Routine, in every sense.

Our little habits and routines are crucial parts of our lives. Once we’ve done something the same way a few times, our brains create a kind of short-cut, low-energy running mode which means we can do things whilst only using the minimum of our internal working brain. Brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea, packing the dishwasher. It’s all done on your brain’s equivalent of standby mode.

This can even kick in when we’re doing quite complicated things, too. I’m sure you’ve experienced driving a route you know well “on autopilot” and arriving at the station or your Mum’s house or wherever and thinking “I didn’t really concentrate through any of that” and wondering how it all just happened.

But just happened it did. We’re actually bloody good at it, and it’s really useful, because if we had to think about everything all the time our overworked little ape brains would, without any shadow of a doubt, explode within 30-45 minutes, maximum.

30-45 minutes later…

That routine, that habit, just doing something without thinking – that does more than just save our brain power. It’s that same sense of being on ‘autopilot’ which can bring an element of stability to our lives. The familiarity of getting a coffee at the station every morning, standing in the same place on the platform, walking the same route to the office: yes it’s because “who wants to think about that stuff”, but it’s also familiar, and comfortable. We like that, us humans. We’re simple animals, and we like things to be the same. Same is simple. Same is known. Same is safe.

Ooh, hang on. SAFE. That’s quite a big word, isn’t it? [And I don’t mean just because I put it in ALL CAPS, although I concede that does indeed make it bigger, well done if you spotted that, you get a cash prize of 10p please contact me on MySpace for details].

Feeling safe is really basic to us as animals. Right down towards the bottom of good old Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s a foundation of the pyramid, something we need before we can start to think about more lofty ideas. So much so, that once we have that safety, the idea of giving it up can actually make us feel very uncomfortable, very unsure.

Perhaps, when the world is so uncertain, it’s even more important? Because when the world is uncertain that means nothing is the same and won’t be the same again. And if same is safe and the world will never be the same again then that means…

Especially when the world – that place out there, full of masked strangers and signage and arrows and rules and fear – is actually full on proper actually scary in its own right.

So we close in. Our new routines, our new habits, become our new safe. Get it right and it can actually get quite comfortable really. At a stretch you could even convince yourself that it was your decision somehow. A smaller life, more constricted. Habits that keep you safe when the world cannot.

And so we lower our expectations, to the point when the only expectation is to make it through the day, the week. To cope, somehow. To get to the weekend… where we do the same things, in the same places. We stop living and we exist from day to day, week to week. We drink too much, or stop drinking completely because we worry about drinking too much. We wait for something new on Netflix but and we feel the grief of TV bereavement when we finish something we like because that was a habit for a bit and habits make us feel safe.

We didn’t get any snow last week. Not a fucking flake. My social media feeds were full of bloody snowmen and sledges and sublime scenery and we got drizzle, for two days. I was livid. Not because I’m desperate to throw a snowball which by chance hits my younger son Jack right in the face so he starts crying immediately and we have to go home and everyone hates me for the rest of the day (true story) but because it would have been different. A break from the norm. A break from coping, getting by, managing.

Oh brilliant, snow selfie is it mate? Yeah yeah whatever

But then, the same day that every other bugger in the whole country got the snow, we had a power cut. A proper, old fashioned, 1980s power cut!! I was genuinely giddy with excitement! The strange “oh my God where are the candles??” excitement of a power cut! What would we do? Maybe read by candlelight or play a board game? Is it out all over the village – yes look it is, not a light anywhere, I wonder what’s happened…

And then, in the time it’d taken me to find a match and light the first candles, it all came back on. The TV hummed into life; the lights all over the house [All together now: “It’s like Blackpool bloody illuminations in here!”]. Like a cruel joke, the house lights of normality chased the dramatic darkness of difference into the corners and away under the chairs.

And there we all were again, all the people in the village, suddenly right back where we started. In the old routines.

Coping. Getting by. Managing.

Is this life in 2021?

I say this is not good enough.

I say we deserve more than just coping.

I say that the habits we have built may keep us safe but they limit our expectations of life.

If we let our routines become our lives then we let our lives become… routine.

But make the choice to break your habits, to bend your routine, and that life can rush back in. Because it’s always there, ready for you. Life’s dependable like that.

If you’re a regular reader [what, nothing better to do with your time than read the latest emanation from my fragile psyche? You’re very kind, thank you I do appreciate it.], you’ll know that last week I went for a walk in the woods with my friend Joe. Well since then I’ve walked most mornings – this morning with the good doctor once again [hi Joe!].

I don’t go every morning, partly because sometimes it’s pissing it down and I’m not a total maniac, and partly because it’s the lack of routine to it that makes it so refreshing. As well as filling my lungs and getting my blood pumping around my increasingly corpulent carcass first thing [still proudly “Gym Free Since ’93”], it allows me to see the world at a different time of day, in a different light, with different smells and sounds. It makes me want to paint a picture or write a poem [neither of which I can do, but a boy can dream, right?]. It’s pulled me out of my routine, and made things less routine.

And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t done the same route twice.

Listen, I can’t tell you how to live your life. What I can tell you is that those new routines, and habits – the ones that aren’t just about keeping your brain free but more about keeping your soul safe – they will need to be challenged at some point. Because whatever comes next [and trust me when I tell you that although everything seems uncertain, this too shall pass] we both know it will need you to let go of some of those new things… just like the situation we’re all in at the moment forced us to let go of all the old things, in a single moment.

We didn’t have a choice before. And we didn’t have the chance to prepare.

Now we do have a choice, and we do have the chance.

So, tell me: what’s today going to be like?

[As a small post script, I just want to say how much I fucking love our crazy language. That one word – “routine” – can as a noun mean those commonplace things we regularly do, and as an adjective means dull, conventional and unremarkable is fascinating and joyous to me. I love the idea that our language is so furtile and full that we can push it around and play with it, like a cat toys with a ball of string, lost in a world of simple pleasures. Sorry if I lost you in the double meaning anywhere – I couldn’t help myself.]

Being kind

This week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. The theme of their activities is ‘kindness’. Isn’t that just the most perfect, simple expression of all that’s good in the world rolled up into a word that means just as much to my 6-year-old as it would to his 92-year-old Great Grandfather? [on my wife’s side – my grandfathers both having long since departed I’m sorry to say]

Kindness doesn’t expect anything in return. Kindness is selfless, honest, truthful. If it’s not… well actually then it’s not kindness at all, it’s something else.

For young Jack [6 and a half, to be accurate – and that half is VERY important] being kind is about helping someone who’s fallen over; sharing a particularly good stick; giving his big brother Ben [10 now – I know, I can’t believe it either] one of his sweets. It’s different to helpful (tidying up) or nice (an unexpected hug) – it means doing something for someone else simply because you can.

[No, these are not my two boys but I know it would have been such an unbearable hassle getting them to pose for a picture without attacking each other that I only really considered it for a second before dismissing it as a fool’s errand. I feel good about that decision.]

For Bob [92 and change] in his little village in the South Wales valleys, kindness is just as simple, and probably not even considered anything out of the ordinary. If someone’s fence needs fixing, you help fix it. Not because your fence might need fixing (trust me, Bob’s fence is pristine) but because that’s what you do. Simple, small acts of kindness, as a way of life.

[As a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by Bob’s little community where a whole chain of give and take has developed over the years. Check this out: Bob grows tomatoes – not because he particularly likes tomatoes, but because the bloke down the road does and he has chickens, so Bob gives him tomatoes for some eggs… not because he particularly likes eggs, but because the lady up the road needs eggs to make her cakes. And Bob does like cake.]

The word ‘kind’ actually comes from an old Middle English word meaning ‘nature’. It used to be that if someone was kind it was because Mother Nature had done a really bloody good job with them. Hundreds of years later, and we still talk about someone being “good natured”. And then as the words travelled like a stream through time, diverging into different meanings all from the same source, the same word that became “kind” also became “kin” – our tribe, our family. Kindness and human connection interlinked through language, over centuries.

Research from The Mental Health Foundation (which you can find here) has shown that the idea of kindness and mental health are deeply connected – that kindness is “an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging”. There are proven connections to stress reduction, improved relationships. And kindness to ourselves allows self-esteem, optimism and resilience to blossom.

All just through kindness. Kindness always has an effect.

So perhaps we can think of every small act of kindness like a pebble being thrown into a lake, with the ripples of that kindness spreading far wider than the little pebble ever could have imagined.

Perhaps kindness has an energy that can pass from person to person, ripple by ripple, across geographies, across cultures, across every difference you can imagine. Even across time, for ever.

If you want to hear the most exquisite explanation of kindness, then I implore you to watch this 2 minute clip of the poet Maya Angelou, who sadly left us in 2014. She talks about kindness as trying to be “a rainbow in someone else’s cloud” and I promise you’ll catch your breath with the beauty of her words.

130 Best Poetry images in 2020 | Poetry, Poems, Words
Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

And so until next time, I thank you for the kindness of reading these words of mine, and leave you with some worthy words of another poet: this time an Englishman who came from a simpler time perhaps, but who nevertheless sums things up just right.

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”

William Wordsworth

Sending you kindness and love, this week and in those to come, too.

[For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, visit https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week. And remember, kindness still does all that good stuff every week.]

Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

Today is Time To Talk day in the UK. It’s part of the Time To Change campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to change the way people think and act about mental health problem, led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

It does what it says on the tin really – a day where people are encouraged to be more open about their own mental health, talk about the mental health of others and try, piece by piece, to remove the stigma that exists around mental health issues. At home and at work.

I’ve always been able to handle a lot of stress. Even when things are kicking off, I can get through okay. Maybe a bit tetchy with people at work, snappy or grumpy (or just plain exhausted) at home, perhaps lose a bit of sleep here and there. Still able to have a joke and a laugh, just maybe a little unpredictable I guess. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that when I’ve got a lot on it’s tough to turn off or relax, especially when you’re going through all the possible scenarios in your head and they get worse each time you do it! Nothing a couple of glasses of wine before bed won’t help eh?

Yup. That’s been me, for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes it takes something big to change the way you see the world. A birth, a death. Perhaps love.  For me it was a little post on Facebook whilst on a business trip somewhere in Germany.

A little context…

For a good few months, I’d been rolling through the mantra at the top – I’m fine, just got a lot on, nothing I can’t handle, etc etc, you know the drill.  I was almost snapped out of that one morning early last year.  I’d woken up in the middle of the night, work stuff rattling through my head like an old train, unable to get back to sleep and getting more annoyed about the fact that I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about work and all that. So rather than wrestling with the bed clothes and waking my wife I decided to just quietly get up, get dressed in the dark, and go to work. 

I live about 90 minutes from the office door to desk, and I was at that desk by about half 6. God knows what time I woke up originally, but by mid-afternoon I was grumpy as hell and dead on my feet.  I got home that evening and my wife asked me what time I’d left and I’d explained the night time scenario. I could see her worried face and tried to reassure her.

“I’m not stressed out, I just can’t stop thinking about things and I’m finding it hard to sleep”.

To which she quite rightly replied: “that is stress, you idiot”.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll have a think about that.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m sitting on a perfectly on-time, quiet and non-rattling train going through the German countryside, alongside a colleague and [dare I say it] friend [yes I dare]. It’s the end of a long day and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, wondering why I’m friends with people on Facebook with whom I’m not actually friends in real life, and wondering if I should just immediately unfriend anyone who uses #hashtags on Facebook post (#holiday #celebrate #blessed #lovemylife) when I come across this…

It’s like I’ve been slapped in the face.

I read the list again. I can tick off maybe a dozen of these without thinking about it. Another handful if I do.

I turn to my amigo/co-worker and show him.

“This is me”, I say.

Those words, on that train, were the start of a journey of my own. The very first step was admitting to myself that being really, really good at dealing with lots of stress whilst simultaneously hiding it isn’t the superpower that I thought it was. 

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

Left unacknowledged, unspoken and undercover, that stress can damage everything I hold dear – my work, my family and ultimately my life.

I won’t bore you with the details of precisely what happened next, but the first step for me was talking. Talking to colleagues, friends, my wife [hey honey – how’s your day going?], then my GP, then a counsellor. Then back to my GP and since the beginning of last year I’ve been on some medication which I’ve found really helps.

[By the way, it’s still a massive deal to “admit” that I’m on medication to help with my anxiety, because of some weird stigma and shame that exists about it. Perhaps I’ll unpack that in a separate post…]

Nearly 2 years on I’m a lot more content, more calm, more connected with the world around me, with myself and with my emotions than I ever thought possible. Sure, I still get nervous about things, and I still get pissed off about things – I’m human, not superhuman, remember? – but I know I’ll never confuse a superpower with Kryptonite so easily again.

And every single person I’ve told has been totally supportive. Just like I would be if it were the other way round. Turns out quite a few people feel the same. I know, right?

So over time, I’ve started talking about it more openly with my agency friends and family too. Because if I can show that I struggle sometimes, it makes it “okay to not be okay” and, hopefully, we can support each other through all the stressful times with a bit more honesty and vulnerability.

And I know I’m still on the journey I started that day, and that I probably always will be. That’s okay. That’s my decision and something I’m proud of, in a weird way.

But what I will say is this:

If you’re reading any of this thinking “fuck, that’s me”, then this is your slap in the face. From me to you.

You’re welcome.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Remember that the very first step is to talk.

And given that it’s #TimeToTalk day, maybe that’s something you might consider doing today?

Talk to someone who cares about you – a friend, a partner, a colleague – and you’ll find that they will be just as kind and thoughtful as you would be if they came to you.

Best of luck, and please, do take care of yourself.