I’ve fought demons all my life; managing (just about) to get to university at the age of 30 from a working-class background and holding on (intermittently) to a job in teaching. However, because of recent illness (breast cancer in 2011), I’ve now taken early retirement. This should be a wonderful time, but I’m lost and not sure what to do with myself. I’ve been given this second chance but I often spend time in front of the TV, with comfort-eating as my crutch. I don’t want to be a 59-year-old compulsive eater with a self-destructive streak – I feel like I’m self-destructing. What can I do? Name supplied
There’s no one big answer here. The words of a rabbi come to mind – trying to find one big answer to the meaning of life is like thinking you can eat one big meal and never be hungry again.
In the meantime, please could I encourage you to move away from the imagery of life as a fight? I prefer the idea of a gift or a dance. There is a serious point underlying what might seem a minor choice of words because you want to have associations working with you: being positive and flexible in your thinking will allow you to recognise more possibilities.
If you don’t know where to start, make a choice of doing a single small thing from one of these actions: move, connect, give, learn, notice. These are from the most authoritative review of scientific research around wellbeing. In the short term, concentrate on the first two, which mean remembering that you’re a physical and social animal. When your body and heart are ticking over more happily, your head will come along for the ride.
Your options to move could include one sit-up after every TV show, a 10-minute walk outside, gardening or simply a tidying up a single drawer. Connecting could be via a phone call, but it is even better if you can meet someone face-to-face. This is one of the main things you could be missing from work – you might even, oddly, be missing the human contact medical treatment brought. I work from home myself, and have to prioritise my need for at least one adult conversation per day – not with my teenagers, and not purely a transaction in a shop or with a delivery person either.
If you can combine the elements of using your body, getting outside and meeting people, you will definitely be onto a winner. I hesitate to mention boot camp, but I’ve found a local one that’s fun, even in the rain. Other options would be a walking group or a badminton club. You might have to try a few things before you find what’s right for you, but this is where you can harness the ‘never say die’ spirit that has worked for you in the past, and you will find that the companionship supports you to change.
The key is to create your sense of achievement – you will build your own confidence when you make a commitment, however small, and then stick to it. And then you can get on to the really fun stuff, which is working out how you might give back to other people, decide what you want to learn next and take notice of the tiny opportunities to be grateful each day.
It might be a bit of a commercial cliché now, but it’s still true – you’re worth it. You have overcome so much, don’t let the little niggles (and nibbles), get you down now.
See mind.org.uk – for its report on ecotherapy
Read Overcoming pessimism and self-limiting assumptions by David Head on LifeLabs
Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email email@example.com, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line