“You probably know this already,” my very clever younger sister recently said to me, “but if you want good mental and emotional well being, there are just three things you need.”
I was immediately all ears. I did not already know, but knowing my sister works for a community arts project working with people with social and disability issues (incredibly capable and intelligent, her modesty is always amazing, as is her ability to undervalue herself, like most women I know), I was very keen to find out. What could these wonder drugs be? What three things could I not afford to live without? Money, a good job, and a fast car? No. My laptop, yoga mat and my cat?
As lay back on the floor thinking, she takes a pen and paper and starts drawing. Intrigued, I stop second guessing and sit up to watch. A lesson is about to be given and I better sit up and pay attention.
She draws a circle, then divides it roughly in three, turning the page around for me to see. “This,” she says, pointing to the first segment (it looks like cheese to me, but you can imagine pie or pizza) is love; I nod in agreement. I probably could’ve guessed that. She writes it in the segment. “This,” pointing to the next, “is freedom.” Okay, yes, good, that too…maybe. “And this,” she pauses, knowing I think myself a clever clogs, but I’m drawing a blank. “This is security. When you are young, if you have all of these in equal measure you can pretty much guarantee growing up to be a well-balanced, happy and healthy adult. The love of your parents and friends, the freedom to make mistakes, go your own way, make your own choices…and the security of knowing you are safe, that you will be clothed, fed, provided for.”
So far so very good.
“But,” she continues, “if anyone of these are missing…” She starts drawing again, taking nibbles out of the edge of the segments, “then negative emotions arise. Not enough love you feel loss or rejection, low self-esteem. Not enough freedom, you feel anger and resentment. Not enough security… you feel anxiety.”
Oh, now this was really getting interesting. This could explain a lot, I thought, thinking not only of myself but the friends I knew – my boyfriend…
“Throughout your life,” my sister went on, drawing now a big wobbly line around the circle, turning the wheel into something more resembling an amoeba: one of those wiggly cells we used to draw in biology – “the circle will morph. You won’t necessarily always have these in exact proportion. Sometimes you might be without the love of family or a partner, then you might feel grief or loneliness; or out of work, then you might feel anxiety…”
I was listening to her, for sure; but I was also looking hard at the circle, trying to figure out which of these was me: what was I needing more of, what might I be lacking? What had I always valued above the others? What did I have enough of?
Well, this was a no brainer. It was like looking at one of those tests for colourblindness in which the green dotted number 11 is supposed to stand out from the red dots in the background. Well, I am not colourblind and the numbers were looming all too large to me.
They say that we learn from the best and I guess this is true, because looking at that pizza pie I knew my favourite, biggest slice was Freedom, Choice. Exactly the same as it had been for my mother, escaping the demands of her mother all those years ago; and my father, escaping his. It was the thing I had always craved the most, the thing I valued the most and the thing fortunately I had always had in abundance. From deciding what A-Levels to take, what universities to apply to, what country to live in, what boyfriends to date: the choice was always mine. No anger, no resentment issues for me…. or, okay, only when our dear, overbearing babysitter turned life-long friend and uncle-type figure, offered to kayak to Hong Kong to rescue me. But we all know he’d be late, pack enough to sink the canoe and then probably get lost along the way. Or, if he did make it to HK, be so overwhelmed by the noise, I’d have to rescue him! So, no, few anger issues over lack of freedom for me. Thank you.
But what about love? Ah, that word. It’d been haunting me all week. What was it? What did it mean? I was not sure I knew any longer. I’d always thought love could be as selfish and as selfless as the ocean, or that perhaps it just comes in waves too: an eternally shifting shore. So long as it was, more or less, in balance, it’d be okay. But what if love became too much, asked too much, demanded too much? Was it then still love? I suspected not. But equally, what if love was restrained, distant, cold, uncommunicated? Was that love? Well, from my mother, sisters, friends, I’d never been in short supply. There may be others in my life who could not express it quite so easily, or rein it in when necessary or who simply did not believe in keeping it under wraps, within bounds. For them love was there to be felt, expressed and acted upon in all its big, overflowing romantic gestures. (Including fifty pounds on a bouquet of flowers for the lady at the council, Mr Brady.) But what about myself? Where was my love for myself? When did that go so far astray? It was, certainly the smallest slice of my pie. Maybe I needed to pay more attention to Love?
Then, finally, what about Security? Well, anxiety was certainly something that had been looming large in my life the past six months, something I was starting to feel I knew all about – though, more modestly, I can say I know I have had only a glimpse at its terrifying depths. I’d given up my job of two years, the cherished flat I’d so enjoyed coming home to, the freedom of money in my pocket to spend on whatever I chose, of friends I could spend time with at the drop of a hat and the knowledge that at the end of a busy day my cat would be still there, crying her head off for food, waiting for me to snuggle up in bed with her. So, security, yes. This was the thing I most lacked – the thing I’d given up to move back to England – and the thing that I most craved. It was this, after all, that had had me working all hours in first term, scrimping on my shopping bills, limiting portion sizes and then, of course, becoming severely underweight – a shadow of myself in the ‘hope’ that this shadow would be small enough to survive, to get through life without causing anyone too much trouble, without being too much noticed, cared for or loved by anyone. Not even herself. Or no, only herself. For if she didn’t provide – if she didn’t somehow come up with a plan to save herself who would? Wasn’t she used to being independent and looking after herself by herself? Well, these were the voices, this was the strong, controlling, defiant voice, and it crowded all the more loving ones out.
Well, as my sister said, if you are without anyone of these three things at any time you can fall into ill mental health. My sisters and I – our mother too – were brought up without some of the necessary securities. Unlike our mother, we could not doubt for a moment that ours would always be there for us; but other people…. other men? They did not always seem so dependable, and there were times when we knew we’d have to just make do without them. In fact, things were usually a heck of a lot better when they weren’t around. But little by little, we have learned to let some in. They are a select and gentlemanly bunch; our knights of the long wooden table. Sir Gareth, Sir Andy, Sir Paulus… others have come and gone, some are still on the waiting list, about to be knighted if we think it will not go to or make them lose their heads.
But financial security…? Insecurity, more like. It’s something we know all about and still fear being without. We keep the wolves from our doors as best we can, are generous to a fault when we have it (though not quite as faulty/Fawlty as Good Sir Paul) and generous with each other when they have not. Because, as our mother always said, it’s only money and you can’t take it with you.
So while I may be, for now, without all the security of job and home I desire, I have the love and freedom of those who give me more safety and comfort than money ever could, and for that I am entirely grateful.