Back to blogging

I’m pretty sure 3 months is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing a blog post since I first started blogging about six years ago. Where have I been? I wish I could list all the exciting non-blog related things I’ve been up to, but sadly it’s not been anything of the kind. The summer holidays are always tricky for me to find any time to write, and this year was no exception. In fact, the opposite, as it’s the first summer I’ve had two non-napping children, so it felt like finding the time to clean my teeth or brush my hair was a challenge, let alone commit my thoughts to cyber-space. That’s not all it is, though. The children went back to school and nursery respectively in mid-September, and yet I still haven’t managed to blog.

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So, what’s been going on? To be honest I’m not totally sure. I could, truthfully, say that I have been busy. I’ve had discussions and meetings with Anna’s school about getting the right support for her dyslexia, and we’ve been to Open Days for secondary schools as we start considering all the options (definitely a blog post in its own right!). We’ve had a new boiler fitted with all the upheaval that entailed, and I’ve been trying to catch up with all the domestic and administrative tasks which were utterly neglected over the summer. I had my handbag stolen, and have spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone to banks and so on cancelling cards and getting new ones and changing card details I have stored online, and replacing membership cards and so on. I’ve taken both children for eye tests (always a bit of an expedition as our excellent optician isn’t very local) and Sophia has had settling in days at nursery which I needed to be there for. Sophia has dropped her afternoon naps, so that is two hours, which I used to fill with domestic life admin, cut out of my day. She has also been quite clingy, uncharacteristically so, as she adjusts to a new nursery setting, new teachers, new friends.

But I think all these are probably excuses rather than reasons. My head just hasn’t been in the right place to write. Often I’ve found that writing helps exorcise my demons, but for some reason this autumn I haven’t felt able to start. We had some lovely times over the summer, but there were also some things I found very tough.

Sophia starting school nursery feels like such a big milestone, bringing the question of what I will do with my life when she starts proper school next September front and centre of my mind when I’m not really in a place to deal with all the emotional implications of it. One of the things that makes me saddest and angriest is that the PTSD and anxiety I have experienced since Sophia was born have robbed me of some of her baby and toddlerhood. It hasn’t been all bad, of course not, and I have lots of positive memories. But so much of my time with her has been over-shadowed by panicky what-ifs, and I want it back.

Even those feelings aren’t straightforward, though, and my mind feels like a heap of spaghetti I’m meant to be able to separate neatly into its constituent strands. Because while I am mourning my baby starting to grow up I am also well into my tenth year as a stay-at-home mum, and starting to feel I might be ready for something else. Obviously I have worked during that time – I’ve published 2 novels and a novella, as well as serving as a trustee for the NCT – but an awfully large percentage of my life has been lived in my head and in my house, and it is possible that I might be ready for a change.

I’m at a bit of a writing impasse at the moment. I have a completed manuscript of a new novel, and several chapters of another. What I don’t have is a literary agent, as she is retiring, or an editor at my publishers, as she got another job! There are options. I could throw myself into finding a new agent and discussing all my writing options with them, and sooner or later there will be a new editor at Hodder, but it all feels a bit over-whelming. I’m also conscious that writing is a brilliant job in many ways, but it doesn’t necessarily satisfy my new craving for interaction with the world outside my head and home and family.

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What this would look like opens up a whole new can of spaghetti. I don’t think going back to my old career in healthcare management is a realistic option. Should I look for a local, part-time role, paid or voluntary, and carry on writing the rest of the time? Or look for a completely fresh career, possibly complete with re-training? And how does any of that combine with my husband’s extremely demanding role running his own business, and the continual, and sometimes competing, demands of two young children? When Anna was a baby I thought that ‘starting school’ pretty much meant she would be off my hands and I could resume normal life! I now know better – 9am -3pm, 5 days a week, with time for assemblies and plays and reading mornings and maths workshops and parent-teacher meetings and coffee mornings and medical appointments and time off sick actually doesn’t equate to very much child-free time at all! Obviously many families don’t have the luxury of choice; both partners have to work outside the home and juggle all this just so that the bills get paid. But given I am fortunate enough, at the moment, to have a choice, I feel like there is a lot of pressure on me (pretty much entirely from inside my head) to make the right one for the wellbeing of the whole family.

I’m not sure if I have any followers left after a 3 month hiatus, but for anyone who is still reading thank you for bearing with me through this brain dump. I’m afraid there will quite possibly be more introspective posts over the coming weeks and months as I attempt to make all these decisions.

In the meantime, as we mark World Mental Health Day this week, not to mention Baby Loss Awareness Week, a reminder that it is ok not to be ok. I have been very not ok at times. Miscarriages and birth trauma have led me to dark places of panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, crippling health anxiety, a leaden weight in my chest crushing the happiness out of what should have been my brightest moments. For eighteen months I was too ashamed of these feelings even to admit them, and that shame in large part led to the feeling of missing out on Sophia’s babyhood which I am now experiencing. Thanks to private therapy to deal with PTSD, and NHS funded CBT to help with health anxiety, and an awful lot of love and patience from my husband and family and friends I am getting there, and the sunshine is back in my life, a lot of the time at least. If anyone reading this is struggling then, please, try to open up to someone. It’s ok not to be ok.

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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.

My February Books

Bit late posting my February books, but my excuse is that there was a very important 8th birthday this weekend, so I’ve been extremely busy baking cakes, wrapping presents and escorting a small bunch of delightfully over-excited children to Build-a-Bear workshop! It all went really well,  Anna has had a lovely time, and I can now start to focus on other things again, which means getting some blogging done.

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Happy Families by Janey Fraser

Nothing new year means no new books (with an exception for e-books), so as well as regular visits to the library and re-discovering old favourites, I’m keeping my eye out in charity shops. I picked this up during a browse one morning, but I think it will probably be getting re-donated as I didn’t particularly love it. It was a light read with some interesting characters and situations, but I felt there was a bit too much going on to be able to sink into any of the storylines properly, and some of them didn’t feel totally convincing.

Hurrah For Gin  by Katie Kirby

I follow Katie’s hilarious cartoons depicting the ups and downs of modern parenthood on Facebook and Instagram, and actually bought this book as a Christmas present for a friend I felt would appreciate it, but hadn’t actually read it myself, so was thrilled to spot it on the shelf at my local library. As bad luck would have it, Sophia came down with what turned out to be an ear infection that very night, and so I read this during the many, many hours I spent between 10pm and 6am trying desperately to soothe her to sleep instead of sleeping myself. It couldn’t really have been a more appropriate read, and as well as making me laugh, it also helped me feel I wasn’t alone in this midnight madness called motherhood.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

Regular readers of my book blogs will know that I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. This book is my secret shame. Amongst Christie aficionados this is generally considered to be one of her worst novels – but I absolutely love it! It is an adventure story, rather than pure detective fiction, and I just love it for the sense of period and atmosphere. When I read it I feel I am living in the roaring 1920s, about to discover a clue to an exciting mystery and immediately head off to South Africa on a luxury passenger ship. Which isn’t an embarrassing thing to admit to on a public blog. At all.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

This was a birthday present from my mum as she knew that for ages I have been dying to read Sophie Hannah’s modern Poirot novels. I love Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, and I was very excited to think that this might be an opportunity to read some new ‘Agatha Christie’ novels, but it didn’t quite work out like that. I thought this was a great detective novel – gripping and compelling – but to me it wasn’t a Poirot novel. The character of Poirot as depicted by Sophie Hannah just didn’t resonate with me at all, and so the only way I could enjoy the novel was by reading it as a stand-alone book, and not thinking of it as a Poirot novel at all.

False Colours, The Grand Sophy, A Civil Contract and Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

February was a bit of a mixed month for me. The first part of it was lovely – I had a great birthday with lovely presents, a fantastic day out around London with my little family and a great dinner out with husband and friends. Then it was half term and I chilled out with the girls in Liverpool, which was lovely. Then somehow I lost my mojo a bit. After struggling a lot last year with mental health, I have been feeling much better in the past couple of months, but then had a bit of a relapse for some reason, and it has necessitated self-medicating with vast quantities of Georgette Heyer. These brilliantly witty period romances have to be the ultimate comfort reads, and they seem to be doing the trick to get me back on track, so I might try and expand my reading horizons again soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Georgette Heyer, just do yourself a favour and get your hands on one as soon as possible!

Let there be peace on earth…

Like most people, I’m not going to be sad to say goodbye to 2016. The political news has gone from bad, to worse, to oh-my-god-what-is-this-living-nightmare, and we’re ending the year in a landscape of such unremitting bleakness that it is hard to see a way back.

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Personally I had the challenge of admitting that I was struggling with mental health problems and getting help. I also faced my darkest fear one sunny Saturday afternoon when Sophia had such a severe episode of RAS that I thought she was dead. I can’t write about it without crying. It was the most terrifying episode of my life, and I just pray that it remains so. I’ve also been physically ill a fair amount – tonsillitis, arthritis flare-up, episcleritis, sinusitis, bronchitis. Maybe not unconnected to my mental health and all the external stresses.

It is hard to stay positive, but actually, that is all we can do. On Friday it was my eldest daughter’s school Christmas carol service, held in the local parish church. Anna is in the choir, and had been practising hard, and was also very nervous. Her school do these things incredibly well, and the over-arching message, told through the Nativity story and an array of modern and traditional carols, was one of peace, love and tolerance.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” they sang. I cried and cried – not the socially acceptable welling up that most mums experience on these occasions, but proper gulping sobs. Luckily we were at the back, skulking in case Sophia decided to provide some unscheduled entertainment of her own. It seemed unbearably poignant to hear all these childish voices, see their innocent little faces, and reflect firstly on the children in Aleppo who know no peace, and secondly on the desperately uncertain future that Brexit, Trump and the rise of neo-fascism seem to be creating in the West.

My husband had a different, less bleak, take on it. He pointed out that these children are the future, and here in London at least, they are standing side by side – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu – all religions and none, singing a message of peace and tolerance. If they can grow up with those values and take them out into the world, then the future will not be as grim as it sometimes seems.

Building on this, I took my girls to a Christingle service yesterday. I am a lapsed and questioning Christian, my husband is agnostic; our children are not being brought up with any particular religion. But I do want them to understand a meaning of Christmas that is deeper than lots of chocolate and new toys, and for me at least the meaning of Christmas is that love is the most important gift, that anyone in a position of power should understand and experience vulnerability and that everyone, rich or poor, shepherd or king, is equal. The vicar at this service conveyed these messages beautifully, and Anna was so proud of creating her own Christingle, and enthralled by the beauty of a group of people holding lit candles processing up the church aisle. Had I not been fairly unsettled at the combination of my whirlwind toddler and a lot of naked flames I would have been similarly entranced. She had already eaten her own Christingle.

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There seems to be very little that we, ordinary people, can do to influence events at the moment. All we can do is hope that tiny acts of kindness, making the effort to be positive and optimistic, and raising our children to absorb the values of peace, hope and love, as well as tolerance and inclusivity is enough.

And, if I don’t get the chance to blog again before the weekend – thank you for reading during 2016, and I hope you and your families have a happy, hopeful, peaceful and loving Christmas and New Year.

 

Worried sick

When I started writing my blog it was intended to be fairly lighthearted, a way of recording the ordinary moments of my life as a stay-at-home-mum. A way of coping with the truism of parenting that the days can feel as though they will never end but the years fly by in seconds.

By and large it has stayed lighthearted, with the odd foray into political rants when I felt so inclined.

This post is a bit different, because I want to write about one of the less happy elements of my life at the moment – not doing so is starting to feel a little bit like lying by omission, and is also doing a disservice to all the many people struggling with mental health issues.

Why is it such a big deal to write, or talk, about mental health? When I broke my foot or had tonsillitis I blogged about it without a second thought. But there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems. I worry that I will be judged, that I am over-sharing, or that I will make others unhappy, but after a lot of thought I’m going to go ahead anyway.

Ever since Sophia was born I have been aware of not feeling quite right, often in ways I couldn’t define even to myself. I’d checked the symptoms of post-natal depression a couple of times, but that didn’t really fit with how I was feeling. So, I dismissed it, pushed it to the back of my mind, resolutely ignored it. There were times when I felt absolutely fine, and during those times I could convince myself that the panic attacks, flash-backs, waves of utterly overwhelming and incapacitating guilt, terror or despair which literally stopped me in my tracks when they occurred had been a temporary aberration and were now behind me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and they kept coming back.

I hadn’t told anyone at all. I felt ashamed and guilty that I wasn’t totally happy. I had everything anyone could want, my wonderful husband, adored eldest daughter and now a beautiful baby girl to complete my perfect family. With good friends both in real life and online who are having ongoing struggles to conceive I felt an especially strong compulsion to be happy and grateful for my astonishing good luck.

Then one evening back in May, a chance remark of my husband’s led to a particularly intense flashback. I cried. And cried. And cried. Then cried some more. Then hyper-ventilated. Then cried again. And finally told him some of what I had been experiencing. Saying it for the first time was the most difficult, but after telling him I also felt able to talk to my parents a week or two later. Husband and parents were incredibly supportive.They didn’t think I was making a fuss about nothing, which was what I had been telling myself, and they encouraged me to get proper professional help.

That was another big step, but with their support I managed it. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by my youngest daughter’s very difficult birth, which came after an intensely stressful high-risk pregnancy, and a series of miscarriages.

Basically, my mind had got locked into danger-alert and I just couldn’t relax out of it. I didn’t think I would ever have Sophia. I had been told that I only had a 40% chance of having a healthy, full-term baby – and my previous ratio of pregnancy:live birth indicated that was accurate. I worried every single day of my pregnancy that she was going to die. For the first half of my labour I was terrified she was going to die, for the second half, when the epidural stopped working half way through my c-section leaving me able to feel everything, I was worried I was.

We didn’t die. But that didn’t stop my anxiety. Instead, those feelings of panic, inability to breathe properly, crushing, immobilising fear, increased.

I saw risk and danger everywhere. Stairs. Roads. Cars. Illnesses. Sleep. Falls. Accidents. I had become fixated on the idea that I didn’t deserve to have Sophia, I was simply too lucky, and that the universe would punish me by separating us through my death or hers. Sounds pretty bloody irrational when I write it down, but makes some sort of twisted sense in my head. Sometimes my anxiety expands to include panics about the health of my husband or eldest daughter or parents, but mainly it is about me and Sophia. All those times when my body failed me and the babies I wanted so much slipped away, those nine months of obsessively monitoring every twinge, cramp, spot, and kick left me with a profound mistrust of my own body and an unshakeable conviction of Sophia’s fragility. Of course, her episodes of Reflex Anoxic Seizure when she collapses apparently lifeless in front of me haven’t exactly helped with this.

I couldn’t talk about this at all for 17 months after Sophia’s birth. I still can’t easily talk about it. I have now told a few very close friends, and I am seeing a fantastic psychologist who is helping me a lot, but I still find it difficult. Partly because talking about it makes it feel more real, and makes me cry. Partly because I worry that others will judge me, think of me as a fusspot, a hypochondriac, ungrateful, undeserving, emotionally incontinent, weak. All of which are accusations I’ve thrown at myself over the last year or two, but not ones I’m ready to hear from others.

But if I can’t talk, I can write. I can use my blog to say loud and clear that mental illness is incredibly common and nothing to be ashamed of. That having a baby may be the happiest thing that ever happens to you, but that it is also a cataclysmic event that turns your world upside down, and the cocktail of wild hormonal changes, sleep deprivation and overwhelming responsibility can cause, or contribute to, illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Suffering from them doesn’t mean that you’re not happy to be a mother, or that you don’t love your baby, it just means that pregnancy and childbirth can leave scars and stretch marks on your mind as well as your body.

I am getting there, I hope. Proper professional help has been invaluable, as has the love and support (and patience) of my husband and parents and the friends I’ve told. None of them have judged me or belittled me or hated me, and that encourages me to believe that maybe  the rest of the world won’t either. I’m trying to take care of myself, and not see occasional long hot baths, lie-ins, naps while Sophia naps, a lunch with an old friend or a child-free weekend afternoon as selfish indulgences but more necessities for staying sane. I have noticed the tireder I get, the longer I have gone without a break, the more likely I am to have a total meltdown which stops me functioning at all. But this summer, there have been many more days when the sunshine wasn’t obliterated by clouds of anxiety, and moments when I could allow myself to enjoy the present without worrying about the future.

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