A few weeks ago I got a message from a good friend of mine. He and another couple of friends were planning on dining in College, as they do from time to time, and he wondered whether my best friend and I would like to join them, as we do from time to time. It’s usually a very pleasant evening, and a chance to catch up with people we don’t see that often, especially as the friend who sent the message lives abroad and travels a lot.
Usually I’d message back by return and get signed in to dinner straight away, no question, the only limitation being whether I was already booked to do something else that evening. However, even though my diary is looking really really empty at the moment, I hesitated. An evening in College can be very tiring, as I described in Sudden Illness, and in my current state of burnout I really didn’t know whether I could cope with it at all.
I sought advice from my husband, who is often wise in these situations. He suggested I sign in anyway and then cancel if I really wasn’t well enough. It seemed like a good plan, so that’s what I did. I rather hopelessly didn’t manage to message my friend back, but I did at least sign in, and started to prepare for the biggest social thing I’ve done for many months. At the time I signed in I didn’t know whether such an evening would be totally beyond my capabilities, but I thought I’d give it a try.
And so the strategies went in to action, and a rather embarrassingly large amount of preparation and thought went into a simple evening out to dinner.
First, the diary. I made sure that I didn’t push myself or attempt to leave the flat for two full days before the day of the dinner. Enforced rest. Enforced quiet. Save energy. Save save save. On the day itself, I made myself rest in bed all morning. By the time the anxiety kicked in mid-afternoon I was up, but under my weighted blanket in the dimly lit sitting room, exposing myself to as little input as possible to keep my energy as high as it could be.
I also decided to wear as comfortable clothes as I possibly could within the constraints of looking “reasonably tidy”. A pair of elasticated trousers I usually wear for concerts, a soft t-shirt, a fleece jacket, and a soft scarf. Fiddle toys in the jacket pocket, chew toy round my neck under the scarf. Absolutely everything as easy as it could be and as comforting as it could be. And, of course, the tinted glasses that have now become my usual eyewear.
I expect I’ll do quite a lot more of this sort of thing in future and much of it will become automatic for me, but for the moment a lot of it is new, and a lot of these things are things I’m trying to see if they work and see if they help me conserve energy to do the things I want to do without getting as exhausted and stressed as I have done in the past. I’m experimenting to see how much rest I need beforehand, how much recovery time, what sort of balance I need to achieve between behaving as a reasonably responsible adult in public and being as comfortable as I can in different situations, and what strategies I can employ to help.
I also made the decision not to drink more than a taste of each wine with dinner and to drive home afterwards, partly because introducing a lot of alcohol into the mix might alter my sensory or social responses in either direction, and partly because I could go home to a place where I had the comfort and safety of my own rules, my own familiar arrangements, my sofa and telly and weighted blanket and so on, with no need to pack any bags or do anything beyond getting through the evening and then driving a familiar route home. I’ve mentioned before that driving is one of the things that comes naturally to me and I can do quite comfortably even when very stressed about other things.
Going home had the added advantage on this occasion of complete solitude because my husband was out speaking about mental health issues and was then planning on a working night, and was also going to be out for most of the next day, so not only would I wake up in my own bed, I wouldn’t have to engage in any conversation at all. If I felt absolutely terrible the next morning then I could just stay in bed for as long as I wanted.
It actually turned out to be a very good evening to have had as my first real social event in many months. There weren’t too many people signed in to dinner, so it didn’t feel crowded or overly pressured. My best friend organized the seating such that I was at the end of the table and he was next to me, so I wasn’t sitting next to a stranger. My other good friend sat opposite, and another of our group next to him, so I was surrounded by allies and friendly sympathetic people, two of whom already knew what had been going on in my life.
Nobody seemed unduly fazed by the fact that I was gently rocking back and forth, and I managed to eat most of all the courses of my dinner (though didn’t push it – tasted everything, but stopped eating long before I usually would). The familiarity of the setting (I’ve been eating in that hall since I was 18) helped a lot, and the dangly bits on the sleeves of my academic gown actually turned out to be an excellent stim toy!!!
Afterwards, something that would usually be a slight disappointment was something that actually did me a favour. The small number of people eating in meant that there was no formal dessert (formal dessert involves sitting at another table, generally more obligation to converse, and following customs regarding port, eating of fruit, and so on). Instead, the fruit was on plates in the Common Room sitting room, so I was able to take my boots off, sit cross-legged and comfortable on a sofa, and be much more relaxed.
And I sat and sipped a cup of coffee, and then some mint tea, and had a chocolate and a raspberry. And played with my fiddle toys a bit, and even chewed my chew toy a bit, and people looked at old photographs, and chatted, and I didn’t make myself chat except when I felt like it, and the evening actually turned out to be quite a relaxed one, surrounded by understanding friends in a non-threatening environment. If I appeared odd to anyone, then they didn’t comment or weren’t worried or both.
I was reminded of the line from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency where Reg remarks (on revealing that he’s been living in the same set of College rooms for 200 years) that “one of the delights of the older Cambridge colleges” was that “everyone is so discreet. If we all went around mentioning what was odd about each other we’d be here till Christmas.” There are some aspects of my dark blue home that are very similar to the characteristics of his light blue alma mater that Douglas Adams incorporated into his brilliant stories (side note: count how many “previous blog posts” are shown in the list on each page of this blog – though you probably won’t need to now you’ve seen this remark in the context of this paragraph)!
And so the evening was a success. I drove my good friend and best friend back to their guest house and home respectively, then drove back home myself. When I got back I definitely felt that I’d been through some sort of “assault on the senses”. My ears were ringing as though I’d been at a loud rock gig, and I was slightly dizzy and nauseous and certainly not capable of doing anything more than collapsing onto the sofa underneath my weighted blanket. I stayed like that for about an hour, just curled up with my iPad, waiting until I felt a bit better. After about an hour I had enough energy to rock and bash myself against the back of the sofa, then after another half hour I started to feel distinctly better. I put the telly on, muted, and one small lamp. After a second hour I was well enough to get up and get a glass of wine and put some music on very very softly. Three hours after getting home, I finally had enough energy to have a short bath and get into bed.
I slept on and off for about 4 hours in total, and now, at half past one in the afternoon of the next day, I’m finally out of bed, dressed, and have managed to make myself a cup of tea and write up the evening while it’s still fresh in my mind. I actually feel much much better than I thought I would today – maybe that’s the result of the planning, and the care, and allowing myself the 3 hours to calm down properly before going to bed. I think it’s also a question of managing expectations – I KNEW when I decided to go last night that it was going to be a big deal in the state that I’m currently in (a month earlier and I would have been too unwell even to consider it). So none of it is a surprise. I know why I feel like I do during and after social occasions now, and just knowing means that there is a whole level of worry that there is something ELSE wrong with me that is now gone.
I’m also aware that things will continue to improve for a while yet as I recover from the burnout and as I adapt and get used to how things now are. Exactly how much functionality I’ll regain is still unknown, but early signs are that I won’t actually spend the whole of the rest of my life as disabled and impaired as I was a couple of months ago. Once I’ve stabilized I will be able to do a bit more, especially if I manage my life a bit more appropriately now that I know what needs managing.
This sounds completely mad, writing it up. So much planning for one evening out. Three hours to recover sufficiently to put myself to bed when I got home. Most of the rest of the next day spent in bed. It seems insane from any normal perspective. It must seem mad when viewed through the eyes of the well.
And I ask myself whether one night out to dinner is worth all that effort, and the answer is a resounding YES. Partly because it was simply a lovely evening with nice people and I felt cared for and loved and lucky to be where I was enjoying the food and the company and the surroundings. But also, crucially, because it gave another glimpse back into the “normal” world, a world not dominated by assessments and psychologists and psychiatrists and mental illness and difficulty, and a world worth fighting to get back to.
In many ways it was just a simple evening out, but it was also another of those glimmers of hope that I will eventually be able to function reasonably well in the world again and enjoy some of the things that make life rather better than just “struggling to get through each day”. I used a lot of energy last night, but early indicators are that I actually got some energy back too, which is better than I could possibly have hoped for.