What I think you think I am

7.42 UK time (22.43 Abu Dhabi) 

I have been exploring the options on my inflight screen and discovered that next to the map icon you also have the ‘Mecca Pointer’ which shows you the direction and distance to the Holy Land, and when your next prayer time is. There is also a tab for the ‘Full recitation of all the verses of the Holy Quran,’ which is indeed a delicious sounding recitation in Arabic. It’s several hours long though so for my cultural enlightenment I choose from the music range, a friendly looking man with a headdress and a sitar called Abadi Aljohar. Lovely voice, lots of jingly bells and sitar strumming, like the soundtrack for the bit of an action film where they land in Egypt.

Or the soundtrack for my flight in which I absorb the wisdom of Jay Shetty. He smiles at me with excellent teeth and green eyes from the cover of the book and tells me that he will explain how I can, one: Let go, two: Grow and three: give. 

It is quickly apparent that he is exactly the travel companion I need on this exploration as he starts off by quoting Charles Horton Cooley’s synopsis of the problem of identity: ‘I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.’ 

Well no wonder it’s so hard. 

I have avoided the sentence because it’s so cliche, but I really am on a quest to find myself. I need to find out who I am when I’m not encased in the patterns of destructive behaviour that have turned me into a person I don’t think is actually me, and who has become exhausted, depleted and disillusioned with herself. The whole church doctrine of ‘live for the sake of others’ is one I didn’t let go of, to an unhealthy extent that manifests as self destructive workaholism. How much of it is me being a kind and caring person and how much is it a desperate need to be approved of as the good girl? Some untangling to do. And maybe some people to disappoint. 

‘It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’ s life with perfection’. Bhagvad gita. Nice. P3.

After an introduction on the importance of knowing what your values are, Mr Shetty says something that I think is the motto for my adventure: ‘When we tune out the opinions, expectations and obligations of the world around us, we begin to hear ourselves.’

21.14. Descending into Abu Dhabi. They play us adverts for how great the city is. A child nearby screams in the pain were all feeling as our ears suffer the altitude change. Ow. Jesus ow.

May 13. 10am. Abu Dhabi airport is a shiny buzzing place. Very international, very 24 /7. At 3am it was quiet – ladies polishing shelves with spot-lit handbags, Costa workers slouching on their phones, bins being emptied – but still fully open. The departure boards showed flights right through the night. In among all the western commercial glitz, there are the many prayer rooms, the red crescent charity collection box, and the robes. Elegant men with neatly trimmed beards, in flowing down to the ground white robes, with perfectly swished headscarves held in place with a black band. Beautiful. And the stunning women, gliding elegantly through the duty free, full body black robes flowing silently, head dress nearly framing perfectly made up faces. 

1128. I love watching the terrain below. You get a real sense of the immensity of the world. There are rugged grey and brown mountains, with wildly meandering rivers outlining the contours, and then nestled in safe little alcoves, near the rivers, are clusters of tiny little white buildings. Humans have explored and settled wherever they can, like insects building their colonies. 

As we took off, the impressive geometric rows of Abu Dhabi – with shiny great buildings along ruler straight roads and perfectly arced crescents – spread out to the edge of the city, and then there was just vast dusty desert. Humans have built a stunning congregation of wealth and opulence in the middle of this sparse and sun-bleached terrain, which would have started as a simple settlement millenia ago, when some wandering tribe decided it was a good spot to pitch their tents. The essay on the problem of overpopulation is for another time, but for now the perspective up here, of seeing how the story of humanity and our need for survival and connection is helpful in reminding me of my place in it all. If I had been born here I would have different values, priorities, and fears. And my unique set of personality bits and bobs arrived because of who I was surrounded by, the church doctrine I was infused with, as well as the geography of the Wiltshire countryside and how our settlements grew up around those rivers and hills just like the middle eastern children growing up in those white buildings 40,000 feet below me.  Here I am, the result of civilisations growing and reproducing and popping out another human who is wired for connection and driven by the fear of loosing it. My whole identity is based around an urgent need to keep connected, that I only deserve if I please everyone around me, even the ones I don’t like. Because the fear of disconnection is irrationally terrifying for a very powerful part of my brain. 

Is this the bit where I start to talk about where it all went wrong in Melksham? Perhaps that story isn’t ready to be told yet.

7.15pm. Half an hour till Bangkok. If you don’t arrange your own sleep on a plane, sleep will grab you suddenly and will really hurt your neck in the process. With not even a jumper to support my head, I’ve slept a head bobbing hour or two full of confusing dreams. Snippets of colleagues, countries and quests. And in my last few minutes I grab a bit of Jay Shetty. He’s very keen to get me to understand my values, and suggests that every time I’ve done something I regret, it’s because it wasn’t aligned with my values. I haven’t fully pinpointed what they are now but I can begin to work out what they’re not, by what I regret. And I regret the things that I did because someone else wanted me to and my need to please them was greater than my own sense of self and value. He says in order to find out what they are, look at what you admire in others. This is great homework as I have just written out a stash of thank you cards outlining the qualities of the people I admire. 

Strength, integrity, stability, compassion, care, wisdom, authenticity. 

I didn’t realise as I was scribbling out lovely words that these are the values of the people I choose to spend time with, and the qualities I wish I had more of. The qualities that hopefully this trip will help to identify and strengthen.

Which is a good thought to hold onto as we start the descent into Bangkok.

21 days away

May 12, 5.20pm UK time.

I’m somewhere over some snowy mountains between London and Abu Dhabi. My hangover headache is still lingering and the buzzy happiness of getting my plane has worn off now into just tiredness, but even though I have three seats to myself on this half empty Etihad flight, the sleep doesn’t arrive.

As I wandered through the departure lounge my London brother called for a goodbye chat and asked, ‘What are your goals for this trip?’

‘Good question,’ I said. ‘It’s pretty much to get strong and clear in my head, to recover I guess, and come back brave enough to make some clean decisions about what next.’

‘Good.’ he said. ‘I think you need to stop doing what everyone else wants.’

‘Yeah I know. That’s like, my whole problem.’

‘People who keep trying to keep everyone happy end up as….’ 

‘Victims,’ I said. ‘I know. I need a spine really.’

So maybe this is my quest to grow a new spine. I don’t even know what that will look like. All my strength has been directed towards what everyone else wants and I dont know what it feels like to stand in the integrity and strength of my own spine. The strongest thing I have done was said no to my job. Because it was all wrong for me. Still doesn’t mean I know what is right though.

Mum phoned as well, with some chat about times and stopovers and how lovely it will be to see my Thailand brother and my New Zealand brother. When she said goodbye she said, ‘Well I’ll be thinking of you. I won’t pray for you, but I’ll think of you.’ 

‘Oh you can pray for me mum, I’m happy to have your prayers, just, not those weird church people.’ 

‘OK love.’ 

So with my mum’s prayers – and an Islamic journey prayer that Etihad Airways offered us all just before the safety video – plus a phone full of messages of love and support and godspeed, I embark on this little adventure. 

I’m aware that having the space, money, time and brothers to enable such a trip is a complete luxury, but here goes the start of my savings for a house. I’ll have no mortgage for a long time, and no kids at any time, so I get to adventure away my savings in exchange for my mental wellbeing.

Heathrow Terminal 4 has about nine WHSmiths in it, and realising that – on a journey where I will spend a combined 53 hours in airports or planes – I haven’t brought a book, I wondered if one would jump off the shelf at me. Books on leadership, management, clever business, smart thinking…. no not this time. It’s not time to try to fix broken systems anymore. A bright orange ‘the art of not giving a fuck’ looked like it was going to be caught. Yes I like the idea, but it feels like the title is doing all the heavy lifting. Instead, in my search for peace and balance, I have found ‘Think Like a Monk’ by Jay Shetty, which contains the promise that it will ‘shift your focus from self image to self esteem’ which feels like what I need right now. So much of my life is built around what everyone needs me to be, and I have to let go of that and work out who I am without all the people pleasing pointlessness. I learned early on as a child in the Church that my safety and value was derived by how much I kept everyone else happy, so I can see where the pattern comes from and why it’s so deeply entangled in my brain.

Talking to Teresa the other day, I said, ‘You know, I am clearly not a fan of Rev Moon, but he’s the reason I exist, and all my siblings, and right now the fact that I can go to Thailand and new Zealand, I mean, that’s cos I have brothers there because my mum had loads of kids cos Rev Moon said to. So, like, thanks.’ 

The not great and the wonderful can be all a bit entwined. 

Lessons for today:

* The new Elizabeth line will take you free from the Heathrow Central bus station to terminal 4, but there’s a half hour wait that needs to be factored in.

* Do have a piss up with people you love in Melksham but maybe not the night before you have to get yourself to Heathrow at 7am.

* Do bring a water bottle. Even though you can’t bring a full bottle through security, you can drink it and then fill it right back up on the other side you silly woman.

*Do bring a few Berocca tablets. 

*There is a postbox in the departure lounge but you need to know the address you’re posting to. 

*Stop picking up your phone during the flight to check for messages. There are none. 

Grateful for:

Sue and Colin at the bus stop this morning, baffling the sleepy travellers with a flamboyant display of flag waving and frivolity that my partner had to join in with – before his coffee. 

The hug from my love like he didn’t want to let me go this morning. 

The lovely people who gathered in the pub across the night, and the card that everyone signed for me, and the 2000 Thai bobbin notes in the envelope. Wow. Thank you. 

Gloria for being an absolute angel of beauty and love, buying so many rounds and sharing plates and vegan snacks.

The many messages and texts today to make sure I’d got the bus and wishing me well

My love for letting me borrow his fluffy black hoodie as we were leaving the house and I realised I’d probably need it for the plane. I really do and it’s so snuggly. 

Leanne at Glow hairdressers for my surprisingly excellent new haircut. As she chopped off great handfuls two days ago, I grinned and said I haven’t had it this short since I was a teenager. 

When I was 17 I went to America to save the world. All my passion, energy and bravery was totally exploited by the Moonies, but I had it. It was real. It was me. I need to find that same strength and use it for what I want now instead.

Day 18: Mindfulness and meditation

This title has been sitting as a draft article here for three weeks now! I felt like I couldn’t write about it until I had some magical meditational breakthrough to write about, until I realised that’s not happening any time soon. What has happened is a sudden explosion of community related tasks in the run up to Christmas so that my job has completely – happily – engulfed my time and I have found myself running about the town on various missions of festive frivolity that I have had no time for anxiety, and much less time to explore ways to overcome it.

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Day Seven: Connection

Yes, I’m even further behind now in my daily plan. After Friday’s adrenaline drenched adventures, I was wiped out all weekend. I forget that after my body has experienced an 8 or 9 level panic attack, there is a moment of incredible bliss where I slide right down to a 5, and I am massively grateful for steady breathing and not trembling, but it’s still not perfect. What follows is usually a couple of days of exhaustion and lethargy in level 5, in which I still can’t eat properly – which adds to the weakness – and I am mostly curled up on the sofa under two blankets. No motivation, no focus, and no fun to be around at all. The fortunate timing meant that I had a whole weekend to soak up my somnolence, and didn’t need to snap out of it until Monday morning. Clever timing there, little panic-maker, it’s almost as if you know my schedule! So, while I thought I’d have the energy and enthusiasm for a deep dive into the mysterious motivations of my inner child, I realised that’s a subject which requires a strength I haven’t quite got yet, and will be addressed in a few days when I reach day 13.

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Day Five: Breathing techniques

5.30pm. The more astute of you will notice I’m a day late with this one. But instead of beating myself up about it, I accepted that on a day when my part-time job (that is supposed to require three hours per weekday) ends up taking eight hours, then I am allowed to roll my wellness hours over and catch up at the weekend.

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Day One: understanding where anxiety comes from

I woke up at six am, proper excited about day one of my new course! And sat there in the dark for nearly an hour wondering where exactly I was going to start. It’s like I had promised a curriculum of 21 lessons and my single student (me) arrived at class and we’re both delighted with the clean blackboard and new notebooks but we haven’t actually got a lesson plan.

So the first hour was spent brainstorming all my ideas, so that I now have a neatly alphabetised direction to follow for the next three weeks – packed with a diverse range of subjects including Gratitude, Cold Showers and Radical Forgiveness – but before delving in, today will start with the question of what is actually going on in my brain and why it keeps doing what it so masterfully does to keep me in fear.

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Twenty one studies in emotional strength

It has come to the point where it’s time for me to try another 21 day project to strengthen my troubled little brain. I have done this sort of thing before but not told anyone, and as a result, didn’t manage to keep the commitment. So I’m letting you know about this one in the hope that having an audience will oblige me to stick to it.

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Do not subscribe to those thoughts

So in an effort to still my scrambling mind, I turned to YouTube, my old friend and advisor, who knows me so well. Even the adverts he shows me are about wellness and meditation. And tonight YouTube tells me to watch this interview with Mooji. Yes I think I need to get a bit transcendental today.

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The beauty of conflict

I had to call my counsellor again on Monday. I would have normally dealt with the anxiety and overwhelm on my own but because my job required me to attend the Monday night meeting, I needed to quickly tidy up my spinning head before 7pm. We had a ten minute call in which I breathlessly explained that things were getting really tense at work, there was a lot of conflict and hurt around, and I was scared of attending this meeting in which I’d be stuck in the middle of it all. She very gently got me to slow down and speak clearly, and asked me why the conflict was bothering me.

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Untethering My Voice part 2

After last week’s session in which we looked at all the ways we might be avoiding telling our stories, our homework was to arrive at tonight’s zoom class with a large piece of paper.

And after a discussion about the scary state of the world and how difficult it is to feel like this process is even relevant while there are immense global issues touching everyone’s lives right now, Cara suggested that a time of turmoil is one in which a lot of ugliness is surfacing, but on the other side is a possible awakening, an awareness, and a striving for the beauty, truth and connection that is the opposite of the division and fear bubbling over in some places.

Continue reading “Untethering My Voice part 2”