Staring at the sun – Irvin D Yalom: books that have helped 1

I read this about 3 years ago, so the details are hazy, but the things I took from it are:

  • Death is scary.
  • We die alone.
  • Live your life better in the knowledge that you will die.
  • Connections bring comfort.

Putting it like that looks awfully bleak. It doesn’t look like a terribly insightful or innovative set of points. It’s not a trio of insights that’s going to set the world on fire.

Let me explain a little more.

Irvin Yalom is  Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford. I just googled him and he looks like Mr Spock would look if he became a psychoanalyst. I don’t know if he’s still practicing, but he was in 2008 when this book was published.

The American tradition of psychiatry is, I think, much more influenced by and active in psychotherapy/analysis than the British one, which tends to leave all that to psychotherapists. That means that he has spent a lot of time listening to a lot of people talking about their lives in incredible depth and with incredible intimacy. What he shares with us in this book is the wisdom that has come from that experience.

The thing about obvious truths is that you can know them in your head a long time before you know them with your body. I’ve always known that death is scary. I coped with that fear the way everybody else does: I turned away from it, I ignored it, I did other stuff, I accepted the delusion that I was immortal.

If I’m being absolutely honest here, that’s still what I do, 99% of the time. Maybe 99.99% of the time. But in the days leading up to my oncology appointments, when I go back into the regime of scans and the waiting, I reconnect with the anxiety I felt when I had my initial diagnosis, and there is something helpful for me in knowing that that fear is normal, that everybody feels it (if they allow themselves to).

You die alone. But there is comfort in other people and in the connection with them. Suddenly I’m thinking of 9/11, and the messages people in the towers left for their loved ones, and the people who jumped off the towers hand in hand. I hope there was comfort for them in that human contact. And all of those messages were of love. Nobody rang their worst enemy and reminded them that they hated them. Nobody rang their partner and mentioned the fact that they hadn’t put out the bins again, or that they couldn’t stand their snoring. They left messages of love. Of connectivity.

We die alone, but we live in a great web of connection. That is what makes us human. Even in the greatest darkness we reach out to comfort and be comforted.

More thoughts on Brexit

We live in a post-truth world. We are now so accustomed to lies, half lies, fantasy and complex convoluted mixtures of all those things that I don’t know if we have any idea what the truth is any more.


The recent Brexit vote has crystallised this for me. There were truths there. There was information on levels of immigration from inside and outside the EU, EU financial arrangements, and the effects of EU legislation on national sovereignty. These were drowned out by shrill angry voices screaming lies, misleading half-truths and catchy slogans. People didn’t want to hear sensible reasoned arguments – they just wanted to howl their frustration  to the world.


It’s not just Brexit, though. We’re now so used to politicians lying to us that we accept that this is a normal and unavoidable state of affairs. We’re lied to by the media, by celebrities, by our friends, our colleagues.


Social media in general is a platform for dishonesty. Facebook is a lie. Instagram is a lie. Snapchat is a lie. We lie about who we are, we lie about what we do, we read well curated, beautifully shot lies from our favourite celebrities who peddle the ultimate lie: that we know them and they are our friends. And our real friends lie to us, the ones who aren’t celebrities. We all know that. We know that we and our friends are choosing careful pictures of our lives to show the happy moments, the “lifestyle magazine” moments, the bits that demonstrate that our lives are fun, successful, meaningful, whatever. Even though we know that we are editing our lives there’s a part of us that still believes that the people we follow aren’t editing theirs.


I’m not sure how many species can tell lies. I think you have to be intelligent and social to lie. I don’t think dogs lie. I don’t think cows lie. I’m not sure about chimpanzees. You have to know what’s true, what your audience is expecting and thinking, and what the impact of lying will be. And the fact that we believe things so readily says to me that maybe as a species we plan our lives and societies and friendships and relationships around an expectation of truth. Some kind of truth. Some kind of agreed reality. I know there’s always being social fibbing, oiling the wheels, distorting the truth, fishermen’s tales. But it’s so much easier online. It’s so much easier when you have access to a media that has developed amazing techniques for convincing people, for drawing them in.


So what we do now? Because I think one of the reasons for the whole Brexit mess was that there are a lot of people who are feeling lied to and betrayed by the people they have elected to represent them. And now it seems a lot of people are feeling lied to and betrayed by the media and by crusading politicians who will say anything to win an argument and are happy to turn around within 12 hours of a referendum and say “I never said that. I might have implied it. I might have suggested it. I might have sat on the bus with it written all over the side. But I never actually made a commitment to that.”


That’s very clever in a sixth form debate. I’m not sure how clever is in the real world. And I’m not sure where we go from here. I’m hoping that those people who were howling with frustration at our political system will go on howling loudly. I’m hoping that that anger will translate into some kind of action about this messy, 19th-century debating society that passes for a political system in our country. But I’m not holding my breath.


I had known him all my life, and I thought I knew him. He was broadly tolerant, though he liked to grumble. He was cynical about most things, and had a wry sense of humour. He was polite and knew how to behave with my friends. I loved his creativity – he made some fantastic music, he knew all the best bands, he made me laugh so much. He taught loads of my friends to play football, introduced them to rugby, even got some of them into cricket! I know, sounds impossible, but he was like that. And he believed in fair play and that taking part was more important than winning. He had liberal values, he was vaguely irreligious, and he poked fun at pomposity.

OK, so occasionally he got a bit lairy when he’d had too much to drink, and maybe I shouldn’t have overlooked that, but on the big occasions he made me proud.

And now I’m finding that I was so, so wrong. He’s not like that at all. He’s aggressive. He’s a racist bully. He wants to go back in time to some mythical past when he was young and the world was wonderful, and he shouts abuse at anybody who tries to question that. He’s cut me off from all my friends. He says I’m lazy and indecent. He’s a thuggish bully, he’s wilfully ignorant, and he’s shit at football.

So now I’m wondering what I get out of this relationship. What’s in it for me? Because if this is all there is, maybe it’s time to cut my losses.

Looking for the self help book

The other day my breast cancer buddy said to me “It’s really shit having cancer”.

It is really shit having cancer.

It is really shit being told you  have cancer. It is even more shit having to tell people you have cancer. That’s knackering.

But the shittest thing was being told my cancer had come back. I was scared; horrified; angry with myself (and that’s interesting, isn’t it, and maybe another post another time). And when they told me it had spread to my lungs, I knew I was going to die.

So I decided that I would find a book that would tell me how to die. A step by step guide. I may even have imagined a flow chart.

I have bought books that give me advice on every conceivable topic – from having a baby to tidying my bedroom. Finding a book for this proved more difficult than I expected. I wanted something:

  • Secular. No religious content. (And really – if I really believed in life after death, why would I be afraid of dying? Religious books on dying feel like cheating…)
  • Practical. I don’t know quite what I anticipated. Something that would give me guidelines on how much time I should devote to worrying about death? A will template? Suggestions for controlling my children’s reading habits from beyond the grave? I think I just wanted something that would help me feel in control.
  • Positive. Obviously.
  • Well written. Because I might be in the process of shuffling off this mortal coil, but I don’t want to be reading something that makes me cringe.

The really interesting thing is that I’ve worked in mental illness for over 20 years now, and yet somehow I had not grasped the idea that it is normal to be afraid of death. Maybe I’ve worked with too many people with suicidal ideas – maybe I’ve got used to the idea that it’s living that’s the scary bit.

I’m not sure I even knew that I was afraid of dying. I simply didn’t think about it, except as something a long way off, that happened to other people. When people congratulated me first time round on “conquering” cancer, it was as if I’d become immortal. We could all stop thinking about death. Phew.

I still find it hard to think about dying – it’s impossible to imagine not being alive: not breathing, not seeing, not hearing. Not being.

So now I’m beginning to think that my journaling and blogging is actually me writing the book for myself. The magic self help book that’s going to sort it all out for me. Maybe I’m stumbling and fumbling towards some sort of understanding of what works for me, what helps me deal with the different emotions that roll up like waves in the ocean, and roll back down again – often seemingly at random. Maybe this is it.


Post surgery swimwear

This is not one of those blogs that starts off all chatty and this is me and this is my life, and then hits you with what is basically an advert for stuff. But I just wanted to say that I just bought a post-surgery swimming costume for £35 from Marks and Spencer and it is great – nice high neck line, good support for the swimming boob, stood up to swimming on a surf beach with no cleavage issues. I had been looking on specialist sites where you were looking at £100 (and up) for a swimming costume. No way. Admittedly, M&S have a range of 3 costumes, so there’s not much choice in terms of design (black, floral, multi-coloured stripes), but the quality is great.

If we were having coffee, I would be telling you the things I learned about life from playing Candy Crush.

I deleted Candy Crush from my tablet a few weeks ago. It’s a life-sucker. I replaced it with the YOU app, which gives me something healthy, beautiful and life enhancing to do every day. That means I get my online kicks from sharing that I did 10 squats, or tidying a drawer in the kitchen, or enjoying a moment of peace. Much better than the thrill I got from swiping shiny, pretty coloured shapes around a screen.

I did learn some useful lessons from Candy Crush, along the way, as it were, and I’m going to share them with you today, my friends. That means you will never have to play it yourself. Thank me later.

  1. You can get a buzz of achievement from something that’s essentially meaningless. That applies to many things in life: Likes and Shares; buying a new pair of shoes or a recipe book full of beautiful pictures of beautiful people living a beautiful lifestyle. Those things aren’t going to make you any happier long term.
  2. You can do things for a long time, and feel you’re pretty good at them, and still mess up. And that doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or bad at what you do. It just means you messed up.
  3. There are no second chances. If you swiped the blue one left instead of right,there is no “undo” button. You are stuck with that choice. Think carefully. But be aware of number 2.
  4. The candies never fall the same way twice. Actually, statistically, they probably do. I can’t imagine the number of possible variations on a grid, but in theory, you could get the same one twice. And on another planet far, far away, there is another you sitting reading these words, who will go on to win the local lottery,and have 4 beautiful children who never use foul language, and celebrate their birthday by driving their brand new sports car into a swimming pool of champagne – but that’s not going to do you much good, right here, right now.
  5. Just because something is pretty and shiny and a bit addictive, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. In fact, I would suggest looking carefully at things that are pretty and shiny and a bit addictive, because, chances are, they are not good for you.
  6. Other people will use up your bonus help things much more quickly than you will. Just saying.
  7. When your kids complain about you spending too much time on line, you neeed to take a long, hard look at yourself.

There you go. That’s what I learned. So now  you don’t need to download it. You can spend 5 minutes reading this and then go and do something more interesting instead.

I did this for you. Because I care about you. Now go and make real candies, or go for a run, or read a book, or write a poem – something that will give you a real buzz of achievement in this beautiful real world of ours.

My breasts

I have 4 breasts. I’ve lost 3 along the way, so that makes 7 in total – a strikingly magical number.

My right breast is an amazing, hand-crafted piece of art, sculpted out of my own flesh. It is admired by medical professionals on a regular basis.

My left chest wall is flat and scarred. My left breast tried to kill me, too, and had to be removed. The implant I had put in failed. I can’t have another go – the skin is thinned and scarred by radiotherapy. It’s not viable.

Obviously, if I’d known this was how things were going to end up, I wouldn’t have had the reconstruction. I’d be flat all over. I’d have a choice of breasts – no breasts at all for sport; small, chic ones for sophisticated occasions; party ones! Maybe.

Instead, I have a small collection of left breast prostheses. Be aware that I am a woman who can’t control her pens, her sunglasses, her mobile or  her reading glasses. That means my kids are used to hearing me shout “I’ve lost my boob, I’ll be down in a minute”. That counts as normal in our house now.

Firstly, I have a firm, silicone breast. My every day breast. It’s reasonably realistic in texture, but it’s always cold, and it’s the same plastic pink colour as my daughter’s long neglected Barbie.

Next I have a clear, light-weight, chlorine resistant swimming breast. Sometimes I wear it all the time – if we’re going away on hand luggage only. It looks like an affectionate jellyfish, snuggling up to me. It feels weird.

My last breast is the first one they gave me post-op. It’s a little muppet softy, gentle on new, tender wounds. It feels like a firmly stuffed rag doll – without the arms and legs. And head. I wear it for running, because there’s no friction.

Now I don’t have any breasts of my own, I have more than any woman could reasonably need.