The anxiety bitch

crocuses

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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Flying solo

ducks

My husband is away with work this week, from Sunday afternoon to late Thursday evening, so it is just me and the kids. First of all, massive hats off to single parents! I’m finding this quite tough enough when I know it is just a temporary thing; coping day in, day out on your own must take such guts and determination.

I’m fairly used to time on my own, as husband has always worked in public transport, and the nature of the work is that when you’re moving other people round the country you can’t always stay in the same place yourself. Normally it is only for a night or two, but there are a few techniques I’ve learnt to help me cope:

  1. Be strategic about washing. Seriously. Do whatever it takes to avoid having to bathe and wash the hair of two children by yourself on the same evening. And plan your own showers in advance, begging/bribing older children to look after younger ones while you attempt a level of basic cleanliness.
  2. Get the treats in. I bought some maple syrup and raisin pancake in Marks and Spencer’s yesterday, and we had them for breakfast this morning with chopped up strawberries and yet more maple syrup drizzled (alright, poured) over, and it definitely brightened the start of our day. Plus, I’m pretty sure maple syrup has some kind of super food benefits, non?
  3. FaceTime doesn’t really work for us because when husband is away he tends to be working long/unpredictable hours, but I make little videos of the children talking to him on my phone, and he videos himself replying, and they can watch those over again when they’re missing daddy.
  4. Eat things your other half doesn’t like. On the sofa. With the gas fire on high.
  5. Get the children to sleep (I know, I know, those five little words conceal a world of pain), and then head to bed yourself with a good book. 9 or 10 hours sleep, while not entirely compensating for the absence of the love of your life can be an excellent consolation.
  6. Get all your female friends round, blow the housekeeping budget on prosecco and book a group of male strippers. Or alternatively, put your dressing gown on as soon as you’ve done the afternoon school run and curl up on the sofa with a cat and a vat of hot chocolate to watch GBBO. I’ll definitely be doing one or the other of those this evening…

I am looking on the bright side. I live in an age of readily available dry shampoo and Kindles, so I can get away without washing my hair if WWIII seems likely to break out in my absence, and I am guaranteed not to run out of things to read. Also, I get to really look forward to seeing my husband at the end of the week, and really appreciate how much easier things are when he is around (even though I frequently moan about how tough they are), and realise that, despite his inability to make a cup of coffee without covering 85% of the kitchen surfaces and floor with coffee grounds, I do love him very much, and miss him very much, and am very lucky to be in a marriage where that is the case.

The weekend that was

I love the posts my blogger friend, Chiswick Mum, writes about her family weekends, and as, in keeping with my new policy of dragging myself out of hibernation, I actually have something to blog about, I’ve shamelessly nicked the idea. I hope she will forgive me, and take it in the spirit of ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.

Saturday was a fairly quiet domestic day, but we still fitted a lot in. Husband popped out to our local shop first thing and bought fresh pastries for breakfast, and then took Anna off to the first of her new swimming lessons. Thankfully, teacher, pool and lesson content all met with her approval. Sophia had her nap while they were out, which meant I had time to shower, wash my hair, condition my hair, shave my legs and apply body lotion – normally, assuming I get time to wash at all, I have to choose just one of the above.

I also managed to make a pizza for lunch, and then while that was cooking we took Sophia for her first ever walk outside. She toddled proudly up and down our street, and was so thrilled to be out in the world. If a baby’s character is any predictor of the adult they become, then I suspect Sophia will be an adventurer, and husband and I will have to resign ourselves to our relationship with her consisting of monthly text messages such as ‘In Brazil now. Going rafting up Amazon tomorrow! Love you, S x’, because she certainly seems determined to explore the limits of her world.

eggsI hadn’t been looking forward to the afternoon, because I had to help Anna with her school ‘decorate an egg for Easter’ competition. I am really not good at things like that, and while previously Anna has been content with slapping some paint in the general direction of a hard-boiled egg, this year she has ambitions to win, and had decided on an ‘under the sea’ theme. To say I was trepidatious about the task of helping her create an octopus, a mermaid, a diver and a fish out of hard-boiled eggs would be an understatement, but somehow we managed it, and were actually both fairly proud of the result. I don’t think she probably will win (for context, on the way into school this morning I saw a pirate ship populated by boiled egg pirates, and a whole football pitch of eggy players), but we enjoyed messing around with paints and sequins and bits of material, and I also realised Anna had never come across the word ‘bikini’ when she requested that I help her cut out the mermaid’s ‘waterproof bra’!nest cakes

In the mood for Easter crafting, we then made Easter nest crispy cakes. And when I say ‘we’, I actually mean Anna, because apart from me lifting the hot bowl in and out of the microwave, my oh-so-grown-up little girl made them entirely herself. My vital role was to test the mini eggs were up to scratch, and I did so exhaustively. Happy to report that they were, and I even managed to save some for the cakes.

I completed the day’s cookathon by making a big pan of veggie chilli for dinner, and a batch of cinnamon buns ready for Sunday breakfast.

Yesterday we were off to Oxford. Despite it being the place husband and I met, and pretty much my favourite place in the world, we’ve only taken Anna a couple of times, once when she was just a baby, and Sophia had only been in utero. I was overcome by the huge wave of nostalgia I always feel in Oxford, but I absolutely loved seeing our daughters running around playing in the beautiful garden where their father and I shared our first kiss, nearly seventeen years ago. A & S Merton

We went to a lovely Thai restaurant for lunch and, once again, I was very proud of Anna and realised just how grown up she is becoming as she was willing to try all the unfamiliar food on offer. Pork belly with Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. Sweet chilli noodles. Beansprouts and bamboo. Stir-fried prawns with chilli. Actually, the thing she liked best was the egg-fried rice, but just a year or two ago she would have refused to try any of it.

After lunch we did a quick tour of Oxford’s greatest hits – Merton Street, a peek into Christ Church meadows (which are sadly inaccessible with a pram), Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, High Street, Turl Street before finishing up at Blackwell’s for a browse and a coffee before we got the park and ride bus back to the new Oxford Parkway station.

We broke our journey home with a twenty minute dash into the Bicester Village retail extravaganza so we could pop into the Cath Kidston outlet for some new cereal bowls. I won’t go into details as to why we needed new ones. Suffice it to say that, a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally left the stair gate which normally blocks off the kitchen doorway open. I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t have longer in Bicester Village as I discovered that the Clarks shop there is doing an exclusive collaboration with Orla Kiely,and the resulting shoes are the stuff of my dreams. I am plotting whether I can manage a quick dash back at some point. I know it’s not exactly on the doorstep, but they really were divine.

Finally the children had a picnic tea on the train home – good old-fashioned cheese and ham sandwiches after their taste adventure at lunchtime – and we all got home tired but happy. It was a wonderful weekend, and I felt that we got the balance between domestic pottering and adventures further afield just right. The only thing missing was a trip into central London, so I will have to put that on my wish-list for another time. merton

Nineteenth Day of Advent: My home

Since I had Anna, one of the elements of the Christmas story which really resonates with me is Mary wandering around Bethlehem, knowing that she was about to give birth, but not knowing where, or having a place to keep her new baby safe afterwards. I can’t imagine many things worse. It wrings my heart to think of how many parents across the world are still in that situation today.

However, this blog is focussing on the positives, and the things I personally have to be grateful for.

My house, the warm, cosy, comfortable, secure home, where we can bring up our daughters safely is very high on the list.

our houseThis house has felt like home since the first moment I stepped over the threshold. We had been looking to move for a while, feeling that, with an almost three year old and the possibility that we might have another baby at some point, we were outgrowing our tiny two up, two down terrace. Anna and I came to view this house one cold, snowy February evening not long before her third birthday. She was grumpy because the only time I had been able to schedule the viewing clashed with her teatime. We both had cold wet feet from wading through the slush to get here. And yet, the second I walked in, these minor irritations vanished and I knew we had found our forever home.

As the estate agent showed me round I abandoned my little notebook with lists of all the things husband and I had considered ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’ in our new house and which I usually ticked off, as I looked round. Instead I was mentally decorating and arranging our furniture. At the end of the 20 minute viewing I made an offer of the full asking price, even though my husband had never seen it. Our marriage doesn’t normally operate like that; the opposite, we normally talk and discuss at length until we reach a consensus. This time though, rather like when I met husband himself, I just knew it was right.

This being the London property market there were quite a few ups and downs before we actually exchanged contracts (by which time husband had actually seen, and luckily loved, the house!). During the process we got to know the couple who were selling it quite well. They are artists, in their late fifties or early sixties, and were taking early retirement to go and live down on the Kent coast. At the moment our solicitor phoned to say we had completed, husband and I were standing in their (now our) dining room, drinking champagne with them. Having had that friendly relationship with them adds to the warm and positive vibes I always get from our house.garden1

I love my home in all its guises. When it is being trashed by Anna and her friends playing ‘landslides’ (all the sofa cushions, pillows, blankets etc in the house piled up in the middle of the living room so they can throw themselves off the denuded sofa onto it), or when, as now it is calm and quiet because husband has taken Anna to her swimming lesson with Sophia in tow so that I can have a blogging break. And make macaroni cheese with pancetta, spinach and sweetcorn for tea when they get home. I love it when it is full of friends or family eating and laughing and enjoying themselves, and I love it when it is just me and my husband sharing a quiet dinner together or Anna and I having a hot chocolate after school, or Sophia determinedly learning to climb upstairs and down again with me shadowing her protectively.  I love it in summer when the doors stand open and we can eat in the garden, and I love it at Christmas when it is full of fairy lights and holly from the tree in our front garden. I love that both my girls have their own room with their own soft warm bed and space for their own little treasures. But I also love that one of the rooms is big enough that, if they wanted to, they could share it when Sophia is older. fireplace

I love the feeling of peace and security which envelopes me here, even if things in other areas of my life are going wrong. I love that the house is a constantly evolving reflection of our changing lives. The spare bedroom became a nursery. Husband has had a lot of work to do at home lately, so a corner of our dining room has become a home office (aka totally disorganised pile of papers with a laptop teetering on top). Baskets of baby toys are now in the corner of most rooms, and are about to be joined by a bright yellow, plastic, ride-on duck. Ahem. Anna’s toys take up less room now, but her shelves of ‘chapter books’ are continually expanding. There is an ongoing tension between my need to at least attempt to keep things relatively clean and tidy, and my family’s need to leave as many of their possessions as possible scattered over the floor. Luckily, though, I am not a real neat freak (stop laughing, Mum), and so generally we have a slightly chaotic but cosy and comfortable home which makes us all happy.

The Third Day of Advent: My daughters

The day Anna was born, nearly seven years ago now, took happiness to a new level. A transcendent, luminous ecstasy I could never have imagined, even though I had always known I wanted children. With that joy, however, came a darker side. Lying in the hospital that night with my darling little bundle tucked up next to me in her perspex cot, I realised that there was now the also the potential to be more bitterly unhappy than I could previously have envisaged. Anna cotThe gates of Hell seemed to gape open as I glimpsed all the things from cot death to leukaemia, traffic accidents to falls, autism to asthma which now seemed to be lying in wait for this tiny fragile person in whom my happiness was ineluctably bound up. One day I will die and leave her. That is intolerable. But the only alternative is literally unthinkable.

The unbearable intensity of both these emotions is a product of a potent cocktail of hormones, sleep deprivation and strong painkillers, and thankfully they subside somewhat, because it just isn’t possible to live ordinary life like that. What remained was the deepest and most powerful love I could ever have conceived of. Pardon the pun. Before Sophia was born I fretted that I could never feel so strongly for someone else. I was wrong. My second perfect girl stole my heart just as completely as my first.

These two girls deprive me of sleep, cash and freedom. The DINKY lifestyle I alluded to a couple of days ago, of spontaneous nights out, weekends in boutique hotels, reckless consumption of alcohol hasn’t quite disappeared, but it is certainly considerably more elusive. In place of tailored pencil skirts, high heels and a large department to run I have grubby jeans, bags under my eyes and a pile of lovingly cooked food to sweep up off the floor. Again. But I also have Anna and Sophia.somerset house

Anna is more and more developing her own personality, and is such fun to be with and so interesting to talk to. Like me, she loves reading more than anything, and it makes me very happy to share with her the books I loved as a child. Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit are particular favourites at the moment, and I am very much looking forward to introducing her to the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Louisa M. Alcott and Noel Streatfield in due course. She is thoughtful, gentle, imaginative, creative and fascinated by the world around her. This leads to a lot of ‘whys’, many of which challenge my memories of science GCSE, my limited knowledge of philosophy or my spiritual, ethical and theological convictions. I really don’t know what parents did before Google.
She also feels things very intensely – be that happiness, excitement, frustration or sadness. Her happiness and excitement at Christmas approaching is very infectious, and although it can be upsetting to see her sad, it also makes me happy that, normally, at the moment, her problems are still such that a cuddle and a chat with mummy or daddy can sort everything out.

Sophia may only be eleven months, but she also has her own distinct little personality. She is the sunniest, sweetest-natured baby it is possible to imagine. When she sees me or my husband or Anna after a short absence her whole face lights up, and she waves her arms and legs around, unable to contain the joy which overwhelms her at our presence.
sophia chair
Which is nice. She smiles at strangers in the street, and loves to try and engage with other children from babies at playgroups through to Anna’s schoolfriends. She’s just developed the loveliest habit of crawling up to me as I’m on the floor playing with her and climbing onto my lap, laying her face against my chest momentarily, and then climbing down to carry on with her important baby business. It is so touching and melts my heart every time. She is always on the move, and the cuddles and stories which her sister loved (and loves) are, for Sophia, a waste of time which could be spent crawling, climbing, exploring.

Seeing them together as sisters, developing their own relationship and love for each other also makes me particularly happy.

In her novel, Larger Than Life, Adele Parks has one of her characters, Libby, a young single mum, describe how she feels about parenthood and her daughter: “It’s an amalgamation of a zillion squabbling emotions: joy, rapture, satisfaction, fear, guilt, wonder, relief, worry. Especially worry…But mostly she’s about joy. An indescribable, unrepeatable splash of colourful, wonderful joy.”. Which describes perfectly how I feel about my girls. I look at them and can’t believe I am lucky enough to have them. But I also panic that I don’t deserve them, that no-one can possibly deserve as much happiness as they bring me, and it is all too easy to let the crippling fear of that first night in the hospital creep back in. anna and sophia

That is more of a problem when they are not with me, as now when Anna is at school and Sophia is napping upstairs. When I am with them, their gift of living absolutely in the moment draws me in too and I can be happy just being. With my precious daughters.