You never know what you can do until you do it

You have heard all the cliches: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, feel the fear and do it anyway.  I have been musing about difficult things and I find that one of the great things about getting older is that you know that you have dealt with difficult things in the past and survived.

Years ago I was a trainee tax inspector.  The first time I investigated someone for not paying enough tax I couldn't sleep.  The night before my first interview I woke every hour, my stomach churning.  That morning I couldn't eat my breakfast and when I got to the office I spent the first half hour in the ladies'.  I had written an interview brief so detailed it could have been a script for a play.  A more experienced inspector was sitting in with me.

"You ok? Ready for this?" he said.

"Yes, I'm ready."

"Don't forget.  It's much worse for him that it is for you."  And off we went.  And it was fine.  I asked the right questions.  The taxpayer was indeed much more nervous than I was.  I tried to be firm but fair and I slipped into it: the role of the kindly but serious official.  It might have been a bit of play acting but it was real enough.  It was really his livelihood.  He really had not been playing fair.  I could do it and it was never so terrifying again.

And what else have I done? 

Spoken to an audience of a thousand at a conference in Las Vegas.

Walked the length of Wales.

Sat on top of a peak in the Dolomites, hanging on to the metal cross which marked the summit because I get dizzy with heights, and come down facing into the mountain like going down a ladder as the sight of the drop would make me fall off.

Knitted a pair of socks (and I'm on my second pair now, although so slowly that I can only say it is a good thing I am not knitting for a child.  He would be in adult football boots by the time I had finished his bootees).

Made a stepfamily.

I could tell you about the difficult things I have not done (lost half a stone, become a runner, for starters) but let's quit while we are ahead.  That's the whole point.

What is the most difficult thing you have done?


  1. How very true this is. I particularly liked the 'made a stepfamily' one!!
    Me, well I have thought about that and I suppose thehardest thing I have done is to reclaim my confidence after my abusive marriage ended and to bring up two confident sons on my own. I dont really think of it in this way but other people are always surprised and impressed! This week my biggest hurdle was the radio thing and now someone has asked me to give a talk (my idea of hell) but I will give it a go.

  2. That's easy and, at the same time, horrendous. Oly those who have ever done it will have any idea how hard and terrifying it is.

    I faced up to a violent bully and defeated him.

    Speaking to a hall full of people (men in my case) on many occasions was a doodle compared to it.

  3. The most difficult things... mmm...

    Being a parent
    Trying to be a better parent
    Letting them go their own way

    Oh, and the man versus bike versus horse race in Mid Wales - that was hard; bloody hard!

  4. Even though I've spoken in front of big groups of people, been on TV and radio, sang in front of hundreds, and exposed myself publicly as a writer, by far the most difficult thing is parenting teens. I know it sounds corny but I haven't a clue what I'm doing. Half of me wants to be their friend, but they don't need me as a friend. They need me to put my foot down now and then, and realise that they may not like me for it, but hopefully they'll thank me later.

  5. Helen - talks and radio are less and less terrifying when you get going. Can't begin to compare with the challenge of raising sons! You will be fine!
    Friko - yes, I do know what you mean although my bully was not violent and in a work context which I think is easier than a personal one. Still hard though!
    Mark - ah, letting them go their own way. You are so so right.
    Tom - don't be silly. That's not difficult. It's impossible. Maybe you have funny eyes.
    EPM - oh yes. The balance between keeping communication open and putting the foot down was soooo hard. My kids did get quite good at knowing when I meant it though.

  6. Oh Elizabeth. Immediately the answer came to mind - "Ending my first marriage". I was terrified. I literally could not think about it without trembling. In the end it was all well and we continue to be friends. He is one of the best people I know. For me, speaking my mind seems to be harder than anything else. I was a fearless rock climber, skier in my younger days. But tell someone that I'm not going to put up with their way of relating to me? Very scary.

  7. I once had to be interviewed by a trainee tax inspector. Nightmare!

  8. Leaving my first husband.

    Becoming a lecturer and having to teach students older than myself.

    But by far the most difficult is learning to come to terms (although I'm not there yet and probably ever will be) with the fact that I will never be a mother (or grandmother) despite years of fertility treatment.

  9. Bringing up two children on my own without any family to fall back on for emotional and practical support. But I did it and they are now launched into the world as a pair of fabulous young adults. Now the most difficult thing is living without them on a day to day basis...

  10. You might add that you have kept us all entertained with your interesting and thought-provoking blogs. I still think about the Peacock!

    I really can't think what is the most difficult thing I have done. Selling Life Insurance, which I did for a horrendous eighteen months when my fortunes otherwise collapsed, must rank pretty high. I was absolutely hopeless at that. Things that people think are difficult, learning lines and going on stage for instance, I don't find difficult at all though they do require some dedicated work.

  11. What a fabulous post Elizabeth. I have faced some very difficult challenges over the past few years...but really in the whole scheme of things were they that is such a good feeling to get out the other side and feel the wonderful comfort as you say in being a survivor, onwards and wishes

  12. What have I done? well, for one, I didn't disappear into a quagmire of anxiety and despair when I so easily could have gone that way.

    Last year I started running again, and was doing 5ks. I NEVER thought I'd be able to do that. Am starting from scratch again this year and going for it again.

    My next challenge is to rid myself of the debt that I've built up after years of crap temping jobs, a degree and various other things. I'd like to be able to actually start saving towards my future.

  13. Physically it was jumping off a mountain in Austria - overcoming all kinds of fears via paragliding.

    Emotionally - MUCH tougher - was making a choice to dismantle the ten foot wall I'd build around my heart when I was ten years old (and my father died). It stopped me getting close to anyone, to allowing myself to love and be loved.

    Wonderful post, Elizabeth... xxxx

  14. I won't tell you what the most difficult thing was. It is too horrid. I made me stronger after it nearly killed me emotionally. It wasn't necessary. I's rather it hadn't happened at all. I didn't need to be that strong.

  15. Well in the last 24 hours, the most difficult thing I did was to force myself to get dressed and go out to meet a bunch of strangers on my own, and learn about Bees.

    I get horribly anxious in such situations, to the extent I was physically sick before I left the house, but I did it, and I am very glad I did.

    Have had lots of hard thing to do in my life, some of them still haunt me, and I wont discuss them here, but I think the first time I was really aware of making a hard choice, was leaving home at 17 and making myself homeless. Not regretted that choice for one moment of my life.

  16. Your achievements are all very impressive , especially the step-family one !
    Hardest thing I've ever done? Trudging on day after day for a few years in a ghastly situation that I couldn't change or extricate myself from and making it out the other side.
    But at least it has made the present glow in comparison .

  17. Lovely post. And a challenging question! The two that sprang to mind were accepting that I was too ill to be able to return to work and that I needed to negotiate a leaving package instead. That was the end of my career, which I had loved for 20 years, and felt like the end of my life at the time. it doesn't any more.

    The other would be accepting that the breakdown in relationship with my parents was (a) not actually my fault and (b) not fixable by talking. The jury is still out on whether it is fixable at all, the people you are closest to are also the people who can hurt you the most, particularly when you discover they don't actually believe in you in the way you thought they did. But I have other wonderful people in my life who love and accept me, and I am building myself a new life. Not just surviving but thriving, which I am proud of.

  18. Thoughtful post! It's good to look back and take stock of what hurdles we've overcome.

    The most difficult thing for me was to sit by the bedside of a loved one as they slipped from this world. It's so hard to say goodbye and let go, while your heart breaks into a million pieces.

  19. The thing about things which make us stronger . . .

    When Cruise Missiles were to arrive at Greenham Common, there was a big attempt to pull down the fence so they would, at the very least, be delayed.

    The morning came when we were to set out and a friend came to me and said 'The Americans have guns'. There were layers of defence - ordinary police outside the fence, MOD police on the inside - along with British soldiers patrolling. Then, further in, American airmen (?) soldiers (?) (When it came to it, we saw them watching us through binoculars and, rather remarkably, gathering mushrooms!)

    So - having seen my friend's white face and her fear . . . I went and sat on the loo. Was this worth risking dying for? That the world might be plunged into nuclear war seemed . . . I decided to go ahead.

    The moment came. We started to cut the fence. Police were running up and down on the outside and inside of the fence, arresting as many people as they could. (A nine mile circle of women!) It was the first time I had ever used bolt cutters. I was so frightened I could hardly see. I snipped here, snipped there.

    An MOD policeman told a soldier to arrest me. From then on he, the soldier, stood on one side of the fence waiting while I cut my way through. My vision cleared. The worst had happened. I was to be arrested. (No-one was shooting!) From then on, I could cut in a straight line. They ran out of police. I wasn't arrested.

    The soldier assigned to me was young. Now I could see, I realised he was more frightened than me.

    It was a life-changing moment - that moment when my vision cleared. It made me stronger for many years. Having children turned me back into a wimp - so much so that my skin has gone clammy even telling you about this.


  20. Frith - fascinating, the contrast between physical bravery and the fear of emotional challenges. I know just what you mean!
    Cro - so it was you then. So glad I was appropriately intimidating!
    Mrs Jones - so hard, all these, but the last impossible to imagine in the scale of the difficulty. Nothing I know compares.
    Hasenschneck - I identify with both of these very strongly. Yet when they are adult and return it is very sweet!

  21. It has to be the year I spent nursing my husband when he was terminally ill and then bringing up two boys alone. But they seem to have survived the ordeal and I'm proud of them both.

  22. Mine is very pathetic compared to most of those, but: seeing my daughter off to London, which is a place I hate, to be with her fiance, whom we're not very keen on. And it's still very difficult, now she's been gone for eight weeks.

  23. What an amazing array of responses. I feel lucky and humbled by what Elizabeth's other readers have gone through and conquered. Thanks everyone for your openness.

  24. Fennie - now I would have trouble with selling life insurance I am quite sure. My father who is a photographer did it once and hated it utterly!
    Posie - there is real satisfaction in being a survivor isn't there?
    Lucy - you should be proud of yourself for what you have done so far! and best of luck with your next challenge. You can do it!
    Exmoorjane - yours is just one of the many responses which I find very moving. I am so glad you had the courage to knock your wall down.
    Nora - I am so sorry you had such a dreadful experience but very glad to have met you!
    Zoe - from my background with a loving and supportive family I can't begin to think how scary it must have been to leave home so young. But you clearly did the right thing and you clearly not only survived but as time went on, thrived!

  25. Taking (and passing) the fire department test. I was the only female who made it through. Unfortunately, they told me that to be hired I'd have to chop off my long hair. As in "crew cut". I said no, thank you very much. It was down in Tennessee, and I think it was the way they kept women out of there. Let them try out, but make them submit to some ridiculous rule that will keep them from wanting to join. It's still something I'm proud of having passed, the toughest physical thing I've ever done.

  26. S&S - trudging on is sometimes the only option and takes just as much courage as changing. glad life has improved for you.x
    Plantaliscious - how very hard. And how amazing that you have found so much that is positive out of it all. The human spirit is extraordinary.
    Leonora - the hugeness of losing someone is something we try not to think about until we must. I suspect we would go mad if we tried to confront it before we have no choice.
    Esther - what an amazing story. I have never had the courage or the certainty to do anything like that but I admire those who do. I am always too busy seeing all sides of the question and am thus paralysed into action.

  27. H - I can hardly begin to imagine how hard that must have been. You must be very proud of your sons though!
    Isabelle - it must still be hard but perhaps it is encouraging to see what tremendous challenges others have come through. I do hope yours works out for you all.
    Marcheline - wow! that's quite something. I almost wish you had cropped your hair and called their bluff.
    Frith - I so agree.

    I'd just like to thank everyone who has shared their difficult things here. I am astonished and impressed by the scale of the challenges which people have faced and by your openness as Frith has said. It is quite amazing what people can do when they must. What a privilege to know you all.


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