Do you only get what you give?
In 2022, following two and a half years in Central London, I moved back to my university city, Sheffield. And from January to March, I was the most productive and least anxious I've ever been. And in April through May, I was the least productive and most anxious I've ever been. Here, I discuss why this was probably the case, alongside why you might think first about giving to others before you can expect to get something from them.
There were three things I had to do at the start of this year:
Move back to Sheffield and embrace living alone
Work on my mental health
Finish (and publish) a second collection of poems.
1. For the first time in my life, January 2022 saw me arranging to live in an unfurnished, one-bedroom flat. This was something I'd dreamt of doing at least since my mid-20s, and so definitely felt more exciting than it did daunting. Nonetheless, also for the first time, this meant that I had to pick out and buy furniture, arrange, pick-up and drop-off a delivery van, cook and clean and, lastly, set-up bills in my own name. Yuck.
2. Alongside the above, following progressively tougher months towards the end of 2021, I'd self-referred to the NHS' IAPT (improving access to psychological therapy) scheme. Over the first five weeks of 2022, I engaged with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions and tools intended to help me recognise my low mood and interrupt the ruminative and often unhelpful thought and action patterns that I've struggled with for as long as I can remember.
3. I always knew there would be a second collection of poems – not least because I felt I had two thirds of a collection already drafted – and moving to Sheffield felt like a soul-pull towards completing it. There's no other way of describing it. Ever since I started looking at living in the building I'm now in – around six years ago – I've had this thickening notion that I had to live here. And within a week of moving in, of being in my own space, where I could wake up early and go to sleep whenever I was tired – without worrying about disturbing anyone else – and feeling able to leave my notebooks on one surface and my drum machines on another, the weight and volume of the lines and experiences that had suffocated me previously now fell onto the page like a footballer's phlegm – effortlessly full-bodied and productive.
In January, I laid down my roots, interrogated with kindness my previous self-defeating behaviours and came up with productive means of mitigating low mood – namely planning sociable and physical activities for Sunday afternoons and weekday evenings when I'd observed repeated low mood – and I wrapped up a working draft of my poems (Proceed Only With Authority) to send to my best mate (and bona fide graphic designer) to begin collaborating on its aesthetic.
In February, most of the flat admin was sorted, my furniture was in place and my sister had been to stay and complemented me on the flat's décor – such a bougie thing to be proud of, I know! I began an adult's climbing course on weekday evenings, started salsa classes and had my first open mic set in nearly two years at a new venue to a new crowd go down an absolute treat.
In March, I meaningfully rekindled my most significant romantic relationship to date with someone I endlessly respect and fancy the pants off. I traveled for work, friends and family and published the poems with an aesthetic I was (and am) immensely proud of to acclaim from friends old and new and also took on my first paying online coaching client. All the while battling bronchitis and my worst state of physical health in years.
Through Winter, then, I was swept off my feet but everything I did seemed purposeful and involved giving a lot of myself to others. And sure, it caught up with me in fatigue and illness, but even when I felt physically rough, socially and mentally, I'd never felt better.
In Spring, with my physical health returning, my purpose seemed to leave me. I went to London for work trips and took it really personally when colleagues and friends just didn't show up. I was starting to go backwards again in the gym. And whenever people text me, I had suddenly developed this tic, this need to have a response within 20 minutes or clearly I'd said something wrong.
Now, some of the above I could control, namely how I responded to disappointment and to setbacks and to being alone, and a lot of it I couldn't, such as people not showing up (for whatever reason). What seemed to change in April, as far as I can see with hindsight, is that I stopped focusing on things for me (e.g. bills and furniture and magnum opuses) and for others (e.g. performing, arranging climbing sessions with mates, going on weekends away) and so started to worry about things and become jealous of people in ways that, through Winter, I had neither the time nor bandwidth to think about.
*So thick was my malaise, that it took me three weeks to come back to this article to finish it. Bloody 'ell. June's started well but it was treacle-y at times getting here.*
I'd never known aching anxiety like this, and being able to proficiently name it as I felt it through May only seemed to make me more anxious – I was never this way before, what's happened? what's gone wrong (with me)? what's the point? Oh boy. This early Spring loneliness felt gnarled and complex and yet, simply put, I realised, when I stopped seeing people, and stopped giving them my time, I stopped seeing people and stopped getting their time. I had to give to get and I couldn't be upset about not getting when I wasn't giving. Maybe that's an oversimplification but it makes sense as I type it.
Not replacing my CBT sessions with regular social contact seems erroneous on my part too now – whether with friends, family or another therapist – I realised I'd really come to appreciate reliable, regular and often meaningful conversation. In June, following sincere and drunken discussions, then, and more recently seeing Everything Everywhere All at Once, I know I've got more work to do on being in my moment. And invariably, when I've given more to the people around me and/or the task at hand, I've worried less and laughed more and/or been more productive. That I've then been invited to more things, or offered this, this or this, has all been secondary and consequent on being present. And last week, when I was invited to a gig by a friend I'd not seen in years, text them when I arrived to find that they hadn't set off and weren't going to, rather than complain, I put my jacket back on and got my steps in and instead made the most of the late Spring light.
Have you experienced or are you experiencing something similar? And if you feel over your malaise/low mood/anxiety, how did you manage to get to where you are now? Let me know below!