Loss – a new poignancy

100_0041This week it’s been 7 years since my brother was killed.

The pain is less raw now, but this year as the anniversary comes around, a new emotion is surfacing. It feels more poignant now that I’m a mother myself. I can feel more deeply how devastating it has been for my parents to have their child taken. Although I’ve witnessed their pain up close, there was no way I could empathise so clearly until I became a mother myself.

No one can prepare you for the torrent of emotions that come with becoming a mum. I now know how it feels to have a little piece of you, out in the big wide world. The emotions of the big milestones which overwhelm and excite, and the small day to day events that seem so insignificant but become your whole entire existence. The relentlessness, the hopes and fears, the blood sweat and tears that you put into making sure that a small person is alive at the end of the day, every single day. That’s what you live for, for their survival. And I’m only just getting started.

7 years ago when the pain was still raw and we were still in shock, I lamented all the things that I’d lost. I wouldn’t be an Auntie, he wouldn’t be in my kids’ lives, and we wouldn’t be raising little people together. For a while, there was so much fear in me that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be ready to take such a leap anyway. It was a very personal grief, very much about ‘I’. As the years have passed my grief has softened around the edges, we found a new normal, a new existence. But it’s back with a new force.

It will always be different for me now. I cry for all the things I’ve lost, but more for what my parents have lost. I fear for the future, but not for mine, for my child’s. But at the same time, everything makes sense now. What it means to be human and to live fully in the face of fear. I’m not afraid any more to feel so intensely. As it’s only in the ups and downs of bringing life into the world that I’ve been able to truly understand the beautiful fragility of life and why it’s all worthwhile.

Learning to love the process

IMG_6861I’ve only published two posts and I’m already doubting myself. I’m wondering why I’m bothering to write a blog when there are so many blogs out there already, particularly at the moment those about mental health. Why add another one? Who will be interested in what I have to say? What have I got to say that’s any different? I hardly have the time in the day to feed myself anything other than mini cheddars, so should I be giving up the wee hours after little one is in bed towards writing a blog? Am I good enough?

I’ve always been an all-or-nothing person. I throw myself into the latest thing that sparks my interest. The first time was when I was in love with Jon Bon Jovi (cringe) and I dreamt of being an amazing guitarist and wowing all my friends with my talent. I’d front a rock band and make loads of money. I’d be that cool girl playing guitar. 16 years and 4 guitars later I still can’t play a single chord. I’ve been through the same thing to varying degrees with rock climbing, jewellery making, speaking Spanish, surfing, even growing vegetables. I have so much momentum and passion at the beginning, but then I reach the first hurdle, think I can’t do it and decide that it’s not for me. I then spend way too much time inside my head wondering what I should be doing with my life. What am I good at? What is my ‘thing’? What is my passion?

The thing is, I still don’t know. But it’s ok.

Part of the journey towards dealing with my anxiety was understanding what was causing this pattern. I’m a perfectionist, and I only really like doing things that I’m good at. I start with the best intentions but as soon as the initial momentum and ‘beginners luck’ has worn off I realise that it’s hard work to get better. And what’s the point in being mediocre… when all I want is to be the best. I waste a lot of time putting things off because the circumstances aren’t perfect too. They are not what I imagined in my head. I don’t have the expensive piece of kit that (I think) I need, I don’t live near enough to the sea, I only have half an hour this evening so what’s the point in practicing now when it’s not enough time, I really need to do that important thing on my to-do list so I’ll start tomorrow once I’ve got that out of the way (reality – there is always something more on the to-do list). I make excuses and I put barriers in the way. Time passes and I’ve quietly tidied the new fad away into the spare room/cupboard/loft and moved on hoping that no one will notice. When someone asks how the hobby I was so excitedly telling them about a few months before is going I hang my head in shame and mutter some kind of excuse about lack of time.

When you’re a beginner you are far from perfect, there’s no getting around that. Even if you find yourself with a natural ability for something, it takes time and consistent effort to get to where you want to be. The game changer for me has been the realisation that you have to enjoy the process rather than the end goal.

You commit to doing something over and over, some days you get a little better, other days you take a step back, some days you amaze yourself and suddenly nail it. And you carry on. But the important thing is that you enjoy the process. Even on those frustrating days when you seem to take a step back – you can take pleasure in knowing that it’s a necessary step on the learning curve.

Since I’ve been working on this my life has been less about ‘finding my passion’ but about exploring things again, each day as it comes. Funnily enough, I’m clearer about what it is that I like doing now.

Now I know that I’m interested in soooooo many things but I don’t have to give my attention to them all at the same time. It’s ok for some things to go on the back burner. I know that I will always absolutely adore having yoga and running in my life but right now I can’t give them my all. I’m making do with snatched 10 minutes here and there, self-practice at home that’s a little rough round the edges. While I used to dream of running mountain races in far flung destinations I now cannot wait to lace up my shoes and go for a gentle jog through the farmers’ fields again.

So here I am today, catching myself before I fall into old habits. I’ve got to stop worrying about whether people are interested in my blog, whether I’m writing anything unique, whether I’ll get tons of Instagram followers, or whether one day I’ll get a book deal.

For now, I’ve settled on knowing that I’m doing this for me, and me only. I find writing cathartic. It’s been part of my healing journey. I want to keep a record, for me. Hopefully through doing this daily I will become a better writer. So, each day, I write. It doesn’t matter if I’m lucky enough to have a couple of hours to sit and focus quietly while my husband takes the baby out, or if it’s a few notes quickly scribbled whilst they come into my head as I’m out and about. I always feel better when the words are out of my head and onto paper. I love the careful crafting of bits and pieces of writing, the editing of a jumbled stream of consciousness that I’ve recorded. The bad days where I feel there is so much to say and I can’t write it quick enough but it makes no sense. Then the good days where I find the flow and the words come quickly and easily as I type. The lightbulb moments when I feel what it is that I’m trying to say with a bunch of messy words. The joy at reading a completed piece. I’m taking the good days and the bad. I’ve learned to love the process and I’m so much happier for it.

Friendships and anxiety

IMG_6518Since putting myself out there with my first blog post I’ve been so touched by the lovely supportive messages I’ve received. Some from random people on Instagram (it’s great to know that people are reading and reaching out) but most importantly from my friends. I’m incredibly lucky to have a small group of close school friends (one even from mother and toddler group when I was a toddler!) and more recent friends that I’ve made since I’ve been open and honest about my mental health issues. But, during my 33 years, there was a huge gap in the middle where I really struggled to make and maintain friends.

It’s made me reflect on how difficult I have found friendships over the years and how this has gone hand in hand with my anxiety.

I’m not someone that has found friendships easy over the years. During the times that I’ve been struggling with my anxiety I’ve tended to hide away. I worry about social situations. I worry that I’m not fun enough, not cool enough, not worth hanging out with. And then I worry about the details of social situations. Even something as simple as meeting up with a good friend, on my bad days I will worry about where we are going to meet, what to wear, what I’m going to talk about, where I’m going to park, will I have enough time to get there, will they think I’m boring, what other things I could be doing with my time that are already stressing me out, opening up about how I’m feeling, will I be able to drink (as I’m only fun when I’ve had a drink). It’s an ongoing reel of ‘worry’ that more often than not over the years has led me to cancel plans, after stressing about the event as it looms on the calendar.

The unfortunate thing is that I really really want to see my friends. I actually really NEED to see my friends. I always (without doubt) feel better once I’ve spent time with my friends. But that’s exactly why mental illness is so cruel because it tricks you into not doing the things that you really need to do, and then makes you feel even worse for not doing them. It’s a vicious cycle and when you’re in the cycle you don’t realise it, and you can’t get out.

As you can imagine this has made it near on impossible to maintain new friendships. I spent most of my teens and twenties pretending that I was totally happy, confident and had an awesome life. If I hadn’t cancelled plans then the only time I displayed any honest emotions was when I’d had a shedload to drink. I’d get ‘wasted’, cry, apologise and then do it all again next time. Somehow a small group of school friends put up with my erratic behaviour and I’ve come out the other side with these friendships intact. But I’ve struggled to keep the other friends that I’ve met along the way. I’ve struggled with confidence, I’ve struggled with my own identity, I’ve struggled with perfectionist tendencies that makes me shy away from any less than perfect situation (which of course friendships, and pretty much life itself, can be). When being inside my own head is getting to be too much then I ironically internalise and withdraw. I’ve always defaulted to retreating home and only opening up to my other half. Which of course places a huge burden on them (more about that another time!) Friendships gradually falter and fade into the distance.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Since I’ve opened up about my mental health struggles some of my most beautiful friendships have been formed. When I reached my ‘rock bottom’, I sought help through cognitive behavioural therapy which really helped me understand my default patterns of behaviour, what was leading to them and how I could change them. I’ll write about that in more detail another time but for now, these are the things that have helped me build friendships in spite of my anxiety. In fact more recently my anxiety has even helped me form some friendships as a new Mum – something I never thought I’d be in a position to do.

 

  • Talk. I spent years hiding what I was really feeling from any friend, colleague, acquaintance and even family member. Because of this my friendships, even close ones, were pretty superficial. I made out that my life was perfect (or just avoided situations where I had to talk about my life at all). Most importantly open up and be real. More often than not other people are suffering too and it’s something you can support each other through. Real friendships are based on the truth whether that’s during the good times or the bad.
  • Sometimes you just have to take it step by (small) step. During the really bad times this can be as basic as just starting from the beginning and getting out of bed. Once I’m out of bed, I’ll just have a shower. Once I’ve had a shower I’ll put some clothes on. Once I’ve got clothes on I’ll put make up on. Once I’ve put make up on I’ll get in my car. I do a lot of worrying about what might happen and when I’m in the real grips of my anxiety I have to be blinkered to very small steps to get me to the final goal of meeting someone.
  • It’s ok to say no to invitations, but be honest. Over the years I’ve become very tuned in to when I genuinely need time to myself and when I’ve taken on too much, rather than when I’m just avoiding situations. But now I cancel in advance and let people know the real reason why, even if that’s because I just have too much on or I’m just not feeling up to it. Again, honesty is so important and my friends have been so supportive of what I might need to get me back to feeling my best again.
  • You don’t have to be an extrovert to be a good friend – I worry a lot that people won’t think I’m funny or cool enough. My internal dialogue basically goes something along the lines of ‘why would they want to be friends with me, I’ll just not bother’. Actually friendship is more than just making someone laugh. It can be about emotional conversation, common interests, sharing the burdens of life, listening. The book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain really opened me up to the power of being an introvert and why it’s not something to hide.
  • It doesn’t always have to be perfect – I’ve always thought that if I’m feeling bad that I don’t want to drag someone else down too. Sometimes it’s ok to just meet up for a coffee and have a moan. Not every meet up has to be ‘If Carlsberg did friendships’…

 

So, be kind to yourself. Even on the bad days. x

 

Gratitude on the sh*t days

IMG_6455.JPGWhen I originally set up a blog and Instagram account I was coming out the other side of a lengthy battle with anxiety. I was in a good place and my demons had been put to bed (for a while).   I wanted to help others find the happiness I knew they could through the tools I used.

It’s easy to be grateful on the good days. On the gin-drinking, sun-bathing, holidaying, morning-running, cute baby-wearing days. It’s fun to post photos of the good times. I like nothing more than showing off being out in amazing places and enjoying the little moments of joy in the every day. I stick to my daily gratitude practice and life feels abundant.

It’s much harder to talk honestly about the bad days. The days where every single thing feels like it’s falling apart. The days when you wonder ‘why me?’ The days that are just a pile of sh*t.

I thought our tiny weeny family had been dealt a fair share of the difficult traumatic times. When my little brother was killed in 2010 it broke us, it tested us, and I did some idiotic things on the way to rebuilding strength and living a full life again. But I got there.

It’s felt however like there has been very little to be grateful for over the last month or so. Mum’s health declined rapidly over the last few months and she was finally and suddenly diagnosed with a huge brain tumour. Life continues to consist of daily 2-3 hour round trips to an intensive care unit, breast feeding in pret-a-manger and then handing my baby over to be looked after by my Dad or my husband while we do visiting shifts, making acquaintance with nurse after nurse after nurse. Hand sanitizer, plastic gloves, deciphering medical terminology, googling diagnoses and procedures. Sedation, ventilators, tracheotomies, sutures and feeding tubes. Seeing mum suffer pain, trauma, indignity and fear. Feeling fear myself.

And then I have an almost 4 month old baby boy – the lost evenings, the sleepless nights, the inability to leave the house or do anything quickly but having to eat food at the speed of light with one hand. The post-partum problems, no-money problems, messy-house problems, not-having-enough-time-to-cook-so-eating-like-crap problems. It would probably scare you to see the inside of my fucked up head on the bad days.

I have to admit that I’ve wallowed. I’ve wallowed in self-pity for a while and my gratitude practice has been non-existent. Slowly but surely my old demons have crept back up on me and wham – I’m back in the grips of anxiety once again. In pure melt-down mode. I have a default setting that leads me to focus on the negatives, what could happen, all the things big and small that are going wrong. The ‘why is this happening to me?’ question. The feeling that life has to kick you when you are already down.

Gratitude does not come easy during these times.

So this morning I had reached a low point. I went out for a walk with my baby. In my head I was fuming that it was my turn to try to enforce his nap (again), annoyed that I’d miss the sunshine today because I had to make a trip to the hospital (again). Scared because my mum had had a bad day yesterday and is still in intensive care 3 fucking weeks later. My to-do list was running through my head on an endless loop and I felt trapped.

It might sound cheesy but in that moment I realised that Orson was holding my fingers and had just dropped off to sleep. It reminded me of the gratitude practice that I hold so dear but that comes so much more easily when life is good and tends to slip away when life gets tough.

I have my health, I’m incredibly lucky to be a mother to a healthy baby boy, the sun is shining right now at this moment and I’m outside in the countryside. I can breathe in this moment and just be.

When the days are sh*t – that’s when I need to practice gratitude the most. I commit now to honour my gratitude practice on all days, as when I’m rock-bottom, that’s when I need it the most.