Sarah Sheldon’s Big Deshishions: 2) Be brave, though you are afraid of everything

Catastrophising was an early habit for Sarah Sheldon. Even her mum can’t assuage her fear of rotting fruit

Stop catastrophising

Brave banana. Stop the brainrot. Laura Eades 2014

Sarah Sheldon writes:

Safest to sleep

I have an memory of a sleepover when I was seven or eight. Everyone else wanted to get up in the night and make a pizza (they were all older) but I was terrified that it would burn the house down and we would end up in the gutter.

Sleepovers went from bad to worse. The teenage ones were a nightmare as all people wanted to do was watch Stephen King horror videos and practise putting on foundation. Things did improve when someone managed to get a boyfriend and we would discuss that rather than watch films about evil clowns or toddlers who can combust things with their minds.

I’m a master of imagined misery

The ability to construct the worst case scenario in any given situation remains a constant within my skill-set, although sadly not one which seems worth including on my CV. Despite it being infinitely more rooted in reality than “Excel”.

Hi Mum, cn u make evryting OK pls?

My mum bears the brunt of this catastrophic thinking as the recipient of frequent text messages. I quiz her on things that she can have no possible way of answering, and that I would never dream of sending to anyone else. It has become what I like to think of as an anomaly in an otherwise adultish relationship where we might discuss geraniums or the best way of removing certain stains.

A rotten way of thinking

While she would faithfully respond (within minutes) to questions as to whether the butter might be off or possible diabetes symptoms, her patience reached its limit when I sent her the following message the day I was meant to be going away for ten days:

“I just realised I left some bananas at home. Do you think I need to go home and throw them away? Will they be completely rotten after ten days?”

“Who knows” was her response (three minutes later).

I wasn’t taking any risks, and I returned home to dispose of the bananas before catching my train. I may have added an extra hour and a half to my journey time, but it was worth it: I could breathe a sigh of relief, as I settled into my journey, at having averted a possible disaster, but not before another few had entered my mind.

And no exaggeration…

This capacity to discern disaster at the drop of a hat, where I once phoned up Miele, the Hoover manufacturer, and ended up describing the incompatibility of new Hoover bags I had ordered as “an emergency”, has led me to carve out a routine as risk-free as possible.

Play it safe

Branflakes in the morning, cycle to work, lunch break spent wandering around looking to purchase a pen or a greetings card, nibbling at a limp pitta, home, panic about where my life is going. However this does have side-effects. Namely, boredom. A job I had in Essex, writing about the steel market in Central Europe, had a certain appeal for more than a year, the predictability of it, the commute, the 7.10am train from Cricklewood; the 5.35pm train back. However there came a point (shortly after I realised that every time I was asked what I did for a job, I cried) where I realised I was bored out of my mind.

Which left me little alternative but to take up the offer of working in Guatemala City when it came out of the blue.

…even in Central America

Even there, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, where sinkholes are a high risk and where tabloids publish photos not of celebrities’ parties or their saggy knees but relatives mourning victims of horrific murders, I was able to design, after a year or so, a watertight routine which meant I knew exactly what I would be doing weeks in advance.

Some things I could not control – I managed to break both legs, live with a professional swindler and develop a pseudo parasite. However these incidents were the exception rather than the rule.

I certainly never made mention of them to my grandmother whose own brand of catastrophic thinking is so catastrophic that the only time she can fully relax is when sitting in her armchair watching “Deal or No Deal”, preferably with some wine-gums, and oddly dismissive of the large crack which has appeared ominously across her ceiling.

How to learn to be brave

Appealing as moderate boredom might be on one level, it is not a long-term solution and I am now trying to address this fear.

  • I tried psychotherapy although the therapist lived an hour and a half cycle away so I would find myself complaining of being tired and skint and soon stopped the sessions after realising that my main motivation for going was to sit in a nice living room, with wooden floors and a bay window with a view of a tree rather than tackling my insecurities.
  • I then had a few cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) sessions with Lorraine, who kept telling me to think of my worries as pieces of washing on a line which it was possible to un-peg. I did actually find this visualisation quite useful but our sessions ended abruptly after Lorraine ended up in hospital after a cow charged at her in Devon.
  • I also saw a shaman in Flitwick who made me put a tea towel on my head, and told me I was frightened of life, and should take up jogging.

Accept that the world is full of frightful fruit

I think probably the most helpful strategy is Mindfulness. I found it hard to take it seriously at first: in the first session when we had been instructed to shut our eyes, hold out our hands and guess the object being placed it in – three raisins – someone (a woman?) screamed.

However there is something about being reminded of being in the moment, that our thoughts are events and interpretations rather than necessarily a truth. Just one relationship to reality among others. Which I am finding very valuable – and means that my mum receives much fewer texts.

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This post is part of a series, in which comedian and journo Sarah Sheldon unravels the big unconscious decisions that have shaped her life experience, and replaces them with a more constructive outlook.

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Catastrophic thinker? Weary mother? Fruit-phobe? Click on the pale grey dot with a plus sign below the post to open the comment thread.

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