The Dream Stealer

The Dream Stealer 

What does anxiety feel like?

It’s a daily battle with the Dream Stealer.

It rears its head like one of the ugly, mean giants sprawled across The BFG’s hillside.

It’s a cat pawing at a cornered mouse; a bully taunting the vulnerable kid at school. It’s always there, lurking in the background, ready to rouse and pounce, paw and taunt. You just don’t know when.

It laughs and says, “You can’t!” when otherwise, you might have – just possibly – dared to consider that you could.

It prepares you for the worst, even when the worst is unfeasible.

It paints a picture of a scary, doomed outcome on even the brightest and sunniest of days.

It makes you fear the outcome, kiboshing the journey to even get there.

It’s your heart suddenly beginning to race in a supermarket aisle; your chest pounding when sitting motionless, that nobody sees.

It’s fight or flight that won’t switch off – on constant repeat. Only there is no one to fight, and no need to take flight.

It’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off. But jump where? Into some invisible, non-existent place where only fear lives.

It’s standing, sword drawn, opposite an invisible opponent. A permanency of ‘en garde‘.

***

It’s all these things, and a million more. And it can never, EVER win.

Here’s why it never will.

***

The silent, daily battles; the mini-victories.

Pushing yourself out the front door when it would be so much easier not to.

Refusing to allow the world to shrink, whilst the Dream Stealer feeds on the remnants of your joy.

Smiling, and faking confidence when you’re terrified inside.

Starting a conversation with the quiet Mum in the school playground.

Saying ‘Yes‘, when every ounce of you wishes it were a ‘No‘; saying ‘No, thank you‘ when compulsion and obligation try and steer you to go.

Standing on the start line with a dry mouth, wishing it were the finish.

Entering ‘Destination: Unknown’ into your internal satnav, and revving up the engine.

Pressing that ‘send’ button, and risking rejection.

Clicking ‘submit’ because there’s ever such a small chance that you might win.

Taking part when you doubt you have much to contribute;

Walking into a room when it feels infinitely safer to stay outside.

Picking up the phone when you’d rather switch it to silent.

Asking the question you’ve tried hard to swallow;

Not listening to the small talk, or the ones who just gossip. Or to those who are jealous because their dreams have already curled up and died.

Walking past the crowd, with your head held high.

Meeting up for a coffee, regardless of the panic rising inside.

Asking for help when you can’t face it alone, despite the only comfortable place being inside, on your own.

***

All these are what will keep the Dream Stealer away from your door.

I know, because I’ve done them all many, many times before.*

*including today, when I had my arse kicked at the Bingley Show Trail Fell Race. But victory was mine, for all of the above reasons.

 

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Rehab, Recovery, and… Aqua Running??!

Friday 24th Feb

Today has got REHAB and RECOVERY written all over it. Firstly, I’m (fortunately) not working today. Secondly, I have no childcare worries within school hours. Woo Hoo! I’m FREE! And so, I have the following scheduled:

  • Yoga 11-12pm
  • Physio sports massage 1-2pm
  • Aqua swimming (first ever attempt) 4pm

Yoga – once again – is unspeakably therapeutic for me. I chat to my friend Pam as we wait outside the studio. Pam has followed my journey from back in 2014 and the start of my crazy marathon training/ running obsession. She feels for me just now. She knows what running means to me, and she senses my feelings of loss. I enjoy our chat and laughs before the class. It’s made me feel ever so slightly less insular and self-absorbed, as earlier this morning it was a struggle to take myself out of the house – I simply wanted to hide under the covers and wallow in my leg-aching self-pity. I’m so pleased I didn’t do that.

At the end of the class, I say my usual ‘Thanks, Lianne!’ to the best yoga teacher in the world, and added ‘… I’ll probably see you tomorrow!’ She laughs, as we both know she’s seen more of me in the last month than she has in the previous two years.

Then it’s off to Physio. The receptionist seems more friendly today. Perhaps she’s getting used to the frequency of my visits. We have a pleasant – if pointless – chat about the undefinable mystery that is my current non-running condition. I feel myself giving the same tired answers to the same old questions.

‘So, it’s not really a localised pain, then? More of a general feeling in both legs, you say?’ she enquires, as though she may have any kind of helpful answer / comment with which to furnish me.

‘Yes. It’s way more than fatigue, more like fire or electricity shooting down the back of both legs. They literally won’t let me run!’ I reply, managing to control the frustration and emotion building up inside at the difficulty in even explaining how it feels. ‘Not even one mile. Not half a mile. They won’t let me run – it’s as simple as that!’ I conclude, before the sports therapist blunders in through the glass doors and invites me into the treatment room. Shit! I didn’t even have my usual pre-treatment latte! I suddenly realise, feeling slightly done out of possibly the most enjoyable part of my treatment.

He pummels and kneads; digs in and wrings out my leg muscles so it feels like actual bodily harm. I try and get clues as to how my hamstrings and calves seem to him. I’m looking for ANY clue to ascertain what the hell is wrong with them, but he can’t give me much. ‘The lateral aspects (of my hammies) are definitely hardened, but the inner lines are softer. You may well get some bruising,’ he offers, oblivious to my disappointment that he can’t define PRECISELY what the fuck is the matter with my legs. We chat, but I have to pause whilst eating my fist during several tortuous manoeuvres. I leave after 40 minutes of manipulation (euphemism for being physically assaulted) and inhale my lunch in the car park. It’s now 2pm and I’ve been on Mission Rehab since 10.30am.

[LATER]

It’s now 3.30pm. I’ve arranged to meet Gav down at the local pool in half an hour to try my hand at this newly suggested ‘zero impact’ activity I’ve been told about. I’m off AQUA RUNNING! Part of me is as excited as if I’m heading off to a local knitting convention; the other part of me is (bizarrely) semi smug for even being prepared to give it a go. I don’t DO swimming; I’m NOT a water baby. I HATE getting cold and lugging around bags of sodden towels, only to find them in the boot of the car three days later. Which part of that is fun? There is a reason I love(d) running (actually, there are a multitude of reasons) but one of them is the simplicity – the lack of fuss. Got a pair of trainers, pants and a top? Then I can run. I can set off from EXACTLY where I am. I don’t need to drive anywhere (although it’s great to see different places and have mini adventures) but it is possible for me to… just run. Swimming? Not quite. When is the pool open? When is it mental kids’ hour? What about the serious lane swimmers? When should I avoid feeling their wrath as I try to keep myself buoyant whilst making an about turn from their God-awful attempt at butterfly stroke? These are all questions I’ve had to ask in order to prepare for my one initial visit to the pool.

I head into the reception, arms laden full of required kit. I trip over the long, dangly buckle strap on my buoyancy belt as it waves around in front of me like an annoying toddler.

‘Erm, one to swim, please.’ I say to the miserable receptionist, feeling entirely odd as the words come out of my mouth. I’ve been a member of the gym/pool since 2011 and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said those words. Every other time has been solely for the purpose of taking my daughter into the baby pool six years earlier. I’d fake-coo as she looked at me blankly, bobbing about thoroughly bemused in her baby ring whilst I’d feel the early onset of hypothermia. Fortunately, we worked out or respective strengths. Tilly’s Dad took on the swim/cycle rota whilst I focused on Junior Parkrun and hiking Mini Me for miles up and down local hills. It works well.

We’re not even in the changing room and already I realise what a farce it is. ‘You can’t go thorough there in your shoes, Gav’ I say to him, like a smart arse as I take off my trainers and push them neatly underneath a plastic chair. ‘Really? Oh, right.’ He replies and follows suit.

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Once changed, we wade out towards the main pool. I’m carrying my aqua trainers, fearing that a whistle will be blown at me whilst I walk towards the pool in footwear (I’m unfamiliar with the etiquette.) I put my enormous blue buoyancy belt on and fasten it like a tourniquet on a severed limb. I’ve slipped my water pumps on, and once in the water I immediately try out a running action. My feet are still touching the floor as I ‘run’ in some kind of sub-aqua moonwalk (all I need is a single diamante glove) but I soon get into my stride, and build up enough confidence to nudge up into the deep end. The belt comes into its own and maintains my position whilst I run more freely and my legs pump around in circles rather than slide around Michael Jackson-esq on the pool bottom.

My suggested session is a ten-minute steady warm-up followed by some VO2 intervals.

‘God, it’s hard is this, Gav!’ I say to him as he bobs around by the side of me looking fascinated, wondering what it feels like. I’m only four minutes into my warm-up. Fucking hell, this session’s gonna last a lifetime I think to myself as I ease off some effort on my weightless jogging and leave something for my purported ‘intervals’. Two young girls are swimming / messing around in the pool nearby. They are about Tilly’s age, perhaps a year or so older. One of them looks and smiles at me pitifully. I suddenly think, maybe they think I can’t swim! She looks across at her friend and they giggle, unable to establish quite what the hell I’m doing. I beam at them both as I run fast, but go nowhere in the water. I don’t care what I look like. I’m here, I’m training, and that’s all I’m bothered about.

After ten minutes’ warm up, the intervals begin.

10 x 15 sec on/off

4 mins steady rec

5 x 30 sec on/off

4 mins steady rec

2 x 45 sec on/off

10 min cool down.

15 second intervals? Sounds like a piece of piss! I say to myself, thinking I’ve chosen an easy session to begin with. After 4 x sets I’m buggered, and have all on keeping track of the seconds as I’m ‘on’ again after what feels like hardly any recovery time at all. My legs still ache under the water, but they’re only tired, they-know-they’re-working-hard aches, and not the fire-breathing shooting pains on raw nerve ending ones I’ve been so debilitated by.

Eventually, I finish my set and we both haul ourselves out of the pool. ‘I quite enjoyed that, Gav’ I say to him as we wring out our towels and decide how best to manoeuvre the dripping buoyancy aid back to the car.

I feel a general sense of satisfaction at my efforts, today. I’ve filled my day with various good and productive things, and I’m doing all I can to clamber up, over, around, and underneath this obstacle I’m presented with.

Mentally it’s helping me to be in a peaceful place, as the (hopefully temporary) loss of my running has threatened to pull the rug from underneath my mental health stability. Without any way of knowing how long my safety blanket will be removed, I’m doing everything in my power to cling on to my rock face whilst the waves continue to bash against it. It’s giving me a sense of control over the situation to put these things in place.

I think I’m turning a corner with this… I’ll sleep well tonight.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Goodbye, #VLM2017, hello recovery…

It’s five weeks since I’ve been able to run.

I’ve only just acknowledged that I will have to pull out of this year’s Virgin London Marathon, and I’m clinging onto my sanity whilst the waves continually try to bash me from the rock face. And I’m keeping a diary: a diary of my rehab, my recovery, and the lessons I’m learning about myself as I wade through this mire. In the big scheme of things, it’s no biggie. People have real problems. But the thing is, running has been my Prozac, my therapy, my lifeline, my sanity, my solace, my friend, my quiet time, my escape route, my place-to-go, and my default setting for some six years now. I’ve written a book about it, don’t you know? ‘Running for my Life’ will be published in Jan ’18.

How ironic then, that for however long (and I honestly have no idea) – I can’t run. My body won’t let me. It’s a painful experience. I feel vulnerable; insecure; not quite right; off-kilter. I feel like a piece of me has – if not died – then been put into a deep coma. That piece of me brought me joy. And I want it back.

So what am I going to do with all of this? Am I going to wallow and wilt whilst sobbing on my sofa eating Pringles? (*yes, probably… I jest.) I’ve cried irrational, melodramatic tears. I’ve spontaneously combusted at the frustration of my running being taken from me without explanation; without cause (well, this isn’t entirely true… #overtraining)

I love running. I love MY running. It pulsates through my being and makes me feel alive. But this is a journey that I am going to learn from. This is one that – despite my tears of frustration, my ‘Tilly, you’ll have to help me to run Junior Parkrun today, because I don’t think I can run 2k’ pleas to my six-year-old daughter – I need to turn into something strong and positive; something that I can use to grow and build from, and as a fuel to propel me rocket-like into the next phase of my running life.

I am learning; I am evolving; I am trying. And I am going to share some of my daily diary entries of both my progress, and my setbacks. Some days I feel mentally strong and defiant. Others, I feel like at the slightest nudge, I could crumble into a pit of mental health woes and outrageously disproportionate fears.

All of this is now a part of my journey, and my reality. And at the very least, I can share the ride…

Thanks for your company. Hold on tight!

 Mon 13th Feb

I’ve been fixated on reading Amelia Boone’s blog ‘When it all comes crashing down’ and her subsequent recovery from no less than TWO fractures in her femur (the strongest bone in the body) whilst at the very peak of her elite obstacle racing career. In my own mini, pathetic soap opera of a personal disaster, it’s helped knowing that someone else has been hit a hundred times harder, has fallen from a far greater platform, and has managed to pick up the pieces from a broken heart of shattered racing dreams. It is possible. And here I am, with a slight niggle to my calf (plus permanently dead legs) from which I am – at times – inconsolable.

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Thanks for the hint, Amelia. Loving this book…

Today was bad. I did my rehab – first session at 6.15am whilst the rest of the house slept, and I was barely awake enough to work out my left from my right. Hoping beyond hope that what I was doing wasn’t entirely pointless, I gave it another shot whilst on my usual lunchtime gym visit at work.

But my BIG goal for today was to run… TWO MILES. Engineering logistics in place to make the whole debacle feasible, Gav duly collected Mini Me and her last remaining Chicken Pox scabs from school, whilst I planned to park up in Copley village next to the canal. I’d get changed surreptitiously whilst in the driver’s seat, making every effort not to reveal all to innocent passers-by, and head off one mile out, and one mile back. Sounded easy. Fucking hell, how hard can that be?

I parked up and was soon swamped by School Mums walking past my car pushing prams, whilst I sat in my pants, wrestling myself into SKINS. Others sat waiting for talented & gifted offspring in the comfort of their 4x4s. I deliberately avoided eye contact.

A few contortions later and I was ready to run. Nerves were building as I asked myself, ‘Am I ready for this? Is my leg ready?’ In my gut, I already knew the answer.

I set off. My left leg struggled to push itself off the ground, the right one having to do what it could to mitigate for its distinct lack of effort. Every step was laboured; the pain in my left calf now precisely that – no confusion with tightness.

Back at my car, I wept. ‘I think my running is over, Gav’ I sent him by Whatsapp, as I sobbed in solitude at the wheel. ‘Don’t be silly, Rach. You’re catastrophizing again. You know that…’ he replied, being as rational as he could without sounding offensive.

I knew I was being melodramatic, emotional, and lacking any sense of logical reasoning, but in that moment, it’s precisely how I felt: I felt to have lost a part of me, and I couldn’t even imagine getting it back.

Once mercifully back home, I pulled myself together for the sake of Tills who had made a successful return to school braving any comments about her remaining chicken pox scabs. A few well-timed sobs on Gav’s shoulder in the kitchen whilst out of earshot later, and I finally calmed down.

Later that evening, once Chicken Dipper was in bed, Gav decided to give me his Valentine’s day gift. I knew he’d planned something special, and he wanted to give it me when I wasn’t otherwise occupied making breakfast or finding clean pants for a scabby child. He made the right choice, but I was still emotionally fragile.

I opened the large A4 envelope, and inside was the most stunning card, dotted with our gormless selfies from the past few years. I looked again, and I felt my tears well up. ‘That photo was taken from XX race…’ ‘… and that one when we were running in Barcelona!’ RUNNING IS HAUNTING ME AGAIN! I felt a wave of anger as even my beautiful Valentine’s card taunted me that I can’t do the very thing that I – and we – love to do the most. Fucking hell, pull yourself together, Rach.

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Soppy Get 😉

‘It’s beautiful, Gav,’ I said, gulping. And I meant it.

Behind the card was another envelope. This time there was a typed letter informing me of a spa afternoon he’d arranged, prior to the half marathon race we had planned for Sunday. It also told of a consultation with an International elite athlete, who could advise me with tweaks to my training for coming marathon plans… Training? What fucking training? I can’t train! I can’t even run a mile! I wept again as running once again seemed to usurp the kindest, most thoughtful and generous gift and kibosh it PRECISELY at the time when I least of all needed a kicking.

‘I don’t know if I can go, Gav’ I sobbed. ‘I can’t even run, so what’s the use of me sitting down talking about VO2 max and marathon training drills with some elite athlete?’ My mind had a meltdown with the pity and the frustration of it all.

‘It’s OK, Rach. Just think about it and we’ll make a call tmrw,’ said the ever patient, long-suffering Gav, whose heart must have been breaking seeing all of his thoughtful plans come crashing down in front of him.

He slowly walked up the stairs to the bathroom. And then, at that moment I had an epiphany: FUCK IT! I’m not going to let this bloody injury rob me and Gav of our plans for the special day he’s planned. NO WAY! And, I’d LOVE to speak to a ‘real’ athlete about some of the times when she’s struggled with injury or illness. And she’s an elite athlete! What the hell must THAT pressure be like?

Almost instantly my tears dried up and I felt excited. Excited at the prospect of meeting some sage-like running guru, and – more importantly – excited about the prospect of spending some time with my gorgeous, thoughtful, infinitely patient Gav regardless of any running plans that may have, at one point, been involved. So, fuck you, leg. I can’t WAIT for Friday!

*PS today is the day that I put my trainers in the bin in a fit of rage. Gav took them out, but I’ve got a MAJOR grudge with them after my horrendous 2 miler, and so they quickly went back in the bin.

 Fret not, I have others.

TO BE CONTINUED…

The Ghost of Christmas Past… helped by a run in Storm Barbara

This year, I was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

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It was Christmas 1999. I stood and watched as my Mum collapsed into a heap onto our kitchen floor, her tiny body unable to carry the weight of her sadness anymore. It was the big build up to a new, exciting millennium, with talk of parties and possible technological meltdowns.  ‘… And tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999…’  blared out from every pseudo virtual-party radio station, and I wondered what all the excitement was about. My Mum was sad. She was infinitely worse than sad, and yet the whole of the rest of the world was ‘partying.’ Like it was 1999, apparently.

Traditionally, she hadn’t coped well with Christmas, albeit she’d put on a ‘good show’ for us – her sponge-like kids who would invariably soak up her sadness like an Amaretti biscuit floating in a flat white. Christmas parties didn’t exist in our world, because they couldn’t exist in hers. She was unable to be in that place, to laugh at a 1990s battery-operated Talking Santa or pose gormlessly in front of Dad’s Kodak camera wearing a party hat and a fake moustache from a cracker. She couldn’t do any of those things. Not because she didn’t want to (although I’m sure she made an active choice over the fake moustache), but because her mental health demons wouldn’t let her.

During my earlier childhood, we all knew of her Christmas Party Active Avoidance Zone, but we pretended otherwise. Even she pretended otherwise. We went to family parties and she sat in the quietest corner waiting… waiting for it all to end. A few of the perhaps more intuitive and sensitive family members would make gentle conversation with her. Nothing to force an Emergency Stop for her social anxiety internal warning system. Just enough for her to feel visible, included, and worthy of a conversation.

She showered us with gifts to try and mask her sadness. My little red 1980s Christmas Post Office set was my pride and joy (it had a counter that opened out to all of my teddy customers, and more stamps than I could ever dream of) but it was no substitute for my mum’s smile. I’d have given it back in a heartbeat.

This year, by virtue of my own family circumstances – both an imperfect and a perfect ‘Cut & Paste’ reworking of failed relationships – Tilly would spend Christmas Eve with her dad and his partner. She would wake up on Christmas morning in their house with their half-eaten mince pie and their talcum powder Santa footprints. I had no need to bother rushing around shortly before midnight to leave the necessary evidence of His visit, although I’ve done the talcum footprints for the previous five years.

I woke up on Christmas Day morning to no Tilly, no excited squeals of ‘He’s Been!!’ Just silence. Me, and Gav, and silence. And then Gav went out early to see his daughter open her presents, like he does every year. He waits outside her mum’s house until she’s awake, and he is there. Every year.

And as lovely as my silence was, it drew me back into my Mum’s muted Christmases gone by. Because they were my muted Christmases, too. Tilly would be back with us later on Christmas afternoon, and so I was left pacing around our house… waiting.

I made the mistake of picking up my phone and scrolling briefly through the Happy Family pages on social media. “Little bobby LOVES his new bike!” CLICK! “Here’s the recently extended Ned Flanders family enjoying a Christmas dinner together, wearing fake moustaches! HOW MUCH FUN!” CLICK! And it took me back to all those years I spent with the wrong people, in the wrong places trying to find my extended Ned Flanders family so I could share in their Christmases (complete with party hats and fake moustaches); and to all those years I spent searching for this elusive party I’d heard of that felt like it was 1999 (not my 1999, god forbid – someone else’s.) The Flanders family Christmas wasn’t mine, and neither was the party.

I put my phone down, and paced around our silent living room. My Mum had chosen to entirely avoid Christmas and go to the gym on Christmas Day this year, whilst I was left pacing up and down remembering the endless, searching Christmases gone by, and my daughter who was waking up with someone else’s fake Santa footprints. I picked my phone straight back up again.

I’m heading out for a run. I need to get out.’ Was the text I sent to Gav. He understood my need to run. Fuck it. I AM going to wear my Santa hat.

I set off out the door and within quarter of a mile, headed straight up a stinking  great hill. Why am I doing this? I almost shouted out loud as I tried to will my body forwards and upwards at the same time. Why am I out here and not at some Flanders family Christmas present opening session? I pulled over and almost threw my Santa hat over a wall.

Am I running away from my own Christmas Day, or my Ghosts of Christmas Past, or my lack of comprehension of any of it? I started chugging up the bastard hill again. Or am I running away from myself? Is that all I’ve ever been doing?

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The Bastard Hill

I wanted to turn around, and go home.

And then Gav texted me, and said ‘I’ve parked up by Sammomden dam. I’m coming to find you.’

He did, and we ran together around the dam, as Storm Barbara did her best to wrestle with us, and tossed us around like a couple of empty Seabrook crisp packets in her wrath. At times, we could barely move forward as her wall of wind stood in our way. The damp air then turned entirely sodden and the fur around my Santa hat dripped slowly down my ears.

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We got back to Gav’s car, and drove home. Barbara’s efforts had been spectacular. She had both beaten me and fixed me in some juxtaposed, therapeutic display of nature. As much as I’d battled and berated her, angrily yelling ‘I don’t want to fight this, today!’ whilst her wall of wind held me back, she also cleansed me. Blowing the cobwebs away: cobwebs hanging from the ghosts of Christmas past.

Back home, and the silence was no longer deafening. The turkey didn’t look over-facing, and the presents under the tree finally looked enticing. “It’s a chess set! Ace!”

We didn’t have a Flanders extended family Christmas dinner, but we loved our day, grateful for the absence of dreaded 1999 parties, or witnessing the social discomfort of my Mum as she once struggled to wrestle herself into a Christmas that wasn’t hers.

Tilly came home and she made the lights on our Christmas tree sparkle infinitely brighter. She got a bike, we played Pickin Chickens, and I went to bed knowing that next year, the only thing I’ll do differently is the talcum Santa footprints – regardless of where Tilly wakes up. They just make me smile.

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Happy Christmas, Mum! (And this card actually did make her laugh…)