Apologies for the lack of posts but my lovely husband has been suffering from anxiety – that is, the illness rather than the state of just being worried. It has rather wiped the smug ‘Look at me, I’ve given up my day job!’ smile off my face.
On the other time, I am more than ever convinced that I have done the right thing. Last time Jon had anxiety, it took nine months for him to recover from the severe depression it provoked. This time we are coping better as a couple, and I know that my much more helpful reaction is because I am mellower and less stressed myself.
Last, time, I was so terrified of this illness, in which Jon seemed to be erased before my eyes, that he couldn’t share how he was feeling, so he retreated into his pain and I into my frantic efforts to make him better. We lived side by side, but alone.
This time I have a measure of calm, and I have time. Most of all, I have a new strength, gained from spending quality time with other people, having proper chats. I’m available if someone needs me, and now that I need a bit of support, it’s there. Don’t get me wrong, I worked with fabulous people when I was in the office, but we were all too busy to be truly available to one another.
This, I believe, is what we have lost because people are working so hard: community. Relatonships are essential to human beings – we are herd animals; we simply do not thrive alone. Research shows that isolation is more of a risk factor for early death than smoking (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/03March/Pages/Loneliness-increases-risk-of-premature-death.aspx).
When you work long hours, everything fulfilling in life has to be crammed round the edges of the day job, along with all the chores. You might seek community in clubs and pastimes, but these become another burden on your time, like doing the recycling. Perhaps you join a book group to help give your life more balance, but you’re so frantic and over-stretched that you avoid your neighbours because you haven’t got the time or the energy to speak to them.
Somehow, we have been sold the lie that a good lifestyle can be bought if only we work hard enough. But quality is sucked out of our lives in the process.
My parents live in an ordinary road with a bit of garden where Dad has always grown fruit and veg. When I was a child we played with the other children in the street, knew all the neighbours and walked to the local primary school. Now the house next door has been bought to let, and families move there from London, drawn by the promise of a good life in a leafy Kentish town with clean air, green gardens and desirable schools.
My parents report in bafflement that their new neighbours don’t do the garden. Weeds run riot and apples rot on the trees. The newcomers seem surprised that my parents greet them over the fence and take an interest in their children. They commute to the London jobs that are paying for all this. Childminders ferry the children to and from school and the pavements no longer ring with the seventies sounds of playing on bikes and skates. I wonder if life seems rich to these families, or just crammed with people and activity, but strangely bleak?
I volunteer in a community café, and I see first-hand what it means to people. Some might have needs of various kinds, and the café helps them out, but many are just there for the company. It might not seem like much – a warm place to sit with a cup of tea or a meal, and people who know you and take an interest in how you are. But it’s everything. I know this, not from some patronising do-gooder standpoint, but because this is what I need as well. Like everyone else, I leave the café richer.
These days, community is fractured, time-tabled out or put on hold. When we get a whiff of it – at a rare local event or a party for someone’s big birthday – we are elated, calling out as we leave, ‘We must do this more often!’ But years go by and we don’t.
I’m not advocating that women should be back in the home, or imagining that everyone can chuck in their day job and like Mother in The Railway Children ‘play at being poor!’ But I wonder how many people feel locked into the double-income lifestyle, when learning to live on less might be the key to options they didn’t know they had.
While overworked millions in this country turn to mindfulness manuals and colouring in, the world’s best stress-buster – community with others – is being thrown on the scrapheap of history.
But it can be retrieved if you just give yourself more time and less pressure, and gently reach out to those around you. It brings simple joy in good times, and a web of support to sustain you when things go wrong.