Staring Down Memory Lane

I was loading my car boot up with shopping outside Tesco today when I heard someone call my name. When I looked up, I saw the friend of an ex-boyfriend, the ex being in my life at the very height of my heavy drinking escapades. The friend is lovely. In fact, so much so that I had a bit of a ‘thing’ for him when I was with my ex. Nothing ever came of it, but I always had a soft spot for him. In the car park, we kissed (on the cheek) and chatted about our respective children who both go to the same nursery, and about what each of us was up to in our lives, and about how manic things were this week, what with nursery being closed at the moment for an annual holiday.

And then we went off in opposite directions.

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Years ago, when I was going out with the aforementioned ex, I was drinking at ridiculous levels. I was out of control, consumed by addiction and totally in denial. I met my ex in a pub one night, naturally, and I was drunk. Flirting with him, sending him suggestive glances across the bar, determined to make him notice me. Which he did, and we immediately became an item. In between the drinking, we had a few nice times – holidays here and there, walks in the Peak District. But always, like an ever-present storm brewing, there was the alcohol. And when I drank, all hell would break loose.

We went to a party one evening, and apart from the first couple of hours, the entire night is a blind spot in my memory: nothing, blank, a vacuum. I know that I abandoned my ex at the house at some point and disappeared with another man, returning in the early hours to find the party all over and my boyfriend sitting on the steps outside with his head in his hands and a weary expression on his face. Other than that, I have no clue as to what happened. I do know that my ex’s friend was there and I remember chatting to him in the kitchen early on. And because I know I fancied him a bit, I don’t like to dwell too much on what I said or how I acted. I’m sure it was loaded with connotation. At best.

The friend witnessed me on several other occasions during my relationship with that ex-boyfriend, extremely drunk, out of control, crying, flirting, and dangerous, unhappy, wild, reckless. I always thought he must hate me. I hated me. And I thought he was nice so I couldn’t imagine that he would have held me in very high regard. In the years that followed me splitting up with my ex, I broke out in a cold sweat whenever I saw him or any of his friends, knowing only too well that I had made a fool out of myself so frequently in front of them all.

So today, when I was talking to the ex’s friend in Tesco’s car park, I was struck by the normality of the situation. We were just two people catching up, both parents of young children, grabbing a bit of food shopping at the supermarket; in between chores, not hungover, not ashamed, not flirting – just normal human beings, being friendly.

When I left, I thought about that night at the party all those years ago and wondered if I’d acted inappropriately with him. What had I said? How had I looked at him? Did anything bad happen?

And I felt so happy and at peace with myself because I don’t do any of that anymore.

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Busy Making Other Plans

John Lennon

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon, you were so right. We human beings have a tendency to spend almost an entire lifetime with one foot in the past and the other in the future, and in doing so, the present moment continually whizzes by so quickly that it’s barely registered. Like a speeded up video of a motorway, where the taillights are streaming: long, meandering streaks of red. We never see the present until it becomes a memory, part of our past to be dissected and reflected upon. Sometimes regretted, other times remembered fondly, a mental image wrapped in the soft glow of rose-tinted nostalgia.

My eldest daughter and I arrived home a short time ago and, in my usual breakneck style, I grabbed the vacuum cleaner from the cellar head and motored it around the kitchen and living room with the dog chasing me, barking and attacking the machine. My daughter screamed and laughed, jumping onto the settee with her legs pulled up out of the way. I laughed, it was funny, this hectic domestic scene that is just how we live. Mad dogs and frantic cleaning carried out in and amongst the mountain of other daily tasks I try my best to plough through.

My daughter will be leaving home in a few short years. At sixteen and a half, I am eminently aware of the fact that she will soon be flying the nest, and these times – the silly times, with the barking dog and the vacuum cleaner that nearly clips her painted toenails as she leaps out of its path – they won’t last forever. It’s these times that are our lives; these are the bits that matter.

In the old days, with a bottle of wine inside me, I would drift off into a fantasy world, not present, no longer in the here and now. The morning after I would be consumed with that bad head and dry mouth and dragging sense of lethargy, and I would barely speak. I was unable to fully notice my life, or my daughter’s. Sinking in the quicksand of alcohol and an insidious dependency on it, it didn’t occur to me that I never, ever spent a moment in my present: perpetually fearful, anxious or regretful, or longing, planning, lusting after that next glass.

The second that just flashed by was the only one that mattered. Now it’s this one, and this one, and this one. They dissipate like a puff of smoke, and you have to train yourself in order to grab them, fleeting and precious, unique. I could never do that when I drank, I didn’t even have any awareness that I should be doing that. But yes, John Lennon, you were so right – life is what happens while we are busy making other plans, or worrying about what we did last night, or when we might be able to open that bottle that is sitting patiently in the fridge. It’s passing us by all the time, like a relentless steam train, and it’s not going to stop for anyone.

A Precious Life

Most people won’t recall the first day of primary school. A sea of new faces, new rules, new routines and new information, all racing through the immature brain at a hundred miles an hour, little of it sticking with any permanence – at least not for the first few weeks. Most people won’t remember to whom they spoke on the first day at school; whether it was a child who was to grow into a friend or just one of many faceless classmates who would eventually drift off into the far reaches of the school experience. Perhaps there will be, for some, a glimmer of a memory of a tearful, wretched goodbye to a parent at the school gates, the very first real separation marking the beginning of a series of many.

Most children readily absorb school life; they relish the learning opportunities presented. That first day becomes the first week, and then a month, a year. Our infant education whizzes by and suddenly we are moving rapidly into the junior years and beyond. Friendships are cemented, the shared background of metamorphosis from child to teenager makes for deep bonds, the like of which are rarely repeated in later life. The innocence and freshness of youth sparks dreams of what might be waiting for us around the corner as adults, a place none of us know but most, in their teens, would claim to be familiar with. Clutching at a medley of half-formed views and childish interpretations of the world, we are united in youth by a lack of real life knowledge and, simultaneously, a belief that we are more than capable of going it alone.

I do remember the very first person I spoke to at primary school. Her name was Fiona and she was a one-off; a live wire, filled with intelligence and passion, topped off with an unruly mop of brown curls. We became best friends, and remained so throughout much of primary school. Once in secondary education we slowly disconnected, each of us becoming welded to new groups of friends but always retaining the close, unmistakeable childhood bond we had sealed on our very first day at school all those years earlier.

When she was aged seventeen, Fiona was murdered, very brutally. Her death has haunted me almost every day since I became aware of it, when I recognised her face on the front page of the local paper, a patchy look-alike created by a police artist. It was the week before Christmas, December 18th, in 1993.

Today I went for a run, up through the parks and close to the border of the Peak District. It is twenty-one years exactly since Fiona was killed – years that I have been lucky enough to live, and she has not. As I stopped to take in the view at the top of a hill, I took note of my health, my vitality, my age; that I have made it to thirty-nine, am fortunate enough to have two beautiful daughters, and have friends and family who I love. So many things that have shaped me over the last twenty-one years ran through my mind; the music I have listened to, nights out I’ve had, holidays I’ve enjoyed, sunrises I have witnessed, snow I have played in, seas I have swum in, books I have read, people I have met, films I have seen, laughter I have shared, love I have known, goals I have reached, tears I have cried.

And for a few moments, I categorically understood just how precious this one life is with which we are granted. How fast it goes, how easily it can be snatched away and how, once it has gone, it has done so forever. It’s so important that we make every day count, that we don’t wait until tomorrow before we make the changes that will get things moving in the direction we want. Too many people never have the chance to see their dreams realised – those of us who do should try our very best to make sure they happen.

I have always known that Fiona’s chance to shine was just waiting for her, if only she had made it just that bit further in her life. At eighteen I didn’t fully grasp the monstrosity that her death amounted to, the tragedy that losing someone at such a young age is. As I have grown older, I have felt it acutely, year on year. And the only sense I have come to make of it is that her death should serve as a reminder of what a gift life actually is.

Re-writing the Past

Lying in bed earlier this morning and feeling somewhat grotty (I seem to have picked up OH’s bug), an image of me aged about 19 popped into my head and triggered a whole range of emotions. This vision of me that appeared from out of nowhere was slim and carefree, dressed in a monochrome outfit, my hair in a bob and on my way to some do or other. I remember what I was wearing clearly – everything from my white Morgan handbag of which I felt extremely proud down to the black pumps – but it was my mood that I recalled most strongly this morning and which caused me to lurch with sadness at how the years seem to have taken something away from me.

On that day I was with my ex-boyfriend and despite being held fast in the clutches of an eating disorder and simultaneously abusing alcohol during that phase of my life (not a fantastic combination; drinking a bottle or two of red when you haven’t eaten for a few days is an excellent way to pass out very quickly, if that’s what floats your boat) I do remember possessing a light sense of freedom from responsibilities, of not knowing enough about the world to have any real worries about the future, and having a lack of awareness of the true implications of my frequently self-centred actions which in actuality hurt people far more than I ever knew back then. The world appeared open to me, full of possibility.

I suppose I was living in a bubble, protecting myself from reality by obsessing over food and living for my social life, frequently drinking myself into oblivion at wild parties and exciting trips away, and never staying sober long enough to think about the things that mattered. This morning though, I momentarily wished for that sense of freedom back again, the feeling of having nothing to worry about other than how to fill the day ahead – a sense of being young.

I saw a therapist a few years ago who told me I had been emotionally frozen in my teens as a result of my various addictions. I think he was spot on. In the last couple of years since stopping drinking I have grown up fast and it has been a bumpy ride; I’ve raced through years of emotional maturation in a very short space of time and now it’s as though things are finally slowing down and I have been able to look around and see where I’m at for the first time in years.

nostalgia

That image of me in the black and white dress is an illusion; the floating cloud I lived on back then was nothing but a figment of my imagination and was therefore unsustainable as a way of spending the rest of my life. The real world is much more, well, real. There was no sense of freedom for me back in the mid-1990’s, weighed down as I was by zero self-esteem and addictions that had grown up around me as a way of coping with a deeply-engrained self-hatred.

I’m tired (up in the night with baby again), feel ill and therefore, for just a moment, I fell into harping back to days gone by and seeing only the good – it’s the rose-tinted glasses phenomenon, the nostalgia trip that rewrites our pasts blotting out the bad bits. Twenty years from now I will more than likely look back on my life as it is currently and eliminate the sleepless nights, the not-enough-hours-in-the-day feeling I have during large chunks of my daily existence and will remember instead only sunny skies, wonderful times with my family and how grateful I was to be finally out of the drinking trap.

Which are really the only bits that matter.

Rolling the Dice and Landing in New York City

When I was 28 I flew to New York City with my daughter, then 4 years old, for a short break. I was newly divorced, had just finished my first degree in American History and had absolutely no idea who I was or where my life was going. As the cab approached Manhattan from JFK Airport and I saw the skyline for the first time, grey and imposing against the freezing January sun, I cried. No place on earth has ever affected me in the way that New York did during those four days that I spent trudging around in sub-zero temperatures with my little girl on my shoulders, bundled up in a pink coat and white furry Russian hat.

We did the usual tourist stuff; Statue of Liberty, Empire State, Chrysler Building and Greenwich Village, and we also visited the Bronx Zoo (I think we were the only ones silly enough to brave the cold that day, and virtually had the whole place to ourselves), after which we missed the bus back to Manhattan and had to sit for an hour by the roadside on the edge of the Bronx, feeling more than a little apprehensive about our surroundings, if I’m brutally honest.

The Bronx Zoo – a wonderful sanctuary of nature, in the middle of an urban jungle

New York City felt like home to me, as soon as I arrived. I had no qualms about getting up and out of the hotel on 5th Avenue as soon as the sun came up (major jetlag), bundled up in hats and big coats to ward off the cold, mingling amongst rushing commuters as they made their way to the office and we made ours to a cosy diner we discovered that served great coffee and mammoth croissants. (I gave up asking for a four-year-old-girl-sized portion of anything after the first day – such a thing didn’t exist and so we bought one of everything and shared).

The New Yorkers we met loved my little girl and fussed her no end. We visited a shoe shop close by the Empire State and bought her some Timberland boots and thick socks in order to fight the winter cold a little more zealously than we had originally managed with a pair of totally inadequate wellington boots. The three men who staffed the shop were, upon first impressions, a bunch of rude boys, collectively weighing in at around 1400 lbs and dressed in football shirts and massive, baggy jeans. They thought my daughter was the cutest thing they had ever seen, however, and tended to her every need with all the care and attention of her own grandma. The friendliness they displayed was reflected all over the city, in every shop and restaurant and public space we went. It was a magical few days, and just as I had cried when I arrived, I shed a few tears on the plane home as well, high above the Atlantic Ocean whilst my little girl slept peacefully next to me.

I am a different person now to the risk-taker I was back then. I wonder if, in some way, how I used to be was connected to my heavy drinking; the characteristics displayed by a person who is willing to risk their health and the security of their world by constantly getting drunk and exposing themselves to dangerous situations, are perhaps the same characteristics that led me to flying to NYC on a whim with my little daughter, or to doing a skydive a couple of years later. During those years, I also packed in a secure job in order to start a business (thankfully it didn’t flop), and then later sold that business to go back to university to do a law degree (again, the risk paid off and I got a 2:1 – thank god). Prior to my daughter being born, I decided, again whimsically, to switch my university degree course (the first one) from Sheffield Hallam to East London University, to enable me to move in with my boyfriend of the time and his mates in Archway, North London. Then I fell in love, in much of a hurry, with my eldest daughter’s father and moved back up to Sheffield to be with him, had a baby and got married.

Perhaps I didn’t take the time to know myself sufficiently to find out what it was that would have made me happy in life. Pouring alcohol down my neck each time I was happy, or sad, or stressed, or celebrating – I never got in touch with the real me, and consequently every life decision I made was based on something of a guess, like rolling a dice and just going with an arbitrary outcome, trusting my life to some passing fancy. In many ways, I am grateful for the way that I was (not the boozy bit, but the associated decisions that I made in my life). For every negative I encountered as a result of drinking too much, I am lucky enough to have found myself in numerous situations that were amazing, fantastic life experiences; experiences that I would not have encountered if it weren’t for the fact that I was a bit of a risk-taker. And, of course, being the way I was resulted in my wonderful first daughter being born.

Having said that, I wouldn’t go back there today – I was lucky that the chances I took didn’t backfire and bite me on the arse, and ultimately, they were about short term gratification and not ensuring a secure future for me or my daughter. I am a very different kettle of fish today; the way that I act and the decisions I take are based upon the consideration of what is best for all of us, me and my family (now doubled in size), and the implications – financial, emotional and personal – are debated before committing to anything of any importance. In order to ensure any longevity of happiness, I believe that is the only way to live.

Of all the crazy stuff I got up to in my wayward, drink-fuelled days, however, visiting New York City remains one of my most treasured memories.