Getting old is getting old

“Look at that amazing middle-aged woman. I can’t wait until I have those gorgeous expression lines on my face. That’s so sexy.” 

Said no 20-something, ever. 

I’ve been wondering why people approaching 30 seem to worry that they they are old. Old!! Women today have an average life expectancy of reaching our 80s, yet before we are out of our 20s we already think we’re past our prime, and start to wish we were (or at least could look) younger. 

What the hell are we teaching each other? 

I started thinking about it when my little boy innocently asked me “why do people always want to look younger” after watching a TV advert for women’s skin care. It was a shock because, although I know somewhere deep inside me that it’s ridiculous, it’s also so fucking normal that somewhere along the way I stopped even noticing. 

Even from a very young age I remember the phrase ‘you never ask a woman her age’, and wondering, why? My gran would sing, “Keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved”. Sigh. And we all know by now that it’s taken decades for celebrities to be allowed to get older, unless they take to the knife or needle or chemicals, to cut and stretch or fill their skin with age-reversing magic. 

When we are children we can’t wait to grow up to be old enough to do whatever our current age restricts (watch the best films, ride the best rollercoasters, drink all the booze). Then we hit about 25 and realise we’re heading towards 30… it’s all downhill from here. So there’s a period of about 5 – 7 years where we think we’re in our prime, and then what? Re start trying to stay young, to reverse ‘growing up’. 

Why do we value youth so much, when age means we continue to grow – in knowledge, experience and an understanding of what’s actually important to us?

We only seem to value people getting older when the numbers get much bigger. Then people start telling you their age all the time. “I’m 83 you know!”  They are proud, and we are impressed because they have made it to a ripe old age, and perhaps they are still showing us that they can have enormous fun. 

Let me give you an example, of dancing in public :

  • Age 5 = cute
  • 25 = sexy
  • 35 – 55 = embarrassing
  • 65 – 95 = Go Grandma!!! 

We just love seeing an obvious pensioner mixing it up with the kids at a festival or dancing in the street. They show us that pure joy is what’s important at any age. They also show us that they give no fucks what so ever. 

I’m 44 And apparently I have a life expectancy of 89. I’m not even half way! It is a fact that I am younger than the average person (just) and perhaps in the absolute peak period of my life. 

My body may not be as flexible as it was when I was an 11 year old gymnast, but I no longer care about which of my friends can do the best standing back-flip. I have other things I need my body to do. My tits may not point in the same direction as they did when I was 22, but that’s because they have been a life source for another human. They can point whichever twatting way they want to after that. 

But I tell you what, mentally I’ve never been healthier. I know what’s important to me and what’s not, and that helps me to realise that I’ll never again waste my energy worrying about how many candles there are on my cake each year, unless they start to cause a fire hazard. 

Every age I have been has been my favourite so far. We need to start talking about THAT. We need to help the teenagers, the 20-somethings and people at every number of candles understand that their age right now can be celebrated – just like the kids showing off their age on a birthday badge; just like the woman who is proud of being 83; we have made it through another year. We have learned more, experienced more, grown more as a person. 

I’m still growing, and I don’t mean my waist line (that’s a given). 

In my 20s – I had a ball, drinking and dancing in noisy, smelly, disgusting clubs, making new friends, shopping for shoes and  flirting with boys. (Maybe more than flirting sometimes)

In my 30s – I had a ball, going to pubs where I could get a nicer glass of wine, a seat and good conversation. There was theatre, gigs, and cinema with a solid group of friends and I ‘settled down’, got married and became a mum’. Life was even better. 

In my 40s – I’m having a ball, going to great restaurants, festivals, museums, holidays with my family, afternoon tea with my friends. Life is even better. 

I look back in younger days with massively fond memories, but do I want to go back to smelly clubs with sticky floors, shit wine and questionable men? No, I don’t. Except, if I do want to go, I will go.  I will be one of those ‘old women’ that my 20-something self would have sneered at because they were embarrassing themselves, drinking too much and taking over the dancefloor, and turning ‘our club’ into a grab a granny night’. How dare they?! 

I’ll tell you how dare they…. because I’m learning it now – middle-aged women have learned the best life lesson there is – they have learned about what’s import to worry about and what’s not. That’s what age is wonderful at giving us – a depleting number of fucks to give. It’s really quite liberating!

If we want to go out and get shitfaced on a better class of cocktail, we will. If we want to wear a more sensible heel, we will. And if we want to stay at home watching a box set, and only drinking tea, we fucking well will and we don’t care if that’s boring. We earned the right to do whatever we want by drinking a decades-worth of cheap, warm cider and alco-pops then staggering home on blister-bleeding feet. 

So I’m not scared of getting older, because experience tells me that life only gets better. And if that experience shows as lines on my face then that’s just fucking dandy. (Marketing people take note – I’ll still buy face cream, but to make my skin feel nice.)

Let it be known that I am 44, and 44 is brilliant. If you’re not there yet, you’ve got a lot to look forward to. Honestly. And if you’re older, please tell me what else I can look forward to. 

Or have I already lost the plot because I’m so old and passed it? 

Dizziversary

This week is two years since I began feeling dizzy – later diagnosed as the early symptoms of a Vestibular Dysfunction.

“A vestibule what??”

Exactly! Not many people know about this condition, but actually it’s not that rare. I started writing about my experiences and soon connected with many others who have had some sort of Vestibular problem.

So here’s my dizzy story, and at the end of the blog, details of where to find more info and help, if you or someone you know experience something similar.


In the beginning

I first remember getting a dizzy feeling while in the shower one morning. I had to hold the walls to finish rinsing my hair. It was a really weird sensation. But then it faded and I carried on. This happened a few more times over a couple of weeks, at work or at home, making me feel like I needed to sit quietly until the dizzy spell passed.

But one day at work it hit much harder. I was in a meeting and I just couldn’t concentrate on what was being said. The room stared spinning, but neither sitting or laying down made the symptoms ease.

About 15 years earlier I’d had Labyrinthitis – an inner ear infection that impacts the way your normal balance system works, using your ears. Labyrinthitis feels like you’re in a washing machine – and I remembered, this felt similar.

I went to doctor, who suspected it was the same issue, even though I didn’t have a visible ear infection this time. But two weeks of tablets later, the symptoms were getting worse not better.

Symptoms

Some people say it feels like being on a boat, or like being permanently drunk. I would wake up feeling like I’d had about three glasses of wine – a bit floaty and not too confident in myself. I’d be able to walk, but not too quickly, and perhaps have my hands ready to stop myself from falling to one side. As the day went on, it was like adding several shots of tequila. The more I did, the worse I would feel.

Lots of people joke that feeling permanently drunk must be fantastic – but much less enjoyable if you’re having the hangover at the same time. At its worst, it’s like being in a washing machine or on the Waltzers. I’d feel nauseous in my head and stick to my stomach, and even when lying down with my eyes shut, it’s impossible to get off the ride.

I developed back and neck problems from walking badly and being constantly tense. It’s a massive mental challenge too. I couldn’t work or go to many social occasions – and I hated it. It can make you very anxious and scared to go out. I’ve heard of others becoming quite reclusive because they are scared in case they fall and hurt themselves, or worried that people will judge them for ‘drunken behaviour’. It’s also very difficult to explain to people that you have an illness that they just don’t understand.  You either have to go into great detail or just belittle it by saying “I get a bit dizzy”, and quickly move on.

Cause and effect

Vestibular issues can happen on their own or as a result of something else. I have met with people who have had a brain tumour; brain haemorrhage; a stoke; Menniere’s desease and Vestibular Migraine. All of these can lead to similar dizzy symptoms at some stage, but of course have other causes and very different treatment!!

My physio explained the impacts on my brain in a way that helped me understand why certain things triggered my symptoms more than others. Where our brains normally scan our surroundings and ‘orientate’ to judge space and distance, my brain will respond to movement differently, and become disorientated – whether that is me moving around, or things moving around me. So if I were to sit still, in a room where nothing else was moving, my brain would know that I am safe and I could feel fine. But if I move my head, walk, spend time in a busy place or even watch ‘action’ on TV, my brain would get disoriented and confused, and panic, causing the dizziness.

The same goes for ‘scanning’ with my eyes. So reading or shopping (looking around for things) can completely throw me. Even now. I hate spending time in enclosed spaces, long corridors or low ceilings. I’ve learned that when moving through a crowd or in a vehicle, I need to keep my head up and eyes looking around, so that my brain can ‘see’ and take in as much information as possible, even though the dizziness makes me want to close my eyes or look at the floor. Now I naturally, almost unconsciously, look for the exits and move towards windows.

Diagnosis

It took three GP appointments to get a referral for relevant tests. I later learned that these conditions are still not widely understood or easy to diagnose.

I was sent for an MRI brain scan to check for signs of a tumour, haermorage, stroke, MS and god know what else. An MRI takes about 40 minutes and you need to be perfectly still. Plenty of time to start thinking ‘what if’ and start mentally writing your will and funeral plans!

Luckily my consultant was able to rule out all of those possibilities, which is actually a very nice health check to have had. He then referred me to a Neuro Physiotherapist (who knew they existed?) and an Ear Specialist who later discovered that my earlier episode of Labyrinthitis was probably the cause of this later vestibular illness.

Damage from all those years ago caused my brain to try to work around the problem, so I learned to balance without using my ears, becoming more dependent on my eyes and incorrect body movement. But as time went on this work-around no longer worke, and my brain went into melt down and became totally disorientated, sending panic signals that I wasn’t ‘safe’.

Getting treatment

At first I was given tablets to help with the nausea but I actually felt worse. Having read about other people’s negative experiences with various long term medication I’m incredibly grateful that my treatment was physio based.

Much like other types of physio, this treatment helps you to retrain your body and brain to work properly together. I’ve had exercises to train effective eye movement, muscle flexibility and balancing, often with my eyes closed to make my brain less dependent on them.

The main benefit for me was education – I now understand how my Vestibular system works and why mine stopped working. I understand what’s likely to be a trigger, which means I can avoid certain activities and I know when I need to rest and let my brain catch up.

Living with long term symptoms

It’s now two years on, and one year since I started to feel ‘better’. And although better is correct description, it’s not cured. I will probably always have symptoms. I feel them coming about 3 or 4 times a week and that’s a warning to look after myself. If I don’t, I end up back on the Walzers.

But amazingly, I have been able to do most things I would have done before, including go on roller coasters! At first I didn’t even dare to dream that I’d be able to do that ever again.

My motto is “I can do anything, but I can’t do everything.”

  • I can go to a concert with a big crowd – but I’ll need space and quiet time before and after to rest
  • I can drink alcohol – but not much! It’s like everything I drink is double strength
  • I can work hard, go to meetings and work at a screen – but I need very regular breaks
  • I can go shopping – but in small doses, and I avoid card shops and places like WHSmiths where the aisles are high and the lighting is just ‘wrong’. Hard to define, I’ve just learned from experience!

As long as I’m sensible and know my limits it appears that I’m living a totally normal life.

Mentally, it’s been a tougher ride. I had to accept the advice that “you may only ever get to 80% of what you could do before”. For a long time that made me incredibly sad, very angry and confused. How exactly do you cut down everything you once did by 20%?! I work, I have a family, I had a very full life – what do you give up?

Ultimately that’s what I’ve had to work out over time. I’ve cut down my working hours (that was a massive decision) and generally had to prioritise what I do, and just let some things go.

That’s why I started writing Unbalanced Woman blogs – a sort of therapy for me to work through how difficult it was to find a work / life / family balance. And then people started to tell me that they feel the same no matter what their situation.

So the real learn for me, is that even before I was poorly, I was always Unbalanced – just not literally! Many people feel they could do with better Life Balance. My illness just forced me to look at mine differently. And I’m glad I did. I’m proud of myself for managing to find a way back to a ‘full life’ – I just have a different definition of ‘full’ now!


More information and help

[TV Voiceover…] If you have been affected by any of the issues covered is this blog, you may find this website useful:

http://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder

I’m definitely not qualified to give any medical advice, so everything in here is just my own experience!

If you are regularly feeling dizzy over a long period, I recommend asking for help from a GP. Remember that these dysfunctions are difficult to diagnose, so don’t give up. Keep pushing for help, and don’t just rely on taking a medication that may only mask the symptoms.

Forums and support groups: (These are private groups you can ask to join. I can’t provide links, so just search the names on Facebook)

 

#LiterallyUnbalanced. #Vestibular

Therapy

Question: What do you do when your Head-voice and your Heart-voice are at war in your head? When one is saying… ‘Do it, do it!’ and the other is saying “You stupid fuckwit of a woman – don’t even think about it!”

Answer: Get yourself a therapist

This one is hard to write. I’ve been putting it off for a while. But as I started this blog as a sort of therapy, I always promised myself that I’d write honestly about the ACTUAL therapy I’ve had this year. So here goes….

When I became unwell last year, the hardest part of the initial journey was that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Lying in an MRI scanner and listening to the mechanical beeps for an hour, I was mentally writing my will and thinking about leaving my 5 year old boy without a mum. But once diagnosed (with a Vestibular Dysfuction*) I was able to concentrate on getting physically better. Knowledge is power as they say. Once I knew what I was dealing with, I could fight it.

*Vestibular Dysfuction – when the brain can’t properly orientate and you feel constantly dizzy, sea-sick and can only move about slowly, acting as if you are seriously drunk – without actually drinking. It’s shit!

For the next six months I had a goal, a plan and a belief that I could return to ‘normal’. I made steady progress through Neuro Physio (re-training the brain to balance) and I could cope. I was absolutely determined to become me again, and be able to do everything I previously could.

Having that vision and that belief was, I’m sure, a contributor to me making such great progress.

So when I had a relapse in February and started getting worse again, I hit a new low – possibly worse than my first MRI, because I was back to having no knowledge. Now I was wondering if this was going to be an on-going cycle – did I have to accept that I may never get better? It hit me really hard. My Neuro Physio told me that I needed to come to terms with the fact that this could be it. Even with all the brain training, I may only ever be able to do 80% of what I could before. The idea of living with this illness forever was just heart breaking. The idea of not being able to do everything that I could normally do, and everything I had planned for my life, was overwhelming.

One thought kept coming back to me – Disney Land. It’s been my dream for most of my life, and I’ve promised myself that I will go as soon as my boy is tall enough to go on all the big rides.

therapy-mickey
Mickey became a symbol of everything I was losing

I couldn’t accept it. Mentally, I just couldn’t cope. Micky Mouse became a symbol of everything I was losing. The me I was losing. The me my family was losing and the limits that would put on them too. I lost my will to fight, and just became sad and angry. I didn’t know whether I needed to keep fighting to get better, or to accept defeat and make new plans – ones that wouldn’t ever involve Micky fucking Mouse. (I also started swearing a lot more, and taking my anger out on fictional mice!)

I realised that I needed help. My Neuro Physiotherapist was a wonderful woman helping me retrain my brain and make physical brain progress, but I needed help with the emotional side of my brain too. I needed to sort out how to THINK – how to DECIDE – how to KEEP GOING mentally.

So a made an appointment with a Counselling therapist, and it’s possibly the best thing I ever did. To be honest, for the first 3 sessions, I really wasn’t sure! I felt that she didn’t understand the problem. But to be fair to her, it was ME that didn’t understand my own emotions. I wasn’t giving her the right details. I was still too angry at my situation. I was linking my physical condition and my mental state too closely together, I couldn’t separate them – when I felt physically poorly I was sad, and when I felt physically OK I felt… well, OK, but overwhelmingly frustrated by my limitations.

The regular fight in my head was:

Physical Brain: I’m so tired. The more your push me, the more I need to rest. You can’t do everything you used to – accept it; do less; enjoy the quieter life. Let’s sit on the sofa and have a brew.

Emotional Brain: But that’s not who I AM! I’m missing out on LIFE. I don’t enjoy quiet, I NEED the variety, I need the party, I need to be who I WAS. 

My Emotional Brain thinks in shouty capitals a lot!

The break-through happened in my therapy session after I did the worse thing I could have possibly done as a person with balance issues – I went on a roller coaster. It was definitely an act of rebellion. I knew it was an absolutely stupid risk that could totally fuck up all the neuro-physio progress that I’d made. But I also felt that I was leading a restricted life, and it was breaking my heart. It was head versus heart, or my Physical Brain versus my Emotional Brain, and Emotional Brain was now calling the shots. It wanted to know what would happen, like a child pushing boundaries… I needed to know if the Disney dream was ever going to be achievable. 

I picked a day when all the circumstances were right – I was feeling reasonably good, I had people with me who could look after me if I crashed into a spinning nausea, I had the next 3 days off work if I needed to recuperate. I was still scared shitless though! Physical and Emotional brains were battling in my head as I queued up:

EB: It’s the Dora the Explorer roller coaster, it’s fine for a 6 year old – how bad can it be?

PB: You absolutely crazy fuckwit of a woman – there’s a sign that says ‘Not suitable for people with motion sickness’ – that’s an understatement for what you have!

But because I’m either feistily determined or stupidly stubborn (you can decide which), I did it. And it wasn’t at all as bad as I expected. So… I went on three more, each progressively bigger and faster.

I’d love to say that was the moment when I realised I was better, but oh no, I just got the consequences later. Somehow the adrenaline must have kept me going, but later that day I was crying, and the next day I paid the price properly. I felt awful. I could hardly move off the sofa. I thought I’d broken myself and I had a new reason to be angry – at myself – for being a crazy fuckwit of a woman (PB: Well, I told you, didn’t I?!) However, by the next day I felt a lot better, and the day after that, better again (EB: Ha. I knew it -it was worth the risk)

And this is where my therapist, Jeanette, comes in. She helped me realise that instead of being a straight battle between Physical and Emotional thoughts, I’d rather cleverly brought in a third voice in my head – ‘Intellectual Brain’. IB was the one who made sure I took the risk at the right time, considered the consequences, and made sure I was ready. It sounds so simple, but she was right. She helped me to think about other times I’d used this third voice to make decisions, and that this was the voice I had learned to trust. I needed to listen to them all, but IB was like the mediator.

This was my turning point. I started to feel more positive about making decisions, taking risks, testing my physical limits in a sensible way, and keep my emotional side happy that I was making progress.

When Jeanette and I booked our last session I said that I wanted to do some drawings as a way of remembering what I’d learned, and to help me easily recall the concepts of balancing my physical, emotional and intellectual voices.

This is what I drew…

therapy-drawings

… and what it means:

1. I need to stop looking back at who I was, and understand who I am now, and what I’m capable off. Being able to do 80% of what I could before may be true, but are there new things I can do too? If I’d lost a leg, I wouldn’t try to grow it back! I’d work out how to live the best life I could with one leg.

2. My roller coaster rebellion taught me how to push my physical limits to allow me to have fun, but in a safe way.

3. I had felt restricted by my illness, like I had tethers holding me back. Jeanette helped me to see those more as a harness, which helped to keep me safe. And when I was seeking to push the boundaries I was using intellect to ‘measure’ how far I could go.

4. I finally accepted that resting is not lazy – it’s essential. I can still do almost anything I want to as long as I accept that my body will pay the consequences, and I make time before and after to give it chance to do that.

Will I get to Disney Land one day? Yes, I absolutely will. Maybe not for a while yet, but I am still a determined / stubborn bitch, and I will not give up that dream. I know that it’s possible, as long as I plan ahead, take sensible risks and make time for the consequences. 

Mickey, I’m coming to get you!

(Thank you Jeanette)

All I (n)ever wanted

It’s 10 years this week since I met the man who is now my husband. Taking a walk down memory lane, I’ve realised that meeting that ginger fecker was the event that set me off on the road to my unbalanced life, and actually put me into counselling.

Prior to our meeting I was single and career driven. I’d just sold my flat in Edinburgh and moved to a grown up house with a garden and a drive. I was proud of myself – of my independence, and that I didn’t need a bloody man. My friends were getting married and having children and disappearing off the planet to a world I neither understood nor cared for. Who in the hell wanted that traditional, boring happily ever after. I wanted my independence, adventure and definitely no kids.

Then… I took a trip ‘home’ to Manchester to go bridesmaids’ dress shopping with a couple of friends (there was an actual wedding, we’re not weird). We went back to her house and I donned my new underwear bought to go with the dress. Walking into the kitchen I announced, “Look at my tits in this!”, only to be greeted by the crooked smile of an unexpected ginger bloke.

Time will tell that this meeting was apparently set up, though clearly not the discussion about my tits.

I know it’s ridiculous, but I just knew. I knew that night that something significant was happening. I won’t say love at first sight, because it certainly wasn’t love that first struck me, it was embarrassment. And a desire to shift attention away from my fun bags. Even if they were beautifully presented in my new well-structured scaffolding – fate occasionally does play us a nice card.

Suddenly we had a summer of love mapped out, travelling up and down the M6 and being each other’s Plus 1 at a ridiculous amount of weddings.

And even more suddenly (it seemed) my whole outlook on life changed. I don’t know if it was the excitement of a long distance relationship, the constant drip of ‘happiness’ from those weddings or just the fact that he was ginger, but now I wanted to be like Cinderella. I wanted that happily ever after. With him. I wanted his Ginger Babies.

That was the real beginning. As soon as I said that out loud, whilst drunk at yet another wedding, it started. We were looking for a house, I was resigning from my job and saying goodbye to my career-woman life in Scotland.

Writing it down now, and with the benefit of Captain Hindsight, I can see how significant that was. But at the time I couldn’t understand why I was so emotionally drained and feeling sad. I was soooo happy. I had found a man who was worth changing everything for. I’d managed to transfer my job to work from Manchester and I was back living in my old stomping ground near my family and friends who I’d always stayed close to. What the hell was wrong with me. Why did I keep crying?

I know now that I was mourning my old ‘attitude’. It wasn’t the physical things that were changing that bothered me, but my mental approach to life – the whole self-sufficient ‘I don’t belong to anyone’ confidence that I’d built up over the previous decade.

The idea of marriage and changing my name had always felt so old fashioned and ridiculous. But now I wanted it. I wanted to be his family.

The idea of having kids and being with them all the fricking time, except maybe a monthly, ‘yes I’ll come, but I’ll have to leave by ten-thirty, and I’ll probably drive’ night out, had horrified me. But now I wanted it. I was ready to move on from my old existence, to give it all up.

I felt that I had betrayed… Me.

(Bizarrely, at the very moment I wrote that sentence, Simply Red just came on the radio singing “I’d give it all up for you”. That’s really freaked me out!)

And so off to the doctors I trotted and he referred me to a wonderful woman called Susan who helped me to understand it all.

Understand it.
Embrace it.
Live it.

Of course I didn’t change completely and become a 1950’s wife, cleaning house while whistling a Disney tune. Although I do sometimes wish that the birds from my garden would fly in and help me tie bows around my curtains – and I don’t even have curtains!

I’m still me. I’m still fiesty. I’m still fiercely independent in my views. But with room beside me for my new family. They define part of me, but not the whole me. I’m proud to be a wife and a mother – labels that previously made me shudder. Now I wear them with pride alongside my many other labels assigned to me.

So looking back on the last 10 years, a lot has changed. They say everyone hates change, but it’s usually physical change. I managed to make a mental one and I’m a bit proud of myself. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have the life I do now. Yes, it’s unbalanced. Yes it’s tiring. But I couldn’t imagine what life would be otherwise – if I didn’t meet that unexpected ginger man with the crooked smile, or had my beautiful ginger boy with…. well there’s a million things that are wonderful about him.

Having All-I-Never-Wanted is the happiest I’ve ever been.

Thank you for the last 10 year darling. You rocked my world – and you still do.
(sick buckets allowed).

Xxx

(I have cried all the way through writing this!)