I don’t really know, is the answer. The question being, of course, how am I still alright? It is hard work, or rather, it isn’t hard work as such – being content should never be hard work otherwise is it really contentment? But I have to be aware of certain things and I have to avoid some things and take care to do others. So here it all is, how I’m doing it, the things I know and the things I don’t know about recovery. Partly to prove to you all that I’m not just drifting and hoping, partly to set it all down for myself, because I know there are rules, and I know what the rules are, but it makes me feel nicely organised if they’re down here in real list form.
I know I can’t get away with not getting enough rest or sleep. This is partly why I was teetering on the edge over exams – the stress and the fact that I really wasn’t sleeping well all combined to threaten to send me round the twist. Now I am sleeping better, which is good. I don’t know if it’s really the amount of sleep that counts, it’s the being conscious in the depths of the night, when no-one else is around, and it’s dark, and time becomes this surreal, slow, viscous thing, which doesn’t move at a constant speed, and everything suddenly looms so much larger and more luridly, and because it’s not a time at which one is meant to be awake, you’re not quite sure what you should be really doing with yourself at 3am, or whatever time it happens to be.
Things are just that much stranger and scarier, and you’re that much more alone, so it’s just you and your mind and of course it gets to you and conspires to unlock and unblock those aspects of you which you’re working so hard to put to rest for good. So if you’re not going to get enough sleep, you have to do it in a structured way: it’s OK to be sleepless if you’re lying in bed retelling yourself the collected works of Jane Austen in your own words, or counting sheep, or trying to work out exactly how you would go about making the perfect dress in your mind, mentally cutting out pattern pieces, or designing your perfect wedding, or rescoring orchestral works for string quartet, or counting breaths in and out (in…2…3…out…2…3…4….) – these are all things I’ve done. It’s a case of making your mind stick on ‘safe’ subjects. Better still, of course, get some decent sleep.
And again, you can miss out on sleep if you’re with friends and having a good time and genuinely have a bloody good reason to be awake in the middle of the night (be that gin and tonic, or sex, or a film marathon, or a great night out, or a great night in, or a night outside with a decent fire and good company, or Eurovision, or drink-along-with Film X(we have so many plans for drinkalongs this summer – Withnail & I, Torchwood, Assorted Films I Should Really Have Heard Of, Casino Royale… though whether we’ll actually get around to doing any of them I really don’t know), whatever floats your boat). It’s a case of keeping your mind occupied.
Stress is another big one, of course. And I have to be aware of the things that get me stressed. I hadn’t realised it but I do suffer from exam stress. Not to the same degree that other people do, but still, it’s a problem. And I got around it by being very careful to get up at the same time each day, stick to a routine (admittedly a routine which meant starting each day with obscene amounts of coffee and cigarettes) but it was structured, it was the same each day, and I had a revision method which I stuck to and which worked, by and large, and I made damn sure to do my best not to let work overwhelm me by taking good breaks and never working late and reminding myself that although they might be a big deal these exams – all exams – are not the be-all and end-all.
As another recent entry of mine will have pointed out, I get stressed about organising things. Last year I became in many ways one of the chief organisers of our group holiday to the New Forest, partly because I owned one of the two big tents we took with us and because I was one of only about two or three people in the whole group that had gone camping on a regular basis and knew how to camp on a campsite in the long term (if you’re only going to be in a place for two or three nights and there aren’t showers and such becuase you’re in the middle of nowhere on DofE then it’s all a totally different experience from living in the tent and being able to relax and enjoy it because that’s the whole point of being there, after all). So therefore I allowed the whole experience and peoples’ enjoyment of it to become my responsibility and that wore me down and wore me out and sent me round the bend in ways I don’t like to think about. However it was a fairly public temporary loss of sanity and so I think although people will be worried about taking me away this year, they’re doing it anyway, and I think they’ll probably be looking over my shoulder for the whole time, especially M and J, and though that might annoy me, I know it’s for the best. And I know now that if I can’t cope with taking that role, and find myself doing so anyway, I can and should ask for help, cast off that mantle, and let the whole thing go hang. Better for everyone in the end by far.
Likewise I’ve realised I literally can’t currently cope with organising big social things. Last night I hosted a fire evening for a number of mine and my sister’s friends. As it happens it went off fine despite my slightly middle-aged outburst at some interlopers, but I think it was about as much stress as I could reasonably cope with without losing the plot entirely – as it was I was pretty distracted from one moment to the next, always trying to keep an eye on everybody, and we’re talking a group of about ten. I got a bit snippy with some people but I think we all got off lightly there. I don’t think I could cope with organising something involving any greater numbers than that right now, which seems ridiculous, but I just have to accept that I’m honestly just not capable of it.
That’s the thing – I have to realise my own limitations. I can’t go out in the evenings two nights in a row, not if they’re late nights. I can’t drink too much because if I don’t get horribly low whilst drunk, it’s sure to hit me along with the hangover the next day. I have to get enough sleep. I have to eat sensibly. I can’t take recreational drugs and get away with it.
I have to keep my mind occupied, I can’t just drift for a few days and chill out totally – I have to have little projects. Tidy my room, read this book or practice that piece on the piano, learn some more poi or wield the staff I found in the garage (by which I think I probably mean an old broom handle, but it seems to work), go and run errands in town or go for a walk or a run, knit. Hobbies were invented for a reason, and now they’re coming in handy. That and I should be working.
I can’t let myself get too stressed, so I have to be invited to things rather than organising things to which I can invite others. If I’m going to do anything like that it requires a lot of planning because being the hostess and the organiser is one of my Big Fears. I have to keep my own life organised – keep a diary to tell me where and when I have to be, keep a journal to understand where, when and how I was.
The hardest bit is this, and it’s an odd one: I can’t get too happy. I can’t have a great evening, where everything makes me laugh and smile and lots of good things happen without paying for it later that night or the following day. Sometimes I can get away with it; and having a really good time and forming all those brilliant memories of a really stand-out-perfect day or few hours is worth the price of one or two bad days, but it’s a shame it has to be like that.
It’s not hard work, it doesn’t mean massive lifestyle changes, it’s just a case of remembering that right now (and maybe never) I can’t match the people around me hour-for-hour, drink-for-drink or achievement-for-achievement. I used to think I could have it all – a wild social life with lots of drinking, a certain amount of recreational substance abuse if I wanted it (which as it happened I never really have, but it was always an option), good grades, outside interests like orchestra and poi and climbing and reading and cinema and such, enough sleep to just about get by, and a real enjoyment of my university course, a stellar medical career, a solid group of friends. I can have a slice of each of those things if I’m organised and tough with myself. I can be the high achiever if I cut back on the social life and only go out once every couple of weeks and never on week nights; I can go out all the time if I’m prepared to sleep during the day a lot and do nothing else; it’s like my own personal version of the 21st-century-woman’s have-it-all dilemma – be the perfect mother, all apple cheeks and smiles and home-made cakes and massive, inventive projects building tree-houses and painting murals at the weekends; or have the high-flying career, and is it possible to have both? No. But you can find compromises if you’re organised and responsible. And that’s what I am doing at the moment – and that is why I am still OK.