One of my favourite scenes in The West Wing – I have a lot of favourites to chose from having watched all seven series more than a dozen times – happens in Episode 32, Noel (Season 2, episode 10).
Leo tells Josh the following story: “This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. “Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”
That story – that scene with Josh – never fails to move me. As Leo knew all too well, the trick with your wellbeing is to spot the warning signs and step in; acting before things spiral and send you to a very bad place. You have to remember how you got in the hole and then more importantly how you got out last time.
I have my own triggers that send my overall wellbeing south and with it my anxiety northward bound. The challenge is to spot the triggers coming over the horizon and to try to take action before its too late and I am stuck in the middle of a nasty episode – a hole from which it is harder to get out. Tiredness. Struggling to get back to sleep when I wake early. Feeling run down/sore throat/some sort of cold or sniffle. Been too busy to do enough exercise. Not getting onto the golf course as much as I would like. Not having enough time to relax in the evenings. Someone close to me – usually Aileen or Aoife – not being well. Not having quiet, quality time with my girls. Trying to do too much work and/or having too many meetings, calls or things to do. Being away from home. Spending time out when I want to be in. Being too stretched. Feeling overwhelmed by a to-do list or too many demands placed on me. These are my triggers.
One or more of these triggers has me heading towards the hole. I know it is coming because I start to feel uneasy. A heaviness falling over me. I have an aversion to noise – I just want quiet – including not wanted people to talk to me. I look for alone time. For solitude. I am slightly tetchy, impatient, restless. I have difficulty in getting motivated to work – especially to write, which ordinarily I love to do – it’s not that I don’t work, it just takes me longer to get started when I sit down at my desk. I am more easily distracted than normal. I have doubts. I am jumpy, especially at unexpected noises. The smallest setback or problem impacts me more than it would normally. I worry. I just don’t feel myself. I can function and to most in the outside world all is dandy but I know that I am not in my best form.
I believe passionately that there is nothing inevitable in life. It is up to each of us to make the right choices – the right choices for us and those we love. I know that when I’m heading for Leo’s hole, or am stood in it trying to peer out, there are steps I need to take. It is not easy. There are no quick fixes or simple solutions but it is in my hands. A chance to turn things around – to climb from the hole and back into the light.
For me, it’s an early night. Going for a run. Hitting the golf course. Listening to my favourite music. Writing something personal and important to me. Hugging my girls. Breathing in the fresh air. Reprioritising my work and/or diary to relief some short term pressure. Freeing up some time to unwind. Eating well. Drinking plenty of water. Meditating. Reading for pleasure. Reminding myself of the literature, history and people that inspire me. Remembering my faith. A little of all of these things, done together, calmly and gently, helps me to climb from the hole.
Those of us who can drive had to learn – at least at some level – our Highway Code. We had to recognise the signs that are dotted up and down the roads of this country. When we revise these signs for our driving test, we often focus on being able to describe them, to say what they mean. We don’t focus enough on what to do when we do see them. How to react. How to respond.
Whether we are driving a car and trying to drive our lives forward one thing is true; spotting the warning signs is important but knowing what to do when you see them matters more. Anyone can see a sign marked “Danger – hole” and ignore it and fall in. It takes something special to see the sign and change course. It takes guts to be in the hole and build a plan to get out. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Leo Thomas McGarry.