The anxiety bitch


I’ve blogged a little bit about my mental health problems over the last couple of years, but always somewhat hesitantly as it feels very personal, and I always worry about seeming whingey. However, I’m not sure that either my best interests, or wider awareness of mental health problems, are best served by a writerly stiff upper lip. The attitudes to mental health are so odd. I have a chronic physical illness – ankylosing spondylitis (AS), and I understand that it is something I have to live with rather than cure. That there are strategies and behaviours to help manage it, and triggers which will make it worse. I understand that a bad flare-up may be painful and debilitating at the time, but it will eventually pass, and if I am having a hard time during that flare-up I feel perfectly free to moan about it and ask for help. I don’t think it is my ‘fault’ when I get ill, and I don’t feel guilty about recurring episodes.

Intellectually I accept that things are no different with a mental health issue like anxiety. And when talking to someone else struggling with their mental health it would never cross my mind that it was something they could control or should feel guilty about. But I still slightly struggle to make that emotional adjustment regarding my own mental health.

Late summer and autumn last year was a very difficult time for me mentally. The worst manifestations of PTSD following Sophia’s difficult birth had passed, after the therapy I had, but I had been left with horrible anxiety, particularly health anxiety. An overwhelming fear of dying and leaving my girls when I love them so much and their need of me is so great saw me over-analysing every last twinge, twitch and niggling ache. Dr Google is definitely not your friend in these circumstances. And the real bitch about anxiety is that it creates physical symptoms – nausea, erratic heart beat, tense muscles, twitches – all of which re-enforce the conviction that something is badly wrong and create a vicious circle.

Sometimes the focus of my anxiety would switch, and I would panic about a symptom one of the children was exhibiting instead. Here the responsibility felt quite literally mind-boggling. It is my job to spot if there is a problem with one of my children and act accordingly. For me, campaigns like the ones to spot the signs of sepsis or various childhood cancers, although excellently intentioned and no doubt very valuable for many families, actually send me into a tailspin of panic. So often we are told as parents to ‘trust our instincts’ but my instincts are stuck on permanent red alert.

I felt ashamed that after spending a lot of money seeing a private psychologist to have my PTSD treated I was still unwell. Again, would I have felt this if my AS flared up again after an apparently successful treatment? Of course not. Some blunt common sense from my husband and a good friend persuaded me to make a GP appointment.  I was referred to see a counsellor for a course of CBT, and I’ve been having this therapy since late autumn.

It had really started to help. From around Christmas onwards I was feeling much better. As I felt better mentally the physical symptoms receded too, and hey presto a virtuous circle was born. I started to feel happy with a happiness I could rely on, rather than as a tentative feeling I suspected might be washed away on a tide of fear at any moment. My success was in taking life one day at a time, beginning to accept that this moment right now is all any of us ever have, and it behoves us to make the most of it rather than courting or dreading the fickle Goddess of the Future. The trap I fell into was starting to think of myself as better, or cured, when in reality I suspect that, like AS, anxiety isn’t really something that can ever be totally cured, it is a case of living alongside and managing the symptoms.

The last couple of weeks have been a bit tiring and stressful. Anna had a throat infection, which mysteriously triggered a severe outbreak of eczema, which is not a problem she’s really had before. Sophia has blocked sinuses, and has needed regular steaming sessions to try and unblock them, and which have caused a hideous night-time cough, making her distressed and keeping us both awake for hours at night, leading to tired and grumpy days. Even the cat has got in on the act with dental problems leading to the need for a special diet and a request from the vet to get a urine sample from him (yes, really), so that his kidney function can be tested and the appropriate painkillers prescribed. Worry about what was actually wrong with my furry and non-furry dependents, and the additional work of looking after them, not to mention the darker imaginings of what hideous illnesses these symptoms might actually signify have taken their toll, and my anxiety levels have rocketed. This in turn sets off physical symptoms which begin to convince me that there is something horribly wrong with me.

I have felt deeply disappointed in myself for relapsing. I am struggling to teach myself to stop thinking of recovery as linear, or of there being an end-state of ‘better’, but to understand that it will be up and down, and there will always be times when I struggle more. And I am learning strategies to calm myself down – mini mindfulness exercises when I try and force my brain to focus on the here and now, not trying to suppress anxious or difficult thoughts but to acknowledge them and move on, recognising how physical symptoms are the treacherous bitch anxiety tricking my mind into tricking my body.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Even in the last couple of difficult weeks there have been some fun times when my anxiety has receded, and I’ve been able to enjoy a dinner with friends or watching Anna playing a Munchkin in her school’s Wizard of Oz production. The lesson it seems I must learn and re-learn is to take the rough with the smooth. To make lemonade with the lemons, and to dance in the rain. I mustn’t wait to reach the Sugarcandy Mountain where my whole family is always healthy and an anxious thought never crosses my mind, before allowing myself to be happy.



A whitstable

So, as of last weekend, I am the mother of a nine year old. I wasn’t very well immediately after her birth, so the first time I saw her naked she was about 24 hours old. I cried because she looked so tiny and vulnerable, and I almost couldn’t bear that she was outside in a big scary world instead of still safe inside me. And now that tiny baby is halfway to official adulthood.

She may be a lot bigger now, but in some ways she is still just as vulnerable. The thing is, as a parent you can do a lot to control everything about your baby’s environment. In fact it is pretty much all you care about. I kept her warm and safe and fed and clean and cuddled, and there was almost no problem that couldn’t be solved by a cuddle and a breastfeed.

Of course I still do my best to keep her warm and safe and fed and clean and cuddled,  but it is no longer in my power to solve all her problems. Friendship issues, finding out about the all-important parts in the school play, struggling with a dyslexia diagnosis that makes some aspects of her school work very difficult for her – none of these things are within my gift to solve. Recently I discovered that a few weeks ago she had been upset about something at school, and her lovely friends had made a huge, and successful, effort to cheer her up. I felt pretty miserable,  though, feeling I had failed at mothering because I hadn’t been there for her. Then a very wise friend pointed out that, actually, having strong friendships where she feels comfortable and safe talking about her feelings is actually a really positive thing. At nine it is right and appropriate that my husband and I no longer meet all her emotional needs.

I know parents of even older children/teenagers (and adults!) will probably tell me that this is only the beginning of it. The list of things which will affect her wellbeing and happiness and which I can’t control is only going to get longer.

One of my favourite quotes is that we should give our children “roots and wings”. My lovely, clever, creative, thoughtful, sensitive and loving little girl is growing her wings. Our job is to maintain the roots so that she knows that whatever life throws at her she can always come home and find love and security with her family.

We celebrated last weekend with presents, chocolate fudge cake and a trip to Whitstable for some (rather chilly) beach frolics and a seafood lunch. On Saturday we have a pizza-making party with 10 of her friends to look forward to. Anna has definitely inherited my talent for making birthdays stretch.

Nine years into motherhood I am still waiting for someone to give me the rule book or instruction manual. I still feel like I’m winging it almost every day. But whether by good luck or (far less likely!) good management, we’ve got a pretty awesome nine year old daughter, and I’m very proud of her.

February half term

February half term was only last week, but actually feels like ages ago as it’s been a really busy week since we got back.

We had all sorts of plans for the first few days, most of which were cancelled as Sophia was poorly, and just wanted to sit on my lap and have cuddles and stories, which is of course what she got. Husband did take Anna out for a long walk across the Walthamstow Marshes and along the River Lea to blow their cobwebs away – the highlight of which for Anna appears to have been walking through a puddle that went up to her shins!

Then we went off to Liverpool to stay with my parents for a few days, and had a lovely time. Sophia was much better – albeit with a cough which got so bad on the first night we were there that my long-suffering dad ended up driving off to the all-night supermarket at 4am in search of cough mixture!

The next day the adults may have been a bit bleary, but the children were full of beans, and we headed off to one of my favourite parts of Liverpool, the Albert Docks. In slightly more clement weather I love a walk along the river front, but that day it was blowing winds of 45mph, so we headed straight indoors. I took Sophia to Mattel Play, which is basically 3 year old paradise – a soft play and imaginary play centre themed around Thomas the Tank and Bob the Builder. She had an amazing time, and although soft play is not my preferred way of spending time, this one is actually very civilised. Very clean, everything in great condition, friendly staff, and not over-crowded, even in the middle of half term.

bob the builder

Meanwhile my parents took Anna to one of my childhood favourites, the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The age gap between my girls means that it can be difficult to find activities they both enjoy, especially in cold/wet weather when running around at the park or on the beach is less of an option. This was great because Anna got to explore to her heart’s content with Nanna and Grandad, long after her sister’s boredom threshold would have been surpassed.

That evening I got to hang out with four of my oldest and loveliest friends – three of whom still live in Liverpool and another of whom was also up for half term visiting her parents. We basically did what we’ve been doing since we were 13, and sat around eating  pizza, crisps and chocolate and chatting about anything and everything. There was more prosecco at 37 than there was at 13, and the conversation was a bit heavier – pregnancy, breastfeeding, children, schools, careers, house renovations, sadly the serious illness of one friend’s mum – but there was plenty of random silliness too and I was reminded again of just how much I love these girls, and how lucky I am to have them in my life.

The next day we met up at the park with a selection of sproglets aged between 8 weeks and 5 years in tow, and huddled in the playground trying to keep warm while our offspring ran around.yellow shoes I also took the children to get their feet measured (they’d both grown, of course), and although the trip left me about £70 poorer, it did mean I could justify buying Sophia a pair of sunshine yellow patent shoes, which makes me very happy.

Saturday was the surprise success of the visit. My parents are very involved with helping to run their church’s food bank and community coffee shop, both of which take place on a Saturday morning. They suggested I brought the children along for a drink and some homemade cake, and then took them home when they got bored. To be honest, I expected that to happen sooner rather than later, as I didn’t think there would be much for them to do. I dramatically under-estimated the allure of a large, empty, carpeted space in the church hall! They spent the whole morning (other than a short break for bacon butties and delicious home-made chocolate eclairs) doing ‘exercises’, basically a random selection of incredibly energetic gymnastics and chasing games in the space. They got me to join in too, so I got a good workout. It is such a useful reminder that, although it is nice for children to have toys and to be taken on interesting trips, sometimes they are equally happy with some time and space to make their own fun.

As always when I go home, I feel like I have had a complete break, and come back with loads more energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately this time also with Sophia’s lurgy, but that is par for the course parenting small children in winter!

I have a hugely exciting weekend trip by myself this weekend – a bread and patisserie course at a cookery school in Devon, which was my Christmas present from my husband. Feeling a bit nervous about leaving Sophia for pretty much the first time, and being apart from both girls for three days, which I think is the longest ever, but I’m looking forward to it too, and will hopefully blog next week about how I get on.

January: Shakshuka flat bread

I decided to cook the recipe of the month on my Sainsbury’s calendar during 2018, and blog about the results. I haven’t quite managed to do the blogging bit during January, but I did cook the Shakshuka Flatbreads last Sunday evening.

shakshuka recipe

First of all I made a decision that this recipe would not serve four, unless it was as a starter or light lunch. As a main meal it seemed more realistic to say it would serve two, which is handy, because my children wouldn’t eat it in any case.

I also decided to make one large flatbread rather than 4 small. I don’t have a fan oven, and getting 4 flatbreads evenly cooked would be challenging.

The end result was really tasty, but I’m still not sure I would make it again. It was quite fiddly to make, and seemed to require quite a lot of hands-on time. My preferred recipes either take some preparation followed by a long hands-off period while they’re in the oven (lasagne, shepherd’s pie, casseroles), or are quite last minute but pretty quick, like a Thai curry or a stir-fry. This didn’t really manage either.


The harissa and tomato sauce was absolutely amazing, and I have definitely been inspired to add a dollop of harissa paste to my own shakshuka recipe in future, but I think I am just too lazy and too busy to make this recipe a regular part of my repertoire.

A decade in the ‘Stow

walthanstow stadiumI’m a bit late with this post, as we actually moved to Walthamstow in December 2007, but never mind. I still feel in the mood for a bit of reflection on my life over the last ten years in this amazing corner of North-East London.

This is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life, and the changes which have taken place, in my own life and the place I’m living it, are absolutely staggering. When my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Walthamstow we were classic DINKYs (double-income, no kids yet), and although we were very proud of owning our first home, a little two-up, two-down Victorian terrace, our professional and social lives were very much centred around central London. I left Walthamstow at 7.30am every week day to go for a swim at my Fitzrovia gym before work. I ate breakfast and lunch at my desk. After work, more often than not, I’d meet friends and/or boyfriend for a drink or meal in town, and get home in time to go to bed and repeat the whole cycle again. Evenings I did come home earlier were usually because I was tired, and didn’t want to go out, and so were spent slumped on the sofa with an M&S ready meal rather than out and about in my neighbourhood.

The last ten years have seen me have two babies, quit my job in town in favour of life as a stay-at-home-mum and writer, start a blog, publish two novels and a novella, get married, buy a slightly bigger terraced house in the adjacent street to our first, make some brilliant local friends, and then most recently my husband has quit his job in town to found a start-up business based in, of course, Walthamstow. Our lives are now inextricably entwined with this community. It used to be the place we returned to from our lives elsewhere to lay our heads, now, to a large extent, Walthamstow is our lives.

Walthamstow has changed along with us. We live in the area known as the village. Unlike many so-called urban villages, this is rooted in more than estate-agent speak. The parish church of St Mary’s was listed in the Doomsday Book, and it is surrounded by a collection of old almshouses. If you squint and ignore the traffic, you can imagine a little rural community here in the middle ages. Grand houses, like the Morris family home (now the William Morris gallery) were built around Walthamstow and Leytonstone by upper-class families as rural retreats, still within easy travelling distance of London. Then came the railway, and the streets upon streets of Victorian terraces with the pubs and shops to serve the rapidly expanding community of City workers, attracted by the relative affordability of the area and the easy commute. La plus ça change…

We moved here ten years ago because it was the nicest place, with good transport links, that we could afford to buy a whole, albeit small, house to ourselves. We paid £300,000 for our little house. Extortionate, really, even then, for what was essentially built as a worker’s cottage. But we were lucky, we had good salaries, we had saved hard, and we had a legacy which went towards our deposit. Looking at Rightmove today, a two-bedroomed house on the same street or a neighbouring one seems to sell for around £625,000-650,000. An unbelievable increase, and this is after the political and economic uncertainty around Brexit has reversed house-price growth in London. The three-bedroomed house we upgraded too, after much soul-searching and back-of-envelope budgeting as to its affordability, cost £420,000. A three-bedroomed house on our road is for sale today for £900,000. There is absolutely no way we could now afford to buy our own house, or even the house we moved out of five years ago to acquire more space for our growing family.

This has a massive impact on the character of the area. Perhaps nothing illustrates it better than the picture at the top of this blog – Walthamstow Stadium has been converted from being that bastion of traditional working class culture, a dog racing stadium, to a block of stylish modern, rather expensive,  apartments. Some of it, from my point of view at least, is a very positive impact. I am writing this blog post sat in the cafe of our local organic sourdough bakery, Today Bread. I know, could I be more of an East London cliche? The bread is delicious, healthy and ethical, but at £4 a loaf (and selling out like hot cakes every day) it certainly reflects a more affluent neighbourhood.

There are several different layers now, in Walthamstow society. The authentic East-End community of people born and bred here and first-generation immigrant communities from Asia or the Caribbean who I can only imagine must view the influx of hipsters with MacBooks and interesting facial hair, and young mums dashing off to baby yoga with a significant degree of resentment that their children and grandchildren have been totally priced out of their own community. My husband and I are part of the first wave of that influx – public sector workers, people in the arts – who moved to Walthamstow a decade or so ago because we liked the pretty streets, diverse community and amazing transport links. Are we a problem, creating spiralling house prices, or a positive force for economic regeneration? Probably both. Now in our thirties and forties, we know we could no longer afford to buy here ourselves, but we benefit from the fabulous array of new cafes, restaurants, bars, gastro pubs, arts venues and pop-up shops enabled by the new wave of incomers – people priced out of ultra-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch and creating a demand for organic juices and almond-milk flat whites here in Walthamstow.

I adore where I live. The combination of old and new, the melding and merging of immigrant communities from around the world, a modern foodie culture but great sense of history in fantastic local museums William Morris Gallery and Vestry House, and the sense of belonging I get from living, shopping, educating my children, working and socialising in one fantastically warm and supportive community. As a Scouser by birth and upbringing, when I first moved to London I really didn’t get the almost tribal passion with which Londoners identified with ‘their’ area. The horror of a North Londoner being expected to go South of the river, or a West-End girl accepting a party invite East of Aldwych seemed deeply puzzling. Now I get it. I have given birth to two East Londoners (one born in Leytonstone, one in Hackney), and my life, community and roots now run very deep here. A decade in Walthamstow has made me an East Londoner through and through.