DAY BY DAY: ‘Why do good times make me anxious?’

One of my closest friends moved to New York recently. She got an amazing new job and loves the city and after the initial BUT I WILL MISS YOU SO MUCH HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO ME phase had passed, I was able, grudgingly, to acknowledge it was the right thing for her to do.

It means our relationship has transmuted into phone calls and WhatsApp messages because it’s harder to see each other face-to-face for a catch-up over a cup of tea when you’re thousands of miles apart and one of you is living in a country that doesn’t understand the concept of ‘tea’ and asks you if you want it served with ‘half-and-half’. (For the uninitiated, half-and-half is a hideous concoction that is half-milk, half-cream. It is the definition of wanting it all and ending up with a mishmash of compromise, and as such is a perfect metaphor for life but not something you want in your tea.)

Jenny Brough

 Anyway, my friend Clemmie and I recently had a chat over the phone. It was mid-morning in the UK when she called and, aware of the time difference, I asked why she was up so early. She said she had been sleeping patchily because she was feeling anxious. The anxiety was not as a result of things going badly. It was because things were going so well that she found herself in a jittery phase of disbelief, constantly looking for the bad stuff that she felt would inevitably encroach on this happy time. As is so often the way with close female friends, it turned out I had been experiencing almost exactly the same feelings. Last year turned out to be one of the best 12 months of my life. But it had started off in a dark place: at the beginning of 2018, I had just come out of a long-term relationship, was recovering from a nasty bout of flu and had a book deadline that required me to write 20,000 words in two weeks.

I pushed on through. By February, the book was completed and things weren’t quite so bleak. By March, I had met a wonderful man. By July, I had launched a podcast inspired by those bad times. It was all about what we could learn from failure. It turned out (ironically) to be fairly successful. By the end of the year, I had landed my dream job – as a columnist in this magazine. I felt, to use that over-hashtagged word, blessed. My gratitude was unbounded because I knew what had come before it. But with that gratitude came the anxiety that Clemmie was describing so clearly. It was a fearfulness that the positive things couldn’t last, because life doesn’t work like that. For every good thing that happens, I told myself, a bad thing must surely be extracted.

I’d become especially wary of spotting a single magpie, believing in that folk rhyme that one magpie signifies sorrow, while two equates to joy. But the fact is, I live in North London and there are loads of magpies on Hampstead Heath and most of them are solitary, so it’s exhausting to imbue every one of them with some profound meaning. Besides, I googled, and it turns out a magpie is good luck in China and what with globalisation, it probably applies here too.

What I said to Clemmie was that she deserved the good things that were happening to her. She had worked hard for them and made brave decisions to change her life. Besides, I continued, bracing yourself for something bad doesn’t make that thing any less likely to happen, so you might as well free up the extra brain space and apply it to something else.

I realised I had given her the advice I should give to myself. I’ve decided that instead of worrying about the future, I will remember to take joy in what is going on right now. Instead of believing I don’t deserve it when things go well, I am going to experiment with the idea that perhaps I do. I’m going to remind myself that, having survived bad times, I’ve built up resilience. Whatever happens next, I might be able to cope better than I give myself credit for. It remains to be seen whether this has any lasting impact on my state of mind. I’m ignoring the magpies, though, so that’s progress.

This week I’m…

Watching

REX/Shutterstock

Bros: After The Screaming Stops. Truly one of the most hilarious and profound music documentaries I’ve ever seen (brosthefilm.com).

Listening

to The Dream, a podcast that investigates pyramid schemes – why we’re drawn to them and what the allure of a Tupperware party can possibly be.

Drinking

Steve Cohen/Photolibrary RM

alcohol. Throughout January. In protest at everyone who isn’t and who keeps telling me about it.

Column by Elizabeth Day