Does Pain Make Life More Meaningful? How I Navigated The Shit Show Of 2021

I have been sitting on this post for several weeks. Partly because I am struggling to write anything cohesive at the moment, and partly because I can’t make this a “things I was grateful for in 2021” post with which to wrap up last year.

I don’t think even the most optimistic blogger could reframe 2021 as a great year. Months of lockdown, fears about catching COVID, distance from family and friends, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness have ensured that the past twelve months were a shit show for many of us.

Girl leaning against tree looking empowered, resilient

The Australian government did a reasonable job of tackling the pandemic, but who knows what the real, longterm cost will be to our mental health and the economy, and it is terrifying to think about how many other important policies have been sidetracked to save us from this virus.

Furthermore, I am mortified by their lacklustre approach to climate change, their ongoing lack of commitment to women’s issues, and the arrogance of our PM on the international stage.

But this isn’t a political blog and several personal challenges last year, that started with a serious health-scare in February, have been followed by a problematic transition into semi-retirement.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I felt optimistic in January

Of course, we were in a different situation back then. Our family had just survived a lockdown Christmas and re-entered the world with the excitement of William Shatner on his descent back to earth, optimistic and eager to move onto the next phase of our lives.

I was so blinded by the excitement of what semi-retirement would bring me in terms of being able to prioritise my writing, I forgot that the finger of fate is always on the button and that it would take more than a fancy-pants new computer to fulfil my grandiose intentions of becoming the next Sally Rooney. And so, when the emotional ramifications of the pandemic dried up my creative juices like a harsh summer in the Northern Territory and I struggled to string words together or find any reason to do much of anything other than watch back-to-back episodes of New Amsterdam, the year started to unravel.

Was my lack of motivation caused by menopause or some greater force at work?

Maybe I was suffering from a case of minor PTSD related to COVID, or I simply underestimated the disparity between the expectations of retirement and the reality, but whatever the reason, my focus went out the window and I spent most of the year wandering aimlessly around the apartment, achieving very little.

The difficulties that some people experience during the transition into retirement are well-documented, but in my defence, what the brochures fail to mention is that you don’t suddenly land in some nirvana after your last day at work. You still have to balance the books, care for those in need, and worry about the unknowns, all under the shadow of a pesky virus that seems to morph into something even scarier each time it mutates. And that’s without all the overthinking that accompanies your approaching mortality.

Don’t get me wrong, I am inordinately grateful that I am still be here with a wealth of choices, but what has materialised so far will require some adaptation. For example: Having waited my whole adult life to implement a proper fitness routine, my body has conveniently decided to degenerate with the speed of light since the acquirement of my new gym membership.

Honestly, I’ve lost count of the number of conditions ending in itis I’ve had this year, none of which I’d heard of before

But my biggest bete noire has been my preponderance to overthink. “Existential crisis” doesn’t cover the number of Camus moments I’ve experienced in my quest to work out exactly what the fuck I’m doing here. I have days when I feel guilty about not being productive enough and days when I feel guilty about taking on too much and not making the most of this wonderful privilege of free time.

In all honesty, I have yet to work out an appropriate job descriptor for my new role, but what I have recognised is an underlying pressure to reinvent myself or redefine my purpose.

I would struggle to answer the question of what I do right now

When asked what I do, like most retirees, I bore pants off people about how busy I am. And, in fairness, I write a lot – but very little worth publishing; I read and file a lot of research; I try to stay fit within the allowances of my degenerating body, and I attempt to live vicariously through the lives of my children – albeit, they don’t seem as keen.

But what am I actually achieving? And do I need to achieve anything?

My single accomplishment from this year’s shit show has been my clearer understanding that LIFE IS HARD for everyone, an acknowledgement that has carried me through many difficult moments and highlighted the importance of resilience to me once again.

Fundamentally, I have always believed that resilience is the key to happiness, and yet in the past I struggled with the in-egalitarianism of it, i.e., why some people (seemingly) sail through life, whilst others are thwarted through no fault of their own.

When I think about it, I never quite understood the “pain makes you stronger” theory because I allowed the traumas of my childhood to define me. Unlike some, I struggled to harness my pain and magically transform it into a strength. Instead, I chose to wallow in it, allowing it to weaken and control me.

I chose to be a victim

Victimhood has served as the perfect excuse for my inadequacies, my fragility, my tendency towards mild depression, and my struggles with work and parenting. It makes sense that if your emotional battery has never been fully charged, you go flat much more quickly when faced with challenging life situations such as parenting, relationship disharmony and rejection, thereby increasing your predisposition to mood disorders. And as I discovered recently, difficult transitions like middle age – when there is more time to overthink the meaning of life – can be a trigger.

The struggles of people who have suffered trauma are valid – as proven by research into the longterm effects on their potential and mental health – but I’ve come to understand that being a victim is neither a healthy option nor a solution for my low moods.

So how to stop the pain?

For years, I masked my low-grade depression with self-medication. I still do, to a degree. I had to, because despite my awareness that no one leads a charmed life, my anxiety-induced perfectionism and hypersensitivity ensured that the knocks hit me harder.

But this year, I had time for an epiphany. Tired of wondering why the fuck I couldn’t enjoy what (by most standards) is a pretty good life, I spent the year experimenting with different strategies and medications (HRT as well as anti-depressants) in an attempt to change my outlook. I took the opportunity provided by COVID’s restrictions to rest, exercise harder, create boundaries in relationships that were becoming toxic, and to find a way to approach the rest of my life in a way that suits my brain.

I started to live by two maxims:

1) “Life is shit and then you die”. Because when you expect the worst, (which you do if you suffer from anxiety), things can only get better;

2) And “Tomorrow is another day”. Because time does indeed move relentlessly forward and dwelling for too long on the unfairness and the absurdities of life is clearly a waste.

To the optimist, I know those maxims must sound ridiculously defeatist, nevertheless, they work for me.

Which brings me back to the question of whether pain makes life more meaningful?

Maybe. I haven’t experienced life from the other side, so I suppose I will never know what might have been. What I will say categorically is that my pain has shaped me in many ways for the better. Although I’ve spent most of my life bemoaning the negative impact of my trauma, I do believe the knocks have made me a kinder, more compassionate person – if not a happier, stronger one.

The writer, Paul Bloom, an advocate of this theory, agrees. He says:

“Some degree of misery and suffering is essential to a rich and meaningful life.”

And I think he has a point. Maybe we do have to experience pain to understand why we are here. The gift of semi-retirement has given me the time to look at my life more closely, to separate the different elements and compartmentalise. All those cliched strategies for people with depression – walking in nature, fortifying relationships with family and friends, standing up for my rights, and being more self-compassionate – have helped me develop more resilience and autonomy.

Anxious people like me place an inordinate amount of pressure on ourselves to lead perfect lives and then, when we don’t succeed, we see ourselves as failures. But as Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe’s pointed out in her article on Medium, though many of us may have come through the past twelve months without any outstanding achievements, we must remember that some of us have “fought different, less glamorous battles…clawed through {our} own darkness and now {we’re} standing in the light.”

Every year brings a mix of highs and lows, and good stuff did happen to me this year: I caught a potentially life-threatening Melanoma in time, I watched my children continue to grow with pride, I discovered what I can only describe as the spirituality of swimming in cold water, and I fell more deeply in love with my husband. I have also been fortunate to live in a democracy that provides a wonderful healthcare system and (for the most part) promotes values I agree with.

And so, I will leave you with one final, simple quote which I hope inspires you as much as it did me, or at the very least helps you reframe your pain if it is holding you back.

“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” Gratitude Addict

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash.

I’m A Feminist, So Why Won’t I Let Myself Age Naturally?

When we came out of lockdown, I broke an Olympic record for the speed with which I booked my colour at my hairdressers, so it was reassuring to see Melburnians bang down the doors of theirs when their Premier released them from one of the longest lockdowns around the world.

Ageism has a lot to answer for, proven by a recent study by Australian Seniors that showed the drastic lengths middle-aged women and men go to – from hair colouring to plastic surgery – to remain visible, relevant, and employable.

Ageism has a lot to answer for

Woman with blonde hair blowing in the wind.
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

I’m lucky, apart from basic body hygiene, I don’t have to maintain any particular beauty standards for my job, and neither am I high maintenance when it comes to my appearance. That may be why I transitioned so smoothly into living like a slob during our restrictions. Truth be told, living in lounge wear day and night was a dream come true and that extra layer of hair on my legs made the switch from autumn to winter much less painful.

But it was a different story with the hair on my head. Like many middle-aged women, I went through the seven stages of grief as the visible signs of my age crept through my parting.

I was thankful that hats were in vogue, although I do remember one low point (at the Mare Sheehan stage of rootage) when I succumbed to smudging my roots with mascara – not recommended.

In retrospect, though, I handled the ever-widening salt and pepper line down the centre of my scalp stoically, and the return to my mousey roots didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. So much so, the closer we got to the magical seventy percent vaccination rate required to open up our salons – inspired by all those stunning, mature celebrities who have embraced the grey, Andie MacDowell being an obvious stand-out – I began to seriously toy with the idea of ageing naturally.

Which makes my midnight vigil outside my hairdressers the night before freedom day all the more perplexing. Because, as a feminist, it goes against every follicle on my body to surrender to the blatant gender inequality around beauty standards. And each time I agree to pay through the nose to highlight my hair, I know I’m giving into the narrative that youth trumps pretty much everything, and for any chance of staying visible, I mustn’t look my age.

So why do I do it? Why can’t I give up on this last bastion of my youth?

It’s not like I enjoy the experience of sitting still, staring at myself for two hours, having to pretend that I’m not appalled by the cost of my foils and the special shampoos and treatments required to maintain my hair in some vaguely manageable condition. Not to mention the social anxiety I experience each visit a propos of my hairdresser, a lovely Millennial who has quietly surrendered to my refusal to talk to her – although, I can’t be certain if our unspoken rule around engagement has made our two hours together more honest or more awkward.

I can’t chit-chat confidently about the mundanities of life with a woman whose biggest daily conflict is the straightness of her hair

Other women my age seem able to chit-chat confidently about Netflix shows and their next holiday, but I can’t do it. I have tried, but I cannot pretend to have anything in common with a twenty-something who goes out for the night at the same time I’m going to bed. Perhaps, if she had something to add about vaginal atrophy or grumpy, middle-aged husbands, we might have something work with, but I’m just not that bothered about Tik Tok and online dating at this stage of my life. And this visit, my hell was ramped up a notch because of the amount of rehabilitation my hair required after its four months in the wilderness. Sea water turns turns it into a tangled, untameable frizz, so this time I set another world record for time spent at the sink with a junior who couldn’t adjust the temperature of the water or stop talking.

Evidently, she hadn’t read the memo about my verbal reticence, so while I spent most of the time worrying whether she had removed the top layer of my scalp, the cost of the toner (ka-ching!), and some other special treatment I needed… apparently (ka-ching, ka-ching!), she had talked me through her guide to the best online stores for crop tops. And by the time we reached the only enjoyable part of my hairdressing experience – the head massage – I couldn’t get out of my chair fast enough.

The sad truth is, I can’t control what happens to my face, but I can still control the colour of my hair

I could buy a lot of new lounge wear with that extra $200+, but sadly I like being blonde and I’m not grown up enough yet to come out as an old person. Perhaps, if I was a good feminist or had more confidence, I would feel proud of this ageing body of mine and what it has achieved, see it more like a precious piece of antique furniture that should be valued, rather than a pimped, second-hand car.

But as I left the house, prior to my appointment, and the old man told me how beautiful I looked with my new, natural waves, I knew he was lying and that the comment came from the accountant in him rather than any real desire for me to turn into his mother.

Embracing The Menopause Belly

I caught up with an old friend recently and when the conversation turned to the inevitable topic of menopause and weight gain, I was surprised to see her stroke her belly and proudly flaunt it in my direction.

Close up of a woman's belly

She told me she’s decided to embrace the menopause belly – a brave choice, I thought, in a society that chooses to celebrate youth and beauty over experience and wisdom, and the reason many of us struggle to adapt to the mental and physical changes caused by this stage of life.

And I’m not talking necessarily about the well-documented changes caused by menopause, such as hot flushes and brain fog. I mean the symptoms that not even women are comfortable discussing until we’re halfway down a bottle of Chardonnay and someone blurts out they’re incontinent.

Not to mention the increase in facial hair, the decrease in libido, the thinning of the hair on our head, joint pain, and for some of us, the impact on our digestive system.

I thought hot flushes during meetings were bad, until menopause attacked my digestive system

A short time ago, (and in spite of a healthy diet), there was a period when I could have powered myself to work, such was the intensity of my intestines’ reaction to certain foods I’d previously eaten without any problem. Fortunately, I managed to reduce my mortifying excess emissions by switching to a Low-FODMAP diet, but I haven’t been quite as lucky solving my memo-pot.

In spite of eating less, dosing up on turmeric, and exercising like Jane Fonda on Speed, my belly still looks like a five-month gestation

I understand our metabolism slows down in middle age – although, recent scientific research suggests that increased weight gain has more to do with a reduction in our activity patterns rather than chocolate, because as Erin Brodwin points out in an article she wrote about the problem, “As we age, we also get less active while sticking to roughly the same diet.”

And I’m also fortunate that Facebook reminds me daily about my problem area with its clever promotions of the latest pills and exercises to combat bloating. And yet, in spite of trying just about everything to tighten up those loose folds of skin left by two pregnancies – short of a tummy tuck – nothing gives.

Why do I care so much, I hear you ask?

Well, if I’m honest, I care because the media tells me I should care. Apparently, women are expected to have a flat stomach – even though the majority of men my age walk around proudly with bellies the size of small beer kegs, and the average woman’s clothing size in Australia is a size 16.

And when I struggled to find an image of a “mummy tummy” for this post, it became even more apparent to me why women struggle with body image issues.

Last Christmas, I experienced this type of gender inequality firsthand at a drinks party, when a male friend of ours greeted me with, ‘You’re looking nice and slim, Lou.”

I’m still not certain if the implication of his words was that I was a bit porky the previous time we met, or if I was finally meeting expectation, but I suspect he thought he was being polite. Whatever his reasons, I can’t imagine ever greeting a man like that.

But life’s too short for crunches, pills that make you constipated, and wearing Spanx each time you want to wear a dress

And fortunately, one of the benefits of ageing is the wisdom that comes with it, which helps us appreciate the privilege of wrinkles. And so, instead of sacrificing the last chapter of my life to the knife or the gym to get back into my size 12 jeans, I choose to be a bit more circumspect about my priorities.

I choose to carry on eating good food and drinking good wine with good people

I don’t need to fit into a bikini again. EVER. I am actually really enjoying my middle-aged invisibility at the pub and on the beach. And I’m grateful for the extra time (I used to waste on the most minimal amount of pampering) to keep challenging my degenerating brain.

That’s not to say if I woke up one morning with a flat stomach I’d demand the old one back. But there’s an old quote about controlling the things you can control, and that’s where I’ve drawn the line with my belly. Like my friend, I’ve decided to embrace its wholesomeness in celebration of my age and maturity, its awesomeness in nurturing my two babies, and its visual presentation of a middle-aged woman’s right to be who the fuck she wants to be.

Photo by Monika Kozub on Unsplash

5 Surprising Things I Haven’t Missed In Isolation

What’s surprised me most about this virus and its impact on my life is WHAT I HAVEN’T MISSED in isolation.

Whilst the 5 O’clock shadow above my lip is evidence of how much my body is missing its minimal beauty regime, there are still many things I thought my happiness depended upon that I haven’t missed at all since COVID struck our shores.

Photo by Mental Health America (MHA) on Pexels.com

Obviously, I’ve missed going to restaurants, weekends away, and movie trips, but there’s no denying that this virus has gifted me a window of opportunity to put into perspective what’s truly important in my life.

Removed from that relentless pressure to succeed in every aspect of my life, my brain is taking a long-overdue holiday from the overwhelming expectations society places on women our age.

Here are 5 surprising things I haven’t missed in isolation:

1. People

FRIENDS, before you rush to Facebook and unfriend me, hear me out. Because I’m not talking about people per se, I’m talking about people I don’t really know that I’m forced to mix with at large social events or work. One of the chronic sides to my anxiety is my social anxiety, which may not be that obvious to most people – because I’m a professional at disguising it, aka an alcoholic. Nevertheless, it’s a problem that explains why a big part of me is loving this excuse not to leave the house right now.

The work required to socialise kills me, i.e. the diplomacy required to fit everyone in without offending anyone. So while I’ve kept myself busy during this time, I’ve not missed being socially busy and I’ve embraced the extra time and energy to pour into projects I WANT TO DO that I’ve been forced to put on the back burner in the past.

2. Shopping

There’s not much point in clothes shopping when there’s nowhere to go, and on the rare occasions I’ve visited the mall for “essentials”, I’ve discovered that my desire to shop has all but disappeared – cue fist pump from hubby. Materialism really does feel unessential right now.

That change in mindset has nothing to do with not having the cash to splash, it’s about the change in my priorities. In the past, I wasted hours at the mall, trying to live up to unrealistic expectations that now seen ridiculous. Like many women, treating myself and spending compulsively used to make me feel better about myself. Now, I wonder why.

3. My Anxiety

This is a strange one to admit to when governments around the world are preparing for a mental health emergency, and yet it makes complete sense to me. Aside from the ramifications of certain domestic triggers (hmmm…), my anxiety hasn’t been exacerbated by COVID-19. If anything, it has reduced, and recent research in Japan confirms that I’m not alone. It makes sense when one of the triggers of my anxiety is stress at work, and did I mention people?

The threat of the virus trumps most of the fears anxious people like me ruminate about on a daily basis. COVID-19 is the disaster of epic proportions we over-thinkers have been waiting for our whole lives, and now it’s finally here and more tangible, it’s rather like looking the enemy in the eye.

And health anxiety is hardly an option right now. NO-ONE in their right mind wants to end up in the ER at the moment, right? And on a more personal front, whilst having our grown up son back at home has added some tension, it has also removed the fear caused by those calls in the middle of the night. Enabling or not, it is much easier to support him during this pandemic while he’s under our own roof.

4. “The Treadmill”

Again, the treadmill issue tie in with people and my anxiety. While I like my routine, I don’t necessarily enjoy all of the functions on my personal treadmill and at fifty-four, I’m still trying to shape my life into one I want, that works for me, i.e. working for myself, and doing something I feel passionately about. This break from certain outside pressures has paused the tension that usually mounts. It has provided me with the opportunity to step back and do exactly what I want for a short space of time, when I want to.

5. The Weight Of Expectation

I am aware that it is my personal responsibility to control the weight of expectation I feel – or so my therapist says. Everyone wants to succeed, but to balance pressures (many of which I put on myself) with my mental health is an ongoing battle. With the release of some of that pressure, my head has bobbed back to the surface of the water again.

I won’t deny that I’ve had an innate desire to find more inner peace for some time, and for those of us lucky enough to come through this virus unscathed, one positive of this COVID-19 experience has been to highlight the areas of our lives we need to re-evaluate. It has pushed nature, family relationships, and my health back to the top of my priority list. I may be missing the opportunity to explore countries I’ve never visited and family I haven’t seen in a while, but I am not missing the anxiety that used to accompany me on those trips.

Is there anything you haven’t missed in isolation that has come as a surprise?

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COVID-19 Is All Fun And Games Until You Start To Look Like Your Grandmother

I’m sitting at home, dressed to the nines with nowhere to go.

Dressed to the nines during COVID-19 (?), I hear you ask.

Image of old woman with grey hair and moustache.
Thanks to Far Kew for this wonderfully appropriate image

Well…yes. But I do have two very good reasons for such crazy behaviour: The first is that like many of you, I imagine, the highlight of my week since social-distancing started has become my trip to the supermarket – and… standards. The second is because in recent days more than a handful of old people have allowed ME TO PASS BY THEM in aforementioned supermarket raids or during my “essential” exercise.

I may be paranoid, but I thought it was the over-seventies we were trying to protect (and I’m 54). So…looks like I’m not winning any “how to look great without make-up” competitions anytime soon.

COVID-19 is all fun and games until you start looking like your grandmother.

Admittedly, I’ve looked better. I’ve probably taken this short-term permission to live like a slob that step too far. Added to which, I’ve been suffering from a nasty attack of Rosacea that I’m praying hasn’t been triggered by the vast quantities of pink Gin I’m drinking for my anxiety.

But I suppose there was a certain inevitability about ageing prematurely during this pandemic, when you’re locked up in the house with your husband 24/7. After all, there’s only so much ice-chewing, golf-swinging, and farting you can witness before your body starts to revolt – as I alluded to at the bottom of my last post here.

I’m fortunate to have a son who consistently reminds me that anyone over thirty-five is ANCIENT, but I’ll be honest with you, I thought I looked okay for my age – hence my decision to drop any sort of beauty regime at the first opportunity which turned out to be this virus.

It’s not like I truly believed I was a walking advertisement for how to look good with no make-up, but I thought this new “surviving a pandemic” natural look gave me a Byron vibe. That was until the old man commented on how nice I looked the other day – the day I wore mascara for my last trip to Woollies.

‘What do you mean,’ I turned on him defensively.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied nervously. ‘You’ve got some nice colour to your cheeks.”

‘That would be my Rosacea,” I confirmed with a death stare.

Of course, NC would laugh out loud at my suggestion that I have any sort of beauty regime. If you call putting body lotion on your face at night a BEAUTY REGIME, I can hear her say. My daughter has always been appalled by my complete disregard for “products” and she still hasn’t stopped laughing about the time I used a brow pen as an eyeliner.

I miss my girl.

And in my defence, it doesn’t help that I can’t actually see the massive whiskers hanging from the corners of my mouth, the overgrown hedges over my eyes, and those orange blotches of rogue foundation that I can normally rely on her to wipe away in shame.

I won’t deny that my beauty standards have slipped to “Kathy Bates in Misery” level of late, which is why I’ve called Kurt in to my rescue. He keeps moaning about how we never do anything, so I thought I’d ramp up his Friday night and book him in for a plucking session in the bathroom tonight. I’m ignoring the fact that his latest experiment with his own mop is a Mohican that he’s threatening to dye platinum – mainly because it’s hard to care about anything very much right now other than the path of this bloody virus.

But if I do turn out looking like Lady Gaga in that scene from A Star Is Born when Bradley pulls off her stick-on brows, I promise to post a photo.

Educate your parents about COVID-19 – They may be stubborn old fools, but they’re stubborn old fools we want to keep in our lives for as long as we can

It’s been pretty appalling to hear the way some people dismiss the value of our elderly at the moment. This is what happens to equal rights in the face of a crisis. And while I understand the theory behind “survival of the fittest”, I’ll be the first to admit that it never crossed my mind that I’d experience the personal implications of it in my lifetime.

But worse is the sneaking suspicion that our parents and grandparents – many of whom survived world wars – aren’t taking this Coronavirus thing very seriously at all. Which means that while the majority of us are doing everything in our power to alleviate their risk, they’ve putting their own lives and ours in further jeopardy.

Only this morning as a threatening tribe of heaving shopping trollies (stacked to the ceiling with the sort of rations you would normally only associate with wartime) cornered me into the sweet section of the supermarket, an elderly lady tapped me on the back and pointed to my basket – containing tonic water and dog food because for this crisis I’ve got my priorities right.

‘It’s so surprising to see anyone still using a basket at the moment,’ she commented.

‘I suppose so,’ I replied vaguely, eager not to have to admit to my early morning raid of Aldi or to have an unnecessary conversation – that was definitely more than 1.5m apart – which might put her at risk from the light cold I’m still recovering from, (which is one of the downsides of working with children).

‘I’ve just come back from holiday and my children are worrying about me,’ she went on, as my brain imploded with the implications of this information. I put my hand over my mouth without thinking. ‘They told me not to leave the house. It’s quite ridiculous, isn’t it?’

‘Maybe,’ I replied, lying.

I mean, I get that there’s an admirable stoicism that comes from surviving wars, but it’s no excuse for naivety. We need to listen to what the experts are telling us. If we are to learn anything from Italy’s experience of the spread of this virus, that sort of “fight them on the beaches” bravado is not going to help lovely old ladies like this one when it takes down millions and she finds the value of her life measured against the life of someone half her age in the ER, is it?

Educate your parents. If you think you’re confused by the advice coming from the government and the media, imagine how they feel. Offer to do their shopping for them, visit them more to help alleviate the loneliness that self-isolation may cause, value their contribution to all of our lives.

We’ve reached a time in our lives where many of us are losing our parents to natural causes – and none of us have any control over that. But we can reduce their risk to the exposure of this virus. And while they may be stubborn old fools, they’re stubborn old fools we want to keep in our lives for as long as we can.

The Brain Fog Caused By Menopause

Increased forgetfulness or fogginess in the brain has to be one of the most debilitating symptoms of menopause, and it comes at a time when dementia is already a terrifying prospect, particularly for those who have lost parents or older relatives to the degenerative condition.

Two or three years ago, when we were deep in the trenches of Kurt’s troubles, I rushed out of the house one day to get into my car and for some reason my attention was drawn to the little storage area in the door where I there was a lighter and some cigarettes. My immediate reaction was one of anger, because I thought that (on top of everything else) Kurt had not only used my car but smoked in it as well, and it was only after I had snapped my seat belt into its lock and was searching for the ignition that I noticed that the car’s dashboard was a different colour to mine.

I was in someone else’s car!

In a menopausal brain fog, many of us will have walked up to a car the same colour and shape to our own in the street, tried to open the door, and then made a hasty, red-faced retreat. But it’s another level of humiliation to have to get out of a car, praying that no one witnessed your (potential) theft of the vehicle.

Fortunately, I haven’t committed anything quite as embarrassing as that incident of late – and I still blame my poor brain function on the stress I was going through at the time – but pouring juice in my coffee, wearing clothes inside out, forgetting names, losing my keys and walking into rooms with no idea why I’d done so, have become regular occurrences.

Issues with memory loss, lapses and “brain freeze” associated with menopause are often attributed to hormonal imbalance, but did you know that those symptoms can equally be caused by poor sleep, certain medications, stress, and too much alcohol? Hmmm. So there were likely several very good reasons I got into the wrong car that day.

Forgetfulness is a topic that comes up regularly when the girls and I get together to discuss which of us has the most embarrassing dementia story that week. So when one of them told me that she uses the Lumosity App to keep her brain healthy, I decided to give it a go.

The aim of the app is to “challenge your memory and attention” and to improve your mental reflexes in terms of problem-solving and processing in a fun, want-to-cry kind of way, and it offers three free games per day to keep you on your toes.

Since I started using it, I’ve discovered that I am crap at games that involve cars, circuits, and especially parking – but funnily enough, I have demonstrated quite a talent for the coffee-making game and remembering ocean creatures. I can already see the benefit of the tool. I’m not grown up or boring enough to want to tackle crosswords or Sudoku yet, but I can now see how our brains need a workout in much the same way that the rest of our bodies do, particularly when our muscle starts to waste away in menopause.

The only problem with the app is remembering to do it.

Isn’t It Funny How Our Priorities Change With Age?

The old man opened the vault last week. Last month was the first time he didn’t lose a ton of our money since he became an investor and it triggered un uncharacteristically generous response. Of course, I leapt at the opportunity to spend.

Photo from Sophie Elvis on Unsplash.com

I’m sure I must have mentioned that we’ve owned our current sofas for almost twenty-two years? Or that our television is so old it doesn’t fit through modern doors and has to be turned off manually? And that our dining set is from IKEA, circa 1800, and I bought it with my first pay after Kurt was born?

According to the old man’s philosophy, the money we spend is about making my life as miserable as possible “financial choices” i.e. nothing to do with an appreciation for antiques or sentimentality, although I believe that it also has something to do with the old man’s natural parsimony, his complete disinterest in what our house looks like, and my uselessness with money – as in saving money. That’s why – and I am embarrassed to admit this – I relinquished joint control of our bank account a long time ago.

I know…bad feminist!

Anyway, unsurprisingly, furniture has never featured highly on his list of priorities (unlike top-of-the-range golf clubs and wasted memberships at gyms), so the deal he offered me last week – to purchase two sofas, some dining chairs, and a new tv for him – could have knocked me down with a feather.

There were a few conditions, OBVS: I had to pick the furniture within an hour; it had to meet the practicalities he deems important ie. the color had to be a practical shade of neutral because of the Princess’s habit of wiping her bum and her spaghetti mouth on them; and I was NOT TO GO OVER BUDGET.

Sometimes, it really is like he doesn’t even know me!

And, honestly, I can’t describe to you the anticipation both of us felt as we travelled to the mall like a proper, grown up couple going furniture shopping. Although, then again, this grown up business does seem to be becoming a bit of a habit, if you remember here.

Of course, his generosity in terms of patience in the furniture stores didn’t extend as far as the family wallet. He lasted all of five minutes in the first shop before he had his first tanty and I had to send him packing to the tv store, which brought back horrible memories of Hawaii and our lifetime ban from Avis. Which left me an hour – negotiated up from half an hour – to find the furniture we will most likely wee and die on, before he changed his mind.

And I did it. The furniture had been ordered and is due to arrive before Christmas, and I am …well …not nearly as excited about it as I thought I would be, as I admitted to Tightarse the other night.

‘So if what would excite you if you could buy anything?’ he asked me, stifling a yawn.

Well… not the material stuff, anymore. We are lucky, we have everything we need. No, these days what gets me really excited is the thought of giving, having new experiences, learning about new stuff, the luxury of time (if I have the option), being a part of social change, and er…food. The prospect of taking the kids out to dinner and giving them free range to pick what they want from the menu – even dessert; shoving $50 in their hand when they need it – because I remember how much we appreciated the gesture from my in-laws when we were hard up; travel, education, and the freedom to do exactly what I want. All of those things excite me more than plush new sofas that someone will spill red wine on the minute I’ve unwrapped them – although, needless to say, I still made sure they will arrive before Christmas, in time for the family visit from the UK.

Isn’t it funny how our priorities change with age?

What excites you now?

21 Pieces Of Advice I’d Give My Teenage Self…

An article in “The Times” last weekend and my coming birthday inspired me to think seriously once again about what I’ve learned during my half-century. I’ve written posts in the past on the topic of the wisdom gained in middle age – mainly in relation to the advice I’d give NC, my daughter, but amazingly I have “grown up” some more since then, (as has the place of women in the world) – so I think it’s time for a re-evaluation.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

I envy NC and the support her generation receives from the multitude of inspiring female mentors in the media, at work, and within her social group, as well as the government and independent services they have for their mental health etc. And I hope that with more awareness about women’s rights, the majority of our young women are now finally aware of what exactly is within their grasp. But the success of their future – and I use the word “success” with an implicit meaning of personal goals – still comes down to getting the fundamentals right.

Middle age is a funny old time. We joke about still feeling seventeen or eighteen, and yet it would be ignorant to believe that experience and the power of time have not played some part in influencing our perspective from then to now. If I’m honest, I’m not certain I thought about anything very much in my teens, beyond meeting the education goals set by my parents, getting a boyfriend, and securing a job, but then we didn’t have as much insight into what was happening on the world stage back then.

So here’s what I would advise my younger self if I had my time again:

  1. Don’t assume that education is the only means to an end. Further education is a massive decision for a young brain and, these days, a huge financial commitment. One size doesn’t fit all, and many of our most successful entrepreneurs never finished school. Follow your heart when it comes to your career. You can always return to education at a later date.
  2. Trust your instincts more. Sure, there is a stereotype/Instagram version of success that we are pressured to aspire to, but if you have any niggling doubt inside you, you don’t have to be a sheep. It is unlikely that your doubt will disappear, and ignoring it may cause you and the people that love you a lot of pain in the long term. Listen to your body is something else I’d like to add here – and not just the physical signs that something isn’t quite right, but the mental ones as well.
  3. Value yourself. People will tell you that you are too young to make big decisions, too fat to wear those jeans, not good enough at such and such to follow your dream, but you are your own person and this is your life. Worst case scenario – you will learn from your mistakes. Remove anyone who doesn’t value you or respect your decisions from your life.
  4. Never trust or stay with a partner who doesn’t treat you as an equal. Nothing to add.
  5. Always take responsibility for your own finances. Even if you take time out of work, make sure that you don’t compromise your financial independence by that decision.
  6. Be assertive. Women are known as the “gentler sex” – and it’s true that we make great carers – but in the business world that can be seen as a weakness. One reason that women earn less is because they don’t ask for a pay rise. So be assertive about what you are entitled to.
  7. Don’t be scared to voice your opinion. Time and time again I hear women say that they can’t communicate with their partner. If that’s the case, you are not in an equal relationship and it’s not working.
  8. Accept your body for what it is. There are some things diet and exercise can’t change, so stop wasting your time trying to achieve the impossible. Live a healthy lifestyle, but don’t get sucked in by the unrealistic expectations of models in magazines or social media. You have so much more to give.
  9. Read more.
  10. If you have to chase a friendship, let it go. They don’t value you.
  11. You will have to fake it to make it and that’s okay because everyone’s doing the same thing. Don’t allow yourself to feel like an imposter just because you’ve pushed yourself to take on a new challenge. Take a leap of faith. Imagine if you succeed!
  12. Compliment other women. In fact, compliment everyone – those few words have the power to change someone’s day.
  13. Tell those closest to you how much you love them, more often.
  14. Move forwards not backwards. Regrets can be useful as a learning tool but demotivating if you focus on them.
  15. Don’t be afraid to say sorry. In particular to your partner and kids.
  16. Exercise self-compassion. Don’t be so hard on yourself. There will always be someone with more and life will feel tough at times, but no one is perfect.
  17. Don’t be judgy. Instead, be empathetic – you have no idea what someone else’s life really looks like from the inside out.
  18. Take a greater interest in politics. I know that they’re boring when you are still ignorant about your own mortality, but you can change the world if you want to. And if not for yourself, for your kids. That’s what living in a democracy is all about, and it’s a privilege denied to many. It infuriates me when I hear of young people who haven’t voted and then moan about how the system never changes.
  19. Dreams can come true, but they take hard work, resilience and commitment. (Taken from GreenGlobalTravel). And to get there, you will most likely need to take some risks.
  20. Don’t grow up too soon. There’s plenty of time for that.
  21. Travel – as often as you can.” “After a life-changing trip, Jennifer Hill realized the importance of getting out of your comfort zone. As she’d tell her younger self, there are always reasons you can find not to experience new things—but the benefits of doing it anyway can be amazing.” (The Muse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can make my own decisions again.

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

Why Try Mindfulness In Middle Age? Because That’s When You Realise Just How Fucked Up The World Really Is

I took an introductory course in mindfulness a few weeks ago. I thought that the company of calm, spiritual people would wield its inner peace on me. But when it turned out that only my friends had signed up for the course, I realised something I already knew – that we’re all dealing with our own shit.

Women practising meditation.
Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Among other living hells, Menopause is known to exacerbate anxiety, and while I have found other calming techniques for my over-active brain – such as running, writing, and drinking more wine – I keep hearing the word “mindfulness” bandied about in association with ADHD and anxiety, which is why I decided to give it a shot.

I suppose that everyone is seeking the simplest solution to cope with the trials of life, but that need becomes more pertinent the older you get, when you realise just how fucked up the world really is.

I also knew that my experience would make great blog fodder, and as I’m prepared to give most things a go to enhance the experience of this, the last, physically-able chapter of my life – apart from pole-dancing, obvs, which is a subtle reminder to my sister who, one birthday, demonstrated that my psychotic sense of humour runs in the family – I decided to ignore the natural cynicism of my inner voice that tells me that this spiritual stuff is a load of bollocks.

Indeed, I felt for the first time in my life that I had the appropriate level of maturity to handle it.

Which was where I was wrong when I got worryingly close to breaking the magical spell of silence during the walking meditation with a fart or a show tune.

But like when you give up smoking or drinking, you have to commit to new ideas such as mindfulness for them to have any hope of working, and once I got my giggles of self-consciousness out of the way, I did just that. I mean, let’s be honest, while the power of running has gone some way to combatting my anxiety, it’s far more appealing to sit in my own space and do fuck all for the same benefits.

Our teacher was lovely. Non-judgmental, with one of those soothing voices that carried us along to our safe place without too much of a fight, he managed to hide his despair at the three crotchety, middle-aged cynics in front of him, whose bodies creaked each time he asked us to change position on the floor. He didn’t even seem to mind when he told us to think about our favourite place for our first visualisation and I admitted that mine was in bed. Everyone else picked a tropical island!

Admittedly, I found that focusing on my breath was about as stimulating as Scott Morrison’s election campaign, but I loved the soothing effect of the chanting bowl. I defy anyone who has worked a full day and managed to get back out of the house for a mid-week evening meeting, not to find some relaxation in the sound – so much so, I’ve decided to invest in one for the next finance meeting with the old man. And the walking meditation was an interesting exercise in self-control and fitness as the five us us walked slowly around the room together, first like zombies, and then like Neil Armstrong on the moon, while I fought a personal battle to keep a straight face.

But there were many ideas and exercises that I loved. One of the exercises was to connect our heart to someone we love. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I picked the old man as the recipient of my limited levels of love – that are rather like the permanent level of cyan ink on our colour printer – but I suspect it had something to do with guilt. I’d been a complete bitch to him that week. Funnily enough, he didn’t mention feeling any different when I arrived home, which confirmed my suspicion that he likes being “treated mean.”

Anyway, I found this article on the web, which provides a really good beginner’s guide to mindfulness. So keep your mind open. It’s not easy, but focusing on what you are grateful has to be a far healthier way of getting through this crazy old thing called life. Since the course, I have inadvertently incorporated the deep breathing exercise when I feel anxious, and it has worked wonders for eliminating the shame I feel about pouring that extra glass of wine.

Is It Normal To Hate People Who Go On Exotic Holidays All The Time? Asking For A Friend

This is a follow on from my last post in which I discussed my chances of dragging my husband away on an exotic holiday this year. Thank you for the abundance of awesome recommendations (for anxious, middle-aged couples, with zero interests in common) that you kindly left on that post, and which have since been dissected, over-thought and (no doubt) put on the back burner until I force him to make a decision.

Image found on Pinterest from awakenmindset.com

I should point out that I have warned him that his refusal to commit is exactly the sort of thing that middle-aged couples divorce over, and in response he asked me when I am leaving.

I am not, by nature, a green-eyed monster, so I find this whole travel-envy thing to be quite peculiar. Indeed, I have always denied the impact of social media on my happiness – made easier in this case, I imagine, by our move to the other side of the world to a wonderful country that offers a wealth of different landscapes and natural beauty.

I was, (and still am), committed to the financial choices the old man we have made to semi-retire.

However, it does leave us with a very limited budget for holidays and lately I’ve started to get itchy feet, thanks to all of those inspirational memes about travel, adventures and growth that fill my FB home page, as well as the bunch of our friends that are starting to take advantage of their new empty-nester status and are therefore ALWAYS on fucking holiday.

So what’s changed? I suppose that when I entered this stage of my life I still had the arrogance of the European who feels like they’ve seen the world – when the reality is, I’ve visited a couple of European countries a lot of times. I may have lived in Europe for forty years, but I didn’t have the wisdom back then to make the most of what it had to offer.

Added to which, I came back from our last exotic trip to Bali in two minds about foreign holidays. I was pretty shaken up by the level of poverty – in what I had been led to believe was a paradise – hence, I spent much of our time there stressing about the families on scooters, food poisoning and feral dogswhich always made a beeline for me.

Unsurprisingly, our next holiday was to Forster.

I’m not certain what is behind this current attack of itchy feet. Is it an innate fear of time running out? Am I missing a diversity of culture that simply doesn’t exist on the Northern Beaches of Sydney? Or is it simply that I’m scared that I am cruising through life and getting boring?

While there are many benefits to working from home – the main one being that my desk is close to the fridge – one of the few downsides is that life can become very insular. And when you struggle from anxiety, the fact that you rarely have to leave the house can cultivate the problem.

Interestingly, when I think about my dream holiday, it isn’t about swanky hotels, exotic beaches or even two-for-one cocktails like it used to be – we have some pretty nice beaches here. No, the appeal is more linked to new experiences, new cultures, the challenge of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and growth. It is about sharing those experiences with my soulmate – rather than the typical mundanities we share each week, like when the dog last went out for a poo.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very content to get comfortable in certain areas of middleage-dom. I wouldn’t trade flat shoes, nightly Netflix and separate bedrooms for anything! But I can’t ignore that little voice that keeps nagging me to keep on exploring.

“Running Really Does Get Easier,” Said No Novice Runner Ever

Image of woman running up steps in orange runners.

There’s no doubt in my mind that what this year’s fun run is really about is another narcissistic attempt to deny the physical evidence that my body is as old AF and, well, a bit buggered.

The papers – or “the news” (as my millennial daughter corrected me yesterday morning because she has never read a hard copy newspaper) – continues to be full of stories of New Year’s resolutions that never got out of the starting gate, Dry January fails, and Januhairy – the least challenging resolution for the menopausal/hormonally hirsute amongst us.

Privately, I have made a couple of personal resolutions – that for legal reasons that involve the old man, I can’t share publicly with you yet – but I have made one that I’m happy to talk about.

This May, I will be competing in the 4k Mothers Day Classic Fun Run to support breast cancer research.

Yes, FOUR FUCKING KILOMETRES, and A RUN! The “fun” part, I’m not so sure about.

I did a similarly crazy thing a little over ten years ago when I celebrated my 40th birthday – don’t ask me why I have this tendency to come up with harebrained schemes such as these, although I suspect that wine has something to do with them – when, in the wisdom of what I will now refer to as my youth, I signed up for the London To Brighton bike ride, to prove that I was still young, hot and fit to raise money for The British Heart Foundation.

And evidently, few life lessons were learned from that day of shame. Either that or I have parked them in the dying brain cell department of my brain along with memories of childbirth and whatever I once saw in Johnny Depp.

In my defense, the temperature that day in the UK was (an unheard of) 33 degrees – the precursor to what the intelligent among us now accept as climate change – but added to which, I was also sporting a rather debilitating injury, incurred at training the week before; the result of a nasty brush with gravel. That meant that I had to compete with two stitches to my right elbow and severe PTSD in relation to every getting on a bike again.

To cut a long story short, I was the only competitor to cross the finishing line as the event organizers were planning their retirements – although twelve hours to complete fifty-two miles is apparently a record…of sorts. I was also the only competitor to be slapped around the face by their husband halfway around the course when he feared for my sanity – although, again, in my defense, my bum was really sore.

There’s little doubt in my mind that what this year’s fun run is really just another narcissistic attempt to deny the physical evidence that my body is as old AF and, well, a bit buggered. However, my ambition is not to complete this year’s run in a credible time. No, all I’m really aspiring to do is not look like a complete twat as I cross the line – IF I cross the line – ie. I’m hoping for no sign of poo or wee on my pants, that I haven’t stolen water from the nearest dehydrated child spectator, or taken the bus to raise money for a commendable cause.

I’m also hoping that on this occasion I don’t have to beg a steward to pull me up the last hill in return for sexual favors – something the organizers of the London To Brighton event got very sniffy about.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t know why I don’t organize a coffee morning, eat all the cakes, and be done with it, either. It’s not like I’m one of those stoic people who can put their mind to anything for a shot of very public altruism. Frankly, I couldn’t apply myself to catching a Huntsman spider if the lives of my children depended on it – something you might have picked up on in my last post. I’m not naturally a “charity” type of person – other than my belief that it begins and stays at home, ideally in my bank account.

However, I’m proud to say that I have reached the 2km mark in my training – not an easy feat in the humidity of a Sydney summer – and my only question at this stage of my running journey is when the fuck it gets easier? When will my legs and boobs stop hurting? When will my thighs stop sticking together? Will I ever enjoy it?

This Birthday, JOMO Replaced FOMO

lee-myungseong-716836-unsplash

It was my birthday yesterday. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that I am now 53, in others, it feels like it has taken me bloody ages to get here. The most important part, I suppose, is that where I am, feels right.

The kids and a good bunch of friends came over for a late lunch; twelve of us squeezed around a makeshift table in our living room due to the unseasonable weather outside.

Girlfriends often ask me why I don’t just book a table at a restaurant to celebrate my birthday, but I’ve always loved the idea of a long table of ‘family’ like they do in the Mediterranean, enjoying good food, wine, and banter, with no rush to be anywhere else.

The old man knocked up his Sangria – somewhat of a tradition now – and each couple brought along a plate of food – tapas-style this year. Spanish meatballs, spicy lamb cutlets, prawns, and salads were washed down with cheese, two delicious homemade Spanish tarts and several (!) bottles of red wine.

I felt very lucky. It was a very special day, the sort that I do less frequently now that I no longer need the validation of people constantly around me like when I was younger.

My life is much more about JOMO (Joy of missing out) than FOMO (fear of missing out) these days, most likely because I feel more comfortable with who I am and how I manage whatever time I have left.

In my twenties and thirties, we entertained a lot, much to the old man’s horror. In fact, that insatiable need for acceptance pushed our relationship the closest to a fracture, until we found a compromise. Inevitable, as a Leo, I love to be the center of attention – as long as it’s on my terms with people I’m comfortable with. But if I’m being brutally honest, those gatherings were about something more than simply whipping my flowing mane around, they were about boosting my self-esteem and fuelling my ego.

Sometimes, they were necessary. Itchy feet precluded us from ever settling anywhere for too long. In fact, the old man often jokes that as soon as I start to make too many friends -squeezing him out of his comfort zone – I force him to consider the next move.  So, we were never the couple at the top of the guest list. We had to work hard for acceptance; to keep reminding people who we were. Throw some social anxiety into the equation – and my semi-permanent resting bitchface – and sometimes it felt like an ongoing battle to be included.

FOMO is normally associated with Millennials as they are thrust into the competitive, adult world of social and professional ladder climbing under the spotlight of social media.  But at some point in our lives – once we come to terms with what we have, find some peace within ourselves and discover the glaring truth that only a few things REALLY matter – we enter our JOMO phase.

JOMO means different things to different people, but for me, it means not worrying if I am in bed by 9 pm on holiday or on a Saturday night when everyone else is out partying; it means not going on that mega trip of Europe because everyone else is doing it, and it means being strong enough to say no. It means looking forward to getting into my PJs by 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, Maltesers on my lap, in front of a good movie.

I’m sure that JOMO has something to do with my body slowing down. Or perhaps, it is simply about feeling more comfortable in that body, but for me, it is also about learning to prioritize my own needs again and my time, which becomes more precious by the day. It is about listening to what I need, rather than trying to please everyone else.