Archive for October, 2010

Just a walk up a hill

One of the reasons I started this blog was to chart my progress taking photographs, while also trying to get into the habit of writing regularly for pleasure. I hoped I’d develop my own style of writing along the way.

As it’s turned out I haven’t done much blogging about photography, though I have usually managed to squeeze in a picture or two. This one won’t be any different!

Usually I don’t know what I’m going to write about. Sometimes, as a result, I end up confessing some deeply held opinion or thought, and can end up exposing myself more than I intended to.

Today I’m going to write about going for a walk. Can’t possibly be anything confessional about that, surely?

Can I warn you at this stage that this was not a special walk. I’ll go further – it was quite an uneventful walk. In the grand scheme of things, it probably wouldn’t even make it into my top 1,000 walks ever.

I did not go to the North Pole, or Everest. I didn’t walk a marathon (that’s in May). I didn’t walk on a tightrope or while balanced on an elephant’s trunk. It was just an ordinary walk up a hill and back down again.

I didn’t bump into Robert Plant again, or share a beer with Johnny Depp (again?). I didn’t fall over, or happen across a family of leopards drinking milk out of urns of gold, or anything that I’d tell you about if we met up for a drink.

But sitting here and reflecting on my little ramble – on the things I saw, the people I met – I realised how blurry brilliant it had actually been.

I like facts and bullet points, so here’s that walk in bullet points.

  • I exchanged greetings with 10 people, including six dog walkers.
  • I had conversations ranging in length from 30 seconds to five minutes with a total of eight more people, all of them strangers. They included a widow, a former steeplejack, a historian and a former Scout leader. I learned these things in the course of our brief chats.
  • I discovered that a beautiful stone tower that could be just seen through the trees was a folly in the grounds of Hagley Hall that had just been repaired. It could be visited when the hall was open.
  • A woman, I think called Elly, had been found hanged in a tree near the folly in the 18th century, and graffiti nearby referred to her as a witch. The graffiti keeps being redone, no matter how often the authorities scrub it off. Spooky.
  • Apparently a shop in Selly Oak would do me a great deal if I wanted a new settee. I can’t remember its name.
  • I saw a bird of prey scouting for food. It was gliding on the thermals nearby, the only thing visible in the sky. Apparently it was a buzzard.
  • I walked 4.5 miles in just under two hours. Obviously this would have been more if I hadn’t stopped to talk so often. Or take photographs. Or just have a rest.
  • I stroked four dogs, including a dalmatian and a westie. One of them was particularly excited to see me and left a big paw mark on my nice skirt.
  • I saw a tractor, two pushbikes, a plane and a helicopter.
  • I had one wee. In a bush. Nobody saw me (that I know of).
  • I carried a camera bag with some lenses, a bottle of water and a banana, my phone and some cash. I drank half the water. I ate all  the banana.

So, an ordinary little walk? Mmmm – maybe not.

I happen to think that, on reflection, all that interaction – with other humans, with nature, with animals – is pretty amazing and wonderful and good.

I used to take human interaction for granted. As a journalist all I ever did was meet and talk to and write about people all day, so the only people I wanted to spend time with outside of work were my nearest and dearest. My outlook has definitely changed now I mostly work and play at home. I’ll happily talk to anyone!

I’m one of those people who always chat to everyone who crosses my path. I know my milkman, which pub he goes to and the state of his marriage. I know that my postie was an ex footballer forced to give up his beloved career because of a knee injury which still grieves him. I have a cup of tea with the window cleaner when he calls round. (No, I’m not a desperate housewife and no, I’m not having affairs with any of them…I just have the time to share a few words these days!) It’s nice. People are nice.

So, back to that walk. I’m pretty sure that if I was working again in a busy office, and had snuck off for a walk up Clent Hills for some peace and quiet, I would have found the people who initiated these brief conversations intrusive and annoying. Instead they touched my life, however briefly, and I probably did the same to theirs.

Clent Hills, where I took my walk, is just a little mole’s bum of a mount, jutting up about 300 metres over the West Midlands conurbation. It’s hardly Ben Nevis or Mont Blanc.

If you look eastwards from the top, it is said you could (if the earth wasn’t so curvy) see all the way to the Urals in Russia, as there is nothing bigger in the way. I’m not sure I believe this, and can’t be bothered to google it to find out.

It’s a really easy place to get to on foot, with car parks on two sides which leave you just a 15 minute walk from the top. As a result there is always a slow but steady stream of dog walkers, families with little kids and people who might struggle to climb anything bigger.

To the north and east, the city of Birmingham and the Black Country towns around it are spread out. To the west, the Malverns and the rest of Worcestershire are hazy shadows. The Wrekin and the Long Mynd hills of Shropshire are clearly visible from here too.

There are high rises, factories, smoke-gushing chimneys, street upon street of terraced homes, grand country estates, retail parks and four lane highways.

There are also miles of countryside; of trees of every hue and shade; fields of crops; historical buildings and ancient rocks.

There’s a wooden seat I like to sit on, just below the standing stones that guard the view.

Whenever I sit here and look out over the homes and workplaces below, I like to think of all the thousands – no, probably millions – of people, beavering away at their computers or stuck in traffic, watching their telly or doing the hoovering. This usually makes me smile to realise I am up here and not down there, among them.

I also think about the babies breathing their first breath, and the poor souls gasping their last. There are at least six hospitals down there, so there will be lots of both.

I also usually take out my camera about here. On this little sojourn I managed somehow to take about 100 pictures. None were of the people I met (I’m not that brave yet).

Some were of the views, some of the standing stones, some of the toposcope. I played around for about 20 minutes trying my damnedest to get a picture of the standing stones reflected in a little pool of water on the toposcope, 20 metres away. I don’t think I quite succeeded – longer legs or a step ladder might have made it possible; more technical skill would have certainly done the trick.

I’ve attached a few of my favourite images of the day. Just like my walk, on first inspection none of the images are all that special. They won’t grace the cover of a calendar or the walls of Ikea. But they make me smile. They capture a moment. They’re just part of everyday life. Like all those strangers I met.

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I’ve a feeling I’m going to regret this…

 

Much has been made of the heroism and courage of the Chilean miners, finally rescued after 69 days underground. We humans have a remarkable capacity to cope with horrific situations.

I’ve been wondering how I’d have coped, shut underground in the dark for days on end, not knowing if help would ever reach me. I think I would have died from sheer terror on day one. As for being in that tiny rescue tube for 20 minutes at the end– oh my! I’m not even sure I would have fitted without having my boobs squashed.

In reality, I think I would have somehow found the strength to manage and to make it through. What other choice is there?

I wrote the blog that follows here a couple of months ago, but have not had the courage to publish it. I feared you’d think less of me, think I was whiney, and egotistical, and rubbish, and weak. Probably because that’s what I thought of myself. Still do, sometimes.

Some of you may still judge me harshly once you’ve read this – but I know I am not alone. We women are liable to end up in some right states, particularly as middle age hormones kick in!

So be nice to us, you less needy females! And you boys, be understanding. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, especially one this brilliant.

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The fear still comes occasionally. Mostly, though, it stays at bay. Mostly I realise how far I’ve come, and I can’t imagine ever being there again. Sometimes it pulls me up short and reminds me it is still there, lurking.

I thought I’d grown up pretty fearless. I was a bit of a daredevil, loved to try new things, was a tomboy, climbed trees, played footy, rode rollercoasters, raced round on my bike. My childhood was easy-going and trauma free.

But there must have been a scared part of me, for I also remember vividly lying in bed in the dead of night, waiting anxiously for my parents to return home from a night out dancing. I must have been about 10. They were late.

I watched the bedroom clock tick slowly round, each tick tock increasing my anxiety. Then somehow I knew. They weren’t going to make it home. Something unspoken but terrible had  befallen them. I quite literally cried myself to sleep that night, having already worked my way through the funeral and decided who I was going to live with.

Of course, they were there when I woke up. But my fertile imagination had made this scary scenario an absolute reality. I doubt I would have felt any worse if it had been real.

This capacity for terrifying myself with mere thinking came and went but stayed with me into adulthood. I think I had so little to be scared of in the real world that I would create terror all of my own.

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Two years ago, life was looking sweet. I was juggling being a mostly stay at home mum, with a two year old and a six year old; starting up my own small PR company; trying to create a perfect home and mould myself into a perfect housewife and mother – in other words, trying to have it all. I was struggling to do any of it particularly well, and felt disorganised, hassled and stressed.

One afternoon, while working at a hospital trust, I suddenly came over all queer. I felt suddenly breathless, and hot, and a bit dizzy. My skin was clammy, I felt sick and thought I might fall over. After a glass of water and a sit down, I decided I was coming down with some horrid bug and really should get home. I managed to get through a 10 minute presentation, before stumbling to my car.

The hour drive home was the worst car journey of my life. I twice pulled over on the hard shoulder to get myself together, and contemplated waiting there for the police. I was convinced I was about to collapse, have a stroke, or maybe a heart attack. My phone battery was dead, so I couldn’t reach my husband or anybody else. But even though I felt physically dreadful, I knew that what I was experiencing was psychological.

I somehow got home safely and ran into the house, letting out huge sobs of anguish as soon as I’d shut the door. The experience left me completely shell-shocked.

For the next three weeks I couldn’t work out if I was coming or going. All I could think about was what was going on in my head. I spent desperate hours analysing my every thought and was convinced I was having some sort of breakdown that would end with me being sectioned. I couldn’t make a simple decision without agonising over it, I was barely sleeping, and my weight plummeted – it was a pretty dreadful time. Coincidentally, it was around the time of my 40th birthday.

My GP suggested taking medication to calm my body down. I refused. Then I tried it. It was brill. Then I threw it away.

Anyway, thanks to having a very level-headed and supportive hubby, and a fantastic mum and dad, I made it through those horrid days, but I still bore the scars. Or should that be the scares?

I accepted I had been overdoing it.  I realised that all the demands I was making of myself (combined with going to bed late and eating badly) had created a classic recipe for disaster. Then, when my pre-menstrual hormones kicked in, it was like a bomb going off.

Anyway, soon I was definitely feeling better and began planning for a three week holiday in France in earnest.

The adult “coper” within me longed to get away somewhere calm and relaxing, but the so recently terror-stricken, frightened little girl part of me really just wanted to curl up in a ball at home.

The run-up to the holiday departure, in a borrowed campervan, was frenetic, so by the time we reached Portsmouth for our night sailing to St Malo in Brittany we were all exhausted.

As we boarded, a wave of terror suddenly washed over me. I had a horrible feeling that we were all making a terrible mistake, that we should not be on this boat, that we should just all get home as quickly as possible.

I tried desperately to quell the fear, to calm the rising terror, but the panic was filling up my mouth, my head, my entire body. Everything was telling me to make a run for it. I rationalised my fears – then very calmly announced to my hubby that I would just get off and get a train back home while they went on and had a lovely holiday.

Hubby said he thought this sounded like a good plan – while suggesting I look out of the window. We were already out of the port. There was no turning back.

It is hard to explain to someone who has never had a panic attack what it is like. You know that feeling you get when you’re anxious, nervous, filled with trepidation about doing something incredibly important, or about stepping into the unknown? Well, a panic attack seems to involve taking that feeling, ramping it up tenfold and taking away all the good, exciting bits, leaving you in a state of abject terror. Your body starts acting accordingly – heart racing, eyes dancing about wildly, tummy turning somersaults, head dizzy, mind throbbing with disparate thoughts.

Struggling to breathe, I let out a pathetic little noise. Like a deflating balloon. Like a whimpering, injured cat on a roadside.

I’ll skip the next few hours. Suffice to say I padded around the ship like a loon, smiling manically and exchanging small talk with fellow passengers, trying desperately to keep my brain occupied and keep the panic at bay, before finally succumbing to sleep.

The first night of the holiday was hell. Lying tense, wide awake, exhausted and terrified in a tent in the pitch black while your family snooze gently beside you, is not a place I’d like to return to. I eventually dropped off at about 4.30am.

Over the next couple of days I settled into the holiday and, as I chilled out, the sense of panic and impending doom receded. Incredibly, it turned into the best family vacation we have probably ever had.

Two years on I can look back to those horrible days and weeks and months with a wry smile. I definitely made things worse for myself. I refused to accept the help offered to me because I was determined I could beat this all by myself. Big mistake. It was my ego that had landed me in that mess, and my ego was keeping me there.

I eventually got “proper” help. A cognitive behaviour therapist man with lots of initials after his name helped me understand the nature of panic attacks, and hormonal imbalances, and chemical stuff, and taught me how to address and beat fear.

One of his early suggestions was that I stand at the edge of a cliff five nights on the trot for half an hour at a time to understand the nature of true fear (I’m scared of heights). The first night I did it I clung onto a tree root five feet from the edge and did not move, convinced I might accidentally throw myself off. By the fifth night I was sat, feet dangling over the edge, humming happily and peering over at a bird’s nest 100 ft below. I did it. I understood.

My GP helped in the only way she knew how, in the useless 10 minutes allocated to me – by suggesting medication, but also by helping me understand the impact of hormonal changes, particularly for us biddies approaching the menopause.

But mostly I got help from my amazing parents, who never failed to come running when I needed them, and from my gorgeous husband, who never made me feel like a nutcase.

It’s not been an easy road to travel, but I’m kind of glad I have been there. It’s made me a much more understanding person. I used to judge people instantly – now I wonder what is going on in their heads when they are a bit abrupt, or behave oddly.

I still have my shitty moments and days, and don’t kid myself that it will always be plain sailing – but I’m no longer afraid of fear itself.

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Until I started this blog it was completely against my character to share my vulnerabilities in quite such a frank and open way.

I would always try to put up a wall of coping, of doing great, of being somehow better than everyone else. I probably still do this sometimes. It saddens me now to think that when I was going through my worst moments, I did not feel inclined to confide properly in a single one of my friends. It also saddens me that none of them seemed to notice! I must have been a fine actress – dying on the inside, laughing on the outside.

Maybe I didn’t think anyone would understand. Maybe I thought nobody I could turn to would actually want or be able to help. I felt pretty pathetic and was ashamed at being unable to cope, when on the outside my life must have looked so easy.But I think having a period of “losing it” has made me determined to do my bit to break down some of the stigma surrounding mental health – and I honestly think the more people admit to having had their own share of troubles, the better for everyone.

I’ve found it incredible that whenever I do share my experiences with anyone the floodgates open – and pretty much everyone I’ve confided in has ended up discussing their own personal crisis, or told me about their own battles with anxiety or depression or some other mental manifestation. The ones who seem the happiest and most strong are usually the first to breathe a sigh of relief and let it all come tumbling out.

Here’s to honesty. And to friends. And to staying strong.