The Icelandic for Courage is Hugrekki!

Hi! So here’s the preview I promised you a week or two back. It’s a bit hefty and I considered cutting it down a little, but ultimately I decided that in this case, more is more. Enjoy!

So I started November like no month before (or again), by going on honeymoon in Iceland. It is a gorgeous, other-worldly country that I recommend to anyone who’s never spent much time North of The Wall.

From a writerly point-of-view, some key highlights were the 16th century hymn books in the National Museum, paying £50 for just two Icelandic small press books, and spending a few discomfiting hours observing what passes for open mic comedy in Reykjavík (basically, what passed for open mic comedy in the UK twenty years ago… dead baby, haha).

Anyway, what brings this round to our key themes and ties things together nice and thematically is the film we watched on the outbound flight. 2019’s coming of age literary biopic, Tolkien.

Iceland and the other Nordic countries have a rich tradition of sagas, myths and legends, which Tolkien and his contemporaries were influenced heavily by, notably in their so-called battle cry for the living, “Helheimr!”, an invigoration to steel the nerves in the face of an intimidating barrier to a desirable outcome.

Hymn books alone don’t mean a lot to me, but emotionally-important books that were used regularly in daily life over 400 years ago? That’s something to make me go “oooh” and take a photo.

Screwing your courage to the sticking-plate is a key theme of mental health, and one I’m quite familiar with in practice and motivational material. Whether that’s Nordic myth, the line of Macbeth I just quietly butchered, or my Green Lantern tattoo – which signifies willpower in the face of fear, and did so years before it grew to symbolise a half-baked Ryan Reynolds movie.

When my anxiety and PTSD forced me to wear a helmet of screaming bees in crowded rooms made of broken glass and paper, summoning the quiet courage to overcome self-doubt was an obvious path, albeit not an easy one.

With my “treatment” “over”, things are a little different. I’ve often talked about the echo of anxiety, a sort of learned unwillingness to do things that used to scare you even if they don’t anymore. The importance of steeling against a fear of minor social interactions and everyday activities is a key focus of recovery, but when everything stops requiring courage, it’s hard to know what actually does.

Here’s what £50 will get you in English language Icelandic small press publications, whether you buy them local or buy them online. It feels good to support small publishers. It has to, at that price.

For example, do you go to that whisky bar you’ve heard a lot about, that seems kind of cool and just your scene? It’s the sort of thing that used to make you anxious, and likely drive you to yell “Helheimr!” or “Green Lantern’s Light!” and march yourself inside to order something with pre-rehearsed theatrical confidence, but now it doesn’t make you anxious, it just makes you sort of unsure. It’s your honeymoon, after all, so you should be able to indulge in the things you like – but oh, you have that excursion tomorrow, so you probably shouldn’t.

That sounds like making an excuse not to bother, doesn’t it?

I once had tickets to a cyr wheel workshop (Google them, they’re awesome) the day after a former colleague was holding their leaving drinks. I thought better of it and fancied an early night, but my post-anxiety brain processed this as an excuse not to bother, and we hit the tiles. Helheimr! Suddenly the bold thing to do was drink all night, and hopefully still have the fortitude to smash the class the next day. Obviously that was bullshit, and my bloated morning carcass missed the chance to learn cyr wheel. Those don’t come around often.

Embracing the loudest thing isn’t necessarily braver than knowing when to duck out of the easy option, to hold off your battle cry and take a reasoned look at what the best course of action is. Sometimes the most intimidating thing is to actually say no, and go with the quieter, more valuable option.

If you’re really nervous and you want to do the scary thing, you should. But if you’re curious and eager about something quieter and potentially more difficult, sacrificing the immediate noisy plan might be harder but often more rewarding.

It’s something that’s well illustrated by the following scribbled notes, the outline for a loose five minutes of rebuttal stand-up that I wrote after experiencing a gaggle of Icelanders and tourists chuckle away at the ‘R’ word.

One day, if you’re lucky, I’ll tell you the Brussels Story.

If I was back in that comedy club, notes in hand, I’d happily leap up on stage and do that set, blood pumping with nerves and voice breaking with excitement. I’d deliver my after-the-fact comedy with a little anxiety, but an anxiety processed like just another energy in the room with me.

On the street the next day, thinking about going back, I wasn’t anxious. I had my set in hand but there was no screaming in my head arguing if I should go back the venue, no angry bees throwing up barriers and concerns in my way. There was nothing to yell “Helheimr!” against and dive forward. The buzzy excitement of being in that room had passed and all I was left with was the calm decision to possibly return there, perhaps.

And I didn’t.

I told myself it wasn’t important, because it wasn’t loud in my head.

It wasn’t important, or vital, or required, but it would have been good. Even in our busy honeymoon week there was space to do it, and if anything, saying I finally did my “first five” on my honeymoon would have added another great layer to an already blistering week of memories. It would have been something that enriched me, and maybe pushed me on to something bigger. In the cold light of Icelandic day, it just didn’t make enough of the right noises for me to realise.

Back in my screaming bee helmet of constant anxiety, it would have made noise because everything made noise – deciding what to have for lunch, choosing which urinal to use, answering the phone, or talking to friends and colleagues… I would have rallied towards it, because I had to rally towards everything.

I’m not saying that I miss my constant anxiety, but in its increasing absence I’ve realised the need to learn a new method of finding and dismantling the things that matter, to find not only signals in the noise but signals in the silence, and tune my personal radio to the right frequencies. Then comes the time to dive in with boldness and bravery, then comes the time to shine with courage and bellow the battle cry.


I hope you are well

Did you enjoy this? The difficulties of “wellness” as some sort of finished, healed state is the central theme of my upcoming book All Better Now, which as a member of my community you’ll receive a free digital copy of at launch, and for which you’ll continue to receive preview material just like this until then.

P.S Things you can look forward to soon include some short words on Secret Santa, a heads-up on when my Christmas book is going to be free, and that piece on an enforced lack of negativity, which I mentioned a while back.

P.P.S. Remember that as a member of this community, only you will get the opportunity to pick up 500ish Days In The Quiet Room at a scarily low introductory price, and after launch only you will get a digital copy of the companion collection All Better Now for absolutely free!