Anxiety – a view

It’s now 19 months since my partner died. I’ve been spending more time with women, particularly older women. This is not surprising since I am one myself. (There’s a difference between old and older – I wouldn’t put myself in the “old” category until I’ve reached 90, if I do. I’m not sure that I want to.)
So this is a quite a big change. My partner was several years younger than me, in his late 40’s, so through him I came into contact with other, mostly younger, men. He worked and I work so our days were structured around work. Many of the women I know now, as I have met several new people and made new friends, for which I am grateful, no longer work, and their husbands are also retired. I have discovered this is an entirely different group of people with an entirely different way of spending their time.
And this is new to me. Of course, I have known most of my friends for a while so it’s only partly that there are people in my life who no longer work and their way of life is not new to them. But for me it’s like a window on to life for the older woman, and especially those who no longer work to earn.
Anxiety creeps in.
Sometimes the husbands, if they are around, contribute to the anxiety – they might have failing health; they might just be irritating or there are other problems which somehow don’t get dealt with – but often it’s just a kind of existential anxiety. And when we meet we talk about the things that make us anxious, and that we wish we could do something about, but mostly can’t.
For one friend it’s the anxiety engendered by suddenly finding herself on her own when her husband died, and she would prefer that he hadn’t. I entirely understand how she feels. It feels as if, finding ourselves on our own, without a partner and the children having long gone, anxiety presents itself at the back door, knocking, and giving so many reasons why it should be let in. I feel this. And sometimes it slips in when we are looking the other way. Somehow the door is left open and when I turn round there it is, challenging, and rationalising its presence.
I also, of course, know several women of my age and older, who do work, either full or part time, and some of these are on their own, without partners / husbands. Do they have anxiety? Well, yes. Women of all ages have anxiety. We seem to specialise in it in a way that men do not. It seems to be part of modern life. But when you’re younger you still have so many roles that you are playing and that take up a lot of time and energy and so anxiety often sits in the background, whittling away at energy levels, causing difficulties with sleeping, digestive disturbances etc, but you get on and do the things that you have to do, because they have to be done.
But this is not the particular manner of anxiety that I am currently looking at, close up so to speak.
I think that for me, there are two things going on. One is to do with loss. The loss of a partner leads to other losses. Where there were two people sharing their lives now there is one. One person is suddenly living alone who previously was not. No-one to talk to, watch television with, go for a walk with, have breakfast with, cuddle and make love with. Now there’s just one person. This can lead to a huge loss of confidence and a loss of identity. Who am I now? Thus comes the anxiety.
The other is, what to do about it? What do I do now? And how do I get it right? Because now I’m closer to the end of my life than the beginning.
I think I have to go back to the drawing board. When something or someone goes out of your life it leaves a gap, which has to be filled. And, for me at least, it has to be purposeful and fulfilling. It’s not enough to fill my time by entertaining myself from here to the next corner, and then the one after that. I think that eventually that will lead to more anxiety, not less.
A drawing board is empty until you put something on it. I found a quote on the Internet a few days ago, “ Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.”
So here goes.
I think the answer, or one contender, is in being creative – writing, painting, decorating, making baskets, knitting, sewing, whatever. Something that comes from within, not without. As long as we are looking to be filled by things that come from without then we are likely, to some extent, to become dependent on them. Even family and friends, wonderful as they can be, come from without and really, they are the icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself that is my life. Cake without icing is do-able – not fun, but do-able, and there’s always some icing. But icing without cake is not do-able. Sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever. It’s a poison and extremely addictive. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to fall into that anxiety trap and forget that I’ve always got cake.

Musing

Well, now I’m really feeling, what shall I do with the rest of my life. I’m thinking and considering, what shall I do? It’s now 2013. My partner passed on, left the planet, six and a half months ago; I’ve been on my own for six and a half months and his absence and the permanence of it is only just beginning to register with me. Memories and tears come, seemingly from nowhere, disabling me. This is a nowhere place I am in; unfamiliar, unknown, strange. And challenging.

I have discovered that death is the great taboo: people don’t want to talk about it. Friends with elderly husbands avoid the subject. The husbands themselves don’t look at me – my partner was thirty years younger and in apparently considerably better health than they are. The wives look at me and see their future and the husbands look at me and see the absence of themselves and their own death. It’s scary.

Yesterday morning I thought I would do some exercise on the rebounder and I put on some Leonard Cohen – not exactly jolly, Leonard Cohen doesn’t do jolly –  but it’s got a good beat and it’s six minutes long, so good for bouncing. Then, wham, he’s there in the room with me, (my partner, not Leonard Cohen) or is it a memory of him in the room? But it’s overwhelming, the presence. His actual presence would not have been. We might have looked out of the window and noted that the apple tree needs pruning or the beauty of the leeks that we have allowed to go to seed. But because I feel him there when he is not physically present it knocks me sideways and I have to stop bouncing, turn off the music and sit for a while.

Maybe movement triggers the emotions, as in walking is good for stress relief.

So, I’m looking at possibilities and making notes, talking to people and getting information. I could do some volunteer work, helping families in difficult circumstances. I could train to be a soul midwife. I feel I would like to study the beginning and ending of life, the bookends, as Elizabeth Lesser, author of “Broken Open”, calls them. A soul midwife helps the dying to cross the threshold between this world and whatever is next.

I’ve ordered some wool to knit a cardigan. I’m joining a knitting bee, meeting on a Tuesday evening with other knitters to chat and share our lives and our knitting problems. As I’ve done very little knitting for the last twenty years or so I will have problems and it will be really good that all I have to do is look across the table to someone to help me.

I’ve been sitting for the last hour in a favourite tearoom in Chichester and, having commented on the pleasure of the tearoom, the log fires and the peaceful environment, met an interesting and helpful person. So that was pleasurable too.

Grieving

Grief is messy and hard. It doesn’t let up. You grow up an “I” person: I’m doing this or that, I’m going to such and such, I’m studying this subject etc. Then you meet someone and you find yourself becoming a “we” person: we’re buying a house, we’re having a baby, we’re going on holiday.

Then maybe that all goes wrong – or not – and you are again an “I” person, but not the same “I” person that you were before. Now you’re a little older and possibly a little wiser, or at least you have some life experience that you didn’t have before. You’re aware that you are now an “I”.

Further down the road you meet someone, again, and you find yourself back in the “we” mode. For me the “I” and the “we” jostled against each other for a few years and lately I settled into a “we”. But now I am again an “I” because the other half of “we” has left the planet. Gone for good.

Yesterday I visited my partner’s grave, in Clayton Wood Natural Burial ground, just by Ditchling in East Sussex. It’s a lovely place to bury someone you love, if you find that you have to do that. My partner loved nature and now he’s resting on the South Downs. He has a plaque with his name on it. That’s a very odd feeling, to see the name of someone who so recently was so very much alive, on a wooden plaque in a burial ground at the end of a grave and a mound of earth. But the plaque and the grave do have a presence that gave me a focus so that I sat and talked to him for a little while. Of course I know that he’s not really there but somehow it helped. I sprinkled some poppy seeds and chatted as I would if he were at home with me or we were sitting in the car going somewhere.

Then I went and had tea in a lovely teashop in Henfield, Norton House tearooms. I was hungry because I’m not eating much so I had a smoked salmon and cucumber sandwich and a pot of Assam tea made with loose tea, not a teabag, and a home-made meringue with whipped cream. It was all delicious and all of this, the visit and the chat and the tea, lifted me and I felt quite cheered up.

And then tomorrow comes and I wake up and it starts all over again. The pain and the challenge of grief and a new way of living. Variable and unpredictable and messy and very tiring.