This Saturday, we went to visit an old Air Force buddy of mine, Squadron Leader Muddles, who is deploying shortly for an overseas tour. It was the last chance to catch up for a few drinks before he disappeared to foreign parts for a bit; a beautiful August day in the south of England, a BBQ, beers and old friends, what could be finer? I’ve known Muddles since I was 19, and I’ve known his now wife since before then*. Mrs Astronomer hasn’t known them anywhere near as long, and has only met them on a good handful of occasions at that. Muddles and I have a lot of common interests; he’s an engineer and will happily talk at length about any stupid nonsense I happen to be interested in (space, geo-politics, aircraft and rocket design, you name it – he’ll take an interest), whilst Mrs Muddles and I have lots of old friends and the shared experiences of sitting in cold wet muddy holes, in the rain, at three in the morning, in the bleak Welsh mountains wondering what on Earth we were doing there – or, worse, sitting hungover in early morning lectures about international political theory, also wondering what on Earth we were doing there. Friendships are forged in many different ways.
Also in attendance was another friend from university (Mr Peg-Leg), an ex-soldier who I’ve not seen since he was blown up in a rather rubbish bit of the world a few years back, nearly (but not quite!) losing a leg in the process. Last time I saw him he was up to his eyeballs in morphine in hospital; he now works as a freelance yachtsman with no mortgage, having spent his army wound pay and honourable discharge money wisely. Coupled to that, a few sundry friends of friends from uni, some of whom I’d not seen in ten years; a real blast from the past. I was all smiles, the years fading away to being a fresher at university again.
Meanwhile, Mrs Astronomer was not happy to be there. She didn’t know anybody apart from Mr and Mrs Muddles, and she doesn’t exactly know them well, either.
Her stress levels had been building up for a few days beforehand, reaching a peak of 7 out of 10 as we were pulling into the drive; there were a lot of new faces to deal with all at once. My wife just doesn’t deal with social situations at all well: she clams up, gets stressed and upset. The main problem is that she’s got very good at hiding it, to the point where I just don’t notice, and I’m actively looking for it.
Saturday was one of those days. I knew she was stressed before we went, mostly because I’ve started actively tracking her stress levels. After about three hours of being there, I was getting the secret signal that she needed to leave, now (the secret signal basically involves Mrs Astro sidling up to me and repeatedly poking me in the ribs). I made hurried farewells to the Muddles, to Peg-Leg – who had only just got there – and we left. Mrs Astro was driving, as I’d already had a couple of ciders, and we’d barely got out of the drive before she burst into tears, apologising for spoiling my afternoon. I’m utterly perplexed and bemused. Yes, it’s a bit disappointing to have to leave early – but who’s more important, your wife or your friends? It’s not even a question you need to ask. She’s crying because she’s stressed, because she’s anxious, because she feels guilty that I’ve listened to her and left, and because she’s worried that she’s let me down. This has happened a few times before, and there’s no way out of it that doesn’t involve tears; leave and she cries because she feels guilty, stay and she cries because she really needs to. Always wiser to take the lesser of two evils.
We get back to the flat and she begins to calm down and unwind. “unwind” is an apt turn of phrase, because she’s wound up so tightly I could use her as clockwork. After playing video games together for a bit, she’s calmed down considerably (her current favourite at the moment is an indie rogue-like called Faster Than Light; simple to figure out yet fiendishly difficult, she throws herself into and it calms her down fantastically as it’s impossible to think of anything other than the game whilst you’re playing it). Once that’s done, I read to her – we read novels to each other on long car journeys, and there are some which are so good that you can’t just leave them in the car. Finally, for the first time in days, she’s calm. I send an apology to Mr and Mrs Muddles, which they’re very understanding about.
It worries me sick how worked up she gets about social events. I don’t know what to do about it, or how to help her. It’s frustrating, upsetting, and worrying.
* Mrs Muddles and I studied the same subject at university and were in the Officers’ Training Corps together; Sqn Ldr Muddles and I met in the bar of the Officers’ Mess at RAF Lyneham, a now closed transport aircraft base. The odd part was that I met them entirely separately of each other, and didn’t twig for an embarrassingly long time that the other halves they were talking about were people I knew…!
Entirely unrelated to everything, here is one of the most inspiring speeches that I’ve seen in quite a while; I think it’s certainly worth a share: Admiral William H. McRaven delivers the commencement address to the University of Texas class of 2014, on how to make a difference in life and how to be a good person. The US Navy SEAL starts out with the unexpected advice: Start by making your bed.
Trust me, it’s worth a watch.