Monday, July 23, 2007

A question of stress

It was a straightforward question and one I had no answer to. The man in the white pyjamas sitting opposite me raised his thick eyebrows and repeated the question, “Hmm, how do you deal with stress?” I squirmed in my matching white pyjama bottoms and shrugged a bit. “I’m a man,” I replied “I don’t really know if I get stressed. I have a drink, maybe?” That’s about as honest an answer as I could give. My interrogator smiled knowingly and nodded his head to show me that he understood. “Okay well let’s get started, if you want to hop onto the mat.” The mat was on the floor of a small room in a municipal building in Hammersmith, West London. And the man inviting me to hop onto his mat was a shiatsu therapist, recommended to me by a colleague. Not quite sure of which way up he wanted me I hedged my bets and opted to lie on my side demurely. The therapist pressed ‘play’ on a small portable stereo before kneeling at my feet. Soft birdsong and wind chimes emanated from the corner of the room. “Shiatsu is very touchy-feely, so if you do at any point feel uncomfortable with anything I’m doing, just say.” The therapist’s voice was calm and measured. I suppressed a giggle. “Now lie on your back and relax. Close your eyes if you like, all I need you to do for me is take nice deep breaths.” The shiatsu master sidled up and positioned himself behind my head and I closed my eyes to avoid staring up his nostrils. His fingers began to knead my scalp and my face and then tug at my ear lobes. I tried to remember to breath. As I began to relax, my mind drifted and I found myself pondering the question that had stumped me five minutes earlier. I still wasn’t readily willing to admit to ever really getting stressed. As I had said I am a man and men are supposed to be tough and brave and heroic. Our DNA woven from tightly wound Sheffield steel. We’re meant to be equal parts James Bond, Winston Churchill and Bear Grylls, with a healthy dollop of Biggles thrown in for good measure. Men don’t feel pressure; we shoulder it, we bear the brunt, our stiff upper lips take the strain. My fingers were being firmly tweaked when I had a moment of clarity (like the climax of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston stumbles across the half buried Statue of Liberty and discovers what planet he’s on.) Men aren’t heroes, we’re cowards. We hide from stress, we sweep it under the carpet, we bottle it up, we bury our heads in the sand. Now it all made sense. The reason I didn’t think I ever got stressed was because I hid it, I hid it from myself, I hid it so well I didn’t even know it was there…but it was…years and years of stress…all pent up inside me…squeezed in and tightly sealed like jam…no, like angry wasps...ready to burst free. I felt a finger wiggling in my belly button. I let out a giggle and with it approximately 0.00001% of my stress was released to join the birdsong and wind chimes in the ether.

To be continued…