A March-Time Update
I have just had a cheeky semi-nap.
Semi-nap, in as much as I’m physiologically not really capable of actually napping. Goodness knows I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t really seem to happen. However, a lie-down for twenty minutes in the afternoon, whether or not it results in sleep, has become something of a lifesaver. Ironically, I’m more willing to do it now that I’ve done a five week CBT course for insomnia, even though the rule was very clearly, very explicitly: don’t nap.
As long as I can remember, I’ve had disrupted sleep. And for most of my adult life, I’ve been tired. It’s got noticeably worse in recent years, with 6 of every 7 days marred by underlying low-level pain and exhaustion. It’s not the end of the world – I can manage it, and am lucky that I can get a lot of writing done in the morning, when still fully ticking over, or can chill out all morning before gigs, where the adrenaline of the work usually sees me through the evenings. Exercise makes me feel good, thank heavens, but the constant fatigue/pain is still noticeably A Thing, and as a result I was referred by the NHS to the sleep clinic.
The referral was relatively quick, given everything, and I’m eternally grateful to my GP. However, the sleep clinic immediately and with a certain briskness put me immediately on a CBT-I course (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia) where two things became very apparent. Firstly, every behaviour that they were trying to teach is something I already do. I have always had scrupulous sleep hygiene, rigorous sleep schedule, have never experienced meaningful anxiety or clock watched, do progressive muscle relaxation/meditation/visualization/breathing techniques etc., don’t drink coffee, don’t lie in bed tossing and turning if having a disrupted night, don’t catastrophize and have even in the past attempted sleep compression – one of the key pillars of CBT-I – with very poor results.
In a way this was a comfort. It was nice to know I was basically already there. It was also disappointing – whatever’s going on with me didn’t look like it was about to be managed through lifestyle and mentality changes. There’s also nothing quite as guaranteed to make a non-anxious person anxious as being told that you’re being referred to a course to manage your anxiety. Am I mad, you think? Have I mistaken my generally optimistic outlook and positive relationship with life for profound anxiety that is secretly keeping me awake at night as I lie in bed with runaway thoughts and consequently intense physiological stress I can’t manage and haven’t even perceived?! AM I MAD?
Anyway, was I accidentally and with the best of all possible intentions gaslit? Well… yes. Not to put too fine a point on it. Yes.
The second thing that became apparent is that there were people on that course who were receiving vastly less sleep than me, yet I was chronically exhausted in a way that just didn’t seem to make sense. This is helpful information, as it raises the question as to whether my problem is just disrupted sleep, or whether sleep disruption is in fact a symptom, rather than a cause. I don’t know the answer, but it’s the first time I’d even considered the question, so that’s something.
I also came away from the course feeling somewhat more empowered to nap. Like a woman who’s read all the CBT books before going on the course, I had refused to let myself nap for years. Now that I realise that my behaviours may not have as much power over this thing as I’d hoped, I am moving less from “can I cure this by not napping” into “can I manage this by occasionally napping” territory, and that also feels like progress. Ironically.
This blog post, incidentally, is not about being tired all the time. It’s just that when updating on how things are going this month… well, it’s a theme. I’ve got an appointment with a doctor in April in which the conversation which went “have you had any of the normal physical tests?” – “no, what physical tests?” can hopefully be expanded on. Meanwhile, management is great. I am incredibly lucky to have the sort of work-life situation where I can say that.
In the background to all of this, I finished writing another book. The third, book, in fact, of the Penelope trilogy. I’ll hopefully burble more about that later. It’s narrated by Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, whose narrative voice is starkly different from book 1 (Hera – a very angry lady) and book 2 (Aphrodite, who is Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame). (I am not naturally gifted when it comes to writing the voice of a goddess of love and desire, so needed a template. “Babe, you’re giving me hero’s jaw, you’re giving me rower’s bicep, you’re giving me ‘I burned the topless towers of Ilium’!” Etc..) I had a blast writing it, but it also means that, given the first book isn’t even in print yet, I now technically have several years of drumming my fingers wondering what to scribble next. Alas, though there are conversations happening around that, it may be more of another Top Secret Project type situation, rather than a Watch This Space jobby – sorry. It will also absolutely mean that by the time Penelope 3 publishes, in 2024, I will have forgotten everything that happens in it and will continue to be dreadful in interviews. This is a recurring theme of my life. Penelope 3 will be my 25th published book, and honestly… there’s a lot of counting on fingers trying to work out what was published when and what happened in it at this point my career, which is a wonderful feeling to have, but also, sometimes, a little awkward. Oops.
Meanwhile, gigs are back on. Omicron levels in the UK are still running very high, but vaccines are saving lives. I feel very lucky that I haven’t yet had Covid, and am relieved that those of my friends who are now being hit are mostly experiencing bad cold symptoms, courtesy of the vaccine. This doesn’t mean I’m gonna act like a dickhead or stop wearing a mask for the foreseeable – it’s such a simple thing to do to respect those in your community who might not be lucky with their symptoms – and this is the attitude I take with me into the slightly weird feeling of being in a music venue with hundreds of people, after two years of that being largely unimaginable. The music industry has been devastated, and even in the venues I work you can really feel it with huge changes in staff who have either left the industry altogether, or struggled through the last two years by the skin of their teeth, or by shows still cancelling/rescheduling all the time as the industry tries to find a way back to some semblance of normality. Doing gigs is lovely, but it’s going to take some getting used to again. Also I keep on forgetting where certain buttons are on different desks and just sit there like I’m trying to exorcise the system with my hands waving through the air – it’s been a while.
The whole transition from writing a novel most days of the week to some gigs and a tonne of separate family stuff means that my days are very bitty. Traditionally that’s fine – I deliberately chose to be a lighting engineer/writer rather than historian/writer on the basis that two unstable careers left me more flexibility to do a bit of both, rather than be tied down to a full time job. However, not knowing for certain the dates or times of almost anything one week to the other frankly freaks me out. I respond badly to uncertainty, and this has left me, not to put too fine a point of it, more flappy and stressed than normal.
On which note: of all the organisations to help out during this time of general global aaaggghhh, the Ukrainian Red Cross seems like a good shout. But also if you’re in the UK, the Refugee Council has been helping all refugees across many years get support in this country, and given our government’s sickening hypocrisy and, let’s not kid ourselves, downright racist attitudes towards refugees, they’re pretty great.
Finding pleasure at a time like this feels like an indulgence – but it’s also kinda essential to not go nuts, and compassion during a crisis is not the same as internalising the suffering of other people as though it was your own. So, there have been a lot of nice things in March that have been neither work nor doomscrolling.
Firstly, whenever I can, I go play chess on the weekend at a local outdoor club. I am one of only a small handful of women who play, and everyone else seems to play online a lot. They also seem to favour very fast games, whereas I learned to play in what seems to have become an old-fashioned way – slowly, carefully, over an actual physical board against a present human player. I win roughly 50% of the time, and when I lose, usually do my best to make sure that my defeat is at least annoying for the man (and thus far it’s been entirely men I’ve played) who crush me. I have a lot more to say about my love of chess, but I’ll spare you for now.
I’m also half way through a five week archery course, which is pretty awesome. When covid started easing a bit last summer – and before Omicron ripped through – I was precisely as stir-crazy as you might expect, and desperate for any new sensory input that weren’t the walls of my flat. I’ve always wanted to learn, and as soon as it became possible to do so I was signing up with my partner for some target practice. I’m not particularly good, and I don’t care in the slightest. It’s just an incredibly satisfying skill.
Spring is finally springing in the UK, with the temperature climbing over the last few weeks and blessedly, at last, the clocks finally changing so there’s still sunlight at 7 p.m.. It’s made a huge difference, not least on long runs where I spend most of my time gawping at the cherry blossom as if I’ve never seen petals before. (It’s also put the absurdly enormous bedroom curtains I made last month to the test, which thus far they are passing. Making curtains is easy – unless you can barely get through half a line of sewing before your bobbin runs out of thread. I invite precisely no one to look too closely at the stitching.)
With spring comes wanderlust. In the last few weeks I’ve left London for its environs a couple of time to see friends who are either too pregnant or too surrounded by spawn to easily travel into the city, and it’s been lovely to catch up in person after all this time trying to talk down dodgy video lines. It’s also been a chance to experiment with things like taking a bicycle on a train – Great Western Railways, I dunno what you think that teensy bicycle cupboard is for, but helpful it is not – or going for runs between stations outside London after a visit to try and expand my geographical/running range. In a few weeks time, and for the first time since 2019, I’m gonna get on a plane to a friend’s wedding in Northern Ireland, and genuinely don’t know if I can remember how this “travel” thing even works. So much that was normal now feels so alien. I’m also potentially gearing up for more adventures abroad in the name of books – that’s definitely a Watch This Space thing. I would like, if European adventures do come knocking, to travel as much as possible by train, rather than plane. This is not a dig on people who fly – the hypocrisy of rich people in private planes telling skint families not to fly for a holiday abroad is pretty despicable. But 1% of passengers are responsible for 45% of emissions, and that 1% is generally speaking, the richest and most privileged. Wealth buys time and choice; if you have either, why not spend it on responsible travel that’s also an adventure too? (Also: I am not actually in possession of a private jet. I live in an ex-council flat in London, but I’ve still got enough privilege to take the bare minimum of responsibility for my actions, damnit.) Will it come together? No idea. Am I excited to try? Goodness yes.
And I think that’s it! That’s the update. I suspect I’m gonna post this and then remember some Vital and Interesting fact, but sobeit. With the world reeling from ongoing injustice and trauma, it can feel irrelevant to also talk about the mundane – but if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that finding dignity and meaning in mundaneity is pretty important during trying times. However, and as always, if you’re feeling (entirely fairly) anxious about the world and wanna do something, my usual bullet-point list of nice things is below.
Meanwhile, stay safe all, and if you’re in the UK about now, say hi to the cherry blossom for me.
Nice Things You Can Do If Feeling Like Everything Is Hard And You Just Wanna Do Something Dear God, Which Is Really Fair ‘Cos… Goodness….
- Red Cross Ukraine Crisis Appeal
- UK Refugee Council
- If you live in most parts of the UK, then on May 22nd there are local council elections. As usual I’m looking to stand for the Green Party, because climate change, and campaigning is gearing up. I you’re gonna get involved, especially with a smaller party like the Greens, now is an incredibly important and good time to do it.
- A lot of countries are pushing forward on Green New Deals, partly as a recovery plan for Covid, but also in response to the invasion of Ukraine, which demonstrated once and for all how urgent it is that we get off Russian oil and gas, as well as the overall malignant power fossil fuels have over the world at large. Renewables are not only cleaner, but also cheaper than all other forms of energy out there at this time, and ironically the disaster in Eastern Europe has presented the world with a strategic impetus as well as a scientific one to act. If you’re in the UK, there is a Green New Deal movement becoming more active, as well as sister organisations around the world.