Picture the scene: me, alone, after midnight, on the floor in tracksuit bottoms and an old band t-shirt, hair essentially one matted lump by this point, twitching occasionally, a little red-wine-drunk, arm-deep in a pack of Doritos (see also: orange smudge on chin, crumbs in stray strand of hair, blob of dip on right boob), scrolling endlessly through Twitter, then Facebook, then a couple of news apps, hoping for some good news. Any good news. Give me cats hiding in odd places (adorable), dogs who’ve swallowed bees (hilarious), kids (and I am bad with kids, who, I firmly believe, can smell fear) saying grown-up things (less cute than uncanny, really, but OK, I’ll take it…) Anything, really, because it seems a lot like the end of the world’s coming and god dammit, carbs just aren’t enough.
This, as of around September last year – maybe a little earlier, but let’s say September – is my new Default Setting (a phrase, by the way, stolen from one of my favourite essays ever, This is Water, by David Foster Wallace, which I can’t urge you to read enough. I’m serious. Go read it.)
Now, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that – that kind of automatic switch to scrolling, and hoping, and feeling kind of unfulfilled, somehow, without really being able to put a finger on why.
Because it’s hard, these days, no? It strikes me that when I first started this blog, almost five years ago (no, really) it was a lot easier to talk about balance, and mindfulness, and all the other nice, fluffy things I figured were totally achievable if you just, y’know, thought about it a little bit. They were simpler times – back when Facebook was all nights-out-and-holiday-snaps (with cat videos, for good measure), and when Twitter was… Well, still like it is now, but a bit more chill. More lunch photos. Not so many shouty, racist eggs.
Even if you’ve got no interest in politics (because I’m not going there, or at least, not directly) it’s kind of hard to ignore the fact life these days seems to be a pretty much constant onslaught of information, the vast majority of which you neither want nor are pleased to hear. Last year, celebrity deaths and p**sy-grabbing; this year, the violation of just about every right certain people can think of, one horrifying if-only-this-were-fake-news item after another… It feels to me like perpetually living in that five minutes just before an anxiety attack, and trust me, that ain’t no way to live at all. It’s exhausting.
But – but – that Default Setting – well, it’s not impossible to overcome.
September last year, sure – that picture was accurate. But from mid-October, it became less so. I took a long, hard look at my situation, and decided it wasn’t doing me any good.
And let’s be clear: it’s not like anything was really, really bad. I wasn’t depressed, or super anxious, or seriously ill in any way, aside from twice-weekly migraines that were not exactly laugh a minute, but not the end of the world, all things considered. Generally, things were a-ok. I just felt like my approach to dealing with the world outside (or rather, the way I exposed myself to it) maybe wasn’t all that compatible with the kind of emotionally balanced,intellectually-nourished, overall-pretty-chill life I’d definitely had at some point, back before the world started going all… I don’t know. Backwards.
So I made a decision. I’d fix it. I had a couple of weeks off work approaching (my first holiday in eight months – not unrelated to my mild state of twitchiness) which I’d devote to… Well, balance.
If you’ve ever been a fat girl in a yoga class – or anyone in a yoga class, probably, if we choose to assume my comical lack of co-ordination and control isn’t limited only to me – you’ll know balance is hard. But the best tip I ever got from a yoga teacher was this: when you’re trying to balance, focus on a single point in your line of sight. Maybe a spot on the wall in front of you, or the wall straight ahead – whatever. But focus your eyes on that one, still thing, and trust me – balance magically follows. ‘Tis witchcraft, I swear.
After months of what felt like an exhausting onslaught of information, a bucketload of Netflix and very little chill, balance seemed like what I needed – and this kind of focus seemed like the way to get it.
So I did a few things. I bought a burner phone – an old Nokia that could only call and text – and gave the number to my Mum, because, like all good Mums, she likes to check in and make sure I’m alive from time to time. I put my smartphone in the kitchen drawer. Sure, I could go online, but only when standing in the kitchen, making coffee or cooking, and only if I really wanted to. Like, had to. I ordered a bunch of books I’d been meaning to read for a while, but had somehow never found the time for. I made a god damn spreadsheet, and tracked my symptoms closely to figure out what aches and pains might be a side effect of what pill/food/activity. And my rule, for my holiday, would be this: I would do one thing at a time.
I got serious, in other words, and I focused.
By November, my spreadsheet had led me to switch to a medically-advised ketogenic diet (which, by the way, I do not recommend unless you absolutely have to, and if I hear any of y’all giving up carbs by choice I’ll hunt you down and salt your dinner with my tears) in an attempt to curb my migraines. It worked. I’m not going to say I’m happy about it, because it means my choices are now migraines or carbs, and trust me – migraines are only winning by a fraction of an inch. But, on that front, it was an improvement.
By December, I’d made my sleeping patterns a priority, and was getting a full eight hours, with some much-needed me-time between 5-7am, when I would write, in bed, before work. At night, I read books – a novel a week, at least, having remembered reading is the best thing in the world.
By the first week of January, I’d finished writing a goddamn novel, which was as much a surprise to me as anybody else. And now, still, despite the world outside, I’ve got balance. I sleep well. I eat right. I got rid of my TV. I am, given the circumstances, pretty chill.
What I’m not saying, though, is that you should check out entirely. Lord knows I’m back on Twitter way too many hours a day (but god dammit, I’ve got to get my memes from somewhere), and I’m following the news hella closely, and being angry when it’s appropriate to be angry. Which, at the moment, is pretty often. The world still requires attention, and turning hermit-like won’t fix a lot. Active participation in the world is essential.
But it’s important, too, to make sure you’re looking after your damn self. A pissed-off, stressed-out interior monologue is, I swear, a hindrance when you’re trying to change the world.
It seems to me like balance, mindfulness, and so on are if anything more important now than they were when I first started writing about ’em, five-ish years ago – but also, like all good things, nowadays they take a little bit more work to achieve, and an actual, conscious effort to maintain. But still… They’re possible.
Balance is achievable, but it takes focus, and a certain amount of dragging yourself (if you’re like me) away from what would be your default position, with (again, if you’re like me) crumbs in your hair and RSI in your thumb. But trust me – it’s worth the work.
So read the news, and care about it. Do what you can to fight the good fight, whatever that may be for you. Be critical, and be vocal. Know your rights. Know what‘s right. But also, remember that you can only do so much without looking after yourself. Make time for you. Find peace in whatever you can. Spend time doing things that give you joy. With the people that bring it into your life.
Find balance, in other words. Because technology’s an amazing thing, and lord knows some of the very best friends I have are the result of relationships cemented through phones and messages – so I’m the last person in the world that’s about to tell you it’s bad. But happiness comes from other places, too. Places that ain’t on the other side of a screen.
And with that – I’m off to spend my Saturday morning sitting by the fire, with a cup of tea, and a really good book.
That’s what I call balance.