Happiness, reflection, Well-being

What if there is no plan?

I’ve never had a plan.  

I do understand that you need some element of planning on a day to day level, to make sure that you are fed and clothed and the house gets cleaned.  I do understand planning at that level.  But not long term planning.  I’ve never really understood that kind of plan, and I’ve never had one.  Nor has husband

Not a five year plan, nor a 10 year plan.  Nor a life plan.  No lady plan.

Whenever I get asked that question, an interview classic, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years time’?  I don’t know.  I have never known.

There have been no plans.  In fact, the only plan I can ever recall following was a half-marathon running plan and even that was loose.  I never planned to run a half-marathon, a friend suggested it and I thought ‘why not’?  By the finish line I had a clearer understanding of why not!

I have also never really had goals.  Apparently you need a plan, in order to successfully achieve goals.  Beyond getting up and seeing where the day takes me.  Generally, that has been my approach to life – see where it takes you.  What adventures might come my way?

I have dreams.  Lots of dreams. Some of which came true.  Some of which didn’t.  

I dreamed of being an astronaut, which was an epic fail.  

I dreamed of having a 3 bed semi-detached house. Which sort of came true, as it turns out all I wanted really was a home that was safe and welcoming.

I dreamed of going to Iceland to see the Northern Lights and it was the best experience, far exceeding anything I’d imagined.

On the beach at Eyrarbakki, Iceland

I still have many dreams:

I dream of going on a yoga retreat, of going on a paddle board on the ocean.

I’d like to watch a grand prix in Abu Dhabi.

I wonder about being some kind of speaker.

Or of writing some poetry and seeing where that takes me.

Of bringing cheer to people’s days and making the world a brighter place.

Everywhere I turn there seems to be apps, diaries, journals all aimed at how to plan. How to be more productive, how to achieve more in a week  Year long planning journals.  90 day planning journals. Each one with a guarantee that their planning method is better than the next one.  How to plan your social media feed so that it’s more effective at generating income, generating followers.  How to plan your time so that you achieve more, waste less, fit more into a day.  How to identify your 3 key targets for the day.  How to measure them against your goals.  How to manifest everything that you want.  How to plan your life in accordance with the moon. What success looks like, what it doesn’t look like.  If I plan I will be more successful than I can possibly imagine

I used to think that my lack of a plan was some kind of failing.

Or that it was some kind of self defence mechanism.  If I didn’t have a plan I couldn’t fail and I would never be disappointed.  But I wonder if it really is a bit more straightforward than that.

Without a plan I was able to take advantages of opportunities that presented themselves to me as I went along.  If I was glued to a plan I might have missed some of those things.

I might have missed the opportunity to go into teaching when I was made redundant for the umpteenth time.

I might have missed the chance to live in America as an Au Pair after finishing university.

I might not even have gone to university in the first place.

I didn’t plan to be childless but even that opened up a whole raft of opportunities I might never have experienced otherwise.

I wouldn’t have moved house twice in the space of 4 years.

I definitely wouldn’t have retired at the age of 44.

I doubt I’d be living in an apartment near the beach in Portugal.

I’d have played the oboe instead of the clarinet.

I never imagined I’d have this beach on my doorstep

Recently, I’ve become embroiled in the idea that I should have a plan.  I should have goals.  I need to be successful.  I need to have achieved measurable success.  But I don’t think my kind of success can be measured.  I don’t know that you can plan to be happy, it’s just what it is. It’s taken a bit of work to get to this point, none of it planned. How can it be? My version of happy is different to everyone else’s so how can I follow someone else’s plan to achieve that.

I can’t really imagine how having a plan would make life all that much better for me.  

I now realise that my unhappiest moments have been when I’ve been planning, when I had goals. When I had plans foisted upon me.  Any teacher will tell you that lessons that haven’t been planned all that well often go better than those that are planned to within an inch of their life.  There’s something freeing about just going along with what may be.

What if there were no plans.  No goals.  What if the only goal of each day were to be happy. Content.  Happy and content with what you have, here and now.  What might that be like?  What if, you don’t need a plan?

The advantage of having no plans is that you can’t really fail. The disadvantage of having no plan, is that you are made to feel like a bit of a failure. Which is both sad, and terrifying in equal measure.    

All I do know is that an unplanned life has worked for me.  There may well be opportunities I have missed.  But there may well be opportunities I’ve enjoyed and might have missed because they weren’t part of any plan.  I’m currently considering which modules to do next for my Open University degree.  I’m torn between Creative Writing and Latin.  There is no plan.  There is no pros or cons list.   But I’m sure it will work out just fine, and if not, then no harm done.  It will all come out in the wash.

I will admit that sometimes things just don’t get done. I’ve wanted to make a dress and a couple of brooches for a while now, but they never seem to quite get completed.  I’m not the least bit consistent with posting blogs. Largely because other things come up – like writing, or reading, or exercising, or crochet, or staring in to space.  I can see where an element of planning could be useful and do wonder if it might be a good idea after all. But I also like to think that it something is important enough or is meant to be, it will happen, with or without a plan.  

So.  For now, I think I’m going to carry on living a life with no plans.  It has served me well, to date.   Who knows where it might just take me?   I do understand that for some people this approach really would not work, but for me it means that everyday is an adventure; it allows for something a little bit more extraordinary and unexpected to come along. 

Healthy living, Mindfulness, reflection, Well-being

What are your non-negotiables?

I’ve recently finished reading ‘Quit Like a Woman‘ by Holly Whitaker and I can highly recommend reading it.

It’s primarily about quitting alcohol and although I don’t drink a vast amount, I have struggled to knock drinking on the head altogether, there are moments where I still get sucked in.  Beyond that there were several recommendations that I felt would work in my life in general, one of which was to identify my three non-negotiables.  Those 3 things that I will do every day, even the worst of days, no matter what.  

1.  Exercise.  For me this is huge.  Even if all I can manage is a walk.  We were sitting at home recently and I was feeling guilty about leaving husband to do decorating on his own, again.  But he said he’d realised how much difference exercise does make to my overall well-being and so missing out on my Nordic Walking in this instance was non-negotiable.  That had to happen.  Exercise is the one thing that I prioritise in my diary.  No matter what.

2.  No alcohol.  This ties in with #1 and it absolutely has to be a non-negotiable.  If I drink I feel dreadful.  Even the tiniest bit makes me feel dreadful. Just this past weekend I had a couple of classes of wine with dinner.  During the night the crushing headache arrived.  At one point as the headache moved down my face, into my sinuses and my teeth I began to wonder if I was actually having a stroke.  As a consequence, I missed my Monday morning exercise class.  Instead I slept.  Then I  feel even more dreadful.  Which makes me more tempted to drink, or eat sweets.  Which makes me feel a bit more dreadful and so I carry on in this downward spiral.  The exercise goes out of the window and it takes a mammoth effort to get back on track again.  So better all round if I just don’t bother with the alcohol in the first place.

3.  Meditation.  I’ve always been a bit slapdash when it comes to meditation.  I do it for a few days, then not.  I’m making a concerted effort to make meditation a daily commitment and making it a non-negotiable will help with that.  Much like exercise, it makes a big difference to me.  I normally aim for 15 minutes twice a day.  Sometimes I just sit in the quiet, sometimes I use a guided meditation, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter too much how I do it!  But it does have a really positive impact on how I feel during the day.

Besides these 3  non-negotiables, the book recommends a toolkit of about 10 things that you can draw upon to help you navigate those tricky moments.  I have:

1.  A cup of tea.  Very British I know, but you can’t beat a good old cup of tea.  I suspect because it simply makes you stop for a while and address what is causing the problem.  Or to sit quietly and just reflect.  Or sit and look out of the window at the world going by for a moment.

2.  My husband.  He is very good in the moment.  I can tell him what is going around in my head.  90% of the time he tells me it’s stupid and 80% of the time he’d be right.  But I know that I can safely say what’s in my head, as bonkers as it may be.  Just being able to say it out loud in a safe place gives me space to realise just how bonkers the thoughts are and it is the first step towards finding a solution.  

3.  My sister.  After husband has mopped up the initial anxiety driven trauma, my sister is superb at providing impartial, practical solutions.  No judgement, no making me feel stupid, just straight forward practical solutions. 

4. Tapping (EFT) This is a relatively new find for me and I’ll admit I thought it was totally out there the first time I tried it or heard about it.  It works with the central nervous system and the meridians. Basically you tap on various points on your face and body whilst repeating certain phrases and the combination of both helps restore your equilibrium.  

5.  Mindful Moments.  I’ve set a series of alarms on my phone for every 2 hours.  When it goes off I stop for a few minutes.  If I’m out and about I tend to do a few minutes heart coherence.  Or if I’ve been sitting studying for a while I use it as the opportunity to walk and stretch a little.  The idea being that it brings to back to the present.  Initially I thought it would be an intrusive nightmare, but it’s really quite pleasant!

6.  Deleting Facebook.  This probably sounds like a bizarre one.  But I cannot tell you the difference it has made to me, not being on Facebook and avoiding that particular rabbit hole.  I don’t know what it is about my brain that means I can’t take part in this particular activity – but I can’t.

7.  Making things Anything really!  There is nothing that I lose myself in quite like making something.  It absorbs me totally.  I do want to make a dress that fits and I have a bit of a bizarre obsession with crochet scarves and wraps at the moment. I always have something on the go, so whenever I find myself feeling a bit low, or there is potential for me to get sucked into something that might not be so good for me, then I can pick up whatever it is I am making and sit enjoying the process for a while. I have the world’s longest list of things I want to make so it’s unlikely I’ll ever find myself at a loose end.

8.  Music.  As the song says ‘Through my times of trouble my music sees me through’.  Listening to music, playing an instrument.  I don’t play my clarinet as often as I should, but there is nothing quite like it for bringing me into the present moment.  I’m trying to widen my music repertoire and am listening to different types of music, but I have to say that in the moment you can’t beat a bit of Katy Perry!

9.  Sitting on a bench. This is a topical one!  Ricky Gervais has just placed 15 benches around the UK based on the one he uses in the show Afterlife.  The theory being that you sit there and someone comes to chat to you and might just save your day.  I don’t very often get to sit and talk to anyone, but quite regularly a short walk to a local bench is all I need to settle my mind.  To sit quietly and watch the ocean, or watch people walking by, to hear the birds singing, the children laughing.  You can’t beat a good old bench.

10.  Other people.  This is a bit of a catchall.  I don’t have a ‘crew’ as such and I am still trying to find out what works best for me.  One thing that did resonate with me from the book is that different people will come into your life at different times.  Some stay, some don’t, some you may not ever meet in real-life.  But this is an evolving thing.  There have been many people over the years that have made a difference to me.  In the past year it has definitely been my physio and chiropractor, but I can see how I may move on from them now that physically, I feel so much better.

So there we have it.  My 3 non-negotiables and my toolkit of 10.  These may both evolve over time, but what I have found interesting is that it helps to be prepared.  It helps to be consistent and practice techniques day in and day out.  I appreciate that for many people this is not even necessary.  What I do know is that starting my day with non-negotiable #1, the chances of me even needing to delve into the toolkit of 10 is significantly reduced.  

Mindfulness, Well-being

Angelica Anxiety

This past week hasn’t been one of the best.  Equally, it hasn’t been one of the worst.  But as the week wore on, it became more and more apparent that the only way things were really ending was with a bit of an anxiety induced meltdown.

In the end it turned out to be a really positive experience, as the wealth of support and knowledge that was directed my way was amazing.  So many friends reached out to offer support and to share their experiences. Which I suppose is why I am so honest about my experiences – it my help someone else along the way to understand that whilst they might feel completely lost and alone, the reality is somewhat different, there are so many people who are willing and able to help.  

I posted about my experience initially on Instagram and Facebook.  Almost immediately I received a message from a friend with a link to the NHS mental health website which offered a range of techniques to help manage anxiety.  Some I’d tried before, some I hadn’t, some just didn’t do it for me.  One I had tried during the week was breathing. Constantly breathing, follow the breath, in out, from the heart, radiate good feelings, find the good feelings, why can’t I find the good feelings, back to the breathing.  At which point the technique designed to combat the anxiety was creating its own form of anxiety.  

There is an 8 minute Yoga Nidra practice on the NHS ‘Every Mind Matters‘ website which I decided to give a whirl.  I’ve tried Yoga Nidra before but only in the yoga studio, so I admit I was a bit sceptical.  I didn’t actually realise the 8 minutes was up, as I was so busy concentrating on relaxing the various parts of my body, so in the end I’d probably been lying on the floor for nearer 20 minutes.  So, I interpreted that as a positive result.  Unfortunately, the Yoga Nidra was followed by the breakdown.  I’m not sure if the relaxation had just released all the pent up emotions, or the kindness of a friend or why it happened then, but the meltdown I had worked so hard to avoid all week eventually came.  By the bucket load.  But I didn’t want the meltdown.  I didn’t want to be anxious, I wanted to fix it without reaching that point.  It turns out that, as ever, the meltdown was required for me to move forward.

Another technique recommended on the NHS website was to keep an anxiety diary.  Sort of ‘What Angelica did today’.  I’m not generally a fan of this as I feel I just end up with a really negative journal, a list of everything that is going wrong.  I can see the rationale behind it, but I don’t think it’s really for me.  Increasingly though, I think it needs to be for me and I need to try to find a way to make it happen.  One of the first books I read about mental health was Ruby Wax’s ‘Frazzled’ and in that she recommends naming the different beasts that invade your brain – hence Angelica Anxiety – but to go further than that and give them a persona.  What do they look like?  How are they dressed?  In my head Anglica has wild curly, untamed hair, with the look of someone caught like a rabbit in the headlights.  That slightly startled, terrified look of someone who doesn’t know which way to run.  The idea is that you start to spot the arrival of this beast, Angelica, and so you can start to smooth her down before things get out of hand.  This is where the diary comes in to play.

I started to think about where this particular bout of anxiety had originated.  In the moment, I blamed the fact I was doing Sober October for MacMillan Cancer and I didn’t have the alcohol to mask the symptoms.  But it dawned on me that this wasn’t really true.  I don’t drink all that much alcohol – so whilst I might occasionally use it as a distraction it’s not that much of an influence.  As I looked back over the past month or so I could see patterns – that if I’d kept a diary I would recognise by now.

We came back to Albufeira in late August and since then it has been pretty full on.  I would say every week people have been visiting the town on their holidays.  Some we knew about, some were pleasant surprises.  We are incredibly fortunate to have a wide variety of friends that we enjoy spending time with and quite frequently they are only visiting Albufeira for a short period of time and so we like to catch up with them as much as we can.  None of them stay with us and appreciate that we live here and so make very few demands on our time.  The problem is that I feel we should do all we can to meet up with them and I do have very bad FOMO! Unfortunately, it reached the point where I was struggling to cope with the number of times each week we were going out with other people and the cracks started to show – but at that time I didn’t realise it – or if I did chose to ignore the signs.

When I was a teacher, I worked in a school with two deputy heads who had two totally different approaches to work / life balance. The first appreciated that on a week to week basis he had very little control over the direction his week would take and so the last thing he wanted was additional commitments outside school.  He wanted to be able to go home and enjoy that time with his family.  The other was determined that school would not get in the way of their out of school activities.  So, she could be found at the swimming pool at 9:30 at night, because she liked to swim every day.  Or would carry on going to a weekly evening class, even though she was shattered, because school was not going to stop her enjoying her beloved past-times.  I tend to fall into this camp.  So, whilst all of our friends have been coming to visit I have done very little to alter my life to make allowances.  I have continued to meet with other ex-pats for lunch, I’ve taken up bowls, I’ve continued to walk a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, I’ve started to do online fitness classes and even dabbled with swimming in the sea – I’ve even tried to set up a Nordic Walking Group, alongside starting another Open University module.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out this was going to end badly.

I know, more than anything, that I need to exercise and eat well to feel good about myself and that it is a major contributor to maintaining my mental health.  So that is non-negotiable.  The exercise is happening.  Thereafter I needed to start to say no.  I needed to start to prioritise my own health and to be more selective about how often I went out and which other activities I carried out.  Had I kept a diary about my anxiety I would have noticed at this point that I was starting to get ‘fraught’ and a little bit panicky about how I was going to fit everything in.  But I brushed it under the carpet.  I don’t want to be that ‘anxious’ person who can’t keep up – but the thing is I am and the best way to handle that is to learn to say no.  To learn to spot the signs of impending meltdown and put my health and the sanity of my husband before other people.  I’m not very good at that – so say yes to everything – then end up bailing on arrangements we’ve made anyway because I am just too exhausted.

In an attempt to tackle the increasing anxiety, I decided to take part in Sober October.  In my head, I decided that this was going to solve the problem.  But it didn’t.  I was still going out just as much as I had been previously, probably 4 to 5 days a week.  The only difference was I wasn’t having a glass or two of wine.  So, I’d actually gained nothing and still wasn’t addressing the primary issue of over committing myself.  I was just doing too much and placing the needs of others before my spiralling anxiety.  By this point Angelica was getting a bit more shambolic in appearance and definitely needed a good hair wash to tame those frazzled curls.

One of the tell-tale signs for me that my anxiety is out of control is playing Candy Crush.  The time I was spending doing activities that are both productive and calming reduced.  The time spent on the games increased.  I know this because husband was asking ‘Are you still on that game?’  I know that once he’s started noticing that I’m on the games the situation has got out of hand.  And I was spending hours at a time on the games – playing them up until bedtime, which then disrupted my sleep, which then meant I was tired and anxious the next day.  Eventually I spotted that I was doing that and deleted them off my tablet.  This is a recurring situation.  The anxiety increases, I download the games, the amount of time I spend on the game increases, I delete the games as a means to control the anxiety that I’d wanted to control in the first place!  

So, as I look back, I can see the triggers were there and I can also see the mechanisms I use to avoid admitting it were there.  Had I kept a diary I might have been able to address the arrival of Angelica sooner, more effectively and avoided the meltdown situation.  If I’d just written down ‘Downloaded Candy Crush’ I might have recognised that the situation was starting to get out of hand and the other techniques recommended on the NHS website might have worked.  Breathing might have worked.  Going for a walk on the beach might have worked.  Talking to husband might have worked.  I’m going to give keeping a journal another try – I just need to find a way to jazz it up a bit and avoid it being too morose.