Reflections from a difficult couple of weeks:

It’s been three times in my life now that my mental health and ability to function have fallen dramatically apart: when I was 19, when I was 31, and with Matthew’s death when I was 39. Each time I have clawed my way back to a standing position and started the climb to regain my life. Each time it has taken years of immense pain. The deepest scar to my psyche is that in summer 2019, just as I was celebrating near-full recovery from the second breakdown, Matthew died and I tumbled down again.

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Here’s a true story for you:

In November 2010 I turned back on a mountain called Ama Dablam in Nepal. Afterwards, back in Kathmandu, I was in a secondhand bookshop and I bought Matthew a mountain expedition book as consolation for him not having been able to come to the Himalaya with me. It has only just occurred to me to look out of interest at what that book was. And … it was the story of the first ascent of Nanda Devi.

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Update: I mentioned in passing at the bottom of my previous post that I’ve declared victory over the first draft of the memoir I’m writing about grief, collapse, recovery and big mountains.

Not only did I mention it here in passing, I also realised it in passing, and, as is my wont, I then moved straight on to the next task. It’s a big task, the next one, substantial revision. But actually I’m not going to move straight onto it. Instead I’m going to pause for a moment, and celebrate. Finishing this first draft is a really big deal. Here’s why.

(I’m going to be honest.)

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I’m musing – stay with me – about big grief and its progression over time, given that last weekend marked two-and-a-half years since Matthew’s death. Three things that are top of mind:

I’m just about starting to realise that I am no longer part of a marriage and partnership with another person. Rationally, of course, I have known that from the start, but deeper parts of my psyche are only just starting not to be constantly surprised by it – it’s taken that long for the new neural networks to begin to form.

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The eleven-month mark passed on Saturday. I was in the Peak District, with dear friends, with a map and compass, a bivvy bag, and a sleeping bag that was too thin for Friday night’s high wind or Saturday night’s clear skies. Forty-odd miles of walking took me in a wide loop across the high moors, on paved paths, on periodic trods, and through trackless bracken, heather and bog. Continue reading

Morning thoughts:

It never did go silent where I live. The trains kept running and there were ambulances. Both though stuck out in the otherwise quiet early days. For a period the trains were hooting more than usual. A deep slow minor third every time, and every time it set off in my head the organ notes that opened Matthew’s memorial service.

Then men in orange jackets arrived to build a cycle network. Through those weeks, still with no traffic to speak of, my soundtrack was a pneumatic drill. Every time I went out to visit the mini supermarket, the barriers (also orange) had progressed along the road. There were holes, and then kerbs dividing new lanes, and then a strip of glistening black asphalt stark against the patched grey of the main carriageway.

Now normal noise levels have returned. In the background trains shriek on their rails. If they are still hooting then I cannot hear it. There are traffic lights below my window and I hear the rumble of engines, the kick of motorcycle exhausts. The drill still comes in bursts. It’s a different sort of drill now, I think, one with the rhythm of a strimmer and not the pounding relentlessness of one breaking up the ground.

Part of me loved the quiet while it lasted. Quiet empty city. Quiet empty flat. Quiet empty brain. The city broken by sirens and the spectre of death. The flat just the flat. My brain, also sitting with the spectre of death, calm only when it was not overwhelmed with waves of grief.

This new normal, noise-wise, is much like the old. The sky today as well is a typical summer’s grey and not the clear blue glare that showed up every speck of dust and seemed to signal the end of the world.

There’s been a winnowing that has gone on outside. In parallel, one going on in my brain. The one in my brain will stay, I hope, however much I’m again surrounded by noise.

It’s an odd thing, grief in the time of corona. I’m now physically alone, but I was emotionally alone before. There’s a stress on the world, and I was already battered by loss. Billions have been pushed into a psychological world I had already for eight months been forced to call my home: sometimes I feel closer to other people as a result; sometimes I feel further away.

This morning I was awake for forty-five minutes before I remembered that Matthew is gone. That’s forty-five minutes of reprieve before I pick up that sadness and carry it with me through the day. It’s not at all that I don’t want him in my head; I do. But I also want some periods of grace without that awareness, when I can live other parts of my life. I want as well to be able to choose how I remember him, to picture him in life and not in cold death.

That choice still feels a long way away. But through corona I’m enjoying wandering London in its emptiness and quiet, as though the world is mirroring my inner life. And forty-five minutes of reprieve is for today progress enough.

Here’s what I think it should be like: a constant sense of sadness underlying everything I do, with stronger waves that sweep me into tears. Those tears should come when, for example, I sort through Matthew’s belongings, or when I find myself in a place he loved. That’s what, emotionally, would seem to make sense.

It isn’t like that.

This weekend I’ve been in Worcester, surrounded by Matthew’s life. I’ve seen his friends and colleagues. I’ve begun to make decisions about what from his many collections I keep, and what I jettison so that I can move forward. I haven’t been overcome by grief. I haven’t even cried. I have chatted, and laughed, and been a whirlwind of efficiency activity.

It may be that I’m back in denial, telling myself I’m kindly doing for him while he is away the house-clearing he won’t ever get round to himself. (There’s certainly an element of that.) It may be that at six months into this new life the situation is getting easier; belongings are becoming ‘stuff’ and not a way to try to conjure him back.

I imagine it’s some of both. I imagine also that the balance between the two will become clearer over the next few hours as I relax and as the undercurrents of my brain find their way to the surface. Either way, this isn’t is what I think it should be.

It is instead, as the wise continue to tell me, exactly what it is. And what we do regardless (I’ve added this bit) is that we go to the hills. So last night with Lucy I faced into the gale, and looked down as darkness fell on the floods and on the the bright lights of Malvern. We’re into March now. On we go.

Last weekend for Matthew’s birthday I was in Chamonix and on skis. On Saturday that was exhilarating; we lapped the off-piste in Vallorcine over and over again – in powder on the open slopes, then still on powder through the trees, then through the chopped tracks, and finally for the sake of it down the bumps under the lift. Being in the shadow of the ridge on which Matthew was injured kept distracting me. Despite that the day was fun and I also skied well. But then on Sunday and Monday the grief was debilitating again. Mostly I cried, or slept, or wandered aimlessly through town. I also made full use of the medication I’ve been prescribed. It’s taken me another four days to get back into some emotional balance.

I hadn’t anticipated that. I expected, obviously, that Matthew’s birthday on Sunday would be hard. But I’d been let off lightly at New Year by an evening that was easier than expected, and so my guard was down. I expected to be sad. I didn’t expect to be knocked to the floor.

My point is: I have no knowledge of how this plays out.

I saw my doctor last night. We were both talking at the same time, both saying that the issue is I don’t know how to manage this grief in the context of my life. I’ve managed my illness, with help from her and others, for over eight years. I know how to do that, know when I can push on and when I need to rest. I know what imminent collapse feels like, and generally can judge how severe the symptoms have got. I know that when I’m about to dissociate it affects my eyesight first, and then my speed of movement, and then my ability to speak, and onwards until I have no feeling in my body and my brain entirely shuts down. I know the other patterns as well. I have a well-practiced plan for what to do when things are bad. I’ve used it time and time again and it’s kept me alive.

But the grief is new and it is brutal. It has a rhythm of its own, different triggers, a set of symptoms which are unfamiliar and still, six months in, unexpected. I don’t yet fully know how to ride those – or when I’m about to fall off. Having those layered on top of my illness puts me on a bucking bronco. Life currently is tricky, to say the least.

So here’s what we do. My doctor knows me. She knows my illness. She knows grief. I trust her absolutely (a trust forged in extremis and over many years). Independent, headstrong and driven as I am, I have for now submitted the process of my life to her. Very literally I have written down how much time I am going to spend for the next week on work, clearing the house, dealing in one way or another with Matthew’s death, and anything else that causes mental, physical or emotional stress. We’re agreeing limits to each of those, and I have agreed that I’ll stick to them. This is not me. I prize my independence, my ability to do more than anyone thinks possible, and my right to do as I choose. But for the moment I need to let that go, and do as I am told, and wait, and believe that somehow I’ll learn how to manage this as well, and somehow I’ll come out the other side.

I’m looking at my diary from April last year. I was preparing to go to India and was nervous as well as excited. It seems a wise friend said this to me: ‘You’re going to go and have the experience of a lifetime and you’re going to come back and tell the tale, whatever it is.’

After a year of disaster and grief, and now with fear of what the future might bring, there are worse approaches to 2020 than a simple commitment to telling the tale ‘whatever it is’.

(Picture is of Changuch, first climbed by Martin Moran in 2009, viewed from just below Longstaff’s Col on Nanda Devi East.)