I Can Write, But I Cannot Talk

Small talk. I hate it. A few weeks back I went to a ladies event, and I could feel my heart rate increase as I approached the room where all the ladies sat in their neat little rows. I found a seat, second row, near the middle, like I always do. I tried to make conversation to my left, and to my right, but my brain melted, my throat went dry and the words just would not come out. I ran off to the bathrooms, splashed my face with water and rehearsed all the tips The Dude has given me for just this kind of situation. Get people talking about themselves. Find something you have in common. Talk about experiences that are common to all. (This sounds like simple advice, but cultural differences make it more difficult for me to determine what common experiences are suitable for small talk.)

Then I remembered. Christmas! I had seen Christmas puddings and mince pies in the shops and it seemed horrendously early for that to be happening. I positively bounded back into the room and sat down, ready with my conversation starter. But people to my left were talking to people to my left, and people to my right were talking to people to my right, and people behind me talked to people beside them, and there was no way to talk to any of them. So I pulled out my notebook and began writing. Like I always do.

The problem with this approach is that I will never learn small talk skills. The advantage though is that I will never do the Terrible Thing again. I’ve done it on countless occasions. And been told off many times. Nobody ever asks me why I do it. Nobody ever asks me how The Terrible Thing can come out my mouth. Nobody can ever answer me when I say, “Well, am I wrong?”

Here’s the thing. I have a heart that’s full, and passionate. I care about people. When you tell me good things, I want to help you treasure that moment so that the memory will carry you through the hard times. When you tell me about hard times, I want to help you carry that load, I want to make it easier, I want you to know that although the road you walk is your own, you do not need to walk it alone. And when you stand there with tears running down your cheeks, and dreams smashed at your feet, I want to help you gather up the pieces and put them in a box, and remind you of the power of hope.

But that’s not small talk. And so I write. Because there is no way for you to hear me if I speak.

It is Your Last Blog Post. What Do You Write? (Or You Don’t Have To Live Afraid)

You may or may not write blogs, but you have a voice, and you have a message. It speaks in your words and in your actions, what you say, text, like, share, tweet and support. It speaks almost as much in what you don’t say as what you do. So this is the question. This is your last message. After this, your voice will be silenced forever, but you will live to see the consequences of your message. What do you say? And why would you choose that message? In reality, I don’t know the answer, but I think it would go a bit like this.

You don’t have to live afraid. There is a better way. You don’t have to live hiding from yourself, or from other people. Fear steals. It kills dreams, it destroys hope, it poisons the soul. So choose to live differently. Choose to live unafrafraid. Sure, there will be days that terrify you. There will be things that loom so large over your life that you quiver and quake and think “I can’t do that.” But what if you can? What if you, little you in your little corner, doing the little thing that you can do start, almost by accident, a movement, a revolution, that changes the world? What if you allow yourself to try, and to fail, allow yourself to take a breath and face the monster? And tame it with courage, and with love?

You don’t have to live afraid. Afraid that people may find out who you really are, afraid that you’re not good enough, afraid that you’re wrong, that you might offend somebody, or worse, that you’re not respected, or not loved? If you have to be somebody else to be loved, it’s not really love. If people are offended by who you really are, there are other people in the world who wish they could be more like you. Brave, and true to themselves. And if you find that nobody loves you (which you won’t, because if nobody else loves you, I will), break the chain. Love somebody else out of their fear.

Living afraid is living in fear of punishment or pain, but living a life of love is living for the positive impact that you can have. Love is acknowledging, affirming and appreciating the existence of something or someone. If you appreciate something, you take care of it, you nurture it, you try to make it the best that it can be. You love computers? You get the best computer you can afford, and then you look after it. You check it for viruses, you keep your software upgraded. You love your cat? You feed it, you make sure that you provide everything it needs, and when it goes missing, you look for it (also, when it comes back, you close the cat-flap so it doesn’t have to live in fear of the bully cat that’s been trying to take over the space – my cat came back). If you love people, you do whatever you can to make them feel special, and beautiful and valued. And you help them to be the best version of themselves that they can be, even if that makes your life a little uncomfortable for a while.

Or something like that.

And this is why. Because when I look out into my world, I see a crowd of people fighting themselves and each other when they don’t have to. If people could live brave and unafraid, they would not have to break other people down so that they could pretend to be big – they would already be big. Nobody would have to face a problem alone, because there would always be someone who has walked that road before and is willing and able to support them. If we all lived unafraid, that would mean we would never need to be afraid to ask for help, and never be afraid to give it.

Yes, I know. It’s never going to happen. But that’s not going to stop me from trying.

2013-10-27 09.57.31

How My Message Came From My Misadventures

It’s all very well for me to sit here and tell you the things I do, about lessons and purpose and stories. But of course, you don’t know how I got to this place – where the passion to see people embracing all  of the best of life, pursuing the best of who they can be, surpasses most other interests. The Dude says I have too high expectations of people. I try to live an example, and hope to inspire people to live big lives, like I do. It doesn’t always work, because people don’t always know where I’m coming from.

I grew up hiding in my writing. It became the conversations I would have with myself, because there was nobody else to have these conversations with. I was bullied at home, and picked on at school (except at exam time. People liked me at exam time. I used to let them use me like that, until I realised that was pointless. I learnt to stand up for my beliefs). I could tell this story as a victim, but I would rather tell it to you this way. I know what it feels like to think that you don’t matter, that nobody will miss you when you’re gone, that life is not worth all the bother. And I know what it is to come out the other side of that. I know what it is to stand on my own two feet, and assert my right to be myself, to find my independence, to finally do something to break the cycle.

That is why people matter. That is why I will always do my utmost to support and encourage the marginalised, the depressed and the different among us. People don’t just matter when they are happy. People don’t just matter when they look and act like us. People matter.

Let’s skip a few years. I met a bloke. After some years, we got engaged. He accused me of emotional blackmail. We got disengaged. (I call it my great escape). I don’t tell this part of my story very often out of respect for The Dude. But without this experience, I would never have realised that when people accuse you falsely, it often says more about them than it does about you. And sometimes you have no other choice but to walk away. And if the choice is between a toxic relationship and no relationship at all, no relationship can be the better option. (Also, it meant that when The Dude finally did come along and treat me with the love and respect I deserve, I could truly appreciate it.)

Following right on the heels of that little misadventure, I contracted glandular fever. Six weeks in bed. So tired I could barely find the energy to walk to the bathroom. I suspect my body never fully recovered. I didn’t learn anything from that experience then, as I was too ill. But it did lead to…

Epilepsy. Two years of uncontrolled seizures, interesting side effects to medicine and other consequences. I really don’t remember much (I suspect between the drugs and the seizures my brain was fairly fried). I know that I lost my job, my friends, my self-respect, my ability to read, and a fair chunk of my short term memory skills. The reading thing was more to do with not being able to control my eye movements – it took some practice to get it solved. The short term memory skills was interesting, because I didn’t realise how much stuff I was forgetting until I started writing things down. But I’m distracted. Because I don’t want to write the next paragraph.

The epilepsy, and its aftermath, are probably what taught me most of what drives me today. It taught me about God’s faithfulness, but also about the fickleness of people. It showed me that I had been arrogant, conceited and more interested in being right than anything else. And it showed me that I needed to live my life by a different standard. People have judged me and condemned me because of my epilepsy. I have lost relationships, job opportunities and I don’t even know what else because people weren’t able to look beyond the epilepsy. And that was after it had become well-controlled.

But here’s the thing. I learnt that I can choose how I live my life, how I build my life. Who I have in my life. Who I am in other people’s lives. From those days until today, I have aimed to consciously to accept people wherever they may be, to support people who may be going through the long term troubles that I endured, to make a practical difference where that is required. In short, to do for others what I wished was done for me.

And that has always been the right thing for me to do. To help people turn their epilepsy into epiphany – to take a situation that could grind you into nothingness, define you and consign you to a life of misery, and help you rewrite the story. Help you to a place where you can look back at the lessons and choose the way that your troubles contribute to your identity.

Your problems inform your purpose, as I have said in previous posts. Perhaps, in the way that we choose to respond to our problems, we begin to see how we may meet our purpose, how we may make a difference in the lives of those around us.

I continue to go through challenges in my life, and I continue to use the challenges to drive me forward. I continue to choose to use whatever happens to me to make me a better version of myself. I hope that you can join me on that journey.

Orange cat and Little Cat - on one of the rare occasions they sat together

Cats. You Think you Know What’s Going On And Then ….

I have previously posted about Orange Cat, Little Cat, and Bonus Cat.

Things have changed. I think I may have started it. I chased Bonus Cat. Then Little Cat (ever the anxious sort) concluded she should be chasing Bonus Cat too. These started with yeowling matches at 1AM, and progressed to actual clawing and biting. Bonus Cat decided to use our litter tray. Orange Cat, who barely condescends to use the litter tray, then decided that under the bed was a much better litter tray. So I swopped where my head was. Which meant Little Cat had to sleep somewhere different.

And then we moved the furniture around downstairs for a thing, and then again on Saturday for a different thing. Saturday being the day I noticed the scratch marks and missing skin on Little Cat. Saturday being the last day I saw her. Bonus Cat, who is not actually our cat, has muscled in and scared Little Cat away. There is not much I can do about it. Even Orange Cat is displeased, meowing at me reproachfully.

Of course, I’ve never had an anxious cat before. And I do know that Little Cat had found somewhere else to get food from – she would disappear during the day regularly and almost never ate the food supplied for her at home yet somehow managed to put on weight. So I know Little Cat is happy. But that doesn’t make me any more impressed with the situation.

But I’m not cross with her. I’m not cross with any of them. Bonus Cat has gained territory, but not affection. Bonus Cat will soon find the cat flap closed on a night, and that will put an end to that. (Why did I not do this sooner? I didn’t realise how bad the situation had got. Why am I not doing it straight away? I’m hoping Little Cat will forgive all the changes and come home.) Bicarb, Febreze and some diligent application of plastic bags will sort Orange Cat’s toileting issue. Little Cat has already found her own solution to the problem.

Sometimes we don’t realise the consequences of our actions. When I chased Bonus Cat down the stairs, I had no idea I was actually chasing Little Cat out of my life.


The Power of Your Story (Revised, because I made a mistake. A big one)

To those who liked the previous version of this blog. Sorry about that. I should not have written it. It was not my story to tell, anonymised or not. (I forgot where I was when I heard the things, I just remembered the lesson. Which is ironic.)

Here’s the thing. I’m a writer, and I love stories. I love stories so much, people often end up telling me stories about themselves, things that they might not have told me, except for the fact that I was so interested.

And people have incredible stories. Especially normal people. Stories of overcoming difficulties, of  making mistakes, and then coming right, of problems turned into blessings, of struggling on and on until something changed, stories of hopes and dreams, heartbreak and passion. Beautiful stories.

I am an idealist. I wish people could see the power of the story, and the power of not telling the story. I can remember countless occasions of people telling me things, and me sitting back and saying “I had no idea!”, frequently thinking, if you had told me that before, it would have been so much more helpful. So I like telling my story, because it helps people understand me. Most of the time.

And I like to help other people tell their stories, because often, it helps them to see themselves in a new light. It helps them see how far they have come, rather than thinking about how far they still have to go. And mostly, other people’s stories inspire me, and can give me hints ant tips to make my own life better. Your story can make the difference between me making a bad choice and a good one, learning the lesson, or wasting a decade of my life in the quagmire of depression, or anxiety, or addiction. (I have tasted the first, before you ask, and seen the other two close-up.)

So last week, I was at a thing, and somebody said something that struck me (because I’m a writer, and I remember these kinds of things). And then somebody else sent me a text along similar lines. And then somebody else told me her story, and I was inspired (“I guess I never get to hear my story for the first time,” she said when I told her). And everything came together in the beautiful theme of the importance of telling your story. And I thought it was brilliant, and I wrote a blog, careful to anonymise people.

And then I was told off. And it took me a while to realise I was wrong. Because stories are powerful things, and we need to tell them, but we need to tell them right. And we need to make sure that we don’t cause unnecessary offence, that we don’t invade confidential space for the sake of the lesson (this last is what I actually did). Because here’s the thing – I know you have an amazing and beautiful story, but if you don’t want to tell it, I can’t make you.

Even if I really, really want to know how you learnt the thing you learnt.

So my story is this – I wish you knew how amazing your story really is. I wish you would tell it.

(And now I’m going to go and edit all the tags to this post.)

Description: Person (Not Otherwise Specified)

Within psychology literature, there’s a book that (supposedly) describes all the psychological conditions and their diagnostic criteria. IT’s been around a while, and revised a few times. We’re currently on the DSM-5 (I really should be able to remember what that stands for, but I don’t), but we still have sub-categories within conditions that are described as NOS – not otherwise specified. Which would be used when the diagnosing professional reckons, yes you have something that pretty much looks like this condition, but you don’t quite match our checklist so we’ll just call you that. It’s not very helpful. It speaks more to who you are not, rather than to who you are.

We can treat people like that. We can say that they don’t match our expectations, they don’t do what we would do or what we would want them to do, they don’t view life from our (narrow?) perspective. Therefore they aren’t a valid member of our group. They are a person, but only just, they’re a Not Otherwise Specified. I know. I live there.

I recently took Little Person for some assessments, and it’s been hard, describing all the things that she does differently, or doesn’t do at all. I have had arguments with her teacher about her homework, but the system rolls on, and she keeps getting the work that she cannot do, and she keeps getting frustrated. Because they have a checklist, and they teach to the average, and children aren’t allowed to be different. So now I have to fight to get the support she needs to be able to cope in a world that wants to put her in a box, until she is old enough to see that the box is the wrong shape.

I have a lifetime of experience of not fitting in the box. I have had people accept me for who I am – The Dude is one – and value how my difference adds a dimension that they would not otherwise see. I do things differently because I see things differently. I try to make the best use of that, to see it as a talent that can enrich the lives of others and help them achieve their potential, but today? Today I feel like it’s a diagnostic condition. Today I feel like that person (Not Otherwise Specified). Barely there, barely matters.

[And before all of you tell me to buck up and stop being so melodramatic, there are people in your world who feel just as different, just as ostracised as me. Reach out to them, why don’t you? I’ll be better tomorrow. They might take a bit longer.]

That Time I Sat Still

“Nobody move.”

We did as we were told. The group of strangers crowded together oh-ing and ah-ing, giggling and taking photographs fell instantly silent, instantly still. No movement, save the trembling of fingers, the pounding of hearts in chests. Maybe it was something in his voice that commanded our instant obedience – that firm but somehow tense tone replacing the chatty bonhomie of moments before.

But I suspect it may have been the elephant. Grumpy, ears splayed wide, peering at us from beneath heavy eyelashes. I may have enjoyed the experience more if it wasn’t a bull elephant within a trunk’s length of our open-topped vehicle, and it hadn’t just appeared from behind a bush as if from the ether.

For at least 30 seconds we sat there, in fear and awe of this amazing animal – beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. Until it decided that we weren’t worth the bother and went back to its meal. Needless to say, the game ranger was quick to remove us to a safer location, where we could enjoy the beauty of the animals without the close encounters becoming too close.

That was the day I realised I would not have made a good game ranger. But there were other lessons too.

Sometimes it is not the environment that causes the problem, but our response to it. Similarly, our response to a problem can cause it to cease to be a problem. We could’ve shouted, the ranger could’ve started the engine and raced off – and that would’ve encouraged a very different outcome. So choose your response. That can make all the difference.

Sometimes you get what you asked for. We wanted an encounter with elephants – and we certainly got one! But we got the visceral be glad you live in the 21st century and not in a prehistoric times version, and personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if it took me a long time to calm down. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

We are all game rangers in life. We all have to live with elephants (and predators too – but that’s for another time). We can choose to stay on the roads, or go off-road; look at the elephants from afar and not appreciate their true beauty, or see them up close and be amazed by their dexterity; stay safe definitely with an excellent and obvious escape route or run the risk of things being uncomfortable and maybe even dangerous. The decisions we make don’t just affect us, but affect all those that are in our vehicle with us.

So if you want go within a trunk’s length of a bull elephant, make sure the people going with you can sit still when required.