I live my life as if I’m living on borrowed time. I don’t mean to say I’m a risk taker. I don’t possess a daredevil streak.
Neither am I a Dionysian spirit, though admittedly, I’m addicted to buying Hawaiian-patterned short-sleeved shirts. And I do like the occasional chocolate bar and glass of Malbec. What would life be without occasional glasses of red wine?
I’m not especially driven – by saying I act as if I’m living on borrowed time, I’m not describing a desire to maximise how I spend my days or a determination to enhance my productive capacity. My astrological moon sign – I typically see myself as more of a Cancerian than my sun sign, a Capricorn – sees me laze around the house and take too many baths. Astrological explanations are just as good an excuse as any for being so damn idle.
Indeed, there’s rarely a day that goes by when I don’t question my decisions. Why I haven’t yet published a book/become fluent in French and Spanish/removed my boxes from my mate Ned’s garage, where they’ve been stored since 2015, or indeed developed a six-pack.
So, when I say I act as if I’m living on borrowed time, what do I mean, exactly?
When I act as if I’m weighed down by a giant egg timer, what’s the driving force? And isn’t it insulting to all those people who in fact are living with terminal illnesses to be characterising things in this crude way?
I don’t mean to insult anyone, or trivialise anyone else’s experience. But I’d like to say something about mine.
A nostalgist’s eye
I have a nostalgist’s eye for what’s come before, what was easier or rosier in childhood, and what was (seemingly) more straightforward about the world I grew up in. There was something innocent then. Every generation reflects on their childhood in much the same way. We all learn quickly enough this innocence can’t be reclaimed.
Even now, when I experience life’s undoubted thrills, my nature is to worry these might never – possibly can never – be replicated.
All the people I grew up loving, admiring, questioning and sometimes disliking – are growing vulnerable and frail. They’re unalterably headed to the Great End. Now they’re on borrowed time, so to speak, I have an overriding sense that so am I.
I think one of the most damaging consequences of losing a loved one, at any stage frankly, but perhaps earlier in life the feeling grows more acute, is that you steel yourself for repeat negative occurrences. I know I did.
One can catastrophize life’s future outcomes, imagining all sorts of Sliding Doors eventualities. One thereby commits oneself to live simultaneously in the past and in an imagined future, but rarely ever in the present.
I know I do this. Far too much.
It’s terribly ingrained in me. As a coach, I want to apply my own coaching principles. I want to work on this aspect of my psyche because it makes me incredibly risk-averse.
I have promised in the past to blog here on my OCD, diagnosed in 2001, and I will, but not in detail here. What I will say for now, is that losing Mum at 18 intensified what were already strong tendencies of mine to seek a semblance of control from the oddest of impulses.
In childhood, to take just one example, I used to perform obsessive rituals to prevent me and my family from dying on a plane. In the weeks leading up to one of our family holidays, I would take great (secret) care – only stepping on alternate paving stones as I walked along a high street with Mum or the girls. If I stepped on a stone I wasn’t meant to, I feared what might befall us when weeks later, we would fly over the Atlantic or the Mediterranean.
I was an odd child – of that, there’s no doubt.
But I weathered all these compulsive storms calmly enough and very few people who knew me understood this inner gameplay, where I would test myself – constantly – to see how far I was willing to go to keep our lives safe and under control. I would tap the toilet flush three times; other times, I’d peek under my bed three times before calling out good night, or tap my nose three times, all to save me and my family from a terrible fate.
I learnt later I was probably predisposed to OCD, but mum’s cancer and passing, at age 50, upended so many of the things I clung on to, so many of the metaphorical paving stones on which I relied, that my OCD turned into something undeniable and gruesome. It became a medical condition which a wise psychiatrist could point to and label.
The other week, Dad said something to me which triggered a memory, which then prompted a related thought.
I was crossing a road. I’m 38.
It reminded me that he used to say things like this an awful lot. It may well have saved me from running in front of a car as an infant. Who knows?
But what it made me realise is how ingrained it is for me to caution, if not vocally, then psychologically, my loved ones. And, what’s worse, how often I caution myself. Not to be and do certain things.
To not scuba dive. To not cycle – and certainly not in London. To not wade too far into the sea. To not eat things I’m not familiar with. To not sit on a ledge, or get close to the edge.
A couple of years ago, I was on a boat steaming out of Buenos Aires and headed on the Mar del Plata to Uruguay. A father perched his toddler high on the ledge separating the deck of the boat from the river depths below. I simply couldn’t watch. I fought hard not to see the situation as risky but for me far more than for anyone directly involved, I was left deeply uncomfortable. I had to walk away.
And yet I don’t want to be like this. To constantly live with a brake on. To potentially project on to my nephews or sisters or partner or even our children – if we have children – these irrational fears, borne out of my discomfort that shit happens in life and I can’t always be in control.
Many terrible things can happen in life, to any of us, at anytime. And by the same logic, since we’re all in a lottery, many decent, and exceptionally good things can happen too.
But ‘catastrophizers’ typically place more of an intellectual and emotional premium on their worst fears being confirmed, thus relieving themselves that their stress hadn’t been misplaced. It confirms the bias that anxiety has its own internal logic and that deeply held anxieties were well-founded.
I doubt many ‘catastrophizers’ foresaw or even worried too much about a pandemic. Maybe there were a few in the know who did.
Either way, it’s here and it seems likely to affect our lives in one way or another for a number of months yet, and possibly even years to come.
This new normal – the coroneality if I could christen the phenomenon quite as crassly as that – is that whether we’re worriers or not, whether we have a predisposition to anxiety, OCD or other mental health conditions, or not, we all have to accustom ourselves to these tough new choices about how we perceive and respond to risk.
There are serious mental health issues and issues concerning psychotherapeutic interventions that need addressing, especially with the news (just in London, I believe) that 20% of people reported an increase in states of anxiety and stress in the lockdown period.
For the moment at least, I don’t feel qualified or ready to comment on these issues of healthcare and mental health provision, important though they are.
I simply reflect on the fact that the current period is one where, bizarrely, some of my fears have softened somewhat.
Now that extraordinary events have befallen – not just me, not just my family, but all of us, at the same time, no matter who we are, all around the world – has had a perverse levelling effect, making me not complacent as such, but somehow resolved. We all face the same set of choices, at least in the most abstract sense. None of us can psychologically magic any of these current ills away.
Perhaps I’m performing a mental trick of sorts, convincing myself I’m feeling okay, when in fact I’m the proverbial dam about to burst. Just one shock to my system, and I’ll be back to my obsessive and compulsive – and catastrophizing – worst.
A pandemic forces choices
What I do know is that being in major cities at this time, London – and next week, Paris – feels quite a risk. I have choices, to locate myself somewhere more remote, but I choose not to. Not for now. There’s important things I want to do, support I want to give to family, in the meantime.
There’s risks inherent in just about every single thing we do. Stepping outdoors is loaded with risks, each and every day, and life was ever thus; but we didn’t stay locked indoors before the pandemic, because we calculated the risks and we sought to mitigate them.
I’ve got some big decisions to make this coming fortnight about where I’m going to base myself this coming few months. The choices are first world problems. I know that.
There’s riskier options and there’s more sensible options and some of them involve trade-offs about family life.
In adulthood, as in childhood, my catastrophizing instincts never travel too far away.
But as I begin to say goodbye to London and reflect on my oldest relatives’ lives and how life feels shorter and shorter, I’m tempted like never before to take risks.
There’s an egg timer hanging over each and every one of us. I don’t want to passively wait and watch the grains of sand.