Tuesday, 18 October 2011

My grown-up gap year: the view from the halfway point

I can hardly believe it’s been six months since I found myself free-floating, without employment and in desperate search of a new direction. My solution at the stage, once the panic died down and a sort of clarity emerged, was to give myself some breathing space – and this is when the idea of a “year out” emerged. As I let go of grasping, a sketchy plan emerged: to find some sort of casual work until early Spring, and then to take some time to travel before I came back to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. The idea behind it all was that the “answer” would somehow come to me, or would come along thanks to whatever connections I made during the course of the year – this sounds a little simplistic, but I still believe that finding a new direction organically rather than searching, grasping and scratching around for something, anything, is the way to go, even if there is no such thing as one definitive answer. So six months in, how’s it going?
Well clearly having all of this extra time hasn’t allowed for much blogging. As ever the intention is there, the ideas and thoughts are there, but taking the step of translating it to text and sharing it is a bridge too far. The reality is that I have spent the past few months suffering from some sort of exhausting fatigue that can’t be diagnosed as anything in particular, but means that I seem to spend my time divided between practicing, working part-time at the yoga centre reception desk, travelling across London to do either or both of the above, and sleeping (though not necessarily at night-time). I spent many weeks incapable of staying awake throughout a full day, and this coming from the girl who never ever took naps during the day apart from in cases of proper full-on illness. When I finally went to the doctor to get it checked out I told her that my issue was that I was exhausted and had been for months: she asked if I had any idea what could be causing it and my genius answer was: “well, I don’t get enough sleep...” Given that more often than not I work closing shifts at work, finishing after 10pm, taking an hour (at least) to get home, needing a short while to unwind after I come through the door, and then trying to get up around 5 the following morning to practice I suppose it’s not really surprising that I’m bloody knackered all of the time. Plus there’s the lack of routine, as my shifts vary week to week, the fact that I got into a pattern of eating very little of any nutritional value for a few months (another round of toast anyone?? Or maybe a biscuit or TEN?!) and the fact that over the summer I had all-consuming houseguests for 6 weeks out of 8, oh AND I had my car stolen. So that’s the barrage of excuses as to my blog silence..
But all of this has raised some interesting – or to me, fascinating – mental processes. I have been having regular acupuncture sessions through this whole period, ad hoc to begin with and then for the past month or so I’ve been having them weekly and started to really really get the benefit. My energy levels are rising, people are telling me I look better – brighter, I am eating properly again (is this cause or effect?), my digestion has slowed to more of a normal pace, my breath has grown deeper, my mind has calmed down. But I didn’t get here just through the acupuncture, there is a whole heap of mental processing that's been going hand in hand with it (oh, and I stopped following a vegetarian diet too, but that's another story). 
Part-way through the summer I had a random thought, or fear, about one of my close family members where I imagined that I had observed a mental-health condition in them. The fear took a grip on me, I collapsed into immediate non-stop tears, I couldn’t shake the thought, the massive fear, that even if this wasn’t true now, perhaps it would be in years to come. I tried to stop thinking about it and get on with my day. As the days passed the thought came and went, it drifted in and out of my conscious awareness, but I watched every interaction with the person concerned for disproof of it and, when none came, the fear dug it’s way into the fabric of my every thought. Was this before or after my car was stolen and along with it my sense of total independence? I think it was after. I was stunned how much the theft affected me: on discovery of my missing car I was surreally calm, I called my dad and said “my car. It’s gone.” But as time passed and I was reminded that my gap-year and working part-time option meant that I wasn’t in a financial position to replace the car (thank-you insurance company for really testing my equanimity) I felt increasingly vulnerable. Add this to the fear, the huge, looming fear and all that came along with it (the inevitability of those around us ageing, growing sick and eventually leaving us behind) and I found myself walking to the station towards the shala one day a few weeks ago thinking “what’s the point?”. Not just why do I get up at stupid o’clock to practice, that old familiar refrain, but what’s the point of ANY of this? 
And then the thought struck me: this is why people have full-time jobs and families and relationships, to distract them from the fears, the HUGE looming fears of the really big stuff. Take away the underlying day-to-day stress of a 9-5 job, the inner chatter involved in maintaining a relationship, and what are we left with the fill the silence? The fears. The big ones.
As luck would have it I was going for acupuncture that same day. When I walked in S told me that I looked different. Different how, I asked? “Rested: grounded” was the answer. Funny that, I said, because my head has been all over the place. Pressed, I just about managed through tears to explain my new theory of why we keep our minds busy, to distract us from the fears (without going into what I was afraid of, feeling somehow that if I say it aloud it will make it true). And through his answer, and our conversation, things started to make a little bit more sense. S said, you know how people often get sick when they go on holiday? They’re all “go go go” and as soon as they stop their bodies crash. That’s like a microcosm of what you’re doing in taking this time out – and I realise, and say to him that I feel like this year should be all chilled and calm and enjoyable, not difficult and challenging and borderline depression-filled, but who says so? Between what he says next and how I respond, I realise then that maybe this is what has to happen, I have to let the world stop spinning in seven different directions at once to listen to the quiet fears that lay buried beneath, and that’s never going to be easy – it’s going to be hard, and messy, and filled with fear and tears and pain, but the end result is that it will come out and I will be better off for it. Sort of like a noisier, longer, vipassana retreat (which I always say I'm too scared of for fear of having to sit with my own insanity for ten days and becoming irrevocably unhinged). And as S so eloquently put it, when we take the time to stop and really listen to what our minds are saying: “We’re all fucking crazy”.

Well that’s the crazy brain stuff. Not the whole six months had been filled with this, though sometimes it feels like I have turned into some kind of invalid who needs to rest and I can’t remember ever not being this way, but at least now I can start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I have started a massage course for a few weeks, just a taster really, in Ayurvedic yoga massage and am making my travel plans for January and really enjoying working in the yoga centre. And that seems enough for now, my practice has wobbled a little in recent weeks with some days taken off to sleep, and even the odd incomplete practice where my body seemed to be made of stone, but I am starting to realise more and more that these things hardly matter. I am getting on my mat, I am breathing, I am feeling. And what more can I ask of myself than just that?


  1. Fear, life, meh, the process! Love those tags. I think you hit the jackpot when you said that most of our "approved" occupations and distractions are to keep the fear of the void at bay. True dat. Worth the wait as always...

  2. Wow. Lots of things going on here, I'm sorry to hear about your car! Bummer.

    You're right that staying occupied does keep us from pondering about things that scare us. As if we're running away from ourselves, in a sense. So excited to hear about your massage course, can't wait to read your take on it!

  3. What a beautifully honest post and nice to catch up having missed seeing you in person. Take care of you, Love H