LOST

Have you ever been lost?  Literally, I mean.  Have you ever found yourself in a situation out of which you are entirely unable to find you way?  Literally, I mean.

I have two stories to tell on this subject.  They are both the same story.  Here is the first:

It’s a beautiful cottage.  Nestling deep in the heart of Windsor Great Park, this particular cottage is a rare, authentic piece of English history that not all are privileged to visit.  I have been here several times over the years, and treasure all my memories of the place, and the people who dwell here.  Tonight, I have arrived here to toast a very dear, recently departed friend who on all her frequent visits to England, her home country, would stay in this very cottage.  I have purchased a full cream sherry for this occasion that I shall share with her niece and her husband, here at the very broad kitchen table at which I last saw my friend.  Full cream sherry is the drink my friend and I would share over the years, whilst engaged in deep, late night conversations in a land far, far away from here.

I arrive at 4pm.  Immediately, my friend’s niece and I are tearfully immersed in old photograph albums.  You know the kind – brown covers, rectangular in shape, with corners on each blank page into which photographs have been carefully and lovingly placed.  Beautiful, faded old photographs of my friend when she was the young woman I first knew, as well as photographs of her before I ever met her.  Photographs, I mean.  Not careless snapshots taken on a phone, posted on a Facebook page and fleetingly fired across the internet as happens today.  Not here.  Here, in this cottage today, we are looking at photograph albums, relaxing into how close to her these old photographs make us both feel.  We know those expressions on her lovely face:  we saw them all across the years.  In looking at these pictures of her, we can hear her voice.  I can hear her very loudly in my head.  All the time.  Today, her voice consumes me.

Dinner is served and a contemplative silence falls as we consider all we have shared, all we have learned that we perhaps didn’t know before this meeting, and all that we most miss about my friend.  After we have eaten, we remain at the table and return to broader and wider conversation about my friend and all who knew and loved her.  All who called her “mother”.  She had seven children – there is much to discuss.  The husband of her niece brings a bottle of champagne to the table – we will toast her in style.  Knowing that I have yet to return to London, I have consumed only one glass of sherry.  Taking just a sip from my champagne glass in her honour, I decline a single further drop of alcohol.  Besides, I am emotional.  Alcohol hinders me when I feel this way about anything or anyone.  I infinitely prefer to have my wits about me.  I am totally sober.

It is close to midnight when I rise to leave.  It is a fairly long drive home, and although I know the road through Windsor Great Park very well indeed, I would prefer to get started before midnight.

As the gates lift to allow my exit, a security guard comes across to me anxiously.  “Are you alright?” he asks.  I am puzzled.  Why is he asking?  “You drove towards me and turned your lights off!” he explains.  I am stunned.  I did what?  Attempting to laugh it off, I make some excuse about thinking I had my headlights on and had turned them down as I approached the road.  That wasn’t true.  I thought I was turning the lights on.  I am surprisingly more than a little shaken by this error.  I must be drunk.  I can’t be drunk.  I must be more than a little overwhelmed by the conversation I have left behind me in that lovely little cottage.  I have never done anything like this before.  What is wrong with me.

Pulling out onto the long, dark road that runs through the heart of Windsor Great Park, I determine to regroup my powers of concentration, and relax.  It is a warm night, and the roof of my little Mazda MX5 is down.  Normally I would greatly enjoy this journey, so I settle back into my seat in anticipation of a pleasant enough drive home.  Reaching for the stereo I decide against it.  I am too emotional.  There is no music I wish to listen to.

Fifteen minutes later I drive straight past a turning I realise I should have taken on leaving the park.  How did that happen?  I slow down and reach into the glove box for my glasses.  While I know this road very well indeed, I am obviously very distracted tonight.  Clearly, I need to find and follow signs now, and the road is totally unlit.  I need help.  I reach in  and withdraw a pair of prescription glasses for driving.  Only, I find that these are my prescription dark glasses for driving.  I can’t wear these now.  What was I thinking.  I must be more overwhelmed than I thought I was.

For some reason, I turn right.  Going deeper into the trees, I see a sign ahead of me.  Pulling up right in front of it, I stop to read it.  It appears I am heading towards Sunningdale.  Sunningdale?  Oh yes, I’m sure I usually pass signs to Sunningdale along this road.  That must be right.  Heading off up this road, I see another sign.  I appear to in fact be in Sunninghill Village.  I have definitely never been here before.  What do I do?

WHEN YOU ARE LOST, JUST KEEP DRIVING IN A STRAIGHT LINE UNTIL YOU COME TO SOMETHING YOU RECOGNISE.  Advise from an ex-lover runs through my mind.  I am driving fast now.  It’s getting late and suddenly I really want to be at home.  Urgently.  A narrow road winds it’s way down through Sunninghill punctuated by cars parked clumsily either side of it, making progress here very difficult.  I glance at my petrol gauge.  I will be ok for a while, but I need to get out of here.

Emerging from the village, I proceed towards another sign.  Stopping again in the road itself, right in front of the sign, I see that I am now headed in the direction of Ascot.  This simply wont do at all.  This is the wrong direction.  I pull over into a layby and switch off my engine.  What is wrong with me?  I know these roads so well.  I can’t see.  It is so dark and there are no other cars on the road whose lights I might follow.  Breathe now, girl.  Just breathe.  It’s fine, I tell myself.  You will find your way out of here soon.

SATNAV!!  This will help me!  I have the destination for HOME on my satnav!  This will surely take me there.  Plugging the charger into the lighter attachment on my dashboard, I await my salvation.  No.  A message blinks out of the screen at me.  Unable to locate.  Unable to locate.  Unable to locate.

Twenty minutes later I find myself driving around the car park of what appears to be a huge supermarket – somewhere.  There are trolleys I am swerving to avoid all around me.  Is it a Tesco?  Does it matter.

I have no idea where I am as I can’t read the signs, or even the name on the walls of this building.  Where am I?  A car pulls out of the car park almost in front of me and I swerve to miss it.  A woman is glowering at me.  I’m headed down a one way street in the wrong direction.  Too bad.  I swing my car around and follow the car in front of me.  What was that sign?  Did it say Reading??  I don’t want to go to Reading.

Totally night-blind now, I follow a few cars towards what appears to be a huge Roundabout.  It is.  Surely this is the big Windsor Roundabout?  I must have circled the entire park.  Or something.  Surely, if I go around this enough times, the sign towards Heathrow will appear through the dark blur into which I am now staring.  Yes, yes, that is the Heathrow turnoff!  Woo Hoo!!  Let’s go!

Oops.  Seems the road splits here and I am heading somewhere beneath the road I mean to be on.  I glance at the clock.  I have been driving for well over an hour now and elect to just keep going.  Just keep on going.  Just  follow this road to wherever it may take you and, if necessary, stop somewhere and go to sleep in your car.  Phone your partner – explain you are lost.  Say you will be home as soon as possible.  Say you just need to wait here  for the sun to rise.

Turns out, this road I am on leads me to a sign that is lit.  This sign miraculously says RICHMOND.  I know my way around Richmond.  If I can just  find that park I will be home in 40 minutes.

No.  This road does not take me to Richmond Park.  This motorway leads me back into London through Twickenham.  Buildings begin to look vaguely familiar to me through my haze.  I recognise the Hammersmith flyover – which is closed.  Engineering my way beneath it, I make my way around to a road I finally feel comfortable on.  It is nearly 2.30am.

Driving the final length of my journey along an oh-so-familiar road, I utterly fail to recognise it.  Is that Kensington Palace over there?  Was that a sign for Marble Arch ahead of me?  I am on automatic now – just driving, driving, until, finally, I pull up in the mews and park my car on a single yellow line right outside the entrance to my flat.

Running inside, I fly past my partner who is still wide awake on the sofa, waiting for me.  Rushing into the bathroom I throw up and burst into tears.  I’m not sure which came first.

Lost!  Lost!  I am so, so lost!  What a great metaphor for my entire life this journey has been, I sob.  Lost without my friend, I have no light.  Without her, there are only memories of signs.  Memories of her voice deafen me, so now I can’t hear her at all.  Without her in my world there is no one to direct me.  No one is there to guide me home.  I am on this “journey” of mine sans direction.  Unable to read signs, blinded by fear and confusion, I career through my life rashly swerving here and there, leading myself off in wrong directions wherever I go!  Oh, it’s hideously obvious this metaphor!  I must learn from it, my friend will tell me.  Look deep inside yourself, she will say, and see what you are unable to see.  See the things that are there, directly before your eyes.  This is wonderful, she will tell me.  You must learn from it!  This journey you have just been on was a gift!

Exhausted, I sigh.  Oh yes.  Here I was in my lovely little Mazda, all shiny on the outside, but utterly unable to take me anywhere without direction.  Yes, that is so me.  Always has been.  In fact, I berate myself, I’m just plain useless.  All show, all geared up to appear in control – yet completely  lost in this dark, dense, unlit forest of life!

Here is the second story:

A very dear friend of mine has recently passed away.  As sad as I am, I am deeply proud of her for making it to 90 years of age.  Having gathered her family around her for her 90th birthday, my friend quietly withdrew to her room for a nap, and peacefully, without pain or distress, left us all to our own devices.

Last Monday night, I headed out to Windsor Great Park to visit her niece who lives deep in the heart of this magnificent piece of land with her husband and beautiful little daughter of 8 years old.

I turned up at this gorgeous cottage in the park, and wandered into their kitchen with a bottle of full cream sherry in my hands, with which to toast my beloved friend and wish her well on her journey to wherever or whatever is, or isn’t, out there when we leave this world.

It was an emotional, but wonderful visit.  We all felt very close to her in each other’s company, and it was very good to chat about the old days with someone who had also known this lovely lady throughout her life.

Aware that time was fleeting, I reluctantly left the cottage shortly before midnight and headed out on my journey home.  ‘Silly thing happened before I even hit the road:  you wont believe it, but I actually turned my lights off instead of on as I drove towards the security gates to let me out of the residential area.  Bit odd, but I must have been more than a little tired.  It had been a fairly intense evening after all.

In my hurry to get home, I sped past my turnoff towards Virginia Waters, and ended up in what appeared to be a very quaint village called Sunninghill.  Crazy.  I say “appeared” because I had very stupidly left my driving glasses at home and was battling to read signs or see anything much at all.

Pulling up in a layby, I attempted use of my satnav, but sadly, it was unable to locate me.  This would probably be because I was still in the midst of overgrown, dense countryside.  It was very dark, and I was impatient to get home.  Thinking I would just keep driving in a straight direction until I reached something I recognised, I pulled back out onto the road and headed off again. 

It just got silly from here on.  I managed to make my way back to the main roundabout, via some extraordinary diversions.  I’m pretty sure I passed Ascot along the way, and I think I even ended up in a supermarket car park somewhere.  I know I found myself more that a little frustrated as I squinted at a sign for Reading in front of me where I least expected to see it.

It was 2.30am by the time I got home.  Rushing past my partner who was wide awake on the sofa, waiting for me, I flew to the bathroom and threw up.  I can only think that something I had eaten had not agreed with me, and with all that driving around in circles, my stomach rebelled.  To my surprise, I burst into tears.  Or was it the other way around.  I don’t remember, but I know I had been pretty nervous out there on the dark and bendy roads through and around Windsor Great Park.  I was emotional and doubtless more than a little overwrought as a result of the memories we had shared that night.  Profoundly sad, too.  Grief alters one’s perceptions on so many levels.  Above all, I was clearly over tired, drained, and in need of a really good nights sleep.

Which of these two stories are closer to the Truth of what happened, last Monday night, when I found myself lost in the dark, in my way home from Windsor Great Park?

I honestly don’t know.  What do you think?

I think the answer simply depends on which turning you take off the road you are on.

Panic!

It’s the end of a glorious summer’s day in London!  Leaving work at 6.30pm I am pleased that the sun is still shining and it is still warm.  Keen to enjoy the remainder of the day,  I wander off down the broad, magnificent streets that surround my place of work.  An ice cold coke zero is what I need, and I stop off at a local store.  I pick up a well known gossip magazine on my way to the checkout with the intention of reading it quietly in the sunshine, perched on a wall, or perhaps even at a table outside one of the local coffee shops.  More and more,  London in the summer is developing a very lively “café society”,  giving us all a sense of being on holiday somewhere wonderful and vaguely decadent in Europe.

Settling on a bench in one of the local parks not far from my place of work, I open my magazine to find one story after the other of celebrities I will never meet, about whom I am only mildly interested and for whom I have very little, or no, admiration at all.  But the pictures are fun, and I am enjoying this mindless enterprise.  It’s just what I needed today.  Happily I thumb my way through the pages until my eye falls on the headline of an article on page 61.  It is written by Eleanor Morgan and is titled:  “My anxiety is always there.  Sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering.  But always there.”

Thirty minutes later I make my way to the station with a headful of memories and a story to tell of my own.

My story is of another summer in London – perhaps 20 years ago now.  I was married, and working in Soho in a showroom very different from the one I work in now.  Lovely as it was, it was more about character and less about the prestige of my current location.  I greatly enjoyed the company of my colleagues, with whom I would often go out for after work drinks or coffee.

One particularly glorious summer’s day, drinking coffee in an utterly  ubiquitous Greasy Spoon somewhere in Kings Cross, my colleagues and I were locked in deep conversation.  As always, our coffees were very strongly flavoured with an intense, intimate sharing on matters of the heart and very souls of each of us.  Soon it was time to part.  Cheerfully enough, happy to have shared this time and ready to return home, I skipped off into the station and headed down the stairs to my platform.

WHOA!!!  Suddenly I was sweating.  Shaking.  Gripping the handrail, I gingerly but determinedly  made my way down the stairs.  My heart was racing so fast I thought I might be sick.  WOW, that coffee must have been really strong!  Whew!  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Dizzy now, I leaned back against the station wall, helplessly watching trains arrive and depart before my eyes, quite unable to contemplate catching one, waiting, hoping, waiting for this to pass.  I noticed my hands were wet.  I noticed I was shaking.  My knees had turned to water.  What was this!  God, I felt so sick!  My mind raced through my recent history:  Coffee.  Conversation.  Coffee.   Hadn’t eaten anything.  Was the coffee bad?  Why was I suddenly so ill?  Finally, arriving at a thought about a particular virus currently floating around London, I consoled myself with the idea that perhaps I had caught something.  I should get home.  It would pass.  Trembling, I boarded my train and headed home.  To this day I remember how the train swayed as though we were driving through an ocean storm.  To this day I remember how the seats rotated before my eyes, how people loomed large before me, how I shrank to the size of a small mouse beneath their feet, how the doors appeared to be twice as thick and heavy, and how when I stepped out onto the platform at my station, the ground rose and fell beneath me as though I were indeed aboard a boat, far, far from dry land.  Most of all, it seemed as though people were moving in slow motion.  I was leaden myself, struggling to move my legs at all.  Strangers were visible to me only through a very thick wall of plastic “glass”.  As I later read in a book on this subject, this “glass” appeared like the shield between ourselves and a cashier in the bank.  Everyone and everything was just over there.  There was a deafening buzzing in my head, and when I tried to speak, my tongue was too large for my mouth.  Suddenly, I wanted to cry.

Walking into my apartment that afternoon, I had no idea it would be three full months before I would be able to leave it again.

The following morning, unable to get myself out of the flat at all, I asked my, then, husband to please beg the doctor to come to me.  Something was clearly desperately wrong.  It was a while ago, and in those days, the doctors did come to your house.  A grumpy, rather irritable and clearly frustrated doctor was soon sitting opposite me telling me I simply had a really bad cold.  Yes, there was a virus going around.  My dizziness was merely due to the fact I was hyperventilating, and I should cease to do so immediately.  I needed a couple of paracetamol and a lot of sleep.  I would be fine.  There was nothing wrong with me at all.  Very relieved, and satisfied with this diagnosis, I called in sick.

No better at all, and in fact a great deal worse, two weeks later, I was unable to leave my bedroom and head across the short hall  into my own living room without holding onto the walls, trembling, sweating and crying as though someone I loved had just died.  I was in complete despair – convinced I was going to die, I was now also in a state of absolute terror.  About what?  I did not know at all.  Trying to manage this sensation, eager to get back to work before I lost my job and desperate to just end these sensations,  I spent my days watching childhood DVD’s, cartoons, sitcoms, anything as long as it was light and required no concentration at all.  Soon these DVD’s became painful to watch – the unreality of unicorns and legends merely accentuated the absolute unreality I was experiencing within myself.

My colleague came to visit me one day, to see how I was doing.  She brought me a book and best wishes from my other colleagues.  I became aware that in this present state, I had no desire to see them or hear from them or about them at all.  Overwhelmed, I steered the conversation away from work altogether and we attempted to chat about the weather.   I could see her only vaguely and faintly through what seemed to be a haze. I could also see her frowning deeply, and realised entirely how strange  I must have looked to her in my current condition.  I had no diagnosis to offer her, I could not explain why I couldn’t walk her to the door and up the stairs to let her out onto the street.  I could not help her understand why the world was spinning and why I was shaking so.  As my husband walked her to the door, I knew it would be the end of my job.

It was.  At the end of the third month of being unable to leave my apartment I received a letter from my employer.  While kind and sympathetic in tone, I recall the words ” due to your unstable condition…” and realised they believed I had gone nuts. That I had had a complete nervous breakdown.  Was unfit for work.  Well, in that condition, I was.

There was one thing, and only one thing I truly understood about myself at that time.  I was indeed afraid.  Terrified.  But I was not depressed.  I had an inner voice that was still very much alive and positive, despite this extreme distress.  There was a piece of me left that I did recognise, and that piece was not depressed.  Tearful with frustration is not the same thing as depressed, for me.  With this in mind, I resolved to seek help and was taken by my now very concerned and not altogether sympathetic husband, to my doctor.

It was on this visit that I first heard the words: “Panic Attacks.”  I had never heard of such a thing in my life before.  I was stunned.  Panic??  What about?  Why?  The doctor was gentle, calm and very firm in her reply:  Apparently, I displayed all the symptoms of an: ” A Type Personality. ”  I was pushing myself too hard at work, I was a typical “high achiever” and as a child had obviously been a little too intelligent for my own good.  I had experienced a troubled childhood.  I had driven myself too hard throughout my life, and now, approaching 30, it had all caught up with me.  I had been displaced by having left my country of origin five years earlier, and I was indeed hyperventilating.  I needed to breathe into a paper bag.  I did not need a shrink.  I did not need tranquillizers.  Good, because I had no intention of taking them.  I was to take Beta Blockers, which would help me get through the day.  The shaking would stop.  I would manage just fine from there.

While I am very aware that medical opinion relating to this form of medication has changed, I can only truly and honestly say a  heartfelt Thank You to those Beta Blockers.  I came back to life.  One day at a time, one step at a time, I ventured out of my flat and into the street.  Step by careful step, I made my way from my front door to that wonderful shiny red post box at the end of my road.  Unable to yet consider public transport as an option, I was soon in a taxi heading out to job interviews.  Soon I was in a new job.  Here, I took my first step onto a ladder that elevated my career from a lowly and grossly underpaid position at work, to a rich, successful and lucrative career within  the heady world of fashion.

Recently bereaved, I experienced what I recognised immediately as panic attacks.  A friend of mine asked me if they manifested in the same way as they had done before.  Could I leave the house?  Was I agoraphobic again?  Was I sweating and shaking?  No.  No longer an “unknown” terror, these panic attacks, while uncomfortable and more than a little disconcerting, hold absolutely none of the terror they previously held.  I recognise them, and with this, a great deal of that extreme terror is dispelled.

Flight or Fight?  In bereavement I find there is an element of both.  As I explained to my partner the other day, I flee from this grief, unwilling to surrender to it.  I instinctively resist the fact that my lifelong friend is no longer with me.  I fight the reality that while we are in the midst of life, we are in the midst of death.  I think a great many of us do.  It is no wonder then, that fleeing from pain and denying the one absolute reality we all face, some of us might indeed feel a little shaky, reach out for a wall,  breathe into our handbags, wipe a sweaty palm against our jeans and experience more than a little panic as we make our way gingerly through the challenges our lives present.