsibility than I want to handle at this stage of my life, and so I’ve made the decision to step back down into the 2IC role – which I believe is the right decision for my mental health. And I’m good with it. Sort of. I mean, I stepped up to the role last year when asked and managed it like a bitch… So why do I still feel like a failure for not being able to stick with it?

Why do we keep ramping up our personal goals without acknowledging the stepping stones we cross along the way? Small achievements are still achievements, aren’t they?

I’ve lost nearly two kilos in the past three weeks through sheer willpower. I’ve never felt as hangry in my life and my old clothes still don’t fit, but I am winning – I’m achieving what I set out to do. So why aren’t I happy about it? Why do I always focus on the days that I gained weight rather than the ones when I lost?

Why can’t I cut myself some slack? Why can’t I allow myself to admit that a stressful job is not something I need right now in order to keep supporting Kurt, managing our house moves, and achieving my writing goals?

Why can’t I see that the decision I’ve taken is not about failing, it’s about getting the balance in my life right for whatever time I have left. It’s about not being on my death bed and realising only then that my success in a job I hated was the most important thing in my life.

Have you done anything recently that you should have celebrated, but never got around to it?

I won’t be getting sober anytime soon but I am “drinking smarter”

Photo from Damir Spanic on Unsplash

I was a grown-up last weekend. The old man and I went on a date night to a swanky restaurant and I chose to drive.

In my last post I talked about the necessity of making choices in middle age, and prior to last night, I would have looked forward to washing down the posh grub with a bottle of expensive wine, and wasted the afternoon working out a feasible way to get to the restaurant on public transport. What can I say? I like drinking. Alcohol tastes nice. Drinking turns me into the interesting, cool girl I should have been…at least, until the next morning. It helps me cope, and gets me out of the house.

For me, drinking is also a form of self-care. Hear me out, peeps. You see, my list above doesn’t account for alcohol’s other, hidden benefits for me personally: its medicinal ones for colds, backache, and muscle pain; its effectiveness as a coping strategy for my social anxiety; its ability to foster connection; and the strength it provides me to contend with a society that writes women my age off, (or only draws attention to us for all the wrong reasons – Alexandra Grant).

Therefore, it was with some surprise that grown-up-me decided that night that (for the sake of a couple more drinks) I couldn’t be assed to sit on a bus full of obnoxious teenagers or work through a heinous hangover the next morning.

Anyway, everyone knows the first sip is the best.

A few years ago, I wrote in my first paid article for Mamamia on the subject of my concerns about my drinking and the increase in women’s drinking in middle age. I remember that what I was really aiming to do in that article was to empathize rather than shame women who drink. I can’t remember the exact headline I pitched to the editor for the story, but it was changed to ‘I am a functioning alcoholic and I’m not alone’ – and I was mortified. At the time I think I was looking for a new job.

BUT… if the decrease in the number of units our government deems healthy for us to drink is anything to go by, she had a point. AND…Maybe I’m paranoid, but drink shaming seems to be levelled more directly at women – and in particular middle-aged women. Granted, there are medical reasons for this – in that women’s bodies can’t process as much alcohol as men. But there is also this social construct that a woman who is drunk is far more shameful than a man, even though many men who have drunk too much go on to do terrible things, while a woman is more likely to fall asleep on the sofa. Just check out the photos of the after-race parties if you don’t believe me.

Why are men given license to have fun, while women are expected to stay at home and live like nuns? You can see that question in people’s heads when they see a group of drunk women – who’s looking after the kids while they’re out drinking? Well, Carol, who’s looking after the kids while their dad’s out drinking?

However, since I wrote that article, I have become more aware of the effect that alcohol has on my body – I’m getting old, Goddammit! – which is why, (and trust me when I promise that I am not getting sober and deserting my people entirely) – I’ve decided to “drink smarter” (in the words of Kate Spicer from The Sunday Times).

Menopause has played a huge role in that decision. I’m certain that many of you fifty-somethings will identify with the impossibility of being a functioning alcoholic when your hormones contrive to make your life – and in particular, your hangovers – as unpleasant as possible. Suffice it to say, I have to be fully committed to knock back a bottle of wine.

So, yes…the hangovers from hell, my aspirations to run 5kms (more than once), and that other cruel twist of menopause – weight gain – have guilted me into reducing the Rose and discarding the Chardy. I wish I could say that concerns about my longevity or longterm health were truly behind my decision, but after twenty years of smoking, a lifetime of anxiety, and a pretty shoddy family history when it comes to health, I know I’m fucked I’ve been playing Russian Roulette for a while now.

And I won’t deny it is a struggle. Alcohol is a wonderful crutch, it has been a loyal and reliable friend, and maintaining my commitment to Kombucha for just a couple of nights a week has stretched my self-discipline to the max. I am want to crumble at the first sign or conflict or stress.

But that’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say in this very convoluted post is that when the fun police make you feel bad about your drinking, don’t beat yourself up about it. You are not alone. Many of us have vices we’re not proud of – for some of us that is a glass or two of wine, for others it is several Magnums – as in the ice cream; for others still, it is leading corrupt governments and ignoring the voice of democracy.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with drinking with non-drinkers or fellow alcoholics and I don’t need anyone to drink with me to have a good time (See symptoms of an alcoholic). I do see the benefits of sobriety, but I am also aware that swift judgments are easy to make; it takes much more time to look beneath the surface.

My intention is not to glorify alcohol, but there are still occasions in my life when I am dealing with stuff when I want/need to drink. There are also occasions when I want to celebrate that I’m still here and in a good place. And in the words of the author, Mike Gayle “We all do what we need to do to get by.”

Middle Age Is About Making Important Choices

I knocked back some paid work last week. Not that we’re rolling in money and I can pick and choose the hours I want, but this time my choice was based on my health. I knew that working five days a week in three different fields would have undone all of the good I got from my holiday.

I know how lucky I am to have that option, but that’s because we have made choices about the way we live. We sold the family home and rent an apartment now, and the old man is we’re careful about what we spend. In the past, both of us have struggled with stress and anxiety – which have been exacerbated by our problems with Kurt – and so we are well aware of our limitations.

I believe fervently in the importance of recognising those when it comes to your mental health, particularly in middle age when menopause can trigger anxiety and reduce our tolerance for working with dickheads for someone else. Sometimes, when I listen to friends who constantly moan about their jobs – and who are fortunate to have those options – I want to shake them and ask them exactly what they’re waiting for?

I am aware that there are people out there – mostly self-employed – who love their work, and that perhaps my view sounds somewhat narrow-minded. But I learnt about the fragility of human life very early on, and I’m also fortunate that I can do some of my paid work from home.

Instead of working on those days I was asked to, I took my first dip in the ocean since the end of winter. I lay in the water like a pig in shit, looking up at the blue sky, and acknowledged how lucky I am. The water in Sydney doesn’t get higher than 24 degrees and it was predictably icy, i.e. enough to shock my body into questioning what the fuck I was doing. Nevertheless, it was clear, bathed in sunshine, and personally I can’t think of any better experience.

So I won’t be getting that new dining set to replace the one we’ve had for over twenty years, which is now so old it has come back into fashion – much to the old man’s delight. But I did experience another of life’s precious moments, and without being maudlin, who knows how many opportunities I’ve got left to do that.

Empty-Nesting: How awesomely liberating is it doing exactly what YOU want now?

It’s my birthday next week, and as has been our agreement for a number of years, the old man and I have a process in place for the event when it comes to presents. It goes something like this: I negotiate a budget (that usually works in my favour because he pretends to feel some semblance of guilt for shirking his responsibilities) and then I buy my own present, whereupon he wraps itafter asking me if I’ll do it first.

Beautiful woman holding up a bunch of balloons on a yacht.
Happy Birthday to me! I’m sure that this is exactly what I’ll be doing next week. Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

I know that many of you will think that our arrangement is kind of sad, but I can assure you it’s not. If you’d seen any of the presents – the towels, the chunky ID bracelets and the over-sized lingerie – that he has picked out for me in the past, you’d understand that for my husband this is a vital safety precaution, and for me it’s about self-care.

I admit that I am fussy. I’m not proud of it but I have very firm ideas about what I like. And even if I sent the old man to the store with an image and code for what I want, he would somehow get it wrong. So in much the same way that people frown at us over about our choice of separate bedrooms, I’m gonna ignore your predictions that our arrangement is a recipe for disaster. It works for us.

But I digress. The reason I mention this birthday is that I have already been out on the town for some retail therapy and purchased a rather cute little Boho top from Sportsgirl that in my head I had earmarked to wear to the girls lunch I’ve organised for the occasion.

However, as I pulled it out of the bag in excitement to check that I still liked it – because I am a serial returner, who is no doubt blacklisted by many of my local stores – the thought crossed my mind that I had been an idiot. Of course, I couldn’t wear it to my lunch on Saturday, I thought, because it’s two days before my birthday.

Seriously, for a few seconds there, menopause-related dementia made me feel seriously fucked off about not having anything nice to wear to my own birthday party.

Until I realised how absurd I was being. Of course I could wear the top, I reminded myself. I’m a free-as-a-bird, ass-kicking empty nester now, with no little people to point the finger or be influenced by my poor example. I am no longer that parental role model who has to pretend to be something I’m not just so that my kids don’t grow up to be assholes. No one is here to judge me if I open my present a few days early, drink wine during the day, or even smoke Cannabis againnot that my abstemiousness prevented Kurt from doing any of those things… and others.

I can make my own decisions again.

This is the wonderfully empowering bit about middle age. It is liberating. I am back in charge of whatever is left of my destiny and I can do things the way I bloody well want to. And if I want to wear my new top before my official birthday, I bloody well can.

Running Doesn’t Get Any Easier, But Let Me Tell You What It Does Do…

This week, I’ve decided to guilt you off the sofa with another smug-assed update about my new running career.

Woman standing on beach with arms in the air in celebration.
Photo from Unsplash. Catherine McMahon

Cue drumroll: Last week, I reached my target of 4kms for the Mothers Day Run For Breast Cancer. In other words, my weekly jog/hobbles around the lagoon in our new suburb has paid off. Go me! And while I would love to describe to you in triumphant detail the exhilaration of reaching such a pinnacle of fitness at the age of 53, I’m too knackered. Worse, I’m worried. You see, I suspect that I’ve potentially put myself in a dangerous psychological place now. With five weeks still to go before the official run (You can sponsor me here, because as you can see, we need all the help we can get), I’m worried that I may have peaked too early, which means that the next few weeks are going to prove a battle to get motivated.

But if it makes you sloths out there feel any better, I am also here to confirm that running doesn’t get easier – that is indeed a myth – and that in no way has this new sport become my raison d’etre.

For while it is tempting for me to paint a dazzling image of me crossing the 4kms mark, legs reaching across the finish line with the litheness of a gazelle – that’s simply not how the moment was, as I’m sure that most of you can imagine. The fact is, the mechanical process of moving my legs fast never gets any easier. And frankly, if it wasn’t for sheer will-power and the image in my mind of the big brekkie and coffee I promised myself at the end of each practise session, it is unlikely I would have stuck to such a ridiculous goal.

For the record, I would also like to point out that I will never want to set myself another goal and increase my distance. I will leave that to those of a competitive nature. For me, this run was only ever about a personal goal and raising money for a worthy charity, and once I tick that box, I will resume my Friday nights with a bottle of wine and a packet of pork scratchings.

But let me tell you what this silliness has done. It has made me feel better overall – mentally and physically (sort of). I haven’t lost weight – indeed, my calves have packed on something that the old man has identified as muscle – but the push to get outside and into the fresh air twice a week has helped me develop an old person’s greater appreciation of the outside world and nature. I have more energy, I feel more positive, and I’m drinking less alcohol – because it is definitely more challenging to get my legs going after bevvies the night before.

Goals and finding ways to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, (or simply into a different zone), are so important at this stage of our lives. And it’s important to remind ourselves of how lucky we are to reach middle age, at all – a gift denied to so many victims of breast cancer.

New challenges and experiences keep me mentally alert and curious – and ultimately youthful, I hope – in what can be a disconcerting last chapter of our lives. For me, this year is about running, but next year’s challenge might entail another new hobby, travel, or meeting with a different social group – whatever it is, the curiosity that gets me there is what will keep my mind sharp.

Anyone that knows me – but in particular I must mention the crowd who did the Jane Fonda Workout with me for high school sport, (when everyone else was playing proper sports) – would laugh if you told them that I had taken up running – at any age. But perhaps, more importantly, in a period of my life when I feared that there were no surprises left – apart from those generously supplied by Kurt – I have surprised myself.

Go on, sponsor me…

New Years Resolutions: Page 1 of 365

I didn’t begin page 1 of the next 365 with a run or yoga. Instead, I lay in bed for as long as I could, and when the pain in my head refused to go away, I was grateful for Berocca.

On page 1 of 365, it wasn’t goals on my mind, it was food – ALL THE FOOD! A traditional English brunch – hastily crafted out of the Christmas leftovers in the fridge and including lashings of carcinogen bacon – helped put me out of my misery. I am grateful for my Statins.

On page 1 of 365, the old man forced me out of the house to take the dog for a walk and a swim and I cursed him all of the way. I may even have considered divorce for the first time this year as I rued that last glass of white of 2018 – that with hindsight, I didn’t really need. But I was grateful to our little dog for reminding me of the joy of the simple things in life.

On page 1 of 365, I warned the old man to remain outside a five-meter radius of me at all times and each time he breached it, I snarled and barked at him. But I was grateful that I could.

On page 1 of 365, I moved from breakfast to the main course of chocolate with ease. When the Celebrations had gone, I shifted gear onto the family box of Maltesers from NC’s stocking and the last couple of Ferrero Rocher that had somehow survived Kurt’s random assault on Christmas Eve. I am always grateful for chocolate, which has been a stalwart best friend through the toughest of times.

On page 1 of 365, I drank so much water that every Victoria’s Secret Angel would be proud of me, and I was grateful for clean water and a Soda Stream.

On page 1 of 365, I finished one series on Netflix and began a second on Amazon Prime. I can now see what Emily Blunt sees in John Krasinski, and I am grateful that wine has not killed as many brain cells as I suspected, and I could still concentrate. I only asked the old man once to explain WTF was going on.

On page 1 of 365, I ignored the call of the expensive bottle of wine from the fridge – that had somehow camouflaged itself behind the cheap wine and the turkey legs (that no one eats) over Christmas – and I am grateful for that surprising, long twelve hours of willpower.

On page 1 of 365, I decided to focus on networking, so I dedicated a good five out of twelve hours to social media, hating on Louis CK, stalking women I admire, commiserating with other drunks (women I admire), and celebrating the confirmation that there will always be something to laugh about – in spite of 2018.

On page 1 of 365, I didn’t swear to make drastic changes in my life. I swore once again to live life to the full and to hope that I can keep on narrowly missing the cracks. But when I do fall ass over tits into one of them, I promised myself to go out with a bang.

Page 2…

Managing Anxiety and Depression: The Trick Is To Find Happiness In The Small Things

After the cabin fever brought on by the Armageddon of a dodgy weather cycle in Sydney over the past 24hrs – totally unrelated to climate change, according to our government – it was a relief to get out of the house this morning. 

After almost a month of holiday excess, I decided that I would make my comeback to fitness with a morning jog with the old man – although for those of you conjuring up an image of beautiful blogger with handsome, virile husband pounding the pavements, please take note that the image below is far more representative of the truth and I am not about to metamorphose into a wellness blogger. 

Our jog – (roughly) 1.2k to the north end of the beach (which feels like 7k) and then back again, which is driven solely by the thought of the steaming bowl of porridge waiting for us back at home – is a strategy to get us focused for the day ahead. But the truth is that typically HE runs back to the house while I stagger back, on all fours, like some crazy woman in search of the nearest defibrillator.

This morning, however, I couldn’t even manage a stagger back. Two weeks of partying in London have turned muscle into lard and it was as much as I could do to throw off my runners halfway around and pad back along the deep sand of the beach, the ocean swirling at my feet.

A choice for which I am eternally grateful .

The point is that my failure to complete the circuit didn’t affect anything other than my pride, and that walk back along the beach turned out to be one of those rare moments of unbridled happiness that can appear unexpectedly in a moment of defeat. Kathy Lette commented about such experiences on Twitter recently:

‘Society is so obsessed with happiness. If you were happy every day of your life you’d be a brekky telly weather presenter. The trick is to find happiness in small things.’ 

Kathy Lette, Twitter

In truth, it’s hard to visualize Kathy having bad days if you judge her from her social media pages. Vivacious, successful and always in the company of the type of celebrities that most people would die to be in the company of, the writer is usually papped with a glass of Champagne in one hand – one of the many reasons, (writing and humor aside), that she remains an icon to me, even if my own glass tends to be full of Aldi Prosecco rather than Cristal. However, the truth is that Kathy, like everyone, has faced her challenges. Raising a son with autism is not exactly a walk in the park.

Finding happiness in small things has become something of a mantra for me this year. I’m currently reading Matt Haig’s “Reasons To Stay Alive”  – who isn’t? – and the message that runs through the book, (and coincidentally, has always been the advice of my doctor), is the importance of building up reserves of mental strength through activities such as exercise or creativity, or whatever floats your boat, really. Everyone goes through stages of life that aren’t easy, but once you survive a bout of depression or learn to manage your anxiety, that resilience will better prepare you for the next time. 

“Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.” 
― Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

I might be in a bad place physically at the moment, but I’m mentally okay – well…okay by my standards, thanks to Zoloft! – and I believe that it is my focus on those small things, such as the love of family, writing, peering up into a cloudless sky – I’m in Australia, Matt! – or enjoying the sensation of sand running through my toes on the beach are what keeps my silly brain in check.

Continuing to grow is also important.

‘Continuing to grow’ is a phrase that can reduce the old man to a quivering wreck since the time I accused him of ‘waiting to die’ in an argument. Now, every time he agrees to do something that he wouldn’t choose of his own volition, he feels obliged to remind me of how much he is ‘growing.’ I equate my request that he keep on ‘living’ to the compromise I make each week when I am his target practice on the tennis court.

At 53, I continue to learn and grow, through my writing, through my work, through friendships and relationships. I continue to be curious about the world around me and about my place in it. Don’t get me wrong, our life isn’t perfect – who’s is? – and yet, finally, I’ve come to realize that it’s how we approach our problems that truly matters.

‘It’s lucky I’m a happy person,’ my uncle said to me on holiday as he drove me to the 24hr care home to see my beloved aunt who suffered a serious stroke last year.

Honestly, I don’t know what gave this gorgeous, generous and humble man such a gift of positivity, for he hasn’t had a particularly extraordinary or successful life – depending on how you measure success, of course. Indeed, he has only ever truly cared about one thing in his seventy-odd years – the love of his wife of almost half a century.

So, is he lucky?

I don’t think so. But I do believe that he chose to live his life a certain way, and it’s the right way.