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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Nine

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.

November Blues

ancient house

I have had just about enough of November this year!

Just as Sophia recovered from ten days illness with a throat infection (which in turn came only a few days after another mysterious virus), Anna came down with a 24 hour vomiting bug. I don’t want to upset anyone who may be reading this on their lunch break, but I will just say that high sleeper beds and projectile vomit are a very, very, very bad combination. Now regretting our decision to get Anna a high sleeper more than ever, and mentally trying to rearrange her tiny room to fit everything in with a ‘normal’ bed.

Anna then kindly passed the bug on to me and my husband, and we had a hairy few hours of tag-teaming urgent trips to the bathroom and coping with a lively and demanding toddler! Vomiting bugs are my absolute nemesis anyway, the one common illness which really sends a chill down my spine. And when I am struck down, it’s always just as bad as I remember! I spent a day obsessively bleaching everything in the house, and did an epic 7 loads of laundry to try and purify the house, and am now just feeling a bit exhausted and washed out and shaky.

I have serious cabin fever too. I don’t think I’ve left Walthamstow for a month, and have barely left the house apart from school runs and medical appointments. I’m also hugely unprepared, practically or psychologically, for the challenge of December.

I absolutely love Christmas. Really, really love it. But really enjoying it doesn’t mean that negotiating the whole festive period with two young children isn’t somewhat taxing! There’s all the dates to remember – carol concerts and rehearsals and Christmas shows and parties and get togethers. Just remembering where everyone needs to be at any given moment (usually at least two different and incompatible places) can be tricky. Then there’s cards to make/buy and write and post/hand out, and all the ubiquitous Christmas crafts which are not my natural forte. Menu planning and food shopping. And that’s before we even get onto present buying.

I really enjoy Christmas shopping. When that involves leisurely meandering around a beautiful Christmas market, or even a peaceful early November Monday morning pottering up and down the high street, with plenty of stops for refuelling with hot chocolate. What I have done so far this year is make frenzied searches online, with a feverish child draped over one shoulder and a crick in my neck. The resulting parcels then arrive in the 5 minute period when I leave the house to collect Anna from school and become marooned in Sorting Office Hell, as seemingly irretrievable as if they were on Mars. I now need to be in physical shops for the remainder of my gifts, as they’re in that category of not knowing quite what I want until I see it. I’m not quite sure when I’m going to be able to do that, but i certainly won’t be calm or tranquil by the time I do.

Anyway, I feel better for a good old moan on the blog. I will pull myself together, stop with the self pity, try and have a fairly restful couple of days to get over the post-bug exhaustion and then I will be on it with Christmas! Bring on all the fun and festivity and excitement.

When life gets in the way

Wow, it’s been three weeks since I last blogged, which must be one of the longest times ever between posts, unless I’ve just had a baby. And I promise, I definitely haven’t had a baby.

I’ve had a half term, with lots of lovely relaxingness (that’s a word, right?); first of all staying with my parents for a few days in Liverpool, visiting the fabulous Museum of Liverpool, and our favourite Speke Hall, and then a weekend at my MIL’s, all the way on the other side of London, when we went for a long family walk and were very proud of Anna managing 7.5 miles, and Sophia at least half of that out of her buggy.

Husband and I also managed to get out for a sneaky pizza one evening, and I escaped for a whole day’s shopping, cocktailing, lunching and, most importantly, chatting in Cambridge with one of my closest friends.

I actually went back into the school routine feeling relaxed and recharged, but then spent all my ‘free’ time in the first half of the week attending Occupational Therapy with Anna, and organising a mini Halloween party for her and a couple of friends, before the second half of the week being totally confined to the house with a poorly Sophia.

I also got to the point where I couldn’t cope with the clutter in Anna’s room any longer. It was making it impossible to clean properly, and it always looked messy even if it had just been tidied. Its such a cliche for mums to berate their children about the state of their room, and I’m sure my parents would say this is karma, because I wasn’t, ahem, the tidiest of children myself, but it really was ridiculous. On Saturday we spent a backbreaking two hours, while husband was working and Sophia was napping, being ruthless. Anna was actually very good about detaching from the various ‘interesting’ leaves and pebbles, pieces of artwork and plastic crap from party bags which she has picked up since my last blitz. We filled a black bin bag to the brim with things to throw away, and a sizeable cardboard box with things to either sell, donate or pass on to Sophia. I hoovered and dusted, she cleaned the windows, and it now looks reasonably civilised once more! If you can ignore the pen marks on the desk which are now clearly visible with the clutter removed!

 

We’re now heading into one of the busiest, albeit most enjoyable times of year. The older the children get, the more their seasonal activities seem to increase, and of course there is shopping and general preparation for the big day. Despite this, I’m making a commitment to myself to blog at least once a week for the rest of the year, because taking the time to reflect on and write about what’s happening in our lives gives me the chance to actually appreciate it, and one day be able to look back and remember it, rather than everything disappearing in a whirl of busyness and activity.

On Marriage

hear cake

Yesterday was my 7th wedding anniversary, and the 18th anniversary of getting together with my husband. Eighteen years equals half our lives spent together, pretty much our entire adult lives, and it feels like a pretty big deal. Last night we celebrated with homemade pizza, heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake, and supermarket special-offer champagne. On Thursday, courtesy of my MIL babysitting, we’re going out for dinner, and may even get really daring and Go Into Town. The huge advantage of grandparental babysitting is that you don’t feel the need to get the children bathed, pyjamaed, settled and behaving before you leave, you can just scarper the second they arrive, which adds a good hour onto the length of time spent out of the house.

Anyway, in between scoffing and quaffing last night, I got all philosophical on what marriage means to me. Two glasses of fizz do that to me these days. The fact is, and I’m afraid there is no way of saying this without seeming unbearably smug, but I just love being married.

I always thought I would. For years it was a real source of contention between my then boyfriend, now husband, and me, because I desperately wanted to get married, and he absolutely didn’t. Neither of us could really articulate our positions – certainly not in a way that convinced the other! He didn’t like the formality and legality of it, saw our relationship as being about us and our love for each other, not about government sanction and tax breaks. I just wanted to stand up and shout about our relationship and our love for each other.

Unlike most of our arguments, ahem, he won this one by default, because we weren’t married. Eventually I gave up. We had bought a house together, and decided to have a baby, and they seemed like pretty big indications of permanence and commitment. But then unbeknownst to me, something shifted for my boyfriend. Without my ceaseless propaganda on the benefits of marriage, and my propensity to ruin any special occasion (birthdays, Christmas, holidays etc) by getting upset that he hadn’t proposed, he started to think that, actually, marriage might not be such a bad idea after all.

Nine years ago he booked a surprise trip to Rome for our getting-together anniversary. In a roof-top bar, with the twinkly lights of one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities spread out below us, he got down on one knee, produced a ring, and asked me to marry him.

Reader, I was astonished! And absolutely thrilled. I was four months pregnant at the time, and we decided to set a date for after the baby had arrived, and we had had a chance to get our lives back together. Little did we know, at that point, that our lives would never feel together again! We got married when Anna was 19 months old, and able to act as the cutest baby bridesmaid the world has ever seen*.

H, T and A weddingWe deliberately chose to get married on the (11th) anniversary of us getting together and (2nd) anniversary of getting engaged, as we wanted to keep one very special day to celebrate our relationship.

Our wedding was low-key, low-cost and informal – our local registry office, followed by an afternoon tea and fizz reception in the beautiful garden of a local museum. The guest list was limited by the size of the registry office, and so our guests were all people we truly care about. That evening we got grandparents to babysit Anna, and headed to our local pub with the younger generation of wedding guests. Our wedding present from my parents was a honeymoon of two nights in an almost obscenely luxurious boutique spa hotel in the Cotswolds whilst they looked after Anna. It was perfect – undoubtedly one of the happiest days of our lives.

It is clearly more conventional to get married before having a baby, but doing things the other way round worked very well for us. In those crazy days of early parenthood, when you can lose all sense of yourself, and of your relationship with your partner being anything other than ‘mummy and daddy’; a tag-team of nappy-changing, sleep-deprivation and spoon-feeding of pear puree, it was so special to have a project to plan that was all about us as a couple, and about celebrating our romantic love as well as familial love.

I still find it quite hard to explain what I value so much about being married, over and above being in a loving and committed long-term relationship. I love being able to reference my ‘husband’ and people know exactly what I mean, can make an immediate judgement about the significance of our relationship. The person I held hands with in the cinema when I was fourteen was my ‘boyfriend’; the people my husband has started a business with are his ‘partners’,  but there is no ambiguity about the terms husband and wife.

It is slightly controversial for a modern feminist to change her name on getting married, but I did, and I really love sharing a family name with my husband and daughters. I like the public statement of a shared name, of my wedding ring, that we are a team, a unit. In a world that feels increasingly uncertain, I love the stability and security I find in my marriage. I love that, although at its core our relationship is deeply private and personal to just the two of us, we have shared its significance and importance with our friends and family, publicly declaring just exactly what we mean to each other.

Marriage isn’t right for everyone. It wasn’t right for us for the first eleven years of our relationship, and I certainly don’t think that invalidates our deep love for, and commitment to, one another throughout that period. And pretty obviously marriage isn’t a magic wand that means you will be happy forever – we still need to work at our marriage every day – work at putting each other first, at thinking as a team rather than two individuals, at not taking each other for granted, and in not getting so caught up in the busyness of life that we fail to spend proper time together as a couple. But for me, for us, marriage feels like a joy and a privilege.

What do you think? Are you happily unmarried and don’t see the fuss? Or married and love it that way? If you’re single at the moment, do you see ‘getting married’ as the ultimate goal of a successful relationship, or do you see it as a total irrelevance in this day and age?

 

*not maternal bias, just straightforward fact.