When a new cluster of COVID appeared in Melbourne a few weeks back – bringing with it the inevitable disruption of border shutdowns, flight cancellations and wedding postponements – we stopped breathing again. I, for one, have nothing but praise for our nation’s response to the virus, but this stop/start way of living is taking its toll.
Compared to many people, I was fortunate to emerge from 2020 relatively unscathed. Admittedly, certain elements of our brief lockdown in Sydney tested me, but because my job carried on pretty much as usual (and I don’t get out much anyway), there were few noticeable changes in my day-to-day life.
However, I don’t think anyone resurfaced from last year’s unprecedented event without some restructuring of their lives. And so, at the start of 2021 and what we hope will be a better year – we may have to pretend for a moment that last week’s antics at Capitol Hill never happened – I’d like to highlight some of the positive ways the last terrible year altered my perceptions.
The most notable change to my lifestyle in 2020 was that I learned to relax. I’m not sure if I am naturally a productive person, but keeping busy distracts me from overthinking – which in turn keeps the “black dog” from my back door. So when I woke up in this new, threatening world that offered no certainties, i.e. I didn’t know how our income stream would be affected by the virus, or when we would see family and friends again – and curtailed my movements, I discovered the enjoyment of greater balance in my life, and a desire to use my time more wisely.
2020 was definitely an education that made me pull my inner sanctum closer and helped me let go of the dead wood.
Not only did COVID teach us a new language – where words like “restrictions”, “isolation”, and “seeding” took on new meaning – lockdown provided many of us with more time to self-reflect, to look at our lives more closely and gain a better understanding of what gives meaning to them – and I’m not talking about alcohol.
These are 9 surprising truths I discovered about myself:
- I enjoy my own company is a surprising admission from a Leo, however, I am a lion with anxiety, which adds another dimension to the attention-seeking stereotype. With the curtailment of my social life, I had to learn not to feel guilty about doing and achieving nothing and I saw a noticeable improvement in my mental health. Nowadays, I try to dedicate at least an hour each day to read or watch something vacuous on Netflix, just to switch off. It’s called self-care.
- I’m quite innovative. I am more resourceful than I thought and I’m not afraid to try out new things. Many of my friends struggle to fill their free time – especially when their partners are busy – whereas I discovered a plethora of new interests. I completed an online marketing course, I learned how to crochet, and I even gave Pilates another go. And while it’s unlikely I will continue to crochet in my retirement, I am more confident I won’t have to take up golf anytime soon either.
- I need routine. I have never lacked self-discipline, but I am easily distracted and so I need structure and accountability in my day – even if that’s just a to-do list. I’m certain that the necessity of a daily routine is symptomatic of my age and anxiety as much as COVID, or even a coping strategy I’ve picked up to prevent my brain straying into dangerous territory, but I am much more productive when I set myself goals. Now I just need to work on some flexibility.
- Friends, family, and community are important to me. During lockdown, we relied on our friends and family like never before, and everyone – even the socially anxious and introverts among us – was forced to make an effort to maintain connection, whether that was via a quick text to check in or a full-blown Zoom call. Small talk has never been one of my strengths, and prior to COVID, it was rare for me to instigate a group chat about the mundanities of my day. However, last year forced to do just that, and I saw for myself the benefits of those interactions in terms of the mutual boost to our morale.
- I need to exercise. I have hated sport for most of my life, which proves just how much we change with age. I don’t exercise to lose weight, I do it to keep my brain healthy and to maintain a positive outlook. I never understood how addictive exercise was until a recent sports injury affected my mobility and the mental health benefits I derive from nature and the great outdoors.
- Exercise doesn’t help me lose weight. However, as much as I’d love to eulogise about the resulting weight loss from my gruelling workouts and pathetic little runs, I finished the year at the same weight I started. I am fitter, my joints and muscles are (presumably) stronger, and a recent heart check gave me the all-clear, but I have also had to resign myself to the fact that I will never be a size 10 again. And that’s OK. Weight loss is about diet, and I love my food too much to be a skinny Minnie.
- I’m an empath. I discovered that an increasingly unhealthy compassion towards pretty much everything and everyone means that daily doomscrolling and watching cute dog videos are not great for my mental health. While I am proud of my compassion for those less fortunate than myself, I need to control my emotional investment. I can’t let the misfortunes of others paralyse me to the point where it prevents me from doing my own work to create awareness about the stuff that is important to me. Basing my own happiness on the happiness of others is an example of “interdependence”, according to my therapist.
- My emotional triggers. Last year, I gained a better understanding of what triggers my anxiety: my son’s mental health and its ramifications, a latent problem with rejection (that I’m still trying to understand), and the pressure of working for other people (whilst trying to balance my other responsibilities, in particular, my son’s needs). Now that I’ve identified them, I feel more confident about moving forward with my therapist to develop coping strategies. “What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens,” (Ellen Glasgow) is great advice that I intend to heed in 2021. In simple terms, it means I will stop taking responsibility for everyone else’s problems and choices and I will be my son’s supporter rather than his enabler.
- The true meaning of gratitude. It has been heartbreaking to watch the toll of COVID around the world, particularly from my place of privilege. And yet, I’m embarrassed to admit that I still have those why me days. I have never taken anything for granted, but in 2021 I am even more resolved to make the most of each day and be grateful for what I have.
What did you learn about yourself this year?
Three days ago, I was putting the finishing touches to a post for you about Christmas party dresses, of all things. To my shame, I was bemoaning the limited choice for those of us middle-aged women who aren’t a size 8, don’t have legs as long as a giraffe, and who may not feel flashing their arse cheeks to their boss at the Christmas office party.
Three days ago, I was almost completely removed from the impact of COVID as I sat drinking coffee with close friends in a beach cafe. Naively, we chatted excitedly about our forthcoming festivities, our own private celebration in the middle of next week, and the end of this horrible year.
Twenty-four hours later, our provincial world was shattered when we became the latest hotspot in Australia for the virus.
Our hospitals are now on major alert, our borders have been shut down, stores and pubs are closed, and Christmas drinks cancelled. While friends of mine try frantically to get their children back from other states and countries, Kurt and I find ourselves in self-isolation.
Christmas is effectively cancelled.
Only the day before the news, I splurged on the turkey for our seven close friends who were joining us around our table this year. Now it will feed three, because not even our daughter is not allowed to enter our “dark side” of Sydney.
This new cluster in a handful of Sydney’s smaller suburbs has come as a nasty shock to a country that was never smug about its quick suppression of the virus, but was perhaps guilty of an element of complacency over the past few months.
COVID isn’t picky.
As such, it is with a much heavier heart than I expected that I wish you a Merry Christmas this year – a year that has provided us (and many others) with the usual bag of mixed blessings.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been quieter on this site than usual this year – mainly because I decided that life had thrown more than enough shit without the addition of mine.
However, like you, I continue to fight through each day, to take each as it comes, and to control what I can. An I know that’s not always an easy task, so for anyone out there feeling a bit blue at the moment, please remember that tomorrow is a new day, and to hang in there.
The only way to fight this virus is to keep listening to our scientists, and to put our own needs aside for those more vulnerable. Christmas will be different this year, but some things won’t change – I’ve no doubt I will lose the plot sometime before lunch reaches the table, I’ll fall over at some point during the day, and the odds are also pretty high that I’ll leave one bowl of vegetables in the microwave – that we won’t discover until Boxing Day.
But imagine what Christmas will be like for those who have lost someone, those who are quarantining on their own in self-isolation, or those who are sick and live in permanent fear of catching the virus. And let’s be grateful for what we have.
It would be much easier for me to stake my claim to the big sofa for the next couple of days, crack open the box of Quality Street, and feel bloody sorry for myself. But I won’t.
I’ve decided not to let this thing beat us. COVID might have won the battle, but it ain’t gonna win the war. So let’s get our boxing gloves on and fight this virus in a common sense way. During the Second World War, Churchill promised that we would “never surrender”, and that’s my approach for next year. So wear your mask and wash your hands.
I’ve already lit the torch on Christmas at our house. I’m not suggesting that we fight the virus with mince pies, but I’ve already tested the Aldi ones and the marzipan topping was a nice touch. The Turkish Delight and chocolate-coated pretzels are next on my hit list.
The presents are wrapped and under the tree, the karaoke machine is charging, and the Baileys is cooling in the fridge for later this evening when I begin my research into the best turkey recipes.
And once everything is set, I’ll start to think seriously about how I can hold my loved ones even tighter next year.
There was a point when I was going to name my manuscript, Grave Expectations – a wordplay on the title of the Dickens novel – that, initially, I thought was really clever. You see, one of the main themes of my story is the impossibility of living up to expectation – the expectation on the mother to be the glue of the family, the expectation on the father to be the breadwinner, and the expectation on the children – on the son to toe the line of convention, and on the daughter to compensate for her brother’s challenging behaviour.
The difficulties of trying to live up to expectation feel particularly poignant right now. Middle age has given me a clearer insight of the way that society measures “success” and its distorted values. I can see now why so many of us end up in jobs or relationships that don’t suit us, or in a permanent fug caused by a sense of failure.
Looking back, I spent my twenties trying to carve out the life my parents wanted me to have, and my thirties and forties trying to be a perfect parent. It’s only since I reached my fifties that I’m actually making decisions for ME, doing what I want to do – and only because I’m privileged enough to have the financial security to change my course.
I find it strange how we associate men with the midlife crisis – caused by the realisation that this is the last chance to make changes – when, in my experience, women experience a similar mental shift, spurred on by the same awareness of time running out.
That’s why divorce is so common in middle age. Women reach a point when they are exhausted by the pressure to be everything for everyone else. It’s not only career expectations we have to worry about. We live in a society that expects us to stay young and beautiful, to be perfect mothers, lovers and carers, and somewhere in that mix we are also expected to make a mark in our career.
The expectation to remain sex sirens – beyond our reproductive years – is the most ridiculous one to me. I don’t think I’m imagining the pressure on some women to remain available for their (more highly sexually driven) men at all times. Nor the trope of the stereotypical middle-aged woman as a moody, dried-up shrew, whose decision to batten down the hatches provides men with the perfect excuse to hunt elsewhere.
Conversely, middle-aged men are portrayed as George Clooney types – silver foxes who are still rampantly sexually active and attractive to women half their age, rather than the needy, pot-bellied, miserable gits that most of us know and love.
Very little is said about the men who lose their sex drive in middle age.
Caitlin Moran mentions the reality of middle-aged sex in her latest book “More Than A Woman”, and her description of what she calls the “maintenance shag” – the shag many couples (who have been married FOREVER) force themselves to endure to meet society’s expectation of a healthy relationship – is, frankly, hilarious. While her comments about anal sex made me a little uncomfortable, her dissection of the planning involved to get the weekly/monthly/annual/Christmas maintenance shag over and done with to prove to ourselves we’ve still got it – is something I can definitely identify with.
I feel that pressure to maintain a level of intimacy with my husband, that goes beyond him flashing his penis at me in the kitchen at every opportunity, or dry-humping me each time I bend down in front of the dishwasher. But the truth is, after more than thirty years together, I get more turned on by a Marion Grasby cooking video than the sight of my husband’s drooping balls.
And why should we feel bad about not shagging as much as the next couple?
Obviously, social media doesn’t help with the guilt. Images of women in their fifties who continue to look fabulous – and I don’t just mean young – pile on the pressure. As does advertising that blatantly targets our insecurities. Beauty companies are relentless in their quest to make middle-aged women question if they are living up to their responsibilities as perfect older women.
Personally, I refuse to believe that the majority of those middle-aged women, who have spent more than half their lives with the same partner, are really rooting like rabbits.
And in case you need reminding, there is absolutely nothing wrong with contentment. Sometimes, a marathon session on Netflix is far more fulfilling than a quick poke and associated muscle strains the following morning. And if the only intimacy you share with your partner is holding hands on the beach, that’s okay too. I suspect it’s way more intimacy than many couples experience.
No one leads a charmed life – you only have to look at what celebrities Chrissie and John Legend have gone through recently to realise that.
And on the subject of Caitlin’s sage advice, another piece that resonated with me in her book was “don’t marry a cunt”. Suffice it to say, there is no perfect man either – which is the most important nugget of wisdom we women should share with our daughters, after the truth about childbirth. Fortunately for me, I had a father who thought with his penis and I learned early on that serial Romeos can rarely be tamed. Hence, if I’ve done one thing right in my life, it has been to marry a good man.
Not a perfect man, but a good one.
Life is about making choices. If I really wanted to have hot sex every night of the week, I could probably find someone to deliver the goods – although, admittedly, I might have to pay for it. But would he be a world authority, i.e professional mansplainer about pretty much everything I need to know in life?
More importantly, would he have been there for me all those times I’ve fallen?
Middle age fucks with our bodies and our minds. It throws up all sorts of questions we stuffed away in the too hard box during those crazy years of young adulthood and parenting. And yet, it also opens the door to self-reflection. We can’t change the past, but we can make meaningful choices about our future. Self-evaluation is the path to that freedom. More time to think about what I want has given me freedom from toxic relationships, unnecessary anxiety, and the constraints of the ridiculous beauty standards demanded of women.
Slowly, I am silencing my inner judge that used to tell me I wasn’t good enough. At fifty-five, I can be who I want to be, and I’m enjoying the experiment. I don’t aspire to look forty, but neither am I ready for fluffy slippers and herbal teas. Right now, I want to be different things on different days, so long as I am me.
Are you meeting society’s expectations of the perfect middle-aged woman?
In the months I’ve been labouring through the latest edit of my wretched manuscript, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the writing process and the impact that certain books have had on my life.
I would like to clarify that my desire to have my own book published isn’t a narcissistic dream to become successful, living in LA and directing the movies to my stories. My motivation has always been to help other parents in our situation and to destroy the stigma around mental illness, i.e. to increase education.
And likewise, to learn about something new remains my main reason for reading.
In hindsight, I suppose I could have written a non-fiction account of what to expect from our situation – which, I imagine, would have been slightly easier to get published. However, I wanted to create a fictionalised account because 1) There are few fictions out there about ADHD, and 2) I believe that a good story resonates so much more. To tell my story in a non-fictionalised account, I would have to mask parts of the truth, to protect the privacy of others; in a fictionalised account, I can make my readers privy to the true feelings of the protagonists’ experience.
The power to change a mindset is crucial to me, because I am used to being on the other side of the reading process, and so many books have influenced my path.
I’ve missed books. And sadly, as a result of too many house moves, a shortage of space, my husband’s obsession with clutter, and our recent attempt at a minimalist lifestyle, we don’t own many any more.
That’s something I intend to change in the future: Firstly, because the living rooms I am always drawn to on Pinterest are the ones with metres of bookshelves; secondly, as much as I love its versatility, I’ve decided that the Kindle is a poor imitation of a book – God! I miss book covers – albeit that the screen version is much cheaper here in Australia; and thirdly, now I’ve seen how much pain the authors go through, I understand what a sacrilege it is to chuck them out.
We’ve kept certain books that mean something to us on a personal level. The old man has a dog-eared copy of some guide to golf by Nick Faldo, and a copy of Sapiens – a recent read that he believes changed his life, although not his ability to wipe down a bench top. And I have a copy of Little Women – which gave me so much pleasure as a child for the simple reason that the author had the same name as me. And The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion’s story of a neurodivergent mind – that resonated with me so much it inspired me to write my own interpretation of life as a kid with ADHD.
In fact, I loved “The Rosie Project” so much, I sent Graeme a fan-girl tweet about it that made it onto the inside cover of the UK version.
Then there’s Schindler’s Ark, a book the old man recommended to me when we started dating. The story of Schindler was undoubtedly my awakening to the imbalances in the world and the start of my crusade /against them. It was also kind of a freaky choice, because several years later when I was three months pregnant with NC – a very ill-thought-out plan in the first trimester of a pregnancy when you are permanently tired and cannot drink – we found ourselves watching the movie in a theatre in New York.
Clearly, I was very hormonal at the time, but the memory of that experience at the movies will always haunt me.
The story is obviously highly emotive, but when you watch the movie in the company of a mainly Jewish audience, their reaction stays with you. For that reason, I couldn’t watch it again, although I do believe that stories such as Schindler’s Ark have their place on the high school curriculum.
There’s a finale to this story. You see, a few years ago, I persuaded the old man to accompany me to a talk at the Sydney Writer’s festival where Thomas Keneally (the author) was interviewing another author. I wanted to put a face to the words of a book that had been so influential on me in my younger years. Back in my twenties in the UK, little did I know that the author was Australian, and lived a stone’s throw from where we live now.
And I would like to add that the man is a true character in every sense of the word, fully befitting of his reputation as a national treasure. He is one of those writers who sits passionately and publicly left of centre and is as compassionate and funny as you would hope.
You can imagine how appalled the old man was that I had (inadvertently) booked front row seats to the event, and yet during that hour in Thomas’ company, I didn’t even notice his awkward wriggles in the seat next to me as I hung onto every word that came out of the author’s mouth. It was one of those rare “moments” in life where everything felt like it had come together – literally from London, to New York, and finally, to Sydney.
Imagine if I had known as a child that one day I would find myself at a writers festival, sitting metres away from my icon. Le destin, as the French call it.
I do have one terrible admission when it comes to books, however. I am one of those awful people who can never remember authors’ names or the titles of their books – which, as you can imagine, has worsened in menopause. I couldn’t even tell you who wrote the book I’m currently reading, or its title, even though I am thoroughly enjoying it. And often, I will start a book, only to realise a third of the way through that I’ve read it before.
And yet, there’s something quite wonderful about that, as well. It’s like bumping into an old friend, who gently dislodges those precious memories that I filed away in another era, and takes me back to a place I wouldn’t ordinarily choose or have the opportunity to visit again otherwise.
The power of a good book to change the way we think is why I will continue to read and live vicariously through the lives of the many fascinating characters out there. It’s why I will always buy books. Minimalism is about spending money on experiences, and books fit that idea for me. They can be expensive, however, their ability to change the way we think in a healthier, organic way than social media, for example, is why they will be at the top of my Christmas shopping list this year.
“A minimalist home is very intentional,” Joshua Becker explains in an article for Good Housekeeping magazine. “Each possession is there for a reason.”
I’ve spent the past six months bogged down in the restructure of my manuscript, hence the reason I’ve not been as vocal on this site as I once was. Anyone who has been through the visceral pain of editing 90,000 words knows that you have to isolate yourself, without distractions.
But you also have to balance that sacrifice of your free time with the reality that years of hard work may ultimately amount to nothing. That was one of the reasons for my last post, in which I purported the idea that there’s nothing wrong with contentment – a state of mind that seems particularly relevant right now.
Learning to be content with what I’ve got is important if you are like me, the sort of person with a tendency to be pulled in lots of directions, hence regularly in a state of perpetual overwhelm.
Which is why I’ve decided to take the idea a step further and I’m endeavouring to create my own sense of contentment by adapting to the whole living with less idea – the principles of which you can apply to every facet of your life.
It’s got a name, it’s called being a minimalist.
Minimalism, as most of you will know, is a style employed in interior design and decoration. It embraces a clean, modern, clinical feel, with no place for clutter – and you can adapt it to your lifestyle as well. These days, the word is being used more broadly to promote the kind of pared back, simple lifestyle many of us aspire to live – especially since COVID.
Joshua Becker describes the meaning of minimalism in his article What Is Minimalism? in the following way:
“It is marked by clarity, purpose, and intentionality. At its core, being a minimalist means intentionally promoting the things we most value and removing everything that distracts us from it.“
You could argue that this new idea appeals to me because I’m a middle-class, middle-aged woman, feeling my invisibility, and it’s easier to simply opt out of society than fight the discrimination. Or it may be that because money is tighter these days – as a result of our personal decision to semi-retire early – we are being forced to cut our cloth accordingly. And both of those reasons are valid.
However, it is evident that the younger generations are also embracing this idea to change their priorities, and while I admit that during my thirties I laughed at couples on Grand Designs and sea-change shows who opted out of the rat race, I think they may be having the last laugh.
After all, what’s not to love about a lifestyle that promises more money, time, and happiness, and contributes to the protection of our environment at the same time?
So how do you become a minimalist?
“The minimalist lifestyle is about living with only the things you need. Minimalists are free from the desire to buy and accumulate more. Instead, they find happiness in relationships and experiences.” Joshua Becker
Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But it’s not simply about wasting a bank holiday for a spring clean in your home – although, that’s a great starting point.
There’s more to simplifying your life than the physical process of tidying up. There’s a lot of mental work that needs doing and ingrained habits to change, and it can be hard to know where to start. So to help you out, here are seven changes that are working for me:
- Being more intentional. First of all, you have to really think about the purpose of your decision and what you really want to gain from it. My greatest fault is wasting money on tat when I’m in a funk. I can’t believe it’s taken my over fifty years to learn that quality beats quantity every time, but there it is. I’m that person who gets my thrill from buying something new (that I don’t really need or want) and then letting it sit in the cupboard . You must also base your changes on what you want, not what your kids or friends expect from you, or even what your partner wants. This is your life – and if your partner doesn’t agree with your choices, throw them out with the rest of the clutter.
- Forget about owning stuff and consumerism. As I’ve already admitted, this was difficult for me. I am a shopper and I love that sense of instant gratification, which is why I haven’t caught the online shopping bug yet. I am also creative, so I take a huge amount of pleasure from simply wandering around malls to look at beautiful things. An afternoon at the mall is one of the few times my brain switches off, so changing my buying habits is a work in progress. Where I have made a start is by buying less crap and only buying quality things I really need or recycled goods.
- Change your mindset and your priorities. A bout of depression or serious anxiety is the best push to make changes in your life – but I don’t recommend them. Instead of waiting for that to happen, prioritise things in your life that promote your wellness and health now. Step into nature when you can, try mindfulness if that works for you – it’s not for me, but listening to an entertaining podcast can have a similarly relaxing effect. Exercise, meet up with friends for some free therapy. Make the time to switch off and relax, and don’t feel guilty about it.
- Stop worrying about what others think. Remove toxic people from your life, like friends who don’t understand your choices, don’t value your opinion, who can’t have a discussion without shouting back at you. Your friends should treat you with the same consideration you treat them.
- Stop competing with others. Forget about the Jones’. The ugliest part of a consumerist society is the way it pushes people to compete with each another and social media has exacerbated the problem. I hasten to add that it is natural – and throughout my thirties and forties I was guilty of comparing myself to others who had more and attempted to live in their shadow or vicariously through them – but all it did was make me unhappy. The qualities I envy in people these days couldn’t be more different to the ones that impressed me when I was younger.
- Be grateful. I have why me days all the time, where all I do is moan about what I haven’t got or why things never seem to go the way I plan them, but once I calm down – usually on a walk – I am getting better at putting those thoughts into perspective. Don’t feel bad about them those negative thoughts. A therapist once told me that feeling sorry for yourself is completely valid, as long as you don’t let the negativity overtake everything else.
- Create processes – I have a scatty brain, particularly right now, in menopause, and the days I don’t organise myself and write a to-do list, I achieve much less. Of course, it’s much easier to get distracted when you work from home. One minute, I’ll be writing, the next I’m flicking through social media, and the next I’m playing with the dog. But you must be accountable to yourself for how you spend your time. That doesn’t mean you have to be productive all of the time – far from it – you just need to be productive when you have to be. Having processes mean you’re not always chasing your tail, and you’re more likely to feel a sense of fulfilment at the end of each day. The old man and I share certain chores in our home, such as walking the dog, emptying the dishwasher and cooking, and then there are some we have divvied up like the cleaning, garden and rubbish, i.e. we’re fairly conventional. Being organised stops resentment building, and we find we can enjoy our Gin and Tonic each night without feeling guilty.
In my experience, the best therapy comes from friends. During a recent walk with a couple of mine, at a time when one of us was experiencing a family crisis, another made the comment above and it got me thinking.
Often, when the proverbial shit hits the fan and I am struggling to know which way to turn, I yearn for a simpler life – to jump back into the womb or retreat from modern society’s expectation to keep all my balls in the air.
And that’s especially true for women, who not only hold down jobs like men, but tend to pick up the slack when it comes to the emotional labour of most families.
Hence, we are more prone to find ourselves in those lonely, moments of vulnerability, when we question what it’s all about. And those experiences are even more common during this middle stage of our lives when our confidence may be shattered by hormone imbalances, the impact of ageism on our careers, and changes in our family dynamics.
However, in my experience, while the thought of an enforced recalibration can be scary, taking the time to sit back and reflect on what’s important is a good thing.
Which is what has surprised me most about the legacy of COVID – an unprecedented event that, sadly, appears to have had little effect on our our view of the world – in spite of the job losses, the devastating effects on our economies, and the appalling number of deaths. For in spite of the benefits of social distancing – and there have been many – I see very little evidence of any longterm change in habits of people in relation to the frantic pace of their lives.
Perhaps it’s an age-thing, but I like to think that this virus has taught me a new appreciation for the simple pleasures in life – a kind of enforced mindfulness. Whereas in the past, my dream holidays were about soaking up the fast-paced culture of foreign cities, these days I find Eat, Pray, Love types of experiences more appealing. And where once my diary was booked up months ahead, recently I have taken a much more organic approach to my social life.
Of course, some of us are still in survival mode. Here in Australia, Melbourne remains in lockdown, whilst in other parts of the world, the second wave of Covid gathers pace. And yet, for those of us for whom normal life has pretty much resumed, many have returned to it with little consideration for the lessons provided by COVID.
I mean, surely, some good has to come from this terrible reminder of the fragility of life.
Perhaps, it’s too soon to judge. Like misplaced insects, many of us have gone straight back to the safety of who we were before. And yet, it seems likely that Trump will maintain his presidency; the rights of women have taken a step backwards; there continues to be very little evidence of diversity in the media, in spite of the Black Lives Matter protests (WTF! ABC); and politicians still behave like kids in a high school playground, putting their personal agendas ahead of ours. The Australian government is pushing for a gas-lead recovery, FFS! (SMH)
I understand that change takes time, but I can’t stop thinking that COVID should have been the wake-up call we needed to prioritise compassion over power?
I want to believe that the world is fundamentally full of more good people than bad, so why do we keep electing the same narcissistic leaders who prioritise nationalism over equal rights, and rich over poor? Surely, if we can find the money to fund abortive space missions, Olympic Games, and – I don’t know – study the effects of the sun UV rays on the eating habits of the maggot, surely we can keep our social benefits at a humane level? If we can build casinos, and replace perfectly-good sports stadiums, surely we can build more social housing?
COVID highlighted the important things in life – friends, family, and our health. It showed that it is possible to be happy with less and that there’s nothing wrong with simply being content.
So it turns out I haven’t quite finished writing about masks. Today, however, instead of talking about clinical masks, I want to talk about a different type of mask – that is, the mask that society forces people with mental illness to wear.
It’s the mask of being well – that many of us expect them to wear, even now, in spite of the progress made in terms of awareness.
You see, mental illness is still viewed by some as a made-up illness, or a weakness, or something we should feel ashamed about. And while there are all those wonderful memes that float around the Internet to remind us to be kind and empathetic to sufferers, the reality can be very different.
It might surprise you to know that it is still rare to find a work environment in which you can admit openly that you suffer from depression or a neurological disorder
I’ll be honest, each time someone admits to me they don’t believe in mental illness, I want to scream at them for their arrogance and ignorance. And here’s why. Because, today, with my son’s permission – I’m going to give you an insight into what it is like for him to live with it, and the effect it has on his loved ones.
A few weeks ago, we planned a long overdue family weekend away. It was overdue for many reasons, such as Covid, the cost of taking away a family of four adults (and our very practical concerns about our bar bill), and our annual leave restrictions. However, the main reason the trip was short was because of Kurt, our twenty-three year old son.
He hasn’t really left Sydney over the past two years for all the usual reasons: his bartending job as a casual – which makes it hard for him to make his rent (let alone splash out on weekends away); the organisation involved in planning and booking time away with his ADHD; as well as, erm, certain dependencies he uses to alleviate some of his ADHD symptoms, that are not (shall we say) very transportable.
The main ones, though, are his crippling anxiety and OCD
The outside world may not see what it takes for people like him to leave the house, but trust me, it is no mean feat. There are rituals that his brain insists he must carry out before any transition, there is his fear of change, his laundry (so much laundry), sensory considerations, and an elevated sense of imposter syndrome. In other words, as soon as he steps through the door, our son has to put on a mask.
In other words, he looks like a normal, functioning Millennial, who smiles a lot and converses seemingly naturally. The truth is, however, he would prefer to never have to leave his bedroom.
Few would be aware of the rituals that chain him to his home, his fear of change, or the mental effort it takes to keep himself on track
The reality is, our son doesn’t travel much because his mind won’t let him and last weekend was as much about celebrating mine and our daughter’s birthdays as it was a test for Kurt. It was an attempt to get him to push back from a negative way of thinking that is getting stronger by the day, and as a fellow sufferer (but less severe), I am aware of the dangers of letting anxiety win.
“Avoiding what makes you anxious provides some relief in the short term, but can make you more anxious in the long term. Try approaching something that makes you anxious – even in a small way. The way through anxiety is by learning that what you fear isn’t likely to happen – and if it does, you’ll be able to cope with it. ” Beyond Blue
A few days prior to our departure, he decided not to come and I persuaded him to rethink. Genuinely, I believed the change of atmosphere would do him good. As a result of changes due to Covid, he has spent a lot of time on his own of late – which is not good for over-thinkers – and I was excited at the prospect of exploring antique shops together, experiencing the hotel’s leisure facilities, and enjoying the sense of togetherness that other families appear to enjoy.
I’m his mum and selfishly, I suppose, I wanted him there with us, not only to push back his anxiety, but to help me complete the faux image of the perfect family unit I aspire to
Mental illness is often inaccurately portrayed in film. Many films focus on the quirky charisma of the neuro-diverse or mentally-ill characters, rather than the often terrifying complexities of mood disorders. While we are shown aspects of the darkness, there’s very little of the day-to-day reality of living with the illness – the self-harm, the anger, the police involvement, the desperation and the tears.
When our son is on form, he lights up a room; but when he is overwhelmed, it’s like waiting for the White Walkers to break through the wall
I don’t have any photos of the first twenty-four hours of our trip when Kurt couldn’t look at us or speak to us because he was so angry with me for persuading him to come. He was even madder with himself for “being such a cunt.” (His words).
Ahead of our trip, I thought I had prepared for every eventuality and nothing could go wrong. And yet on our first night, I booked a table at a restaurant in town (because the hotel restaurant was extortionate), and that triggered Kurt’s anxiety. He joined us, but he sat in the restaurant, stony-faced, his earphones in, and as soon as he finished his food, he left by himself. Returning to the hotel bar, he set himself up at his own table and refused to join us when we returned.
I know better than to think I can prepare for every eventuality. The unpredictability is, perhaps, the hardest part about mental illness. The three steps forward, and the inevitable four steps back
That night he texted us to say he would take the train home the following morning.
Even now, he cannot explain what triggered his overwhelm and need to isolate, but it lasted until after lunch the following day, when somehow he managed to pull himself back and block out the voices. He apologised to us profusely, told us how much he loved us and hated himself for his behaviour, and our second night together was memorable – one of the best nights we’ve shared as a family.
When family and friends ask us how Kurt is doing, we put on masks too
We wear protective masks as well – from the judgement of being bad parents, weak, enablers, and pushovers – even though we can’t fully defend our actions, out of respect for Kurt’s privacy.
What I will say, though, is that unless you walked in our shoes, you cannot understand – in much the same way that I would have a limited understanding of how to cope with a child with a physical disability or terminal illness.
A person with mental illness may look exactly like you and I most of the time, until the mask slips
That judgment forces people with invisible illnesses to wear masks, and when they slip, society is unprepared for what lies behind it, in terms of both support and resources. But in the same way that there is no shame in having gastro, there is nothing wrong in admitting that your head isn’t well. Everyone feels sad or anxious at times, but it is the magnitude of those emotions that is so different for people with depression and anxiety, or with neurological conditions that make normal life more challenging.
They can’t “snap out of it” to make the rest of us feel better
Most of the time they don’t ask for our help, nevertheless, they deserve our compassion. My desire to paint a perfect family picture of our weekend away made my son very unhappy and his mask slipped – like he warned us it would. Fortunately, this journey together has made us stronger. We have learned not to blame ourselves (or him) for poor decisions, and I’m certain that sometime in the near future we will give the experience another shot.
The outcome may be similar, but the hope is that each experience is one step further away from surrender, and one step closer to recovery.
A week or so ago I went into my local hospital for a day surgery that required a general anaesthetic. I’m certain that a colonoscopy is a rite of passage for every hypochondriac, although I don’t recommend it unless you are truly dedicated to the cause.
The preparations for the procedure are brutal. I don’t want to scare off anyone from having it done – it’s a necessary invasion of your body if you experience any sort of bowel change over the age of fifty – but they made a mammogram feel like a walk in the park.
Put it this way, I acquired the skill to jet-wash the garden patio from my anus.
The fact is, bowel and colon cancer are on the increase, so I decided it was worth a prod up my ass to make sure everything was okay
Needless to say, my family was as supportive as ever. NC nicknamed me “poopie” as a result of the hours I spent expelling every last piece of sweetcorn from my colon, although her suggestion afterwards – that her father and I refrain from anal sex for a while – was less funny.
But this post isn’t about the state of my rectum. It’s about an experience I had in the hospital, just prior to my procedure, as I awaited my fate on the gurney.
Hospital procedure is fairly standard, I imagine: you get admitted, you get dressed into one of those silly gowns that reveal your saggy ass each time you go the bathroom – which is a lot before a colonoscopy – and then you wait for a theatre nurse to come and collect you.
For a hypochondriac and over-thinker, that waiting period can be a moment of reckoning
It is the will I, won’t I die moment we’ve been preparing for our whole lives. And to be honest, I thought I was good with it. I had accepted I was either going to die on the operating table or be diagnosed with some horrible, terminal illness.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the life-flashing-before-me moment just before I went in
I know it’s a cliche, but as I lay there under my heated blanket, desperately trying to ignore my niggling bladder, I couldn’t help thinking about what I’d do differently if I had my time again. You know the kind of stuff: I wouldn’t smoke; I wouldn’t go to uni; I’d be a better advocate for my son; I’d maybe learn a musical instrument and how to whistle. Then, fortunately, some positivity kicked in and I switched my focus to what I’d done right which carried me on an interesting detour to the realization that I wasn’t actually ready to die after all. That I’d miss my little provincial life, no matter how fucked up it seems at times.
More importantly, I didn’t want to die like this, alone, in a stark white room, with my bum hanging out
My care was first rate that day. I was treated with as much dignity as you can expect when a handsome young consultant is about to inspect your ass. But, albeit a minor procedure, it was still a scary moment. There are few good reasons to find yourself in theatre at my age, and as such, the experience felt rather like a transition, like COVID-19 does. It was a disruption that I neither expected nor wanted, that provided me with an unsavoury reminder of my mortality.
That hour in, particular, gave me a better understanding of why many elderly people choose to die at home.
Lying on a hospital bed surrounded by strangers and beeping monitors is scary, and certainly not the way I would choose to leave this earth
Many of us, young and old, are facing that terrifying situation right now. Not my privileged peace of mind day surgery, but a very real fight for their lives. Each day around the globe, people are catching this virus through chance, bad luck, inequity … call it what you will …and succumbing to it alone, without family and friends around them.
In terms of infection, we’ve been relatively lucky here in Australia. However, the second wave in Melbourne has shown us that it is not only the elderly who are affected. Many frontline workers have caught it this time as well, and many of them are young, with families, taking risks every day to do their job. To protect us.
All they’re asking for in return is that we show some social responsibility
No one truly seems to know how much masks ward off this horrible virus, nevertheless, it is a preventative measure that could save lives. I take statins as a preventative measure because of a condition in my family that increases my risk of a heart attack, and not once have I questioned if I should have to.
And I shouldn’t have to say it, but social responsibility also means not going on a pub crawl or to a large house party.
We’re not being asked to sacrifice our lives in battle for our country. We’re being asked to help prevent the loss of more lives.
Innocent lives. Old lives. Young lives. White lives. Black lives. And for the record, middle-aged lives.
Which is something we can do.
Because no one deserves to die alone.
The headline of this post was prompted by a question my son asked me during one of our many conversations about feminism. And as we’re currently watching The Morning Show (known as Morning Wars here in Australia) – the main storyline of which is the Me Too movement – it prompted me to write about the topic.
The obvious answer to his question is stop raping women.
However, the majority of us are aware that the problem is not as clearcut as that and many men are still confused by what they see as new, complicated rules around dating and their interactions with women.
For those of you who haven’t watched the television series, it is about a successful American breakfast show hosted by two anchors, a man and woman. When the popular male anchor is called out for sexual harassment and abuse and promptly sacked, the station is left in shock and potentially a commercial mess.
The other anchor, a woman in her fifties, (who has sensed the precariousness of her position for some time), reacts impulsively in her attempt to take control of her future (for the first time) by filling the position with an inexperienced female presenter who values the truth above ratings, and who inevitably goes on to shake up the show’s comfortability.
However, it is the general fallout in the aftermath of the firing, triggered by the ongoing seedy behaviour and lack of repentance of the abuser, as well as the remorse of other members of the team – some of whom turned a blind eye to the abuse – that creates the real tension in the show.
Sadly, one thing this pandemic has highlighted is that the sexual abuse and murder of women hasn’t gone away
You might find it entertaining to know that my son is potentially a young Donald Trump in the making – although, I like to think that his rumination about the ways of the world – an in particular, the differences between the sexes – is a healthy part of growing up, that I try not to hold against him.
And, understandably, these types of conversation are never comfortable. There was an inevitability, I suppose, that with such an opinionated mother and his cohabitation with two staunch feminists during his formative teenage years and the Me Too movement, he would have questions as he starts dating in a society where the rules for men are changing.
Which is why I commend him for asking them, because when I was twenty-three, the only thing I was interested in was the bottom of a beer glass.
As anyone who celebrates Christmas with family, a close emotional connection can blur the lines around the rules of battle, and discussions have a tendency to get more personal.
Kanye West and Ben Shapiro have a lot to answer for when it comes to my son’s confusion about feminism, and in particular, the Me Too movement – which he sees as a witch hunt, For no matter how many times I point out that that only certain radical feminists hate men, his response is to cite weak examples of the behaviour of a small percentage of women murderers and abusers as his defence.
He will not accept my argument that every movement needs its share of radicals – albeit, that I’m not one – because, often, it takes their self-sacrifice and idealism to get the job done. I will accept that some take their idealism too far – and belong to a different category we call nutters – although I defy anyone who equates a group of women (and some men) pushing forward equality to groups such as ISIS or white supremacists.
Let me reiterate: I am a feminist, but I do not hate men, nor do I believe that all men are rapists or, indeed, would ever hurt a woman
What I do believe is that more men violate the rights of women than many realise or choose to believe, and many men choose not to be educated about what that violation means exactly. Wherein the real problem lies. That, and the self-indulgent, victimised response that certain men demonstrate in the line of fire.
Suffice it to say, I am also fully aware of how difficult some situations are to resolve when there are no witnesses and cases end up as a “his word against hers” scenario in court – see Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. That said, I will not capitulate on my beliefs simply to keep the peace at home.
Parenting never stops, and I have a responsibility for the way my son thinks about and treats women
Like I said, I wish we didn’t have to have these conversations. Of course, I wish my son could try and see things from my perspective and, in particular, from the perspective of the women who have opened the discussion. One day, I hope that these women (like the Suffragettes before them) are honoured for their bravery in coming forward. The Suffragettes were a group of radical women who got us the vote, so let’s hope that these modern women who are waging war against more than just the office creep, i.e. against racial discrimination, child molestation, domestic violence, marital rape, gang rape, and murder, effect the same changes.
Thirty women have already been murdered in Australia this year (Destroy The Joint)
That’s why I’m glad my son is asking questions. It is one step for him, but potentially a giant step for womankind, and if every man of his generation did the same, maybe those statistics will change. One day, I hope he believes me when I tell him that I don’t believe that all men are rapists. However, as long as society allows our system of patriarchy to prevail, his male sense of entitlement will be difficult to extinguish.
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Bitter, much? Well, yes, if I’m completely honest.
There are only so many bouquets on Instagram that you can pretend like. And I’ve been forced to accept this sad development (or downturn, which is my preferred term) in our marriage because otherwise I would be a hypocrite.
For as my husband reminds me each time I brush the cobwebs off my one and only vase around the time of my birthday and our wedding anniversary, I am a feminist, and as such I shouldn’t expect any special treatment.
I am a feminist, hence I shouldn’t expect special treatment in the romance department…apparently
But isn’t there an argument for the hormones, greater sentimentality and heightened emotions of the female gender? Because meeting every demand of feminism is hard. And when it comes to flowers, I’m definitely what they call a “guilty feminist” – someone who stands by the majority of the political principles and beliefs of the cause, but who also has a teeny tiny weakness for certain aspects of the chivalry of the past – eg. men buying women flowers.
And…hear me out…I’ve even got a solution to this problem that suits both genders. Perhaps, the gift of flowers could be one way to balance up the inequality meted out in our biological makeup. Flowers for periods, say?
Or periods and menopause? Is that fairer?
We’re celebrating our anniversary this Friday, and I’ve booked us lunch at a swanky restaurant – not because I’m taking the romantic lead but because I don’t want my husband’s input which may fuck up my chances of going where I want to eat – and dutifully bought him an anniversary card.
We’ve reached the professional stage of taking each other for granted in our marriage
Which is what we agreed to do going forward, some years ago, now we’ve reached the professional stage of taking each other for granted in our marriage. We don’t splash out on gifts anymore because
he pointed out we agreed that was a waste of money – I think he said something about us not needing material things to prove our love, and I fell for it – although, while the romance isn’t exactly dead, our relationship may need some oxygen.
I think he said something about us not needing material things to prove our love, and I fell for it
Twenty-seven years ago, he used to take me out to dinner and bought me a large bouquet of semi-alive flowers from the servo (nearest petrol station), for which I was grateful. Sometimes, I got chocolates as well, if he wanted a shag. And was it only fifteen years ago, when the kids were still young, that
his female workmates he used to plan and cook a three-course meal for me – which, surely has to be definitive proof that I’m worth a bunch of flowers? After that we hit a large road-bump…hmmm… when we sunk to a take-out and found ourselves on the verge of divorce.
Hence, the dinner out was reinstated.
But not the flowers.
Why is it the longer most couples stay together, the less effort they make?
I understand from a financial perspective the poor planning when it came to the date of our anniversary – which lands smack in the middle of all four family birthdays.
But…he didn’t worry about unimportant things like money when we first met.
He married an old-fashioned girl who likes flowers… and that’s why I will be buying them for
myself him this year.
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When I wore a cropped hoodie to work one morning recently, one of the kids suggested I should dress my age.
As you can imagine, I was so enraged I demanded she tell me why I should kowtow to society’s construct of the way middle-aged women are expected to dress.
And needless to say, she looked back at me blankly
Why are women over-fifty expected to dress in a certain way?
Why, when the best part about the recent COVID lockdowns has been the permission to wear activewear 24/7, aren’t we allowed to experience the same fashion freedom as everyone else?
And the sad truth is, it’s not only our choice of activewear that is seen as inappropriate clothing for middle-aged women in certain circles of modern society – and yes, I did say modern. A similar judgment applies to short skirts, sleeveless tops, tight trousers, stiletto heels…
So, what can we wear, ladies?
WHAT THE F*CK WE WANT! However, if I had to choose a few items that (in my personal and not very expert opinion) cross the age ranges, here’s my list:
1. Skinny jeans – Personally, I believe that ANYONE, whatever your size, can wear skinny jeans – especially now they come in a wide range of stretchy fabrics. Dress them up with heels and a blazer, or down with with a tee-shirt and sneakers, and for those of you who aren’t confident about your tummy area (like me), hide it with an oversized or longer top. The skinnies from Zara are affordable and fit my body shape well, but I also like the “Riley” style from Decjuba. Recently, I found a pair in Country Road that are also surprisingly flattering. I was a bit nervous about the high-waist at first – although it is rather handy for tucking in my muffin top – but I really like the ankle bone length.
2. White Sneakers – I have no idea why I avoided this trend for so long, but when I spotted a pair in the Sportsgirl sale for only $40, I couldn’t resist. Needless to say, I’ve worn them to death. The great thing about these shoes is their neutral colour – which means you can dress them up or down, depending on the occasion and your mood. Read Elle’s guide to the best white sneakers.
3. The denim jacket is another classic that, somehow, managed to escape my radar over the past fifty years, even though it’s a wardrobe staple for most of my friends in the UK. For some reason, I decided I was too old for a denim jacket until I spotted the one below at Katie’s , which was 50% off. What I love about denim is its versatility, and because the denim on denim trend is back, you could pull off a Justin/Britney moment if you and your partner are up for it. Don’t worry if you’re not brave enough, this jacket is the perfect compliment to Boho skirts and culottes as we move into spring.
4. Culottes – Love em or hate ’em (and I BLOODY LOVE them), culottes are here to stay. I’m not sure why they seem to be as contentious as the Vegemite/Marmite war, because I think they flatter most body shapes. I own a range of culottes in different fabrics and colours, but I’ve worn my neutral ones to death. I haven’t made a decision about the longer 30s-style version to recently hit the stores, but I’m sure we’ll be wearing this style of pant for a lot longer. (The culottes below are from MinkPink).
5. High-neck jumpers and tops – Whatever season you’re in right now, the roll-neck is back for some vintage comfort and style. If you’re in winter, you’ll love the long-sleeved, chunky polo version, but for those of us in the southern hemisphere, there are plenty of short-sleeved options. Polo-necks, (as I was brought up to call them), are classy in the same way as the twin set. They remind me of “Mad Men” in a good way. I think they send out the message that you are a thinking, sexy woman, although I’m not sure the same can be said about them on men – unless they happen to be Idris Elba, a Russian spy, or a sexy, young professor. Personally, I’ve always loved high-necked jumpers for their ability to conceal my eight chins, one of the reasons I fell in love with the top from Seed below.
Are there any other essentials you would like to share with us?
Full Disclosure: As I write this post, I am sitting at my desk full of remorse about my complete lack of control around a wine bottle last weekend. Hence, I am probably the last person you should be listening to about how to improve your longevity.
I read somewhere recently that scientists have discovered that genes and family history are a much smaller risk to our mortality than previously thought – that’s the good news. The bad news is that middle-age is apparently the optimal time (or last chance saloon) to make the necessary improvements to our lifestyle that improve our chances of living longer.
What are “lifestyle improvements” I hear you ask, even though you don’t really want to know.
They’re all those boring things you have to do when you get old, like cutting back on drinking, stopping smoking, eating yucky green stuff – basically, anything fun.
Oh, and exercising!
Now, some of you may know that a couple of years ago (in what I now recognise was an out-of-control episode of health anxiety), I decided to take up running – or walking quickly, as the old man likes to refer to it – due to a horror story of a family history of heart problems and certain some pretty unhealthy life choices.
I picked running because I knew I had to do something that improved my cardio fitness, and the lazy bitch within me figured that a few laps around the block was the quickest way to do that, without impacting my other hobbies, like drinking and eating lots, too much.
As a starting point, I set myself the unrealistic goal of the 4kms Mothers Day Classic – which is basically a public pelvic floor challenge disguised as a fun run, and everyone knows that “fun” is a synonym for “walk” – and God knows how, I managed to complete it.
I didn’t finish the run/walk in a time or with any great finesse – but I did cross the finish line sweating.
However, erase from your mind that inspiring little image of me crossing the finish line jubilantly, hands in the air in victory, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. By the end of the race, I was knackered, swore I’d never run again, and then undid any good by vacuuming down a full English breakfast.
Because it bloody well hurts… like everywhere. And that’s not the only downside. when you’re middle-aged. So far, I’ve been lucky with my knees, but I’ve had a few wake-up calls when it comes to bladder control, I’ve found that I can’t knock back a couple of vinos the night before a jog, and some mornings my body aches so much I’m pretty certain it has finally succumbed to one of those terminal illnesses I’ve been waiting for my whole life – you can read about health anxiety here.
Let’s be honest, none of thought we would have to exercise in our fifties and given the choice, I would much prefer to go on a brisk walk with my girlfriends – with the added incentive of
a wine milky coffee at the end of it.
But I know that’s not enough.
And I’m not here to tell you how to live your life or to lie about how running gets any easier – or about the huge selection of exercise options that may be more realistic for you – all I’m trying to do is remind you about the importance of maintaining a level of fitness at our age.
You can actually tell the state of someone’s health by the speed they walk. Did you know that? So the next time you’re out with your friends, take a furtive look at how well they cope with hills or distance.
Trust me, it’s a slippery slope once you lose your fitness – one day you can’t get out of a chair, the next you struggle to walk up hills. Before you know it, you can’t wipe your arse.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining – and I’m not trying to sweeten the pain because my local gym or any other torture chamber is paying me to – and there are benefits beyond the physical ones that come with exercise for women our age:
- Exercise improves your productivity: I’m sure you get those days like me when you get so engrossed with work that you put off going outside and finish the day in a slump at your desk. That used to happen to me until I discovered the importance of a change of scene. Whether it’s the beauty of nature, the increase in my heart-rate, or the free therapy from friends, I can guarantee that I feel much more productive when I come back from a walk. Being outside centres me; it resets my computer.
- It boosts your mood and confidence: I won’t promise you that you will lose weight from exercise, as I believe that what you put in your mouth is the biggest determiner of that, but I do think that a healthy diet with consistent exercise can help. And for middle-aged women, improving muscle tone and being a healthy weight will most likely have a knock on effect on your confidence. A dramatic boost of dopamine works wonders for mood – that’s why those crazy exercise junkies get so addicted.
- It broadens your community: Whether it’s a yoga class or a walk with friends, group exercise encourages connection – another vital component of longevity. One of the reasons men die younger is because they lose their social connections once they retire.
- It increases your sense of empowerment: I have always believed in the mantra that you enjoy things more when you’ve worked hard for them. The sense of empowerment, accomplishment, and positivity I derive from exercise filters into every aspect of my life.
I can guarantee that you’ll enjoy that evening wine so much more when you feel you’ve earned it
At school, I couldn’t run the length of the netball court without falling over. Back then, I thought I’d be on back-to-back cruises along the Danube in this stage of my life, not wheezing my way around the block, scaring old people and children. But life is about choices. And I choose to live as long as I can.
Have you taken up a new form of exercise in middle age?
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Have you felt really exhausted lately?
I know that excessive tiredness comes with the territory of menopause and living through a pandemic, but what I’m feeling at the moment is more like a heavy weight pushing down on me, squeezing every drop of energy from my body.
And I know exactly what it is – it’s frustration. The frustration of not being able to do everything I want to do in the free time at my disposal. You see, in the hours outside of the (vaguely) routine areas of my life I feel like I’m on a treadmill – running, without actually getting anywhere
I’m running, without actually getting anywhere
Coronavirus shone a brighter light on this problem, which if I’m honest has been niggling under the surface for years. It triggered a renewed urgency within me to get on with the stuff that brings me joy (in the words of Marie Kondo), which for me involves doing more, cramming as much new learning into whatever time I’ve got left.
I respect other women my age who choose to sit back and relax for this last chapter of their lives, but new learning empowers me, which has a positive knock-on effect on both my mental health and my relationships.
I’m simply not ready to slip quietly into the middle-aged woman box
When I moaned about my frustration with friends of mine, they suggested it might be linked to the pressure many of us feel about the need to achieve – that social media has intensified – to justify our right to equality in some way. But I don’t think it’s that. I’m old and ugly enough not to feel the pressure to have to impress anyone else and I’m also in the fortunate position where I don’t need to keep on “achieving” for financial reasons.
So what’s really stopping me from getting out there and kicking ass? Am I just a serial whinger or is it truly harder for women our age to kick our goals?
Where do I start?
1. My Body. Whilst I’VE accepted (sort of) that I look older (funny, that!), that’s not always the case when it comes to my work colleagues. And if the ageism that denies some middle-aged women their invitation to get jiggy at work social events isn’t bad enough, there’s the fact that some of us are treated like idiots. I’m certain that your average twenty-something isn’t actually aware of the memory lapses caused by menopause, and yet they can’t help talking to us like we’re two-year olds, or making assumptions about what we can and cannot do (particularly when it comes to technology). Snubs like these are hurtful and do nothing to alleviate our problems with concentration.
2. Mood Swings. Anti-depressants for anxiety (which help combat hot flushes), and an endometrial ablation for very heavy periods convinced me that I’d sail through menopause. So I wasn’t fully prepared for some of the other symptoms – in particular the mood swings, anger, and paranoia. Any idea how hard it is to get the creative juices flowing when you can’t stop obsessing about why your husband still can’t clean a bench top properly?
Men have no idea how exhausting it is to have to pretend you’re human when you feel like an axe-murderer on the inside
3. Lack of confidence. I know there’s no one else to blame but myself if I don’t achieve what I want, but I do believe that society and the way it views women of a certain age should share some of the responsibility. So often, the “What if I fly?” excitement in my head about a new project turns into a “What’s the point?” negativity when I’m confronted by discrimination. Added to which, some days, putting my goals first seems bloody impossible with the responsibilities of a day job, my home life and the emotional labour that goes with it. It feels like Imposter Syndrome to think that little me can do anything amazing.
4. Gratitude – I can’t ignore the voice in my head that says I should be grateful for what I’ve got. I’ve read a lot and listened to a ton of podcasts on the subject of privilege and I know I should feel more grateful than I do. I’m white, I’ve had a good education, and I’m relatively financially secure. But I still want more. Whilst I am incredibly grateful for what I’ve been given, I can’t be that sincere happy-clappy kind of grateful that some expect of people in my position. I still have dreams. And because being grateful is evidently not enough to make my happy, I’m starting to question if I’m just an inherently angry, selfish person.
5. That lack of me-time I keep mentioning, whichis (I admit it) turning me into that middle-aged stereotype I hate so much – the crabby Olive Kitteridge version. Lack of time to do what I WANT makes me resent people who make unnecessary demands of my time or who take advantage of that small part of my nature that can be generous. I begrudge the expectation that I should be responsible for all of the emotional labour in the family. This constant push and pull I experience about WHAT I SHOULD BE versus WHAT I WANT TO BE is exhausting and I’m tired of saying “yes” to everything and then hating myself and others for putting me in that position.
So, there it is…
If you’ve ever wondered why our age-group is portrayed as cantankerous old bitches, you might want to look beneath the surface. Frustration at feeling like we’re up against the clock all of the time is one cause of our sensitivity. The fear of not having enough time to complete everything we want to achieve is another.
Of course, I hope I’ll be remembered as “a good, caring person”, but is it so wrong to want more? Is it wrong to want something for me? To be ambitious? It”s not like my goals are unrealistic in any way – they are very highly achievable given the opportunity to prioritise them rather than have to fit them around everything else in my life.
When the virus first struck I put aside MY goals because I was worried about its impact on my mental health and the knock-on effect that might have on my ability to do my job, care for my family etc. I made a conscious decision not to take anything new on that might prove challenging… apart from crocheting – who was I kidding? – and removed myself from anything with the potential to trigger stress. In other words, I put everyone else first again and sacrificed my right to happiness. Being busy doing stuff I enjoy energises me; being busy making everyone else’s life easier doesn’t.
But perhaps my biggest problem is self-perception
Which brings me back, again, to that hurtful stereotype of the middle-aged woman, which contributes to the way we are discriminated by a society that, frankly, doesn’t needs any help in that department.
Middle-aged celebrities like Cindy Crawford who have “aged well” (Yuck!) may think that they are empowering women our age by looking fantastic and fit – but are they really? To me, it’s a bit like how porn educates young boys about sex, isn’t it? The women who inspire me are the ones who are authentic – middle-aged women such as Frances McDormand and Helen Mirren, who haven’t traded their looks for success. I have no problem with women who use their looks for their careers, but I do have a problem with women promoting the beauty of middle-age with surgical and financial help.
Brene Brown knows from personal experience how impossible it is to attain success and experience true happiness when we feel vulnerable. She believes that the people who are successful have to be totally confident in who they are, what they’re doing, and what they want. These people remove toxic people from their lives and they say no.
The truth is that successful people have to be a little bit selfish
And by “success”, I mean personal success, and achieving personal goals. And that’s, sadly, the realization I’ve come to as well. I’ve resolved to be more selfish from now on and place boundaries around my time.
But first of all, I need to manage my time better, which means going back to the drawing board and making a list of all the things I can’t give up (my day job and my family responsibilities), and the personal goals I want to add (new learning, publishing my manuscript, launching my writing business properly, exercise, travel and good food). And finally, I’ll decide what to cut from my life – because those things no longer bring me pleasure (Thanks again! Marie Kondo), because they aren’t value for money, or simply because they are a symptom of my weakness for taking on everyone else’s problems as well as dealing with my own.
I know it may sound crazy to do a complete re-evaluation of your life in your fifties, but how lucky are those of us who still have choices that are denied to so many?
Anyone else feel selfish about putting themselves first at this stage of their lives?
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The question of whether black lives matter shouldn’t even be on the table right now. The questions we should be asking are how the system broke and how corrupt, exactly, are our police departments.
Anyone with half a brain cell understands that the colour of our skin doesn’t determine who we are, in the same way that anyone with a basic knowledge of history knows that the majority of white people have enjoyed a privilege denied to the majority of people of colour – something for which many of us are trying to make amends.
We can’t change history, but we can try and compensate for it.
George Floyd’s death has shone another light on the cancer in the US Police Department and the plight of the brave souls that are targeted by it. People of colour in the US have been scared for a long time, but this latest death has pushed them to their tipping point and triggered a united stand against racism and police brutality and corruption.
I will admit that as I write this post I fee scared too, in a different way. As a white woman of privilege, I’m scared about adding my personal thoughts about racism and injustice. I’m worried about using the wrong terminology; I’m worried that I don’t have the authority to write about the emotions of people of colour from my ivory tower. Most of all, I worry that my good intentions will be misinterpreted. And so all I can hope is that support, in whatever shape or form it comes, is welcome.
Fear and entitlement feed corruption in the police force.
It’s not like racism and corruption are endemic to the US, after all. The unmitigated fear linked to “difference” and the power struggles that emanate from it are worldwide struggles. As author Jordan P. Peterson states in his book “12 Rules For Life,” power play is part of the human condition that we see in many facets of life. There is a “dominance hierarchy in our society”, he confirms, although (unlike in the animal kingdom where dominance is a question of survival) there is also a level of chaos that our society hierarchies should never reach. And we are seeing that now, being leveraged by idiots like Trump.
Police brutality affects many groups of people – from people of colour to the LGBTQIA community, and the mentally ill.
In spite of the rise of fascism over the past few years, I’m not surprised we’ve reached this point. I still cling to the hope that the tide of discrimination is turning, and that ultimately we will learn to live more harmoniously together. I see signs that our sense of compassion is increasing and while social media has its dark side, this reaction has demonstrated a positive side to its visual evidence of injustices like George Floyd’s horrifying death. The harrowing footage of his last minutes must help educate us about the unfair treatment of those less fortunate than us. They also incite anger, which is needed to effect change.
It is clear that the powers of the police are too great and there is not enough accountability for what they do with them.
Watch any TV show like The Shield, In The Line of Duty or The Wire and you’ll see how easy it is for bad seeds to abuse their badge and take matters into their own hands, whether that’s out on the streets or on the inside – the justice system’s inability to jail “bad cops” is proof of that – so how can we make the system safer?
Could any of the ideas below help reduce the number of black deaths?
- Could removing some of the pressure off police officers – and in particular financial targets that increase the danger of prioritising economics over life – make a difference?
- What if we vetted applicants more closely? Without wishing to stereotype, there does seem to be a “type” that enters the police force. Or perhaps it is the nature of the job that causes “compassion fatigue” – a numbing detachment that is common to many first responders (which I wrote about here).
- Or if there was more training vis a vis the risks of poor impulse control and the “pack mentality” in high emotion situations?
- How about we reduce the number of armed police officers? We know that having a gun increases the risk of its use, and we also know that the British have one of the most successful police departments in the world – and the majority of their officers don’t carry guns.
- And finally, if we worked out a way to encourage more female police officers to join, could we make it mandatory for a woman to attend every crime scene in order to reduce the threat of physical violence?
It’s easy to criticise the police, I know…
And would I do the job of a police officer? Not on your life. Every one of us has been in a flight or flight situation that we’ve handled badly and the police encounter those situations every day. No one wants to find themselves with that split-second choice between their own life and someone else’s. That is also why other vulnerable young men like Elijah Holcombe died. Read Kate Wild’s coverage of his “accidental” death in her book Saving Elijah.
Sadly, many of these cases point to a sense of entitlement in the police force that increases the risk of violence.
Australia’s own indigenous population is targeted in the same way as the people of colour in the US, which has led to an increasing number of them being unfairly incarcerated. There have also been countless deaths in custody that remain unaccounted for – even after lengthy investigations. And to my mind, the way certain police behave on the streets – bullying young people for minor breaches of the law such as drinking in public or possession of recreational drugs for personal use demonstrates an abuse of their powers. My own son was once strip-searched in the back of a police van for looking “shady” and because he had a warning for personal possession of a small amount of marijuana on his record.
It has taken many deaths to expose the corruption in the police department, and George Floyd is one of many martyrs to lose their lives for the lives of others. But what a price he has paid to expose the corruption of the people employed to protect us!
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