The anxiety bitch

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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.

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Back to normality

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Well, there we are. Christmas is all over for another year. I followed my own advice, and successfully avoided festive fatigue, and we had a really lovely and relaxing time.

It helped very much that, after having Christmas at home, we went to my brother and sister-in-law’s for a few days. It was great to see them and catch up, and as always I’m reminded that 4:2 adults to children is a very helpful ratio. It really does take a village to raise a child, and seeing the children doing and learning things with their aunt and uncle (sewing, yoga, juggling!) which they’re definitely not going to get from their parents, is lovely.

It was also a few days off cooking, and away from the Christmas chaos of my own house. What is it about Christmas that means suddenly there is no surface in the house which isn’t covered with new toys/games, wrapping paper, packaging, sellotape, dirty crockery or glasses, crumbs? Or is that just me? There were only 5 of us for Christmas Day, but from the mess we made you would think that there were at least double that number! It didn’t help that the dishwasher conked out on December 23rd, and we couldn’t get an engineer to fix it until 2nd January!

However, the children went back to school and preschool yesterday, and I began the process of getting organised. We will take the decorations down tonight, and then I can arrange new bits and pieces nicely, and perhaps replace the desiccated holly with a nice big bunch of spring flowers.

Of course, it isn’t spring yet, there’s still a long old haul of dark, cold and wet days. I don’t mind too much, though. I’m not starting a new restrictive diet or crazy exercise regime (although possibly adding some food groups other than cheese, chocolate and sausage, and a little more exercise than lifting the remote control might be a good idea), and I’mm happy to hygge on down for the next couple of months. I’ve got a few projects on the go, and with Sophia moving to 15 hours a week at preschool I’ll have a bit more time to pursue them.

So yeah, bring it on January! Happy New Year, everyone.

Avoiding Festive Fatigue

carols by candlelight

We’re back at that time of year where, if you’re not careful, life can feel like one long to-do list. My own list is epic. Finish writing cards. Post cards. Get daughter to write her cards. Make shortbread as present for class eldest’s class teacher. Take teacher presents into preschool. Make cranberry sauce to put in freezer. Post presents that need posting. Wrap other presents. Pay credit card bill (gulp). Update Ocado order. Finalise stocking fillers. Make mince pies. Water Christmas tree. Do all the things I need to do every day which don’t stop just because its Christmas.

But I want to stop and hit pause, so that I’m not so shattered by Christmas I don’t enjoy it. And ideally, so that I enjoy the last few days before Christmas, as in many ways they are the best bit. Here are my top five ways to avoid festive fatigue.

1 Go and sing some carols

For me, Christmas without a church service or two is like icing without cake. All the surrounding frippery can be beautifully sweet, but without the cake itself it can feel sickly and cloying. I’m not particularly religious, but the Christmas message of love, peace and joy never fails to uplift and inspire me. And taking time out to sing beautiful carols in a lovely place imbues me with a sense of peace and calm which lasts far longer than the service itself. One of our most beloved family traditions is going to the service of crib blessing in Trafalgar Square every Advent. Sadly we missed it this year as Anna was ill, and we missed the local carols in the village square for the same reason. However, yesterday evening I made a last-minute decision that Anna could have a slightly late bedtime, and we whizzed off to the carols by candlelight service in our local parish church. I had been feeling overwrought and overwhelmed all day, but I ended it feeling peaceful, loving and festive.

2 Do something you like 

A lot of Christmas is for children, and as parents we bend over backwards to ensure that they have the most perfect and memorable time possible. But they won’t enjoy any of that nearly so much with a grumpy, snappy mummy. I hope that making the time to go for a Christmas drink with a friend, lighting a scented candle and snuggling in whilst listening to some carols with my favourite Christmassy books to read, and going to that carol service will help me keep my cool and my patience as the children’s Pre-Christmas Tension rises.

3. Don’t try and do everything

There is so much to do at this time of year. Parties, drinks, Christmas fairs, grottoes, carol singing, lights, meals out, pantomimes, films, shopping , festive family craft sessions and so on and so on. If you try and do everything that comes your way you will be exhausted and frazzled. Take a moment to think about your family, and what you actually enjoy doing, and concentrate on a few activities that will feel really special and meaningful (even if that’s just watching a favourite Christmas film together whilst drinking hot chocolate) rather than squeezing everything in to what will end up feeling like a giant, sparkly, headache inducing blur. You won’t enjoy it, and your children probably won’t enjoy it either.

4. Cut corners and delegate

I am not going to send cards to children at my toddler’s preschool, because she barely remembers any of her little friends’ names, and can’t write.  When my friend brings her children round for a pre-Christmas catch-up/play date they will get frozen pizza for tea (maybe with some cherry tomatoes and cucumber on the side), because the point is that we all spend time together, rather than me being stuck in the kitchen trying to rustle up some home-made delight that at least half the children will probably reject on sight anyway. My husband is in charge of wrapping presents (although I still haven’t found a way of getting someone else to wrap his presents!), doing the decorations and setting the festive tables, and although I don’t cut many corners on Christmas Day cooking because I love doing (and easting!) the whole shebang, I am more than happy for my mother-in-law to contribute her delicious bread-sauce, brandy butter and ham for the festive feast.

5. Remember the bigger picture

Will anyone really look back and say “oh, Christmas 2017 was a big disappointment – mum forgot the maple glaze for the parsnips”? A piece of advice I read of this year and try (though often fail) to heed, is when something goes wrong or causes you anxiety, stop and think whether it will still bother you in five years time. If the answer is no, then stop fretting. I think this advice applies more than ever at Christmas. Children, and indeed everyone, will remember an atmosphere of warmth and love and a sense of magical anticipation. That doesn’t need you to work yourself into the ground, or spend more money than you can really afford – in fact probably the exact opposite.

Oh, and a final thought – this is a horrible, germy time of year. Force feed everyone a good multivitamin, get out in the fresh air when you can, and stock up on the Dettol spray to try and contain things if the bugs do strike!

 

 

Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

path to beach

It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

looking at the view

Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

live well sign

Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

How to be good?

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What does living your best life mean for you, and how do you go about it?

One of the blessings, or possibly curses, of approaching middle-age is that I am suddenly much more able to see both sides of an argument and to realise that things are rarely black and white. Nowhere does this trouble me more than in working out how I try and balance the competing demands to live my best life.

What does that mean for me? Well, I want to be family-focussed, trying to be the best mother, daughter, sister and wife that I can possibly be. I want to be a good friend, someone that my friends can have fun with, but also turn to for support when they need it. I want to take care of myself, both so that I can live as long and healthily as possible, but also because I am slowly working out that if I feel better about myself then I am better able to take care of other people. I want to be a successful writer – defining success as giving pleasure to other people through my writing, making a modest amount of money from it, and where appropriate using it to highlight causes I care about. I want to live frugally and with as light an environmental footprint as I can reasonably achieve. I want to live ethically, mindful of the effect that my choices and actions have on the lives of others, and trying to make that effect positive wherever I can.

So far, so good. As a set of vague aims it works. But they’re so contradictory. Food, for example. Do I buy the healthy avocados I love, or do I resist because of the air miles and over-farming issues? Ethics and health dictate that I should buy organic dairy – better for the farmers, better for the cows, and no nasty antibiotics and growth hormones, but when you get through as much milk, cheese and yoghurt as my kids do, then it really isn’t a frugal option. I can see a diet plan which promises fill me up with super-foods and micro-nutrients galore, increasing my energy levels and vitality, but many of the ingredients won’t be fair-trade and the air miles will be horrendous.

I can be sitting with my children while they have their tea, when I get a whatsapp message from a friend having a bad day and needing some support. Do I ignore my children while I reply, setting them the bad example of being a slave to social media, and the not-so-subliminal message that they are less important than this metal box, or do I ignore the message for a couple of hours until after their bedtime? By which time I should either be pursuing a healthy life by doing some exercise or cooking a nutritious meal, or having a relaxing bath, or being a caring wife by chatting to my husband about his stressful day.

Three mornings a week my children are at school/pre-school, and I have a 2.5 hour window to myself. Do I use it to do some exercise? Or to work on my writing? Or to clean and declutter our home to make it a nicer and calmer environment for all of us? Or to batch cook some healthy food so that I have more time to spend with my family in the evenings, but we all still get well fed? Or to walk to the budget supermarket 30 minutes away to stock up on a wide range of healthy food at frugal prices? Or to visit the local, independent butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker and cheese shop (all a 20-30 minute walk apart) to buy organic, fair-trade produce with generally lower food miles, but at budget-busting prices? Perhaps I should use the time to phone a friend I never get to catch up with, and have a proper, uninterrupted chat with her. Or have a coffee with a local friend. Or write to my local MP about one of the many political issues which trouble me at the moment.

I can get so over-whelmed by the decision making process that it is all to easy to end up slumped on the sofa, staring vacantly at my phone, my mind churning, and realise that 30 minutes have gone by without any productive activity at all.

Is this just me? How do other people find a balance between all the competing demands of ‘being good’? Am I over-thinking it? Am I missing an obvious solution, or do I have to decide on just a couple of priorities which are most important to me and focus on those? I am so interested to hear your views!